Camera bag

Gear I use: F-Stop Satori 62 litre Camera Backpack

F-Stop camera backpacks. Quality solutions I believe for carrying camera gear when you’re photographing outdoor and adventure sports activities

F-Stop camera backpacks. Quality solutions I believe for carrying camera gear when you’re photographing outdoor and adventure sports activities

A few years ago, to save space, I went through an exercise to rationalise all the rucksacks and backpacks I owned. I did have a few. There was an 80 litre expedition pack by Aiguille Alpine, two climbing sacks from Deuter, a Lowepro Photosport camera backpack, a Lowepro Vertex AW300, a lightweight OMM adventure racing pack and a tiny Camelbak for day trips. Amongst a few others.

Despite having a choice of many packs, I’d never quite felt comfortable with the options I’d purchased for carrying the bulk of my camera gear when I was out on a photo shoot, away on a few days trip or planning an expedition.

Aside from the obvious choice of Lowepro, there were a few dedicated camera backpack companies I was aware of, from reviews on the internet and from word of mouth. One of them was the US company F-Stop (www.fstopgear.com). What put me off F-Stop initially was their cost - they’re not cheap - and back in 2015/16 they had well-documented supply chain issues (I’ve never seen so many negative comments about a company that remains in business). What intrigued me though was all the positive comments from existing customers, even some who had been waiting for their purchase for a while (an indication perhaps as to how much value can be placed on the power of a good brand).

In June 2016, I took the plunge and ordered an F-Stop pack from their website. To my surprise - given some people’s feedback of lengthy delays - it arrived within 7 days. The speed of my delivery was perhaps due to the fact that the product I’d ordered was an F-Stop Satori, which was a previous model F-Stop were selling at a discount on their web store. (At 62 litres, the Satori was the largest backpack F-Stop offered until they introduced their Sukha (70 litre) and Shinn (80 litre) models as part of their 2015 Mountain Range series).

The F-Stop Satori 62 litre backpack appears to have been a classic of F-Stop’s previous range (along with the 37 litre Loka - which I’ve also since purchased), before they overhauled their range in 2015 and brought out their replacements. What remained unique about F-Stop’s proposition (until I believe LowePro came out with a similar solution) was the application of their Internal Camera Units (ICUs). These ICUs are a system of storage cases that fit inside all F-Stop backpacks, leaving space for your spare clothing and equipment. The packs have a really friendly user interface because the shell of an F-Stop pack opens from the back as well as the top which makes accessing your camera equipment very easy.

The ICUs I use are;

  • X-Large - This takes nearly everything I would use on a mobile shoot (2 Nikon camera bodies, 3 lenses, 3 speedlights, Pocketwizard transceivers, etc.). It’s only really suitable when not much clothing is needed, e.g. if I’m shooting from or close to a vehicle. I can, however, still easily fit a warm jacket, hat and gloves, plus waterproofs inside the pack.

  • Medium Slope - For overnight trips where I want to carry sleeping equipment along with my camera gear, F-Stop’s Medium Slope ICU is ideal. In the space around the ICU, I can fit all my bivvy gear (a synthetic -7 degrees C sleeping bag, a bivvy bag and a sleeping mat) plus a dry bag with hat, gloves, light fleece and a duvet jacket, as well waterproofs in the outside pockets. This is on top of the ICU holding one large camera body, two large lenses plus my remote camera triggers and other bits and pieces. When I’m not on the hill, the ICU easily converts to neatly store all my Speedlights and lighting gear.

What I like about the F-Stop Satori backpack

  • Laptop sleeve - I didn’t like this initially as it’s too big for my 13 inch Macbook Pro (it’s sized for a 15 inch laptop), but when I use a Medium Slope ICU it’s an perfect size to fit a folded up Thermarest NeoAir winter sleeping mat and a bivvy bag.

  • Big zips - The pack is built to last and there’s nothing in the quality of construction that makes me want to baby it.

  • Wand pockets - These are not all mesh. A small thing perhaps but it means they’re less easy to damage when you carry heavy equipment in them, e.g. a tripod.

  • Comfort - I find the pack super comfy to carry (I’m 6'2" tall). It’s stable enough that when I’ve filled the pack with bivvy gear and a Medium Slope ICU I can actually jog down hills with it.

I could go on as I really like this pack. No-one paid me to communicate this and I’m super fussy.

What I’d change

Really, very little. If I had to be picky, it would be that, out the box, unlike F-Stop’s similar model, the Tilopa (and, previously, the Loka), the only way to attach a tripod to the Satori pack is on the side and not the front. Carrying a 2kg tripod in one of the side pockets makes the pack very unbalanced (I could purchase a carbon-fibre tripod to save weight but I like the one I have). There are straps you can buy for the Satori, which should, I think, enable you to mirror the Tilopa way of carrying a tripod on the front but they are very expensive - 30 euros including postage back in 2016 for just two straps. (I don’t mind paying premium prices for good gear but I draw the line at paying 30 Euros for two nylon straps). I’ve resorted instead to carrying my tripod using a strap over my neck and shoulder and resting it on my belly (risking, unfortunately, that I look like I am pretending to hold a machine gun).

Other very slight niggles are I’ve not yet found a way to attach a 56cm Lastolite EzyBox Softbox to the outside of the pack (but neither have I on any of my other packs) and if the pack was slightly bigger - probably like the Sukha - I could carry a stove and a warmer duvet jacket inside for open bivvies in the Winter. Finally, although it doesn’t take long to take the pack off and get your camera out, nothing I have beats a Lowepro Toploader AW75 camera holster for ease of use when I’m shooting documentary-style and I need to capture action as it happens (e.g. when I need to move with athletes whilst on a trekking shoot or mountain biking expedition).

Alternative options

  • F-Stop Tilopa - very slightly smaller and, as mentioned above, possibly better ‘out the box’ at carrying a tripod

  • F-Stop Ajna - At 40 litres, more suited I’d imagine to day trips (and they’ve chosen what I feel is a poor way to enable you to carry a tripod)

  • Lowepro Whistler - A similar solution from Lowepro (I used their Vertex 300AW model before switching to the Satori)

  • Shimoda Designs - A company started by Ian Millar, who I understand was F-Stop’s chief designer before they parted ways

Gear I use: Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW

My Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW camera bag in the snow near the summit of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

My Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW camera bag in the snow near the summit of Beinn Sgulaird, a Munro in the West Highlands of Scotland

When I first started focusing on outdoor and adventure sports photography, I spent a long time looking for a camera bag I could easily use to capture photographs when I was on the move (e.g. following athletes in the mountains). I've since moved to a more camera specific backpack but at the time I decided my essential requirements were;

  1. It had to be well padded.

  2. It needed to be weatherproof.

  3. It needed to be easy to take the camera out quickly and put it away again when shooting in bad weather.

  4. It had to take my 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens

  5. It needed to be comfy to wear for long periods of time

After much Googling about and repeat visits to the camera shops that were then in Edinburgh, plus observing Vancouver-based photographer Andrew Querner using an older model in the climbing DVD, Higher Ground, I settled on a Toploader Pro 75 AW.

What I like about the Toploader Pro 75 AW

  • Different ways to wear - you can purchase a belt or a harness for this bag, or use the provided 3-point harness attachment. I just put the bag over one shoulder and under the other arm and swing it to the front. I then put my rucksack on and it keeps it nice and secure.

  • Top lid - this is padded. Lowepro say you can put your sunglasses in here but I play in Scotland and sunglasses aren't often required. I find it ideal for spare batteries (tucked inside the mesh pocket) and a compass.

  • Scooped opening - the camera goes in sideways and fit on top of two internal velcro-attached staves. These keep the camera snug and protect it from damage.

  • Front pocket - this is where I store the dry bag and a chamois to wipe the lens.

  • Mesh side pocket - I stuff a ThinkTank PocketRocket memory card holder in here and clip it to the camera bag for security.

  • Zip and clasp closure - You can either zip the bag up or clasp it shut. The zip has big chunky zip-pulls with plastic handles that lets you close the bag with big gloves on (I can even just about do it with mitts on). The clasp saves you having to zip the bag up but I do think it would be better being on a longer strap. I find it slightly fiddly to use.

  • Size - There's plenty room for a Nikon D4S plus Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 or a 24-70mm f2.8. It also fits a Nikon 70-200m f2.8 lens (with the lens hood reversed). It is a very big bag and I sometimes self-consciously feel a smaller model may be a better choice. This goes away though as soon as I use it.

  • Optional attachments - you can attach a lens to the outside too with a 'strap and cinch' system for compatible lens cases. I most often use this though for securing a map case. It's ideal for this.

What I'd like to see changed

  • All Weather Cover - I find this too tight and difficult to put on outdoors. I use a dry bag instead - an Ortlieb 13 litre is ideal - pulling it up over the bottom and clipping it closed at the top. (You can't roll-top it but it forms a fairly weatherproof seal and I can put my camera inside the dry bag if the weather is really bad).

All in all, I think a Toploader Pro is a perfect bag for outdoor and adventure sports photography. It's not bombproof - I fell off a mountain bike whilst wearing it and damaged a lens - but otherwise, I'd highly recommend it.

Gear I use: Lowepro Photo Sport camera backpack

Photographing on the move with the Lowepro Photo Sport during a winter hiking trip to Streap, a Corbett in the West Highlands of Scotland

Photographing on the move with the Lowepro Photo Sport during a winter hiking trip to Streap, a Corbett in the West Highlands of Scotland

Professional camera gear unfortunately is not light and, as a mountain and adventure sports photographer covering both summer and winter sports, I carry a fair amount of equipment. On top of camera bodies, lenses, flashes, light modifiers, stands, etc. I often need to pack enough outdoor gear (e.g. rain jackets, insulated jackets, sleeping bag, shelter, etc.) to stay safe in the environment I am working in.

All this equipment needs to be carried. Conventional rucksacks are fine but to protect my camera gear from trauma and rain, it's best if you place it inside your pack and protect it with padded and/or waterproof cases. This however adds to the weight and increases the time it takes you to stop, take the pack off, unload the contents, use the gear, put it away, etc. Multiply these stops over the course of a day and I'm a.) missing out on a lot of great shots and b.) potentially frustrating athletes / models / friends by slowing them down.

Camera bag for outdoor and adventure sports - Lowepro Photo Sport

A few years ago, Lowepro introduced a pack for the outdoor photography market called the Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW (view their current model here). It was fairly lightweight (1300g) and has an integral camera compartment which is accessed by swinging the pack round to your front on one shoulder. 

The pack comes with an attached water-resistant rucksack cover (the AW in the title). There's also a separate compartment that sits against your back and houses a water bladder. Personally, I carry lightweight waterproof dry bags for my camera gear and prefer to use the back space for an iPad so I can show clients images from a shoot on location.

I've used the Lowepro Photo Sport for outdoor and adventure sports photography for over 4 years and have found it ideal for hiking, running and mountain biking photography or indeed any mountain sports photography where I need to move around quickly. (These days, I swap it out with an F-Stop Satori camera backpack I also own, depending on my requirements).

What I carry;

  • Camera body and lens (D4S and 17-35mm f2.8 lens)

  • Spare lens (e.g. 70-200mm f2.8)

  • Flash, stands and light modifiers - Reflector, softbox, grid, etc.

  • Tripod - Joby Focus

  • Outdoor clothing/equipment - Duvet jacket, hat, gloves, waterproofs, etc.

For winter mountain sports photography, e.g. mountaineering and ski touring, there's more outdoor gear required (e.g. a thick insulated jacket, ice axe, crampons, emergency shelter, etc.) so I commonly use the Photo Sport in combination with a Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW camera bag, wearing the Toploader Pro on the front and the Photo Sport on the back.

In the Toploader Pro, I carry my main camera body and lens along with spare memory cards, lens wipes, dry bag, map and a compass. I use the Photo Sport 200 to carry my spare equipment.

What I like about the Lowepro Photo Sport

  • Longevity - After 4 years heavy use it's battered and bruised (there's more than a few holes in the base and the external water bottle pocket, and the shoulder straps have started to twist) but it's still perfectly usable and comfortable.

  • Bottom straps - I use these for attaching crampons to the pack in the winter (If I'm not shooting mountaineering photography, it also serves as a useful home for a Joby Focus tripod, which I use as a light stand or for long exposures)

  • Zipped hip belt pockets - these are excellent. I fill them up with food items and batteries, memory cards, etc.

  • Cinch strap in camera compartment - this does an excellent job of keeping the contents from bouncing around

What would I change?

  • Size - I'd like the main compartment to be slightly bigger as it's difficult to put the camera back in the compartment when the main pack is full (Lowepro now make a Photo Sport 300 which I reckon is nearer 30 litres in size - see link below)

  • Shovel pocket - The shovel pocket on the front could do having more stretch in it so it could accomodate more gear. I generally use it to house a small reflector.

  • Buckles - The pack's small buckles are difficult to use in winter conditions with cold hands or gloves on

Alternatives