I Bought a New Camera Bag
Recently, I took advantage of some amazing pre-Xmas discounts to consider the new range of F-Stop Mountain Photography Bags. This was something that has been oncoming for about six months but was rudely accelerated when my allegedly water-repellant bag of choice started to act more like a sponge than an umbrella when I was caught by a downpour in the Alpujarras. I was fortunate to escape with my camera and lenses intact.
Who Needs a Camera Bag Anyway?
As soon as you progress beyond a single body and a kit lens, you need somewhere to store the kit and a safe way of transporting it. So does virtually every photographer who has been taking pictures for more than a couple of months. So you buy another lens and a small bag to carry it, the camera and some small accessories.
Of course with multiple lenses come multiple choices and it gets complicated very quickly. I suspect most photographers start with a shoulder bag, then buy a larger one. Pretty soon you or your osteopath realise all that weight would be better on your back than your shoulder and then you buy your first backpack.
How much money could I have saved if I’d bought the proper camera bags first time around? I dread to think, but in my defence I should point out that just like cameras and lenses, bag technology evolves.
Different Bags for Different Horizons
The choice of a camera bag is made more difficult by the fact that different types of photography have different requirements. And different bags tend to be designed to fit specific types of photography.
F-Stop mountain photography bags are a range of hybrid camera/hiking bags that are made for serious landscape photographers who take kit into the wilderness for days at a time. They are notoriously robust and very well-designed, by photographers for photographers for a single purpose. Protecting your photography gear, camping kit and clothes in the lightest possible way.
Like many photographers, I have a certain amount of history with bags. Tata bags accompanied me to China and India, I loved them to bits, but then they were acquired by Manfrotto, the distinctive yellow lining turned red, the range started to lose focus and I started to look elsewhere.
Peli cases accompanied me to America along with one small Tata bag. This seemed like a good solution, but there’s a world of difference between photographing the streets of Manhatten and the beaches and canyons of the west coast. The combo worked well for Manhattan but the sand and sea of California found me travelling lighter than I wanted. I looked into the best Think Tank bags.
Street and Commercial Photography
Think Tank became my go-to solution for the next seven years, The Urban Explorer range is tough, stylish and functional and works well in the city. The Retrospective range is gorgeously retro and between them they served me well for nearly a decade.
Landscape Photography UK
I exaggerate a little but the thing about the UK is that unless you go to Scotland, there really is virtually nowhere that doesn’t have. a road. Twenty-mile hikes into the wilderness are simply not available. There is no wilderness, that bothy in the distance? It’s a Weatherspoons now. Snowdonia is a traffic jam and in the Peak District you can set up your tent and wake up to find another photographer eating breakfast a few yards away.
Mountain Photography Spain
Mountain photography is a whole new ballgame. You can’t drive to the locations, serious hiking is required. And with serious hiking comes serious kit. Serious kit requires serious storage and that’s when I discovered that my Think Tank bags no longer cut the mustard. I needed space for clothes and food. This is where the F-Stop Photography bags shine.
Why I’ve embraced F-Stop
I still really like the Think Tank brand. The Streetwalker bags are still my go-to bags for client work and street photography. But I have had an issue with the Retrospective series, in anything more than light drizzle, the bag’s canvas exterior soaks up water, adding weight and risking soaking the contents. It is badged as featuring a durable Water Repellant coating on the website.
When it comes to adventure and mountain photography, F-Stop bags are designed from the ground up to cater for precisely this kind of photography. They are tough as old boots, comfortable and leave plenty of room for everything you might need over and above your camera. Things like tents, sleeping bags and other life-preserving essentials.
Modular Systems vs Dedicated Bags
A dedicated camera bag is quite honestly useless for mountain photography. You’ll need to carry layers of clothing, food, maps and GPS. And that’s just for a single day. If you camp out, you’ll need a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat etc. Think Tank don’t do camping. If prancing about in the meadows and lanes of Shropshire is your thing then Think Tank is your bag. If you’re going further afield then you have to look elsewhere.
In fact, dedicated photo bags are insufficient for most landscape photographers. The reality of photography life is that you acquire kit, but quickly realise that the kit weighs a ton, so naturally, you start to scale your bags up and down, moving kit between bags as the occasion demands. Working with a client on location? Think Tank Urban Explorer. A five-mile hike in early summer? Think Tank Retrospective 15 will do nicely. A two-day hike in the Mountains? F-Stop mountain photography bags fit the bill perfectly.
But transferring the kit between bags leads to stuff being left behind and worse, lost. The kit ends up in different pockets. The genius of the F-Stop ICU (Internal Camera Unit) is that the kit lives in the ICU and the ICU can be transferred between bags. I have the Pro Large, the Slope Medium and the Pro Small ICUs and depending on the occasion they can be transferred between my large F-Stop Tilopa and my smaller F-Stop Guru. No pain. I use legacy Think Tank modules for cables, cleaning materials, batteries and Cards. Everything is in its place and there is a place for everything. Plus there is room for clothes, food and water.
F-Stop also has an ingenious system called Gatekeeper Straps. These attach to various built-in loops on the bag so that you can secure a tripod, walking poles etc in the best place to keep the bag balanced. When you don’t have a tripod, then you detach the gatekeeper strap and there’s nothing swinging free to snag on branches, brambles or briars.
The use of modular systems means that you don’t have to buy new units every time you buy a new bag. F-Stop is at the expensive end of the market but once you’ve bought the first bag and ICUs then you need only buy the shell of subsequent bags. Everything else, from rain cover to Gatekeeper Straps can be moved between bags.
Photography Bags for Real Mountains
Lastly, when I moved to Spain I cut down on a lot of local commercial work. And replaced it with landscape photography which in a closing-the-circle kind of way is what drew me to photography to begin with. The F-Stop Tilopa is perfect for camping trips. The Ajna is fantastic for demanding all day or overnight trips. The Guru is the perfect day bag. F-Stop Mountain Photography bags do exactly what it says on the tin.
When I lived in the UK, I was never really tested in the way that the Sierra Nevada and the Alpujarra present a real physical challenge. These are real mountains, snow-covered in winter and not to be taken for granted. I probably underestimated the amount of extra kit that would be needed to support this new direction.
I realised I was searching for a solution that would involve a hybrid bag that would support photography gear and camping kit and that dramatically reduces the number of contenders..
The credible contenders were Think Tank, Shimoda and F-Stop. other ideas presented themselves such as pairing F-Stop ICUs with Osprey shells or Deuter hiking bags. No article about F-Stop would be complete without a word about Shimoda.
The Shimoda Story
Shimoda is interesting in that the company was started by Ian Millar, who is the designer responsible for F-Stops’s early designs and Shimada seem to have taken over F-Stop’s position as the brand du jour. They are set up identically to F-Stop and have also challenged them in the fantastically expensive stakes so where this will end up is anyone’s guess. I think F-Stop currently have the edge because their terms of sale are better. 45 Day no quibble return and a 20 Year warranty compared to Shimoda’s measly 5.
How to Choose a Mountain Photography Bag
It is hard to prioritise all considerations, but these were mine, in order.
- Comfort – Nothing will spoil your enjoyment of a long hike more than a numb shoulder
- Capacity – Be clear about what the use case is for the bag
- Access – How easy is it for you to reach your gear?
- Airline Friendliness – be aware of size limitations
- Price – Clarity around what is affordable
Why is Price the last of my considerations?
Because if I could tick all my boxes with a single bag, that would be worth more than buying two bags. I can’t tick all the boxes though and that is why my store room is full of bags of various sizes!
Marketing Gimmicks to Ignore
I’ve come to the conclusion that almost all marketing is to be ignored, but a few things really stood out during my research.
- “Water Repellant/Resistant” – Do not confuse with Waterproof!
- “Rotation Technology” – Almost any backpack with a waist strap can be rotated
- “Camera Bag System” – Be very afraid, you’re buying a bag, not a hi-fi.
- Designed in the mountains not in an office – Oh please!
- “Unparalleled designs engineered for elevated performance” – Sigh…
- “Optimised and Organised for Back Country Tours” – Please, make it stop!
- “designed for minimalist backcountry missions” – I’m crying now…
- “Safe from Prying Fingers” – Oldest sales trick in the book. There’s a lot to be said for access via the back panel of the bag, but security isn’t the most significant advantage.
There will be more and I’m sure you can recognise the culprits. One company, whose name is not even mentioned in this post features three times in that list. If I’ve missed any particularly egregious marketing nonsense do let me know!
F-Stop Mountain Photography Bags
F-Stop makes fantastic bags for photographers who work in the wilderness. The company was started by photographers in 2006 and quickly established a reputation for design and manufacturing excellence. They hit a sticky patch in 2016 when logistics ran out of control and customers were kept waiting for months for their orders. That seems to be over, I ordered mine from the Netherlands, F-Stop is based in the US, I live in Granada and the shipment arrived in a week.
F-Stop also suffered a PR disaster in 2016 when they raised money via Kickstarter for a radical new product that never saw the light of day. Investors were offered credit on F-Stop products by way of compensation and the photography community was unimpressed. The lead designer left to start Shimoda and a couple of disgruntled employees mouthed off very publicly about the CEO. F-Stop disappeared almost overnight from the “5 best camera bag lists”.
In hindsight, the fuss seems to be somewhat over the top. But the effect was profound, As quickly as the in-crowd flocked to support the company in the early days, they melted away when the shit hit the fan. On the plus side, new staff have brought order to the chaotic logistics. Nowadays they deliver in 6 days, reliably.
The bottom line for me is, do F-Stop makes excellent products today? Yes, they do.
Do F-Stop bags satisfy my personal requirements? Yes, they do.
Can F-Stop deliver in a timely manner? Yes, they can.
Shimoda is probably F-Stop’ nearest rival, and their business model is identical which suggests F-Stop are doing something right. For me the decision was close but I decided to go with F-Stop, I’m very happy with the quality so far. I’ll provide a detailed review when I’ve used the bags for a really extended period of time!
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