Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

F-Stop Gear Mountain Series

Isaac_Richardson

image by Isaac Richardson of me wearing f-stop Guru

As many of you know, I am a former employee of f-stop Gear, purveyors of adventure photography packs and accessories, and so it is important to disclaim that with this and future reviews of their products, I will be writing from the user’s perspective and will not be disclosing any insider information that the company has not already made public.  The f-stop products which I use have been obtained in various ways, including as employee incentives, direct purchases, and third-party purchases.  It is important to also note that I was an f-stop customer before I was an f-stop employee.

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Choose your own adventure.

The Good: 

F-stop’s Mountain Series packs are a versatile range of incredibly durable backpacks designed with modularity in mind.  Those bags that I own all come from the previous generation of the Mountain Series, which has since been updated and expanded upon (personally, I prefer this generation over the new one, which I’ll get into further later).  Whatever your photography needs, f-stop has a pack for you.

The ICU (Internal Camera Unit) system pictured above allows you to take as little or as much camera equipment as you may need.  Obviously, the larger bags accommodate a fuller range of ICU’s, but the largest are not always carry-on compliant.  F-stop promotes removing the ICU for better carry-on options, but even so, the largest ICU’s won’t pass airline restrictions.

The plane-friendly Large ICUs pictured can hold an impressive amount of gear, though you might regret hiking over a long period with this much weight.  A more common solution for photographers on extended treks is to use the Small Pro ICU, that can accommodate a pro-sized DSLR (without grip) and the trinity of 2.8 zooms (ie. 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm).  This approach lends more room as well for loading up non-photo, travel necessities.

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f-stop Loka along the might Mississippi River.

All of the packs are constructed with a water and abrasion resistant ripstop nylon material (330D on older line, 420D on newer) that holds up to a beating.  For prolonged exposure to precipitation, a rain cover is recommended (purchased separately) mostly due to the zippered access points.  The “Gatekeeper” system, also sold separately, allows for additional items like sleeping bags, tents, skis, etc. to be attached, though the bags usually supply compression straps and cinch cords out of the box, for a more limited range.

For me, the shoulder and waist straps, harnessing, and padding are all quite comfortable throughout most the line, though my torso height is close to the 18.5″ that is pretty universal to f-stop products.  Unfortunately, if your torso height varies much from this average, there is no way to adjust this for a better fit.  That said, I have experimented with hauling a ton of camera gear and equipment on long hikes to see how painful it would be, and have used the packs for full wedding shoots, and never experienced anything beyond a mild discomfort throughout.

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Mid-hike with my son and fully stuffed Loka.

The Bad:

In terms of functionality, I prefer the fuller range of options that the Molle system provided that has been nearly removed from the new line.  Yes, the 2015 Mountain Series update has Molle webbing inside the back panel lid, and the angled Molle on the hip belt is an improvement, but removing the largest, most useful portion from the sides of the bag was a mistake in my opinion, especially given the range of Molle compatible accessories available in f-stop’s Dakota line.

Also, if I am standardizing my photo business around f-stop products, I need to be able to fly with all of the bags that I use regularly, and you could do this with the Satori EXP (f-stop’s former “biggest bag”).  Furthermore, if you do look at the carrying capacity of what f-stop currently offers with its new line that is carry-on compliant, you will notice that 50 liters is now your maximum versus 62 liters previously (Tilopa vs. Satori).  Sure, you can check the bigger bags and pick them up on the other end, but who wants to add an additional inconvenience to an already cumbersome and frustrating process (flying)?

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f-stop Satori EXP near an abandoned Route 66 bridge.

Though the new 2015 fabric improves upon water and abrasion resistance, the material adds some weight, and if you are caught in a downpour, you’ll still need to grab a rain cover to keep your gear safe and dry.

Granted, most of what I have just criticized above amounts to personal preference, and I know people who love the bigger Sukha and Shinn bags and think them incredibly versatile for the types of traveling that they do.  I also know people who love the few extra liters that the Loka and Guru’s evolutionary successors, the Ajna and Lotus, provide.

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f-stop Lotus at work.

However, what cannot be argued against are the more institutionalized problems associated with f-stop Gear, namely delay, delay, delay, and the endless chain of excuses that customers are unfortunately confronted with.  I have seen this issue from both sides (without mentioning any specifics), and certainly the Company needs to improve upon it if they are to grow and remain competitive.  Six months between placing an order (and being debited payment), and receiving a product is unacceptable; certainly, this has been expressed by scores of customers to the Company’s social media and through recent employee lay-offs and turnovers.

As the former Community Manager for North America, I sometimes assisted with Customer Service when we were short-staffed, and my personal contact information leaked out to several customers during that time.  Occasionally, I still receive messages from customers who are upset about order delays, and concerned that it means that the Company might be going out of business.  Let me be clear, I don’t believe that this is the case.

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Shooting St. Louis Mardi Gras with f-stop Guru.  Image by Diane Piwowarczyk.

No doubt, f-stop makes great camera bags, if you can get a hold of one.  There are not many competitors that do as good of a job with modularity, durability, and comfortability.  Though you might look into Lowepro’s Whistler line, or ThinkTank (Mindshift Gear) for alternatives with a ready inventory.  If you want to get an f-stop pack without the wait, I’d recommend checking e-bay, or scanning the photographer forums and/or Craigslist for sellers.  Be cautious though, the convenience of getting these packs quicker sometimes means paying more for an already expensive item.

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f-stop Loka at sunset.

For an urban carry solution, check out my review of f-stop’s Millar Series Bandon messenger bag here.

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4 Responses

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  1. […] F-Stop Gear Mountain Series […]

  2. […] Loka was the Goldilocks of the manufacturer’s previous generation of its legendary Mountain Series (updated in 2015). At 37 liters, the Loka can hold a serious amount of camera kit, but with a bit […]

  3. […] Here is my packlist for my f-stop Gear Satori EXP: […]

  4. […] in my new role, the company unveiled its complete overhaul of its venerable Mountain Series, six packs that make up the core of sales, and I served on the digital marketing team for this […]


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