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

F-Stop Gear Guru

Several years ago, I converted over to using f-stop Gear‘s line of products as a solution to the problem of transporting my camera equipment and accessories.  These packs are expertly designed, and there is  a bag for virtually any purpose desired. I’ve previously outlined the ecosystem of their Mountain Line, so this review will focus on the Guru Version 1 that I use as my primary hiking ruck.

photo by @skiye30 of me crossing a log jam with my Guru

photo by @diane_cannon_piwowarczyk of me covering STL Mardi Gras

FIT

F-stop updated their Mountain series of packs in 2015, thus discontinuing the Guru until its eventual re-release as an ultralight variant, but until then, the Guru was for a lot of people the most versatile travel bag in the line. At 28 liters, it is big enough for a capable travel photo kit, and small enough to fit in any overhead compartment.  The harnessing system is good, with excellent shoulder padding, though not as capable weight distribution to the hips as its big brothers (not a problem of the Guru’s hip belt which is a comfortable design). This may be a torso height issue, as I’ve always felt that the bag sits a little high on me (I’m 6’0″)*. Nonetheless, unless you have the bag over-stuffed, it bears the weight pretty well, and its easy to carry over long distances or across hours. A slightly bigger issue for me is back ventilation; the Guru is unfortunately a back-sweat factory. This is partially why I rarely use this for paid work, and tend to bring it out only on hikes, when I kind of expect to sweat anyway. If you are a commuter and interested in this pack, keep this issue in mind depending upon how you commute to work, otherwise, this would be an excellent EDC for just about any creative or traveller.

*The older Mountain series packs were designed for a torso height of 18.5″, though all of the other bags in the line fit me much better. I suspect that this may be partially because the Guru does not have the shoulder adjustment straps that the other packs in the line do.

FABRIC

The Guru’s fabric is both resilient against tear and water resistant. Though I do own a rain sleeve for this bag, I almost never need it (it’ll native shell does fine in a light rain). The Guru’s 330D rip-stop nylon is expressed as a downgrade from the company’s new 420D fabric, though the new material does not utilize DWR (durable water repellant) and I am not so certain that what it does provide for water resistance is an actual improvement (instead of wicking away moisture at the surface, it allows some water to penetrate and relies on a tougher sealant at the “backend” of the fabric shell to keep pack contents dry). While this might be affective against water alone, I have a feeling that it might encourage some stains and possibly mold (depending upon how you store/clean it) to set-in. As for abrasion resistance, the 330D has been plenty tough in my experience, and is lighter weight.

 

CAPACITY

In the Guru’s 28 liters I typically stuff a lot. It was constructed to utilize the company’s Medium line of ICU’s (internal camera units), but I have found that the Small Pro ICU holds everything I need on the camera side (it will take a cam and the 2.8 holy trinity of DSLR lenses) and provides enough room elsewhere in the bag for an extra layer, snacks, or other accessories.

Some of my common layouts with descriptions are below.

above (l to r, t to b): GoPro Hero 4 Silver mounted to time-lapse egg-timer, cavity where Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX would go along with lens cloth and rain sleeve, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G, cavity for Nikon D300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-x Pro, Pelican memory card case, small first aid kit, f-stop Digi Buddy (battery storage). Also visible is an f-stop Medium lens barrel (above the ICU), which I use together with another insert to help keep small items or extra photo equipment organized in the compartment above the ICU, and an f-stop Elkhorn attached to the hip belt, which contains a small flashlight, a GoPro Hero 4 Session or my iPhone 7+, and a watertight bag for anything inside- note: the Elkhorn is unpadded, so I’ve added some padded panels to protect the electronics.

above (l to r, t to b): Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX with lens cloth and rain sleeve, GoPro Hero 4 Silver mounted to time-lapse egg-timer, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-x Pro, Nikon D300, Nikon D200 (my D7200 is once again at Nikon for repair). The gloves I use when climbing through underbrush.

One of the best things about the Guru, and part of what made it so popular as an EDC, is its organizer pocket.  The pocket goes all the way down the front part of the bag, making it possible to stuff larger items like a jacket or even a snow shovel inside (this is a good alternative to the frontmost pocket which is large enough only for a baseball cap or maybe a disposable poncho, but otherwise pretty functionless).

The organizer has two zippered compartments, one big enough for my iPhone 7+ stood vertically (pictured) and other items like a notebook or gloves (pictured), and the other one a good size for batteries or credit cards. It includes the option to carry three pens or pencils (two pictured), has a mesh pocket big enough for small items (pictured is a large ziplock baggie), and has three structured pockets, two of which are optimally sized for GoPro batteries or CompactFlash cards (pictured, I have a multi-tool stuffed in one) and one that is perfectly scaled for business cards. There is also a detachable key fob included.

Guru at the beach

In terms of external capacity, the Guru has ten attachment points for f-stop’s Gatekeeper straps (I have only four of those utilized in the two straps across the front of the bag). The Version 2 includes sewn-in straps on the sides of the bag, something that would get in my way, given how far along the sides that the main compartment unzips (and to be honest, on a bag this size, unless your tripod is pretty compact, you are going to want to clip it in on the front- there is no ability to clip anything on to the bottom of the bag which is a little unfortunate if you plan to take it on a camping overnighter).

The mesh pockets on the side are very generous and will accommodate a range of water bottle sizes or small stowables, and the hip belt includes molle webbing on both sides (large enough for f-stop’s Elkhorn, but not wide enough for its Harney). The Version 2 replaces one side of the hip molle with a zippered pocket, a welcome upgrade.

 

photo by @skiye30 of me descending an embankment with the Guru

RECOMMENDATION

In my review of f-stop’s Loka, my current primary camera carry, I outlined some of the problems that I have in recommending products from this company. That said, I’ve monitored the f-stop Gear over the year since I wrote that, and it appears that they may finally have gotten their logistics under wraps. Flipping through follower comments on their social media, there is no longer post after post of customers demanding to know what gives, and for that matter, whoever is running social media now looks to be doing a pretty good job of folding customer experiences into the fabric of the company’s messaging (something that I suggested over and over again while working there).

Still, I am a little skittish, and understandably so. Also, though the updated line was a step in the right direction, I don’t believe that it went far enough, and there were a lot of things that I actually prefer about the older line (which can still be acquired in great shape online via eBay, et al).

What’s more, there are now other options to consider, like Lowepro’s Whistler Series. Not to mention, Ian Millar, the real brains and talent behind f-stop’s product line up until this point, left the company amid its past fray, and has formed a new brand, Shimoda. Millar’s new company pulled out all the stops, and looks likely to have developed the best adventure photography bags on the market. It certainly took the Kickstarter crowd by storm- raising 600% of its production goal. I’m so looking forward to getting my hands on one when the time comes.

So there you have it. I do recommend the f-stop Guru Version 1, with some caveats. If you are a shooter with a limited budget, and you need a bag right now, a used Guru may be exactly what the doctor ordered.  However, if you’ve been saving up, and don’t mind waiting a bit for the best solution, you now have options…

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