F-Stop Gear Mountain series 2015: An opinion

F-Stop Gear has just added three new backpacks to the Mountain series. This company makes the best backpacks for photographers, and I own one of them – an awesome Satori EXP. Therefore I follow their innovations with great interest and, of course, have compared two of the new products – Shinn and Sukha – with the backpack that I have, to see if I need to regret having purchased it too early and to upgrade, or just to stay with the Satori EXP.

The new lineup of the Mountain series of 2015 consists of 4 backpacks – with 40, 50, 70, 80 litres volume. Only one of already existing models – Tilopa – remained and was updated. Two other models Loka and Satori EXP were discontinued. The first was replaced by Ajna and completely disappeared from the online shop. (Loka UL is still remaining part of the Ultralight series, however.). The second, Satori EXP still can be ordered but apparently won’t be produced anymore because Sukha that is only slightly larger and has similar construction has to be a successor. A completely new and even larger backpack model – Shinn – was added to this lineup. Its design resembles very much Tilopa; in fact, it looks like enlarged Tilopa bag.

The website of F-stop Gear currently contains very little information – less than in the last years. It isn’t clear if other bags from Mountain series – Ando, Guru, Kenti and Literoom – will be offered in future or are going to disappear from the model lineup too. There is no online discussion forum anymore, and no new blog posts were published since September 2014. It looks like communication with customers entirely moved to Facebook. I found more up-to-date information there that brought me to some thoughts and conclusions that wrote down in this article.

What’s new?

In fact most changes were not so huge and the improvements were even smaller. Actually, the manufacturer mentions only three of them: “new fabric”, “spacious side pockets” and “updated harness system”.

New features in the latest models of F-Stop Gear Mountain series of backpacks. New features in the latest models of F-Stop Gear Mountain series of backpacks as stated on the homepage of F-Stop Gear.

Also the colours were changed a little. Instead of previous three colours – all new backpacks are now offered in four colours: A new orange colour option – called “Nasturtium” – was added. The green colour (previously – “Foliage Green”) got lighter and is now called “Aloe” (or “Drab Green”). Other options – “Anthracite Black” and “Malibu Blue” – remained.

ShinnShinn backpacks are available in four colours: light green, black, blue and orange.

SukhaColour options of Sukha.

Satori EXP backpacks were offered in 3 colours – folliage green, black and malibu blue.

New Isn’t Always Better

Of course, Shinn is a completely new model of a backpack mainly intended for videographers. Since I don’t belong to this target group, my critique may be not so relevant. When F-Stop Gear designers were working on it, they, of course, heard the opinions of videographers whose needs they tried to satisfy. I don’t know, for example, whether videographers really need such a large backpack and how far the video equipment can be disassembled to fit smaller bags.

Again, the wish of many outdoor photographers to have just one perfect backpack isn’t fulfilled by any of current models of Mountain series. From photographer’s point of view Shinn, just like all other bags, is too much a compromise. It is quite large although again not so large as a trekking backpack of the same volume – 80l. It is the volume of the main compartment, not of the pockets what matters. If a wildlife photographer would use Shinn, the main compartment will be just large enough to accommodate lenses and camera bodies, and even then some equipment would go into pockets. I know it from my experience with Satori EXP which is a little smaller: No place remains for food, cloths and camping stuff. 80l of Shinn isn’t the volume of the main compartment: The largest ICU, Cine Master has in reality a much lower volume but will occupy all the space of the main compartment.

Sukha is basically a Satori EXP with increased height and side pockets instead of M.O.L.L.E. attachment points. With the new ICU Tele Master it is now possible to carry a 600-800mm lens mounted on a camera inside Sukha and Shinn, but the hood will need to be removed. Then I don’t understand the sense of this height enlargement: The equipment won’t be ready for shooting anyway till the hood is in place. If you have time for putting on the hood, you’ll have time also to attach the camera to the lens. Sukha is smaller than Shinn but now not small enough to comply with the rules of airlines for carry-in luggage.

Let us look at the features of Shinn and Sukha mentioned in the product descriptions and compare them with Satori EXP and other older models.

Construction
Most materials used in construction of Shinn and Sukha remained the same as in Satori EXP.

  • Ripstop nylon is the main material, but in new backpacks its water resistance was improved with thermoplastic polyurethane film.
  • EVA molded rear panel remained the same.
  • Hypalon® reinforced base. In my Satori EXP it is absent, therefore the bottom of it is scratched and rubbed on stones and ground every time I put the backpack on the earth. After just two expedition there were many signs of abrasion, and I wonder how long it will take till holes appear in the fabric. The latest version of Satori EXP does have a Hypalon reinforcement. So there is nothing new in Sukha. However, Shinn has also a reinforced front side, unlike in Satori EXP and Sukha.
  • Heavy-duty 3-fold carry handle and side handle. The first is in Satori EXP too but I never use it because my backpack is always too heavy. Usually it weighs at least 18kg but often over 20kg. Therefore I lift it by grabbing at the harness. The side handle that Sukha and Shinn now have is a nice thing when your bag is empty or not so fulll and heavy. With my backpack it is never the case.

Zippers
They remained in the new backpacks overall the same as in Satori EXP:

  • YKK® Aquaguard® zippers
  • Hypalon® zipper garages
  • Hypalon® pull-tabs

Pocket Configuration
Pockets have undergone some redesign:

  • Side pockets with full-length zipper and expandable design: This is actually what frustrates me the most. Satori EXP has three M.O.L.L.E. attachment stripes on each side. I can attach anything to it and customise my backpack. In Sukha and Shinn there are large pockets instead. They are of limited use and make the bag wider.
  • Stretchable interior mesh sleeve lid pocket with Velcro® seal: Hm… I don’t know why it should be better than various pockets with zippers that Satori EXP already has.
  • Zippered mesh underside lid pocket: Satori EXP had it too. Therefore it is nothing new.
  • Mesh sleeve energy pockets on each shoulder strap: This is an interesting thing that is nice to have. I eat energy bars on the go and would use such pockets. But even if not for energy bars, they can be used to store batteries, cables or other small items.
  • Multipurpose internal sleeve either fits up to a 13” laptop or can be used as a hydration bladder pocket. This is a wise change. In Satori EXP there were two pockets lying on each other: one for a 15″ laptop and one for hydration bladder. I criticised this construction in my review of Satori EXP: If a laptop would be there the hydration bladder and the entire ICU with photo gear will be lying on it. Your poor laptop should than withstand over 10kg of weight as soon as you lay the bag on the front side to access the equipment stored in the main compartment. I have a 11″ Macbook Air with me in my expeditions that I put in a separate sleeve in the ICU over the photo equipment. I haven’t tried the same with a 13″ laptop, but think that it should also fit under the lid of the main compartment.
  • Exterior front panel pocket. Compared to Satori EXP that also had it, in Shinn and Sukha it got larger and offers more room for cloths, food or more equipment.

Pack Hydration

  • Compatibility with numerous hydration systems: It remained the same as in Satori EXP as well as the rest – bladder pocket, sealed Velcro® hydration tube port, etc.

Suspension & Compression

  • Just like in Satori EXP, depth adjustment and a means to mount a tripod or other vertically shaped tools and gear provided by quick-release compression straps.
  • Easy tightening while on-the-fly via strap keepers: This is not new too.
  • Adjustable sternum strap with integrated whistle for emergencies – same as in older Mountain series backpacks.
  • Ergonomic Soft Flex injection molded EVA belt and shoulder straps. In Satori EXP and other older models it is not different.

Loading & Closure

  • Camera gear is accessed via the rear panel and features YKK® heavy gauge zippers: This is in all Mountain series backpacks of F-Stop Gear since the very first model.
  • Top opening for main internal compartment access features YKK® heavy gauge zippers: In my Satori EXP it is similar.

Pack Attachments

  • 12 GateKeeper mounting points. It is less than in Satori EXP that had 14.
  • Attachment of f-stop and third-party accessories via internal and external M.O.L.L.E. system. In new bags the external such attachment points are reduced to two on hip belt while Satori EXP had also three at each side. Therefore it was more extendable. In new backpacks, such attachment points are compatible indeed only with M.O.L.L.E. components or those that have thin attachment stripes. Pouches and pockets made by Lowepro and Thinktank Photo can’t be used anymore because their stripes are too wide. In Satori EXP this problem doesn’t exist.
  • Hypalon® loops and bungee cords for attachment of accessories such as ice axes and trekking poles – are in Satori EXP and other older products too.
  • Easily attach f-stop’s Navin camera case on the chest mounting attachment via GateKeeper system – same as in Satori EXP and other older backpacks.
  • Additional accessories attachable via 2 metal D-ring attachment points. They were available in all older backpacks too.
  • Attachment of a Rain Cover via connection loop. In Satori EXP the rain cover is stored in separate pocket under the bottom of the bag and can be attached the same way.

Hip belts of SukhaHip belt of Sukha and Shinn: The new M.O.L.L.E. attachment points are a joke. Sorry, F-Stop-Gear, but this is a real fail of your new design!

Side view of Satori EXPSide view of Satori EXP: There are M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at both sides of the bag and on hip harness. They are also compatible with products of Thinktank Photo, Lowepro and similar that have wide attachment slides. With new backpacks of F-Stop Gear it is not so anymore.

Integrated Features

  • 4 internal ICU attachment points: This is like in any Mountain series backpack that takes ICUs.
  • Exceptional all-day support provided by an internal aluminum frame. In older models it was the same.

Advantages of Satori EXP

  1. The dimensions fit into limits for carry-on luggage of most airlines: Though, if fully loaded with photo gear, it would exceed the allowed weight limit, usually the airlines representative at check-in wouldn’t object it when the bag looks small. Anyway, I had no problems with carrying my Satori EXP with me on board so far.
  2. Better extendable due to M.O.L.L.E. attachment straps on the sides: I often attach large military bags on one or both sides of my Satori EXP when I carry it in the field. To take it on board of an airplane, I remove these bags, so my backpacks becomes small again.
  3. Attachment straps on hip belt compatible with all third-party bags and pouches: The M.O.L.L.E. attachment points are at both sides of the bag and on hip harness. They are also compatible with products of Thinktank Photo, Lowepro and similar that have wide attachment slides. With new backpacks of F-Stop Gear it is not so anymore.

Advantages of Sukha

  1. More water resistant fabric: In my opinion, this is the only real improvement that the new Mountain series backpacks have got. However, the fabric of my Satori EXP is highly water resistant too. I had it many times under quite heavy rain and the water didn’t get inside. Apparently, the new fabric isn’t completely waterproof too because F-Stop Gear still sells rain covers for the backpacks.
  2. Greater height: Space needed for a large telephoto lens is better available due to this although such lenses could be carried in Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU too. Unfortunately the increased hight and side pockets makes this Sukha look too large for carrying on board of airplanes. Indeed its dimensions do not fit into airlines limits anymore, and it can’t be compressed to the allowed size because even the minimal dimensions are too big. I had wished the volume and size to be adjustable – through add-on pockets or through expandable construction of the backpack itself (for instance, through foldable top like in trekking backpacks).
  3. Larger frontside pocket: It isn’t really a big deal, but just a nice little improvement that makes the frontside pocket even better useable. In Satori EXP it is quite flat.

Advantages of Shinn

If I were buying a backpack this year and money weren’t an issue, Shinn would be my choice. Otherwise the price of over 370€ for the bag only is just too high. To use it, you need at least one ICU – either Cine Master or Tele Master – that would require additional 180 or 200€. A photo backpack for almost 600€ looks somewhat high priced even if you are getting with it a Rolls Royce among photo bags. It is hard to say if such an investment should make sense. Currently, it looks like Shinn is going to be the best backpack for an outdoor photographer as soon as Satori EXP would not be on sale anymore. On the other hand, it exceeds the carry-in luggage limits of airlines, and there are many other backpacks that do it too. Therefore, it may be possible to find a cheaper alternative with similar volume from other manufacturers (Lowepro Pro Trekker 650 AW is what comes to my mind, for instance) or to use a trekking backpack.

This backpack is made of the same materials as Sukha, is similarly high and has also the same large frontside pocket. The other advantages of Shinn compared with Satori EXP and Sukha are the following:

  1. Reinforced front side: This is what I liked in Tilopa bag too, what I am missing in Satori EXP, and what is now absent also in Sukha.
  2. Larger volume: Unfortunately, it doesn’t come without the biggest disadvantage – large size – that makes Shinn incompatible with airlines regulations for cabin luggage. What I wrote above about the need for adjustable size is valid here too.

Conclusion

Still Satori EXP appears to be the best suitable for the needs of a nature photographer who has to carry very much equipment both on airplanes and on terrain in remote places. It is very sad that F-Stop Gear has decided to discontinue it. Now my hope is that they will change their mind and bring up an even better successor in future. Till then I am happy to have a Satori EXP.

If I would be buying a new bag now, in current situation, I would either buy Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU again or go for Shinn and Tele Master ICU. Both, Sukha and Shinn are too large for airlines but Shinn has just more volume as Sukha. My tactics would then be, to take the gear in a bare ICU as hand luggage and to send the backpack with the rest of the content in the checked luggage. At the location I would then have a larger backpack. This would be an advantage over Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU combo. However, Shinn and Tele Master ICU are more than twice as heavy.

LensCoat 4Xpandable: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review published at Nature-Images.eu. See the full text here: LensCoat 4Xpandable.

I am sure there is no nature photographer on Earth who wouldn’t know LensCoat — a US company that makes neoprene protective and camouflage covers for very many DSLR lenses. I the last couple of years LensCoat was constantly extending not only the number of lens models they were making covers for but also the offer of other products, such as — pouches, rain protection covers, etc. Finally, this year the company debuted in the photo bag market segment with a new series of large lens bags called Xpandable.

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The Xpandable long lens bag series currently consists of 2 models — 3Xpandable and4Xpandable. The first is with 70cm of maximum height a little smaller and therefore more suitable for lenses up to 400mm f/2.8 of Canon and Nikon, or 500 mm of Sony and Sigma. Larger lenses can be put into it either without a camera attached or with hood reversed. In that case, also the high tripod foot may be an obstacle that will need to be removed or replace with a shorter third-party foot.

The 4Xpandable is 73cm high which makes a big difference because it can accommodate a 800mm or even 600mm Canon or Nikon lens mounted on a camera, with hood in shooting position and even with a 1.4x or 1.7x (Nikon) teleconverter.

It looks like 4Xpandable is currently the only bag on the market that comes close to satisfying my requirements for a long lens bag, namely:

  1. to accommodate my wildlife photography equipment completely assembled: a 600mm lens with the hood on, a teleconverter (up to 2x Canon Extender III) and a camera attached;
  2. when empty, to be packed in a compact way for transportation in other baggage separately from photographic equipment.

Therefore, I ordered a 4Xpandable bag soon after it was released.

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Improvement Suggestions

Here are some improvement suggestions for the case if someone from LensCoat team would read this review:

  • Increase the minimum height by 3-5cm. This will allow to keep a 2x teleconverter attached in both positions — when the bag is cuffed and when it is expanded to full size.
  • Provide means for fixation of the lens and camera when they are inside. That can be a padded collar, pads or similar.
  • Make the walls of Xpandable more stiff. First, this will additionally reduce the side movements of the equipment in the bag. Second, a more stable shape of the bag will also be better for tripod attachement. Third, the attachment of harnesses and waist belts will be improved this way.
  • Provide M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at the sides of Xpandable bags in addition or instead of those that are now on the front.
  • Provide an optional complete harness system, like in trekking backpacks — with padded waist belt included.

Conclusions

This bag could be great as a pouch for a ready-to-use long lens and camera combo when you need to transport it in a car or on a cart, such as on Eckla Beach Rolly (see a reviewEckla Beach Rolly). Travel photographers who go to African or Indian national parks may find Xpandable particularly nice to use in safari cars — when the equipment has to be ready for use but at the same time to be protected from dust and hits when the car is moving. Being a wildlife photographer, I need this bag for use at locations where I arrive for shooting with all my baggage, but then have short walks to search for a particular subjet while the rest of equipment remains in a base camp or in a car.

Overall, I do not recommend Xpandable for situations when it needs to be carried over long distances. If you are looking for a backpack for hiking or trekking with your largest telephoto prime lens always ready for shooting, LensCoat Xpandable isn’t for you. Unfortunately for this area of use there is still no perfect solution for 600mm-800mm lenses. Photographers with such demands have to choose from 3 compromises — 1) to get one of the bags mentioned in this review, i.e. made by KinesisLoweproTenbaKönig, and carry the lens with hood reversed; 2) to use a normal trekking backpack with some kind of padded insert; 3) to go for LensCoat 4Xpandable. I did the last, and 4Xpandable became a nice addition to my two other bags — F-Stop Gear Satori EXP that serves me as trekking backpack (see a review F-Stop Gear Satori EXP), and Lowepro Flipside 300 that I use during short excursions with little equipment. I don’t plan to hike with 4Xpandable on my back a lot.

As I explained in this review, the 4Xpandable model is too wide even for the largest prime lens, which is currently 600mm f/4. For owners of 800mm f/5.6 lenses who don’t use teleconverters very often and have replaced the tripod mount foot with a shorter one I would recommend to take a look at 3Xpandable. Its diameter is 19cm, and it should fit the lens better. However, this bag is 3cm shorter than 4Xpandable — too short even for a 1.4x teleconverter. Owners of a 600mm f/4 lens, like me, would probably use teleconverters more often. Then 3Xpandable may be only an option if you’d agree not to carry the lens with a TC attached or to carry it with the hood reversed.

If you don’t need your large lens bag to be foldable, i.e. if you don’t transport your equipment to shooting location in other bags and cases, take a look at Kinesis PolyCore L622 bags instead. These bags are more advanced and better for long carrying.

For the reasons that I have explained in this review, I mean that Xpandable bags aren’t worth to be purchased outside the US by anyone who doesn’t absolutely need their unique capabilities — at least as long as trade treaty between US and EU isn’t signed, and custom duty and import VAT apply.

Read the rest of this text here: http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/reviews/xpandable/index.html