F-stop Gear Satori EXP: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review I published at www.nature-images.eu. Read the full text on this page: F-stop Gear Satori EXP.

The Satori EXP like two smaller backpacks of the Mountain series — Tilopa BC and Loca — combines the traits of a mountaineering backpack with photo backpack. Basically, it is a very well made, with use of best materials, mountaineering backpack that has an opening on the back side through which the entire content of it can be accessed. Protection and the ability to hold photographic gear is provided through so-called “ICU” (Internal Camera Units) — padded soft-shell boxes of various sizes. One or more of them can be inserted inSatori EXP. The remaining space can be filled with anything that doesn’t need to be carried in a protected container.

Without ICU Satori EXP is just a small rucksack suitable for short trekking for a couple of days, but too small to be used as main baggage for long ventures far from home.  According to manufacturer’s measurements, the backpack has the volume of 62l and the maximum dimensions 29.2cm x 35.6cm x 66cm. The result of multiplying these numbers will be 68.6cm3. Apparently the indicated volume of 62l can be reached when all compression belts are loosened, and Satori EXP has its maximum size. In reality, the usable volume for carrying photographic equipment is much smaller. The largest available ICU has the internal dimensions 16.5cm x 26.7cm x 45.7cm, hence only about 20l volume. When this so-called “XL Pro ICU” is inserted, very little space remains for the rest.

A 45cm long Canon EF 600mm 1:4L IS II USM without hood (or with hood reversed) may fit into it, but EF 800mm f:5.6L IS USM that is 1cm longer probably wouldn’t. The same applies to the largest Nikon lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 800 mm 1:5.6E FL ED VR with its 46 cm lens may be too long while the 1.5 cm shorter AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm 1:4G ED VR should go.Satori EXP is then perfect for carrying such lenses in hand luggage on airplanes but not for use in the field because the lenses will be carried not in ready-for-shooting state.

The currently largest ICU “Pro XL” with 20l volume can accommodate about the same amount of equipment as the largest photo backpacks of other manufacturers, for exampleLowepro Vertex 300 AW or Gura Gear Bataflae 32L. Interestingly, the total volume of such backpacks is indicated by the manufacturers as 30-35l — not 62l, as F-Stop Gear claims forSatori EXP.

The next picture shows an example of what I can put in the Pro XL ICU of my Satori EXP: 2 camera bodies, 1 medium sized telephoto lens (such as 2.8/300mm without hood), 1 smaller telephoto lens (such as 2.8/150mm macro), 1 small telephoto lens (such as 1.4/85mm), 1 medium wide-angle (1.4/35mm) or a standard lens, 1 small wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/25mm), 1 ultra wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/18mm), 1 fisheye lens (2.8/15mm), 2 teleconverters (1.4x and 2.0x), 2 flashes, angle viewfinder. Maybe I could also find place for macro extension tubes — 12mm and 25mm.

Here is an example of what can fit into Pro XL ICU.

On the next picture Pro XL ICU is shown inside Satori EXP. This set of equipment is sufficient for wildlife, landscapes and macro photography. Since I rarely know what subjects to expect when I go out to a new place, I carry that much equipment with me and even more. Often I also need 1 or 2 flash diffusors, flash brackets, Pocket Wizards, filters, batteries, etc. Then I carry one camera and a lens in a small top-loader bag on my chest, so that a little more space remains in the ICU, and a couple of items more — for example, 2 Pocket Wizard receivers and a transceiver — can go inside. I leave out more items if I need to take a larger lens — 600mm. Then I may either reduce the number of flashes and lenses, or to attach external pouches with them to Satori EXP via Molle attachment points.

I put the more sturdy items — such as flash brackets — in the front pocket. Batteries, remote triggers, memory cards, etc., go into the pockets on the front and on the top lid. In the top compartment I put some food, and in the hydration bladder that is stored in special compartment under the front side I take some water. This is my maximum load that together with a tripod attached outside the backpack may reach 20kg or more.

My maximum equipment set in a XL Pro ICU inserted in Satori EXP.

The opening is optimised for the smaller Large Pro ICU but not for the XL Pro that I need to use most of the time and also not for smaller ICU. The XL Pro is higher than the opening, and the upper items will be completely or partially hidden behind the edge of the opening — as shown in the next picture. To have access to them, you will need to remove the lower items first.

The XL Pro ICU is higher than the opening. Therefore it may be difficult to access the topmost items. To do that you may need to take out the lower items first. 

If smaller ICU are used, only one can be attached because the position of the velcro strips in the second one doesn’t correspond to the position of the loops inside Satori EXP. To me this looks like a design flaw that may be corrected in future, but I have to live with it in my copy of Satori EXP. Therefore the upper ICU has to be put free on top of the first. Since the depth of Shallow ICU is smaller than of the bag, the upper one that is not attached tends to slip towards the front side of Satori EXP when it isn’t completely filled and some space at the front side is remaining. Shallow ICU have no support from the front side, and you have to fill the backpack completely to prevent them falling inside every time when you put the bag horizontally and open it.

The next picture shows Satori EXP with Medium Shallow and Small Shallow ICU inserted — that contain my equipment sets for landcape and macro photography.

Shallow Small and Shallow Medium ICU inside Satori EXP.

The Shallow Small ICU is really small. As shown in the picture below, I typically would put the lens kit — 18mm, 24mm tilt-shift, 35mm, 85mm — into it that I use for landscape photography. No place for anything else would remain after that. The camera will have to be carried somewhere else.

My usual landscape photography set of 4 lenses in a Small Shallow ICU. There is no place left for a camera body.

Alternatively these lenses can go into the Medium Shallow ICU. Then also the camera can be there. However, I use this ICU for the macro and close-up photography equipment: a camera, twin flash, angle viewfinder, lenses — 150 mm, 25mm, 15mm — and a 2x teleconverter. This set is shown in the picture below.

Here is my usual equipment for macro and close-up photography in a Medium Shallow ICU. (Click to enlarge.)

The soft pads that are inside the lids when the ICU are used separately from the bag have to be removed when the ICUs are in the bag. There should be a place for them in the bag. With current design, you just pull them out of the lid before inserting the ICU in Satori EXPand need to find a place for them inside — for instance to put them into to the notebook compartment when no notebook is there. Some kind of fixation for unused, opened lids of ICU would be nice to have, when the ICU are installed in the bag, or the lids should then be completely removable together with the pads.

The notebook compartment is huge and occupies all the empty space between the ICU and the front wall of the backpack. It would easy accommodate a 18-inch laptop computer. I can’t imagine that many outdoor photographers would make use of this capacity because such a monster alone would weigh over 3kg. This is another issue in the design of Satori EXP that surprises me. It would make more sense to integrate compartments for smaller notebooks — 11″, 13″, 15″ — into ICU of Pro series like they already did in Large L/T and Small L/T of Shallow series. Of course, such notebook compartments should be removable for those people who like me don’t carry computers during shooting in wilderness.

To position the notebook compartment at the front wall of Satori EXP was another design flaw, in my opinion, because the backpack has to be put on this side when it is being opened. More than that, the water bladder pocket is between the notebook compartment and the ICU when they are inserted. If you would have a notebook inside it, when you’ll be putting the backpack on the front side to open it, many kilos of gear and water will be lying on the notebook. It would be a miracle if your notebook would survive this without damages. Therefore, if you carry a notebook in Satori EXP, you have always to think of taking it out through the top opening before you lay the backpack and access the content of the ICU. This is why I would always seek a place for my 11″ Macbook Air at the backside or inside the ICU, so that it always remains on top.

When the water bladder is filled and Pro ICU are inserted almost no space remains for a notebook in the compartment anyway. It is always the case when my water bladder —Platypus Insulator 3l — is inside. Maybe there are narrower bladders that you can put along the side wall of Satori EXP and not to use the pocket. When I am in the field in hot regions I need much water. Therefore, a 3l bladder is just right for me although I almost never fill it with water completely.

A XL Pro ICU and a hydration bladder are in Satori EXP, and no more space is remaining – not even for a notebook. The XL ICU reaches almost to the top of the backpack, so that you can’t put much else under the top lid too.

When Satori EXP is used with XL Pro ICU, almost no space remains inside. Even if you don’t need it for a 18-inch notebook, you can put almost nothing between the hydration bladder and the ICU. (See the picture above.) Very little space also remains on top of backpack — maybe enough just for something compact, such as a snack, a binocular, or similar.

It looks much better when Shallow ICU are used. This frees a couple of litres more insideSatori EXP that you can fill with cloths and more photographic and outdoor gear. (See the next two pictures below.)

With Shallow ICU there is a little more space between the hydration compartment and the ICU but also not much.)
If you are using Shallow ICU, you can put at least something else into Satori EXP – for example, a fleece jacket.

Although the products of F-stop Gear (as actually so much else today) are being manufactured in China, their quality is very good. In my Satori EXP, when it was new, every detail was faultless, and I hope that it will remain so.

If I’d leave aside the conceptual deficits that were discussed above, I’d would acknowledge that this backpack is very beautiful and really nice to use. It has a very nice shape and fits my back better than any other backpacks I own or have owned before. Currently, F-Stop Gear offers the backpacks of Mountain series in 3 different colours (see the picture below).

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

Among these colour variants the “Malibu blue” looks extraordinary and very beautiful — too pity that it cannot be used by nature photographers who for obvious reasons need more discrete colouring.

Not to make this review much longer, I would omit the description of all features of Satori EXP and of materials used because the reader can find this information at the website of F-Stop Gear.

After I ordered my copy of Satori EXP in spring 2013, I had to wait for about 10 months till I got it delivered. Today it looks like F-stop Gear has improved its production capacities and made shipment time shorter. Most of their products are now constantly available for orders via their online shop. Currently, all orders appear to be shipped from outside the EU, hence the prices are here up-to 20% higher than in the U.S. — probably because customs duty and the European VAT are included. For the time of writing, the products of F-stop Gear weren’t available in other parts of the world other than through direct orders from the U.S. If you live on other continents than North America and Europe, you may need to calculate the cost of purchasing Satori EXP and of a corresponding set of ICU carefully. Being a professional hi-tech backpack, it costs even in the U.S. and the EU more than bags of other manufacturers. The price may increase beyond making sense if you order it to be delivered elsewhere.