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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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With Shallow ICU there is a little more space between the hydration compartment and the ICU but also not much.)
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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).

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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.