“The hunt for that most elusive of items, the perfect photographic gear bag – is the f-stop Loka it? In a word, yes, but read on to find out why!”
I bought the f-stop Loka over 20 months ago, and only after the usual extensive research that I do on any investment in new equipment. I actually shared with you a series of posts (and here) on a large new photographic equipment purchase I made in April 2012 and one of those pieces of equipment was this f-stop Loka Bag. A bag aimed to bridge between a traditional camera bag and a traditional backcountry bag. They do this by combining a super light aluminium framed bag with removable camera units, what they call Internal Camera Units or ICUs. And therein lies some of the genius of f-stop’s design. One thing that becomes clear very quickly about the f-stop team is they are as passionate about photography as they are about their products, and that means when it comes to our needs they just get it! You just need to look at how they support the Photography community for evidence of this. There Life in Focus video series with working pros is particularly inspirational.
TECH SPEC'S AND WEIGHT
Firstly let’s talk about the main bag. The Loka is a 37-litre bag and is made of a DWR-treated, 330D Double Ripstop Nylon with 1500mm Polyurethane coating which is very light, it includes heavy YKK zippers which are either sealed or covered to keep the rain out. It also includes a Jersey laminate EVA-padded back panel, which has raised padding for ventilation and comfort control. The bag’s shape is maintained by a light aluminium frame that ensures even weight distribution. On the whole, this feels and looks very much like any other top quality backcountry trekking bag. The Loka is in the middle of the f-stop Mountain Series, where the Guru and Kenti (the latter won’t accept ICU’s) are smaller and the Tilopa BC and Satori EXP are larger.
The reason I chose the Loka over the larger bags was simply because the Loka has the perfect dimensions for carry-on luggage in Europe, even for that most stringent of airlines Ryan Air. At 27.9cm depth x 30.5cm width x 58.4cm height (11″ x 12″ x 23″), it is perfect. And weighing in at 2.25kg (5lbs) the bag (including a Medium Slope ICU) itself does not steal too much of that precious 10kg carry-on limit. I’ve flown often with this bag and it has never once failed to slip in or out of those horrid cages they torture you with at the boarding gate.
The Loka has a small zipped pocket on the top of the bag for easy access to important bits and pieces, plus another just beneath to allow access the top of the bag (above the ICU). It has a large zipped pocket at the front which I often use to carry my iPad, or small reflectors. It also has a zipped pocket at the base for the rain cover (optional extra). And it has netted pockets on the left and right base of the bag, perfect for water bottles, flasks, etc. There are plenty of clips on the front and side of the bag to allow you to carry your tripod, etc, and plenty of anchor points to hang things from.
THE FANTASTIC (CARRY ALL DAY) HARNESS
While all of that is nice, one of the main draws for me about the bag is its carry harness. It always struck me as odd that so many camera bag manufactures appeared to put a huge amount of work in the design of the interior of the bag to make sure your precious camera equipment was safe. And I’m not saying that isn’t important, it is! But what about the body that is carrying all that precious equipment, your poor shoulders and back? That is where I struggled with all of the previous bags I’ve owned. Take a walk/hike any longer then a couple of kilometres from your car and your shoulders and back would start to really feel it.
The f-stop bags are different. They are designed as backcountry bags. Not only do they have soft and well formed shoulder straps that properly follow your curves, but they also have an absolutely superb padded hip belt. I cannot begin to describe the difference that hip belt makes in terms of comfortably distributing the weight across your body. In addition the harness has a sternum strap to keep everything from moving around and becoming uncomfortable over long distances. I’ve worn this bag fully loaded with kit on multi-day long treks and never felt the shoulder or back pain I did with every other bag I’ve owned. This design is one of the things that sets these bags apart from other manufacturers.
THE INTERNAL CAMERA UNITS
And now onto the second item, the aforementioned Internal Camera Units or ICUs. The bag I’ve described above, is effectively the shell in which these ICUs fit. It is the ICU’s that actually house your equipment. And this is some of the real genius. The ICU’s come in a large range of sizes, which essentially allows you to configure the bag any way you wish. Do you need to load the bag up with all camera gear and just leave a little room for spare clothes and snacks, or maybe less camera equipment and more non-photography related luggage, or maybe something in between. Well all you need to do is simply choose the ICU that fits that need. Oh and its probably worth mentioning here that these ICUs are universal across almost all of the f-stop mountain range of bags. So if you decide you need a larger bag like the Satori EXP, no problem as they will fit in to it as well. See, genius!
Lets talk about my use cases as examples. I chose to buy a Large and a Medium Sloped ICU with my Loka. f-stop do great deals when buying the ICU’s with the bag. Firstly for the day/weekend outing the large ICU allows me to carry pretty much all of my camera gear, or at least all I need for a specific outing and still leaves me room to carry some spare clothes, waterproofs, snacks & drinks. The typical weight of my fully loaded bag is between 15 and 23kg. With the aforementioned carrying harness, it is perfectly comfortable to hike all day. I cannot emphasise enough how much of a difference that makes to the enjoyability of a day or weekend trek.
And why the Medium Sloped ICU? This is for the times I need to take a business trip of no more then a couple of nights away and therefore don’t wish to check-in baggage. I need to be selective about what camera equipment I bring and the total weight, but I can still manage to give myself a nice setup and have room in the bag for several changes of shirts and all the other things I’ll need on a business trip. One extra nice thing about the Medium Sloped ICU is that it is wedge shaped i.e. wider at the base than the top. While the Loka does not officially support a laptop above 13 inches, this wedge shape lets me slot in my 15″ laptop, in it’s own sleeve, with ease. With some careful packing, I can even pack my tripod legs inside the bag too!
A COUPLE OF QUIBBLES
Sounds to be good to be true John, where’s the catch? No catches, although a few quibbles. One of the biggest quibbles I’ve heard from other people is that a rain cover is an extra cost. Even the cheapest bag I’ve owned included a rain cover, so I can understand why some folks are concerned, particularly for a bag that costs north of €200 ($279). However, I have found the material the bag is made from, coupled with the weather sealing around all the zips, to be completely waterproof. We’ve both been caught in downpours and the inside of the bag has always remained perfectly dry… unlike me. Indeed during an outing last October I slipped while walking across a river. I sat down in knee deep water and went on my back wearing the bag. While the outside of the bag was wet, the inside was perfectly dry. I on the other-hand was wet through and through!
There are, however, a couple of things I’d like the f-stop team to consider. One design change I would love to see is for the carry loop at the top of the bag to be either padded or have some kind of moulded rubber grip. Lifting a fully loaded bag with this thin piece of material is not the most comfortable experience. I’d also like to see them revisit their solution for fitting the ICU. Its certainty a flexible design, but a little fiddly with its loops and velcro inside a rigid aluminium frame. Apart from that, ship a few more crocodile clips please. Yea not much eh!? That’s sums up how good this bag is.
So is the f-stop Loka the best camera bag I’ve ever owned? In a single word, yes. From the above paragraph you can see how little I can find to complain about. I held off in writing this review for a long time because I wanted to put the bag through its paces before writing about my experience. This bag has been my companion for all that time, both in Ireland and abroad, shoved into the back of tents, overhead cabin lockers, the back of cars, and many other less then ideal spots. It’s been with me to the top of mountains, beside me at lakes, rivers, waterfalls and the sea; admittedly sometimes closer to the waters edge than I had intended! Its been baked in the sun, snowed on, rained on and had the odd bit of mild weather mixed in there too. Hey, this is Ireland; we can have all four seasons in just one day. 😉 It’s generally had a hard life, as any of my equipment is subjected too and again why I wanted to put it through its paces before writing this. And after all that, its still absolutely pristine, doing its job of protecting both my precious camera equipment and my equally precious shoulders and back, everyday. Hell it doesn’t even have a loose thread, the stitching is that good.
I think it is fair to say that these bags are not cheap. The f-stop Loka with a Large and Medium ICU that I describe here cost me €290 ($399). After the first 20 months of its life I’ve just described I view it as an investment though, these bags are bullet proof. While I might consider buying one of the larger bags either the Tilopa BC or the Satori EXP, or maybe even their Literoom Roller at some point I realise that the investment I’ve made in the ICU’s is not lost as they are universal fitting for most of the f-stop Mountain range.
If you are in the market for a new camera bag I could not recommend the f-stop bags more highly. Hopefully this review will give you a taste for how they differentiate themselves in a flooded market, how well built they are and how they are specifically designed for the working photographer. f-stop have certainly found a lifelong customer in me. You can find out more about f-stop on their website, or give their super helpful team a shout if you have any questions; or feel free to pop me a note if I can be of assistance.
SEE! THE LOKA COMES EVERYWHERE WITH ME 🙂
Full Disclosure | I have no relationship with f-stop at this time, other than being a customer. This is not meant in any way as an endorsement of their services but it does reflect that I had a positive experience with f-stop and their products.