Monday, March 18, 2013

Photo Equipment Backpacks Part IV: My Favorite Backpacks

Lowepro Dryzone 200In Part I, of the Photo Equipment Backpack series, I discussed making sure the backpack was properly fitted to ensure the gear inside could be carried comfortably.

In Part II of the series, I discussed the competing needs of in-transit and shooting backpacks, and why those needs have prevented “cross-over” backpack design success, to date.

In Part III of the series I discussed how to ensure photo backpacks will have the required capacity, and what features are essential in quality photo backpacks.

In this conclusion of the Photo Equipment Backpack series, I'll discuss my five favorite backpacks, and why I like them, as well as explain why one of these backpacks is likely the precursor to a truly workable “cross-over” backpack, able to handle both in-transit and shooting uses.

My favorite in-transit backpacks are the Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator and Airport Commuter. Both meet domestic and international carry-on size requirements. Both backpacks should have not have trouble fitting into even the older Boeing 737 and Airbus A319 narrow body aircraft overhead bins, which haven't had their interiors upgraded. Neither of these backpacks, nor almost any backpack of size, will fit in the overhead bins of typical regional jets, and propeller driven aircraft.

The build quality of Think Tank products is first rate. They look like ordinary backpacks, and don't scream, “Expensive photo gear inside!” Their shoulder straps are well designed. Both hold lots of gear, plus a laptop computer. Neither have a built in padded area for a laptop, but Think Tank offers an excellent sleeve series called the Artificial Intelligence, which fits nicely in these backpacks.

These bags have a contoured adjustable harness with lumbar support, YKK RC-Fuse zippers, a height adjustable sternum strap, strong handles on three sides for easy carrying and retrieval in tight areas, an organizer inside flap, a seam sealed rain cover, a highly flexible padded divider set to keep gear safe, and a side water bottle pocket.

The Airport Accelerator is big enough for wildlife photographers, as it can hold a 600mm f/4 lens, with body detached. The Airport Commuter can accommodate up to a 500mm f/4 lens, with body detached.

I didn't discuss specialty bags earlier, but I thought I'd mention the Lowepro Dryzone 200, pictured above. It's my “waterproof” backpack. It's really “waterproof,” not just water resistant. As a backpack, it's well built and designed, has lumbar support, well designed shoulder straps, and an excellent harness.

I use this bag primarily to hold my gear safely and securely for rafting, canoeing, and kayaking. I have used it for several day hikes in rain forests, where the precipitation can be so hard, a regular backpack with a seam sealed rain cover will get wet inside.

The secret of the Dryzone 200 is the waterproof shell which utilizes a TIZIP zipper for access to the interior, adjustable padded gear area. The zipper provides 100% waterproof protection, much like divers' drysuits. I've flipped in rough water in a kayak, where the Dryzone went underwater. The inside of the Dryzone and all my equipment was “bone dry.”

My favorite shooting bags are the F-Stop Guru, and the larger Loka. I use the Guru often, as it's perfect for those changeable days when you need extra outwear to be stowed for bad weather, and changing temperatures. Plus, it will hold, in addition to photo equipment, some food, drink, and emergency supplies. I use the larger Loka only when camping.

These backpacks are well built, have excellent shoulder straps, harnesses, YKK zippers, and organizational areas. They also contain a pocket for a water bladder, and a rubberized hole for the bladder tube to push through so the backpack can be zippered closed despite the use of the bladder. The bags have a side water bottle pocket, and you can get a seam sealed rain cover for them. The F-Stop logo, when you choose the Guru in black, can be made almost invisible with a black permanent marker.

The F-Stop backpacks use an ICU; internal camera unit. Your gear goes in the ICU which has adjustable padded dividers and is padded itself. It's inserted into the main compartment of the backpack. Zippered access to the ICU is in the back of the backpack. The ICU's come in various sizes, to accommodate different amounts of equipment. Of course, the more equipment you take, the less room you have for non-gear belongings.

The F-Stop Guru of the backpack series comes very close to being a great “cross-over” backpack. It's the right size for air travel. If you insert a large Pro ICU which fills the Guru, you can take a lot of gear for your overall journey. At your destination, if you take that out, and insert a small Pro ICU, that's likely perfect for many photographers for carrying the equipment needed for a day of shooting. The Guru can even hold your tripod, on its exterior, for shooting, when not in use.

Two things are holding it back from being my “cross-over” backpack. First, it's not well suited for carrying a laptop and/or tablet plus a lot of equipment due to the configurations of the ICU's. There's too little room with the pro ICU's and the shallow ICU's are too small for in-transit use, for me. Second, it's not easy to pack a second ICU in my checked luggage, with clothing and other items, for use while shooting. If its sides were foldable, that would make it ideal. I think F-Stop will likely solve these problems in the next couple of years.

I'm looking forward to F-Stops' backpacks' design evolution.


Steven - Des Moines said...

I've never heard of F-Stop Ned. Have they been around for a long time? Can I trust their warranty?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Steven. F-Stop is a relatively new company which started in 2008, according to their Facebook page.

My experience with them has been all positive.

One of the problems with purchasing a product solely from the web is that you can't see it, or try it on before you purchase it. I know a few people who couldn't decide whether they wanted a Guru, or a Loka, but didn't want to purchase both. They ordered both, looked at them at home, and had no trouble returning the one they didn't want within the 45 Day Satisfaction Guarantee window.

Now, I certainly don't recommend that strategy, and I haven't done that myself, but I'm confident about the company honoring its word.

I also know of one person who needed to use the warranty. They had no problem having it taken care of.

With any company, we don't know how well they're doing financially, especially new ones, but here's the thing about F-Stop. I've found the quality of their products is first rate. I don't anticipate needing any warranty work on what I've purchased from them. It's very well made. If it wasn't, I wouldn't have purchased them.

I will say there is one potential problem with them. Either they have a pretty small manufacturing facility doing the work for them, or they aren't very good at anticipating their sales as a company which is barely 5 years old, as they do seem to be out of stock more often than they should be, and their warehouse doesn't seem to get restocked quickly. This is something we see in small companies like F-Stop. Sometimes products can be back ordered for 3-5 months. If you're purchasing for a particular journey or event which is coming up quickly, you may be out of luck with their stock.

This is something they've got to fix soon, or they will have trouble in the future.

Right now the Guru is out of stock, for example. It's slated to be in stock in the Spring for the black version (It's actually gray and black.). To get more particulars about that, just give them a call. They will be forthright about when stock should be available for new orders.

Lena in Seattle said...

Great series Ned. Thanks.

Now that I know what to do, I've got to start figuring out what I need based on your recommendations.

George - NYC said...

Great series.

Ned, obviously you like Think Tank products, having recommended two of them. Have you purchased much from them? Are they reliable? Any warranty problems?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi George,

I happen to be sitting at my computer when your query came in.

You must have read the prior question and answer about F-Stop. By the way, I have no financial or other ties with F-Stop, Think Tank Photo, or Lowepro, other than being a customer, and a photographer who has reviewed their products.

Think Tank Photo has been around since 2005, and with a diverse product line has quickly grown. They clearly set out be become a pretty big company quickly.

I have confidence in the company standing behind their products. I had a shipping problem on one of my orders, and they took care of the problem immediately.

I own a number of their products, such as the Airport Accelerator backpack, Airport Security roller carry-on, the Hydrophobia rain covers, and their pro modular belt system. (I use the modular belt system almost every time I'm out shooting, and have used it while on almost every continent on the globe.)

Personally, I've had no warranty problems with their products whatsoever, and with the modular belt system in particular, I'm an extremely heavy user and it's really held up.

Charlene - Chicago said...

Great series. I've made it a favorite.

Hal - Philadelphia said...

Great series Ned. I've bookmarked it so I'm prepared when I go to purchase a new backpack later this year.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for another great article. Based on your articles, I now feel confident about purchasing a backpack.
On another note, I also own a few Think Tank Bags and they stand behind their products 100%. A zipper pull broke on my Airport II bag (I've owned from 2009) and when I talked to one of their reps at the WPPI show he gave me his card and told me to send him an email and he'll send a few out immediately. That's what I call great customer service.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks for your comment and readership Cheryl. I agree with you about Think Tank Photo.

I've now happily worn my TT Modular Belt System on every continent of the Earth except Australia (Only because I've never been there, but hope to soon.).

Vic - New Orleans said...

This is a great series Ned. Thanks. I ordered a Think Tank Accelerator a few days ago and got it yesterday. I must say it's exactly what I need and how you described it.

Alan said...

You mentioned using a Large Pro ICU in the Guru, but the company doesn't list that it fits. Does it?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Alan.

Yes F-Stop doesn't list the large pro ICU as an option for the Guru, but that's because the opening in the back of the Guru would only give you access to half of the large pro ICU, but I'm not suggesting to use it for shooting, only for in-transit.

The large pro ICU has external dimensions of 7" x 11.5" x 15" high. The Guru is 9" x 14" x 20" high (Effective interior height is 17"). It can fit, but it's an extremely tight fit at the top as the Guru doesn't have a square top. To get it in you really have to stuff it in.

Please remember that I'm speculating about the Guru coming "very close to being a great “cross-over” backpack."

It's not there yet, and I don't recommend it for “cross-over” work at this time.

I do think the Guru is a great shooting backpack and I was wearing it this afternoon for just that.

Thanks for your comment and your readership.

Dinil Abeygunawardane said...

Hi Ned,
I didn't know about your blog until I visited Nikonians this morning after a long time.
Excellent write up - thanks for the information and effort.

Ned S. Levi said...

I'm glad you found the Blog. Happy to have you. More articles coming soon.


Post a Comment