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Choosing a Bag?

Choosing a Bag?

F-Stop Gear Tilopa

For serious landscape photographers, picking the right bag is a big deal. Your bag can be the difference between getting a shot or getting nothing. if your bag is uncomfortable to carry over long distances it will seriously limit the locations you can visit. Or if it can't fit the right gear then it will see you turning up without that mid-wide you need to frame up that waterfall perfectly.

There's as many bags in the market now as there are camera models and I reckon I may have owned at least one of each. The people that know me have been known to refer to me as a "Carryologist". I'm not. I'm just a bag addict. And I just like to make sure that whatever I put my cameras in can get me 20km without needing a hot-rock-massage, hold everything I need and have me arrive at location feeling creative and fresh. Oh. And it also needs to let me swim. 

Most dSLR shooters seem to make do with standard camera bags when they hike. I suspect it's because they start with not much weight and as it slowly creeps up they don't notice that their bag is not meeting their needs. Or they'd rather spend money on a Lens Baby or something. I think for landscape shooters this is a serious mistake. What you can fit and how well it carries is absolutely crucial to getting to your chosen location with the gear you need at the time you intended. It's a key factor in capturing the image you went for.

So what should you look for in selecting a bag for serious landscape work?

  • I think the most important element is a quality suspension system. One with a technical backpack heritage not a "camera-bag" heritage. The suspension system should be rigid, light and adjustable. It needs to feature a wide, well-padded waste belt so that most of the weight sits on your hips and it should have "load-lifters" to help keep the load in towards your back. Only packs with load lifters can be considered "technical" backpacks.
  • It should be carry-on legal for both domestic and international travel. You will want your expensive kit with you on the plane. 
  • It should have a dedicated, workable system for carrying a tripod. Preferably centred rather than on the side so the weight is evenly distributed.
  • A good level of waterproofing and/or a reliable rain cover. Fine-weather-only-hiking is no way to get the best light.
  • It should weight less than 1.6Kg empty. The less your bag weighs when it's empty the less it's going to weight when you fill it. Grams make a big difference over a day.
  • It should be rugged and durable. You will be using this thing in the middle of nowhere dropping it down on wet rocks, sand and whatever else.
  • It should be easy to extend by allowing you to add extra pouches. Preferably using one of the several standard systems such as Molex. 
  • It should be quick and easy to access your gear and to re-pack it once you are done making a shot.
  • It should give you expensive equipment adequate protection from knocks and from the elements.
  • It should allow plenty of flexibility to fit you kit in just how you like it.
  • It should allow you to use a hydrating system without any hassle.
  • It should let you get your passport, laptop, ipad and headphones on and off the plane with ease. 

And what should you avoid?

  • Bags that let you access your gear without taking them off. The price you pay for that access is a poor suspension system. You can't have it both ways. If you haven't taken the bag off, put it on the ground and had a good look around then you haven't thought hard enough about the shot you are making anyway!
  • Bags that make a big deal of security features - opening only against your back etc. There is no substitute for personal awareness and good insurance.
  • Bags that have special laptop sleeves (often with separate external access). Unless they shoot MF tethered no one hikes their Macbook into Yosemite. These sleeves almost always compromise a bag's suspension system and make them harder to carry over long distances. They also result in a deeper bag which likely puts weight further away from your back. That's a bad thing if you are planning on hiking for hours.
  • Bags that look like camera bags. The best security comes from no one suspecting you have thousands of dollars worth of gear on your back. If you look like you trying to figure out where the nearest YMCA is most people will leave you to it.

Before you buy a bag go and try it on. With weight in it. Take a bunch of your gear to the store and ask if you can test how it fits in the bag. You want to get at least 5kg in the bag to get any sense of how it might feel when loaded. Every empty bag on the planet feels great! So make sure you fill it up. Be sure that your camera system will fit. With your most used lens on the body. Make a list of everything you might want to put in the bag and visualise where it's going to go. Don't forget about filters, lens hoods and sandwiches. They need to have a place to go too.

In some cases great bags can only be had online and it can be difficult to try one out. In that case ask around. Post on our forum. Someone will have the bag you are considering and they'll be able to either offer an opinion or better yet allow you to suss it out.

Here's a list of the main bags I have owned and used for landscape (there may be others I have intentionally erased from my memory):

Bag Description Why It Went
Crumpler Karachi Outpost (original version) Great bag for the complete beginner with a kit dSLR. It just really doesn't have enough volume to fit a pro landscape kit. No suspension. Opens against your back. Basically a day pack for cameras. Too small. Very uncomfortable with more than 4Kg in it. No tripod mounting points.
Crumpler Sinking Barge This bag is weird. It's huge. It's made to be a all-in-one. It has a bottom camera section, a laptop section and a top sandwich section. It's three bags in one and it did none of the 3 tasks very well at all. Camera area is way too small for anyone other than a happy snapper. No tripod mounting points. Annoying to use.
Lowepro Fastpack 350 Another schizophrenic bag trying to be both a camera carrier and a travel daypack at the same time. Designed to allow you to swing the bag on one shoulder and access a special camera compartment. I used this on one trip. It's amazing how much gear would go in it. A body with 70-200 2.8 attached slides right in. But. It lacks a decent suspension system and was very uncomfortable under the weight.
Lowepro Flipside 400 AW A standard against-the-back-opening camera backpack with deviders. It's a big bag and it holds a lot of gear. No where at all to put a laptop when you fly. The old computrekker is basically the same bag except it opens normally and has a laptop sleeve as well. Same straps. Same belt.  I thought I'd nailed it this time. Until I filled it up and hiked for 5 hours. I was in so much pain that I couldn't be bothered shooting anything. Carrying this thing with 10Kg in it is cruel and unusual torture. This bag almost made me give up landscape photography.
Photobackpacker Redwing 3200 This is a dedicated, custom modified technical backpack with a camera insert. It's built on the Kelty Redwing pack much loved among US outdoor-types. It has a very rigid high-end suspension system. The pack opens full length and has a system of custom internal units for holding photo gear. These velcro into place. I got this bag when I started shooting 4x5" Large Format. I needed something that could cart that big wooden camera and all that film. I have loaded this up with over 16kg of gear and hiked 24km in a day. It's amazing. But is HUGE. They say it's carry-on safe. I wouldn't risk it. And didn't. It has no where to put a laptop. And it's too heavy empty (the gear cases add a lot of weight).
F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC A technical backpack with a full tubular aluminium suspension system. It's a top and against-the-back opening light-weight nylon backpack with a range of internal camera units that can be inserted into it. It's international carry-on-safe (just) and has a slim removable laptop sleeve (that can double as a hydration system holder). Dedicated tripod mounting and a rain cover. I haven't. This thing is the bomb. I'm done with bags. I have found bag-nirvana. Nothing will make me change.

So after a near 10 year journey through an absolute rainforest of camera bags I have found the F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC to suit me best. I take it everywhere.

I love the ICU approach - I can really easily take the bag off remove the ICU and scout around with just that in my hand while I think composition. I can also put the ICU inside a dry bag and then put that in the Tilopa. Now I can swim. With my gear. I can carry the thing all day and still feel fresh enough to drive home in the dark from where ever. It's comfortable. Way more comfortable than it has any right to be given how I load it up. And that's important because I can hike further and feel better when I get there. That means I can think more clearly and make better pictures.

The Tilopa carries a full 4x5" kit including light meter, 4 lenses, 2 Lee Holders and 10 Filters and up to 18 Sheets of film. Or I can fit a D800 with a Ziess 21mm, a single Lee holder and some filters, the 4x5" with one lens and 6 sheets of film. As well as my first aid kit and my lunch. And I can add a 2l hydration bladder if I want. I can attach extra pouches to the outside and put additional lenses in them. Or I can go up in ICU size and fit everything. And when I fly I can put my Macbook and my iPad and my noise cancelling headphones and a good book in the top. When I last flew to the States I carried 120 Sheets of Velvia in 6 unopened boxed in it too!

Now that's what I need in a bag. Check 'em out at www.fstopgear.com

 

If you want to see the Tilopa in action sign up for one of our workshops or extended tours. We are always happy to do gear demos during our courses!