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Two Perfect Backpacks For The Adventurous Photographer

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Last week, we talked about choosing the right camera bag for your needs. If backpacks are your bag of choice, then look no further. We're comparing at two great backpacks that will hold up to just about anything you throw at them.

Most camera bags on the market aim for the largest slice of the bag buying populace; photographers who stick to the city or near a car. Face it, the bulk of photographers are looking for a bag to haul their camera gear and not a lot else. Some bags have upper compartments but often they are designed to hold even more photo gear (cards, filters, portable harddrives, etc...) and keep close to society.

The two bags you will find in this review break that trend. The first bag comes from F-Stop Gear and the second is from a more traditional photo bag manufacturer, LowePro. They are both designed specifically for the active shooter. Someone who wants to get off the well worn trail and wants a pack that follows them effortlessly. A bag that carries camera gear but also a first aid kit, water bladder to keep hydrated, lunch, a rain jacket, spare socks and the other Ten Essentials for a day in the woods.

F-Stop's pack is big and bold and can carry a mountain of gear if you wish. It is the Satori EXP (short for Expedition) and it can carry not only your camera gear, but overnight backpacking necessities as well. It is designed by a company that prides itself on constantly gaining feedback from its pro photographers and customers alike to craft the next generation of adventure packs.


Copyright Peter West Carey

The LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW is a smaller pack perfect for day trips. It is also meant to be run with for those who love blazing a trail at a runner's pace. It will fit under a seat in most commercial airliners and is built from lightweight, yet strong fabric to make it an easy choice. (pictured here in orange and black)


Copyright Peter West Carey

Writer, adventurer and friend Genevieve Hathaway was kind enough to test out the LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW while I took on the larger F-Stop Satori EXP.


F-Stop Gear Satori EXP

The F-Stop Satori EXP is a bag that has evolved through many versions after being taken into the backcountry by some of the finest and most hardworking professional nature and adventure photographers in the market (Colby Brown, John Cornforth, Jay and Varina Patel to name a few). The pack is designed to be a heavy hauler and that can either mean all your photo gear or just a subset while leaving plenty of room for overnight backpacking equipment.


Copyright Peter West Carey

The bag accomplishes this through its use of the F-Stop Internal Camera Unit (ICU) system. This system, coupled with internal straps to hold various sizes in place and an access panel on the front of the bag, makes it a quick pick for a number of assignments. For those sporting different gear for different shoots, it is easy to adjust the internal volume by choosing a different sized ICU. And with ICUs able to carry even moderate sized video cameras, the system is a great use of internal space.

Further, the bag has dedicated compartments for filters, spare cards, remote triggers, water bottles (and a water bladder), pens, notebooks and the ever valuable car key strap. Add on the camera's use of F-Stop's Dakota Component System and the array of additional pouches, straps and bags make this pack a true utility giant. Don't forget there is also an internal compartment to swallow a 17" laptop whole and a sleeve right next to it for all your important papers, notes and files.


Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Specifications

  • Volume: 62 Liter / 3,783 Cubic Inches
  • Weight: 1.89kg – 4.16lbs (No ICU)
  • Dimensions: 10D x 12W x 26H in. (25.4D x 30.5W x 66H cm)
  • Internal Compartment Dimensions: 9.5D x 12W x 24H in. (24D x 30.5W x 61H cm)
  • Internal Compartment Space Available with XLarge ICU
  • Torso Length: 18.5"
  • Aluminum internal Frame for supporting heavy loads and weight distribution

Suggested Retail Price: $359 with no ICU or $419 with one ICU


Use In Real Life

Peter: The first thing I thought about the Satori when I picked it up is that the padding on the front (the side that resides against a wearer's back) had to be a joke. I've seen padding like this before. It's all bumpy and thick but doesn't meet my back in the right places and is way too hard to be comfortable. The padding is fashioned around the front zippered opening which is how you access the camera equipment in the interchangeable ICU.

It may sound cliché, but I was pleasantly surprised after taking the pack to Peru for a three-week assignment and tour. Not only did the pack fit well against my back, there wasn't a break-in time to feel that way. Couple that with a serious backpacking hipbelt, meant to take the bulk of the pack's weight the way a hipbelt should, and this pack rates an A for comfort and fit.


Copyright Peter West Carey

I tested the pack with the medium ICU based on my normal shooting habits. It was able to hold my Canon 7D DSLR with battery grip and Canon 28-300mm L lens (equivalent in size to the more standard 70-200mm lenses from Nikon and Canon) plus five other lenses I was testing on my trip. The ICU is slightly larger than the hole in the front of the bag, making opening sometimes a bit tricky if the bag is utterly crammed pull of equipment. However, the zippers are smooth and the ICU is quickly opened with a quick tug from the top.

All ICUs (there are five sizes) can be removed and the bag can be used as a standard backpack if desired. And as you may have guessed, the ICUs can be used in various other F-Stop packs of differing sizes. I found the internal configuration as easy as any other velcro arrangement with half height dividers giving me a bit more room to stuff in extra gear.


Copyright Peter West Carey

The Satori excels at fitting on airplanes as well as on your back. I took this bag on at least a dozen flights with various aircraft and the bag always fit in the overhead bin. Because of the curve given to the top section of the bag, it nestled into the bins with easy and within regulation size. The hipbelts, being as thick and load bearing as they are, need to be splayed out and take up a bit of extra space, but this is to be expected.

The only hassle when traveling by air with this bag is the location of the laptop storage. Laptops fit inside the bag in a padded sleeve with a velcro strap to hold it all in place. All well and good, but it ends up typically being below other items in the pack, making retrieval in a security line at an airport a bit cumbersome.


Copyright Peter West Carey

I won't get into all the bag's possible accessories. There is a list on F-Stop's site and some are quite useful for storing odds and ends, or carrying a camera up front while hiking. One accessory that is missing is a pack cover. The bag has a special zippered compartment for it on the bottom, but no cover.

Just outside of that compartment is an ingenious use of space in the form of a garbage compartment. It's small but perfect for more than a day's worth of granola and energy bar wrappers or trash found on the trail. Not even my dedicated overnight pack has this useful compartment.

Straps and modularity is what the pack is all about. It comes with a pair of GateKeeper straps over the back for securing a tripod, snowboard or other equipment. Additional straps may be purchased as needed and connection points can be found on all sides, leading to a world of adaptations for skis, climbing ropes, sleeping bags or trekking poles. The bag also has a number of MOLLE loops on the sides, hipbelt and shoulder straps to keep needed accessories, such as GPS, sunglasses or two-way radio, close at hand.


Copyright Peter West Carey

How much gear can it hold? I am in LA for a week to conduct some photography workshops and I brought with me: Canon 7D with battery grip, 28-300mm L lens, three 18-200mm lenses, Canon T1i, Canon 580 EX II flash, Pentax WD-1 GPS point and shoot camera, seven days worth of clothes (six shorts, one pair pants, two pairs shorts, underwear, socks and fleece jacket), 13" laptop, external harddrive, a pack of notes and paperwork, flip flops, toiletries, rock climbing shoes, rock climbing harness, book, spare batteries, chargers for Canon and Pentax, power cords, three filters, intervalometer, headphones, water bottle, glasses, small gifts, two hard cases for memory cards, card reader, pens, travel power strip, full sized mouse and small Macintosh keyboard.

For Peru I was able to bring a bit less clothes (and do more laundry) and bring a first aid kit, three weeks worth of vitamins, notebooks and more chargers. It is one of the largest photo and adventure packs on the market and the amount of gear that it can transport is impressive. A week away from home with most of my photo gear and a week's worth of clothes that all fits in the overhead carry-on bin to avoid baggage fees is great.

Other touches that shouldn't go unnoticed: discreet water bladder tube routing through side of bag; velcro to keep zipper pulls on front of bag away from wearer's back; weather stripping on most zippers (not truly water proof, but they help keep out dust and moderate rain); hipbelt adjusts at the hips, not at the central connecting point which is a lot easier; bottom of water bottle holders is solid fabric to resist rips more easily when full. I could go on, but will spare you more exhaustive details.


Copyright Peter West Carey

Conclusion

This pack is a joy to wear and use. I love the fact that the camera gear is accessed from the front of the bag, which allows me to lay the pack down with the backside to the ground. This means the shoulder straps stay off the dirt and keep me cleaner than most packs with read or side access. The interchangeable nature of the pack is key for those with varying assignments. The fit is well thought out as is the ability to adapt the bag to various conditions. The rip-stop nylon is tough and can take abuse.

It would be nice to see the laptop compartment somehow rearranged (although I'm not sure how this can actually be accomplished). I've been staring at this bag on my floor for about 15 minutes now and I honestly can't come up with anything else I would like to see improved on it at this time. F-Stop has put a lot of time and effort into this bag's evolution and refinement and it shows.


Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW

Lowepro designed the Photo Sport 200 AW backpack for the athlete photographer who brings their gear with them on the adventure. This camera backpack is designed more like a sports backpack than a camera bag, while still protecting your camera equipment. The sport pack design is well suited to a variety of outdoor activities - trail running, light hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, and even rock climbing. The camera chamber is padded and has a cinch system that keeps the camera for jostling around, crucial since the designers intend the pack to be jostled.


Copyright Peter West Carey

The Photo Sport 200 AW has a number of useful features. The camera and lens compartment is accessed on the side of the pack. A cinching system tightens this padded compartment around the camera and additional lens to keep it snug while you are running, skiing, climbing or biking. The camera cavity is well padded, but I am still doubtful that it can fully protect your gear on a high speed fall.

In addition to a dedicated camera compartment, this pack also has a number of pouches, sleeves and zippered compartments to keep your gear and items organized. The back of the pack has a slot for a water hydration system. The main interior of the Photo Sport 200 is constructed in a “L" shape around the padded camera compartment. It can hold about 14L of gear, clothing or other items. Tucked away on the underside of the pack is a rain cover that fully protects the entire pack.

The pack also has many of the same features seen in traditional hiking and climbing packs such as ice axe or trekking pole loops, a water bladder compartment, a strap below the lid you can clip rock shoes or other gear to with a carabiner, side buckles and straps, bottom straps for pads or ropes or sacks of gear, attachment points on the shoulder straps and hip belt pouches.


Copyright Peter West Carey

Specifications

  • Capacity: Up to a pro-sized DSLR with a kit lens attached, flash, hydration reservoir (not included); toploading compartment with up to 13.9 liters of volume.
  • Size(Interior): 7.7W X 3.5D X 9.1H in./ 19.5 X 9 X 23 cm
  • Size(Exterior): 10.6W X 6.7D X 19.3H in./ 27 X 17 X 49 cm
  • Top Compartment Inner Dimensions: 9.4W X 7.5D X 20.9H in./ 24 X 19 X 53 cm
  • Outer fabric: N70D Triple RS with UTS Coating PU 800mm WR, P150D 2 Way Span, N140D 2 Way Span 235g/yd, P600D 74T PU 800mm WR - Kolon
  • Interior Fabric: N210D 110T PU 800mm WR, Velcro Hook/loop
  • Weight: 2.9lbs/1.3kg

Suggested Retail Price: $199.99 (available in black or orange)


Use in Real Life

Genevieve: I took this bag on a number of day trips around the city. The padding around the camera seems good for city use or even running, but I hesitated to take it skiing because I did not want to risk damaging my gear if I took a fall at high speeds. The pack carries weight very well. It feels like a technical climbing or hiking pack. With all of its true technical pack features, I would take the Photo Sport 200 pack rock climbing.


Copyright Peter West Carey

I was able to easily fit my Canon 60D with a Sigma 18-200mm lens attached into the camera slot, but the camera could not have fit with a longer lens attached. Next to my Canon 60D, I had enough room to fit my Canon 10–22mm lens. The Canon 60D did stay snug in the padded compartment on the side while I walked around the city. The side access to the camera made it easy to keep the camera stored, but when I needed to take a shot I could quickly and smoothly swing the bag around on my shoulder and take the camera out.

A particularly nice feature of this pack is that the camera compartment and the main interior compartment are completely separate. This allows for very little wasted space as clothes, snacks or a book can be shoved around the interior camera compartment. Also, the dedicated hydration compartment has a zipper and some padding, it would work to store a sub-13 inch laptop.


Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Peter: I have used this pack while rock climbing and on longer day hikes and agree with Genevieve on the fit and utility. The internal space is much larger than it seems, especially compared to like-sized photo bags, because of the ability to stuff items around the camera pouch. While the hip belt is a bit small, the pack rides well for a guy my size (6'1") and is easy to bring into action. Little touches, like the sternum strap whistle and the key keeper strap, are appreciated.

There are a few areas of improvement for the Photo Sport 200. The pack is a bit small if you want to take a laptop along that is larger than 12 inches. For those of us adventurers who also travel, it would be nice to have a slightly larger option (16L-18L). Also, if you have a lens that is larger than my 18-200mm Sigma, the camera will not fit with the lens attached (NOTE: A standard 70-200mm 2.8 lens on a mid-sized camera will not fit properly). Again, two versions of this pack would benefit the consumer - one for photographers who prefer the 14L version and one for photographers who need a slightly larger version of this pack.


Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Conclusion

The Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW is a great sports backpack for hiking, trail running and city or travel use. It could be improved by offering two versions - one 14L and one slightly larger. In real life, this camera pack works great for active use. I would definitely travel with this pack if there was a larger version. Also, this pack has the distinction of being one of the few dedicated camera packs on the market that is a true outdoor sports backpack.

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