F-stop Satori EXP

Over the years since I started doing photography I’ve changed my camera backpack multiple times as my array of equipment grew (in both quantity and size!), ending up with gradually larger and more elaborate backpacks. However, with everything I had ever owned before, there have always been a couple of key problem areas inherant to most camera backpacks I have seen, that due to being designed first and foremost for carrying camera gear, they generally lack much in the way of free space for anything else, and that all too often their harness systems leave a lot to be desired, so while adequate for short trips, they soon do your back and shoulders in over the course of a long day

I came across the F-stop range of bags some time ago while doing research into a larger rear opening pack, as I always liked the design but was finding my old Lowepro Flipside 400AW limiting, and thought at the time that they looked ludicrously well designed, however with a hefty price tag, ongoing supply and demand issues, and no UK stockists at the time, I was always put off regardless of how good they looked. Roll forward to 2012, and I find out that none other than Paramo have started stocking F-stop bags, and even better they are going to have a selection on show at Focus on Imaging, which I’d already planned on going to. As happy as I had been with my Kata Beetle (hence my glowing review of it a while back), which has a good harness and great camera storage, it still has the same old problems with extremely limited space for anything but camera gear so I leaped at the opportunity to finally check out an F-stop bag and see if they lived up to expectations. I wasn’t disappointed, and after checking out the various options, ended up settling on the Satori EXP over the smaller packs that would have supported my gear for it’s sheer flexibility.

There are a couple of things that really set the F-stop mountain range bags apart from everything else out there, first thing is that unlike most dedicated camera bags, F-stop have designed these bags like proper hiking packs, and their construction and harness system is as comfortable a pack as I’ve ever seen, with an internal frame and padded waist and shoulder straps that distribute weight superbly, far better than anything I’ve ever worn before. Now admittedly I’m not an expert on hiking/expedition backpacks in general, so can’t draw direct comparisons, but suffice to say I’ve loaded my Satori up to the max and once adjusted properly, the weight is distributed so well that all my shoulders feel like they are really doing is keeping the pack upright, as far as I can tell almost no weight falls directly on them and the harness is generally so well designed that I can safely say I’ve never worn a more comfortable backpack, even with all my heaviest gear loaded! This is probably nothing ground-breaking to anyone who’s owned a good quality hiking pack before, but as camera bags go this is to my knowledge a unique focus.

As well as the effectiveness of the harness, the pack itself is well designed to survive the elements, made from hihgly durable ripstop fabric, it should take whatever you throw at it, and while not fully waterproof, it is highly water resistant, and all the external zips are either splashguard types or have rain flaps to prevent water seeping in. Furthermore, being a mountain style pack, it’s design doesn’t immediately scream ‘I’m a camera bag!’, so in theory should draw less attention to itself

So, carrying comfort is a big selling point, but the second is F-stop’s simple but ingenious ICU (Internal Camera Unit) system, a series of different sized padded camera compartments that you drop in to the packs depending on how much camera kit you are taking with you, and access via the rear opening flap. The rear opening is a design I have long favoured as it means access to your main gear is impossible without taking the pack off, so is opportunist thief proof, and also means you can put the pack down on the ground without getting the harness wet and dirty. F-stop do a Pro and Shallow range of ICUs, This image from F-stop’s website gives an idea of how the different sizes fill the Satori.

Despite this, and the dimensions listed on the ICU pages, I was still grateful for being able to see the ICUs before I bought, as when I’d previously looked online I’d reckoned that I’d need their Pro XL ICU to be able to take my largest lens, and that a Pro Small ICU would be sufficient for the more modest array of kit I take with me for landscape and general travel photography. Turns out I was wrong on both accounts, the Pro Large ICU is a perfect fit for my camera with my largest lens attached, my Sigma 150-500mm, as you can see in the left hand picture, along with wide angle lens, nifty fifty, flashgun, batteries, padded neck strap, and plenty of room to spare! I can even get my 70-200mm lens in at the same time with if I remove the dividers on the left, admittedly this makes it a little bit of a tight fit but is fine. Since I originally wrote this review I also acquired a second camera body and after a bit of head scratching and experimenting was able to re-arrange the innards of my Large ICU to work with a 2 camera setup, as you can see in the photo on the right, including the Sigma 150-500mm mounted to my D300s with battery grip, 12-24mm lens mounted on my D300, plus 60mm F2.8 Macro lens, sensor cleaning kit, flashgun and various batteries. Obviously the large ICU also leaves more space in the main space of the pack for other bits and pieces than the XL would have. On a side note the Large ICU also seems to be pretty much a perfect fit height wise for the rear panel opening.

Conversely while the small ICU would have been sufficient for bare minimal kit, it would be a bit limiting for days out where I don’t want the big lenses but still want my options to be flexible, so the medium was a better choice there. The other advantage of the medium ICU is that while granting a bit more flexibility, it doesn’t actually take up a massive amount more space in the pack, and is also cleverly tapered to give a little bit more room behind it for putting in extra layers of clothing etc. I haven’t photographed my lighter setup with the medium ICU in the bag as the principle is exactly the same and I generally use that one in my smaller Guru pack. The rear opening flap itself also has a couple of flat pockets built in to the inside of it, 2 are clearly memory card sized, while the 2 larger pockets would be suitable for something like a screw in filter case. I personally store a spare divider for my ICU in each of the larger pockets for a little extra back padding and in case I find myself needing to re-arrange things.

The ICUs are all, like the inside of most camera bags, fully cusomisable with stacks of dividers (my large ICU came with more dividers than I could find use for!) and elasticated straps to hold down larger or looser items. All ICUs are designed to be useable as general storage outside the pack, and as such all have a carry handle, and front flap which comes with padding. This padding can be removed however when the ICUs are placed in the pack as the main rear access flap of the bag is padded and sits close enough to the ICU to provide ample protection. In fact removing this padding is pretty much essential when the ICU is put in the pack as the internal frame of the pack itself is slightly curved inwards in the middle (certainly true of my Satori and I would expect the same in the other packs in the series) and slightly overlaps the straight edges of the ICU, as can be seen in the closeup opposite, so with a bit of padding in the front flap I doubt it would really be possible to open. This frame overlap also means you do have to be a little bit thoughtful with what you load at that position in the ICU, as items that totally fill the space will prove tricker to access with the frame in the way, anything with a little leeway in it’s movement will be fine though, it’s nothing I consider a detriment, in fact if anything it helps keep the ICU steady.

Now if you zip the ICU’s flap up when it’s in the pack, it can be a bit awkward to get open again because of the frame, however once sat in the pack, you can quite safely fold the front flap down underneath the ICU for much quicker and easier access through the pack’s main opening, the panel sits close enough to the ICU to keep everything safely in place. The ICUs also have attachment loops on the outside so you can strap them to plastic attachment points on the inside of the pack, however the large ICU is such a snug fit already that I don’t feel this is particularly necessary unless for example you’re going to be jogging or otherwise bumping the pack up and down a lot. The medium ICU however does benefit from these attachment points as it’s tapered design allows it to move around a bit more than I’d like otherwise

Even with a large ICU in the pack, there’s still stacks of room left for odds and ends, as shown in the picture opposite, you could easily get a lunch box and a couple of extra layers of clothing on top, or whatever else you might need. I did get to see the XL ICU on display in a pack as well and while it obviously takes up more room, even with that there’s still enough space for essential extras, so if I ever upgrade to a larger telephoto lens I know that all I’ll need is a bigger ICU and more careful choice of odds and ends.

Already that’s more space for extras than I’ve ever had in a camera bag, but it’s only the start, behind where the ICU sits is a padded laptop sleeve that will take up to a 17″ laptop according to official specs. I’ve tested it with my 15″ laptop and it’s a nice snug fit without being overly tight. Of course if you don’t need to carry a laptop it will take any other similar sized and shaped items, I’m currently using it as handy flat space for my kneeling pad (the edge of camouflage you can see in the photo). On the front of the laptop sleeve is another non-padded sleeve designed to hold a water bladder, with a well designed series of attachment loops for routing a drinking tube out of the pack on to one of the shoulder straps. Personally I don’t like this idea, I’ve had bad experience with water bladders in the past, with one leaking profusely on me when I was snowboarding (and no I hadn’t just fallen heavily on my back), so don’t really trust them, especially not in such close proximity to my camera kit! Also with a Pro size ICU in the pack, the laptop sleeve area is a snug fit as mentioned before, and I really don’t like the idea of a water bladder being squashed in there, and as somebody else pointed out, when you put the pack down on the ground to get to your camera, the bladder is going to be between all your gear and the ground, and I certainly don’t want all that weight bearing down on it and further squashing it. Call me paranoid, but based on past experience I’m just not willing to risk it, and will stick to simply using the side mesh pockets to hold a couple of water bottles. F-stop do sell a waterproof water bladder holder to go with their packs, which in theory should negate that concern, but even so past experience has just put me off chancing them occupying the same space as my camera kit, and I have never before taken issue with stopping for a few seconds to retrieve a water bottle from an outside pocket of my backpack. For those who are fans of water bladders though, you’re well catered for.

The lid of the main compartment (see left) has a mesh zipped pocket built in, a decent size and handy for small items you might want to keep separate from the rest of your kit so that can be found again easily, e.g i have a packet of tissues and a pen, and as you can see there is still plenty of room for a penknife or other small items. The top flap of the bag also has an expansive outer pocket (see right), which again has a zipped mesh pocket in the lid. I use the mesh pocket to keep my air duster, lenspen and cleaning cloth easily accessible, while slightly larger items including my 2 heavy duty camera rain covers, memory card wallet, filter wallet and filter holder fit easily in the main part of the pocket. The base of this pocket also has 2 small pouches, one which velcros shut and the other open ended, to keep smaller items from moving about, as luck has it the open one is the perfect size to keep my filter holder in one place (Hitech 85mm wide angle filter holder, you can see the edge of it protruding from the open pouch in the photo on the right) and the other neatly holds my Hahnel wireless remote shutter and receiver. All of this fits comfortably with some room to spare should I ever feel the need to stuff anything else in there, and equally if I wasn’t using it for camera bits and pieces I could fit a light layer of clothing or such like in there easily, however I actually like being able to use it for bits of camera kit that I might want to access quickly without having to open up the main compartment.

More space can be found on the front of the pack, a double front pocket will easily take another layer of clothing in the larger part that opens from the top down along the side (see left), it easily holds my waterproof over-trousers, hat, gloves and neck gaiter, so something like a lightweight jacket or jumper ought to fit easily enough. As they are both connected, if the inner pocket is being used then the outer pocket that opens from the other side (see right) cannot take much else , but would be handy for flat items such as maps or leaflets. To me it seems more sensible to put any bulkier items in the inner pocket and use the outer pocket for small items since the inner pocket opens up much wider.

Near the top of the pocket you can see a pair of short bungee cords, these are designed to help secure items such as walking poles. You can also see in these photos the moveable gatekeeper straps on the front of my bag over the front of the pockets. F-stop bags come with inbuilt compression straps on both sides that also act as handy straps for hanging layers off the side of the bag or securing something like a tripod, however the Satori also comes with these gatekeepers, which can optionally be moved from the front position you see here to either the top or bottom of the bag. Additional gatekeepers can also be bought, meaning if you were to want to use this pack for hiking and camping, you could strap sleeping bag, tent etc. to the top, side, or bottom of the bag, making it an extremely flexible pack. Personally I tend to use the front mounted gatekeepers to attach my tripod if I’m walking far enough that I don’t fancy shouldering it, with a second set on top of the pack to secure a jacket if needed.

Rounding off the collection of storage spaces are 2 less flexible, but nonetheless very useful pockets on the bottom of the pack. Firstly shown left is the ‘pack it in pack it out’ pocket, a small pocket designed primarily as a dumping spot for things like energy bar wrappers, although there’s no reason why you couldn’t use it for any other similarly small items that you might want quick access to like a penknife etc. Then there is a less obvious zipped compartment on the bottom of the bag designed to store a rain cover, specifically F-stop’s own rain covers. I already own a heavy duty rain cover which I managed to fit in there without too much effort despite it being a bit bulkier than F-stop’s offering for which the pocket is designed.

Finally the pack has fairly standard elasticated mesh side pockets to take water bottles or whatever else you could thing of (pictured here with a generic 500ml water bottle in the mesh but it also neatly fits my military style 1 litre water canteen), but more uniquely for a camera pack also has MOLLE standard attachment points, which you can see in the opposite photo between the mesh pocket and upper copression strap, as well as on the waist belt. This means that the bag is compatible with a range of add on cases and pouches that F-stop sell themselves, as well as any number of manufacturers of pouches and cases that use the same MOLLE standard, which given that it is a standard used by the military and some police forces as well as general outdoor gear, is a wide range of options. It also cleverly has longer straps over the top of some of the MOLLE points for attaching anything with larger attachment straps, these longer straps are particularly useful to me on the waist belt as they perfectly fit the capture clip system that I use.

I think I’ve probably photographed and elaborated as much as I sensibly can, and as you can no doubt already tell I really have nothing but praise for this pack. Honestly there are only 2 faults I can find with it at time of writing, price and availability. F-stop’s popularity has exploded in the last year or two and they’ve struggled to keep up with demand, only recently are they starting to get on top of demand and even now there can be a wait on their products. As mentioned above I bought my Satori from Paramo at their stand at Focus on Imaging 2012, and at that time it cost me £355 with 2 ICUs, while price to buy direct from F-stop’s US shop will of course vary according to exchange rate. Now to many people that probably sounds a ludicrous amount to spend on a camera backpack when there are plenty of manufacturers out there making decent large camera backpacks for less than a third of that price, and indeed previously I’d probably have agreed and would never have chanced a purchase had I not been able to see one first. However after a few years of struggling to sensibly carry anything that wasn’t part of my camera kit, and of half knackering my back and shoulders using camera bags that only did an ‘OK’ job of distributing all that weight evenly, I didn’t struggle as hard as I’d thought I would to justify my purchase. This bag really does answer ever problem I’ve ever had with all my previous bags, it is really flexible with the interchangeable ICUs (you can of course even remove the ICU entirely and just use it as a general use large outdoor pursuits backpack), it’s saved me from a lot of shoulder and back ache, and it even comes with a 20 year waranty! Yes it’s a lot of money on a backpack, but I fully expect it to be the last one I ever need to buy, no more aching, no more struggling to fit in everything I need for a day out, and even if I manage to afford a bigger lens some day, all I need to buy is a larger ICU and I’m all set, I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who’s serious about outdoor photography, it really is a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.

See F-stop’s main page on the Satori EXP for all the essential specs, and if the Satori’s size seems overkill for your needs, check out the smaller GuruLoka and Tilopa BC packs, as well as the ICU page for a more detailed look at sizes. You can buy from F-Stop directly or in the UK you can buy from Paramo.

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