Photography Backpacks: F-Stop or Shimoda?

[NOTE: this is a work in progress and will be updated from time to time.]


This is not a photography equipment website, and most of my visitors are unlikely to be in the market for any of the gear I am going to discuss today, but that’s okay. I am really writing this piece to hash out some of my own thoughts for my own purposes. I have another post about cameras, about which I get asked frequently. But no one has asked me which photo backpack to buy. I'll tell you anyway.

I used to backpack and bicycle-camp. In those activities, every ounce you chose to carry on your back or bike mattered. And theoretically, the choices you made could be a matter of life or death, depending on the harshness of environment or unpredictability of accident. As it turns out, the same is true of photography gear—only more so. Almost all of us carry a phone, and modern phones are good enough to be the best camera we have with us. But if you want bigger images, and the lens reach to take photos worth printing, you will have to carry extra weight. And how much of that you carry will affect how much remaining capacity you have for incidentals like food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. You know, that stuff.

But if you’re only day-trekking, or in a group where some common necessities can be split among the group, the calculus is much less difficult. I haven’t done any overnight camping yet with my equipment, but that’s coming (especially if I want to catch a Shasta sunrise or sunset from the Heart Lake Trail), and when I do, the right photo backpack will also have to be the right camping backpack. Today, I am focusing on which of these two brands I like best for pure day-trekking, where I (alone or in a group), have driven to a trailhead or close enough to a location where I need not carry any necessities other than water and a protein bar or two, if that. 

Please note that none of the considerations I am discussing here matter if all you carry is a phone camera, a P&S, or even a fancy bridge camera. [I used to carry one of the various Linux bridge cameras and liked them all. This month, I am trying out the latest Sony bridge. I expect I will keep it, because I believe it will let me leave the Nikon at home (more on that below).] this discussion matters only if you haul more stuff around than you can carry on a single strap around your neck or over your shoulder. In my case, it applies whether I am shooting with the medium format equipment or the Nikon rigs. And I do that whenever I care enough to shoot a larger format image—FF 35 or medium format. For me, that is almost always, and even more so when traveling, which brings up an additional complication: air travel. 

Traveling by air presents an additional set of risks and compromises on the photographer:

  1. Should I check any of my equipment through baggage? This is not quite the chuckler it sounds at first. 
  2. How much can I carry on board?
  3. Which bags are best for carry-on?
  4. What if my carry-on gets “force-checked” into baggage? There is a well-known (among traveling photographers) story of a wedding photog who watched in horror from his window seat as his Pelican case fell off the baggage conveyor belt and burst open when it hit the tarmac, seriously damaging thousands of dollars of gear. 

Like a lot of photogs, I have an attic full of backpacks and bags and cases. None is perfect, and with experience, I can tell you some aren't even close. Some are well-made, but don't work for my purposes. For example, the Think Tank Roll-a-Board and Backpack are very well-made, but in my experience, not well-designed. But if they work for you, that's all that matters. As I go through a comparison of the F-Stop and the Shimoda 60, I will make references to other bags, but the focus of this piece is on these two bags.


The F-Stop Tilopa and the Shimoda Explore 60 [the latter pictured above with an RRS tripod ands Arca-Swiss Cube on the outside] and a Cambo WRC-400 with Phase One back and Rodenstock 32mm lens sitting on the inside for a sense of scale] share the same designer: Ian Millar. F-Stop's bags have generally been lavished with praise, and I have seen more than one pro photographer carrying them around. But the company is a different matter; it's been lambasted in the press for a variety of faults ranging from unreliable delivery to unethical management. These criticisms may be accurate and even warranted, but in my experience, they are overblown. I've bought bags, inserts, and accessories directly from F-Stop and from my Bay Area camera dealer, Bear Images. Service from each has been superb. My first contact with F-Stop went unresolved, though not unanswered, when I tried to get very specific info about camera kit capacity and fit about a specific model in 2016. Truthfully, I was still flailing about at the time, and by not getting my question completely resolved, I may have saved myself at least one mistaken purchase. Maybe.

In any case, I ended up getting a Tilopa in 2017 once I came to understand better the concept of the Internal Carrying Unit ["ICU"]. It was significantly better than any backpack I had tried since my original Canon 200EG Pack [probably the best bargain pack anywhere at $40]. It worked extremely well in Maui during my first photo workshop [where both leaders carried F-Stops]. And it has served me well at Mono Lake, and in the Shasta area.I have two other F-Stops, the larger Such, and the smaller Lotus. The former is great for hauling a big lens around, and you can load it up with a back-breaking amount of gear. But it's too big for airline carry-on when packed, so you either have to check it [as in empty, and possibly inside your other baggage], or make do with less, or get to your destination some other way. It's excellent for carrying a lot of equipment to near-parking areas like Mono Lake. The Lotus has proved impractical for me, as it is neither big enough nor small enough to make the right use case. Goldilocks again. I really like the Tilopa. It's rugged, the clamshell opening works very well, and it can hold a complete FF or MF kit, especially if one is willing to carry zoom lenses. If you work with primes only, as I do, it starts to get more complicated.

Whatever may have happened internally at F-Stop, they are still moving forward it seems. But Ian Millar left, founded Shimoda, and set about to crowd-fund his vision for improving the product. You can read about all this in the Photography Life pre-review of what was then called the Adventure 60 [and is now the Explore 60]. I joined the Kickstarter effort, because some of the boxes that the Shimoda checked sounded like all I needed [part of this list is excerpted from the review, but not everything in their list was very interesting to me; I am not the mountaintop shredder than some of these younger guys are]:

  1. Top, rear, and side access to the interior of the bag;
  2. Centered tripod straps [which I thought was really important until I got to use it with a full-size tripod [RRS TVC-34L];
  3. Rear access via the compartment that touches your back; opens book-style, from right to left rather than the F-Stop's top-tro-bottom clamshell;
  4. A couple of accessory pouches on the shoulder straps, as well as a water bottle holder;
  5. Large, flat zippered pocket from the top to bottom of the bag on the outside; meant for carrying a snow shovel, water bladder, jacket, laptop, or similar;
  6. Two internal sections separated by a (removable) thin fabric divider; you’re meant to put your camera equipment in the bottom section by adding a separate “core unit”; and
  7. Removable external pouch that can fit a full-frame DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8-size lens or MF equivalent for quicker access (including front access).

Items 2-5 sounded very compelling to me, and the discount for early funders was significant, so I jumped in. No regrets, but I will say that you still can't go wrong buying F-Stop gear. More to come when I can get around to it.

20180504 Update

We just returned from Bora Bora. This was my second trip using the Shimoda 40; that's a pic of the Shimoda at sunrise on the reef beach on the eastern side of the island. I also took it to Page AZ for a photo workshop in the slot canyons. I really like this pack and the companion rollaboard. Here are the main reasons why:

1. Body fit. Properly adjusted, this back feels almost as good as my long lost, lamented custom-made Dan McHale Super Inex backpack, and that is quite a testament. It's not as good, robust or comfortable, and I sure do miss McHale's bypass strap system and hip belt, but as photo backpacks go, it's close enough for day use. I dunno, I may be headed for a McHale again. That or a Seek Outside panel-loader. For anyone serious about this stuff, here is an illuminating review and comparison, written by a guy who knows his stuff. North Face, Dana, Arc'teryx, Kelty, Lowe, et al., need not apply.

2. Utility. The main straps contain pockets for phone or binoculars, and a narrow water bottle. There is also a compartment in the pack itself for hydration, but I like having the water bottle "right there."

3. Size. I bought both Shimodas, certain I would use the 60L more. I was wrong. The 40L holds just about everything I need for a shoot. In Bora Bora, that included the Cambo 1600, Phase One Trichro back, Rodenstock 40mm, Hassy Superachromat 250, a Sony DSC-RX10 IV, spare batteries, ProGrey 150Z filter system and Lee 150mm filter pouch holding ten filters, cleaning supplies, memory card case, Swarovski Pocket 8x20 binocs, light rain gear. And there was still a fair bit of room leftover; another lens for the Cambo would have been easy. If I were camping, the 60L would be essential.

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