F-stop Gear is a camera bag company that has been around since 2005. Initially, the company’s goal was to combine camera bags and performance backpacks into one, creating a bag to fill this void in the market at the time. Fast-forward 15 years and in the photography community they are a brand synonymous with quality and cutting edge designs. Back in November, I noticed my current camera bag was starting to come apart at one of the zippers. I then reached out to F-stop about testing one of their bags to see if I liked it enough to become my new primary camera carrier, a few weeks later a Tilopa showed up at my doorstep. Being a full-time military photographer I primarily used this bag to carry around my camera gear. In the four months that I have had this pack I have taken it into the forests of Germany, streets of Madrid and up into the European Alps.
Specifications provided by F-Stop
Primary materials: WR-treated, 420D ripstop nylon with TPU laminate
Quality and Comfort
Camera bags tend to get heavy fast due to the weight of the equipment. One of the things I instantly fell in love with when I first got my F-Stop Tilopa, was just how comfortable the bag felt. It brings a whole new level with well over twice the padding and “cushiness” on both the hip and shoulder straps. Once the bag is loaded and fitted to your body, it literally feels like you’re carrying half the weight you actually are. When you’re carrying 25-35 pounds of gear/ clothes/etc, that makes a tremendous difference.
The shoulder straps are able to be adjusted in both lengths (adjusting how high the bag sits) and also how snug the bag fits against the wearer’s back. Personally, I recommend making it as snug as possible to distribute the weight of the bag more evenly over the shoulders and upper back. The good thing is there is barely any load placed on the back and shoulders, and almost all the weight of the pack sits comfortably on wearer’s hips when the belt is fastened.
Most of the bag is covered in 420D ripstop nylon, which is not the lightest material but it is very tough and weather resistant. After rubbing up against lots of granite rocks and being caught in the rain, the pack currently shows little wear. All along the face are some of the best zippers I have ever used. I’m not sure what kind of voodoo magic they put into these things but they are easy to open yet secure. Overall the entire bag oozes quality, with more bells and whistles than most people will ever need.
One of the things that impressed me the most about this pack was the warranty that F-Stop puts behind it. On all their Mountain series bags, they have a 20-year limited customer warranty. Let me say it again, 20 YEAR! Obviously, this does not cover neglect or inappropriate use but it’s still impressive to see a brand slap that kind of a warranty on a pack.
Most of F-Stop’s bags are built around their ICU system (with ICU being short for the Internal Camera Unit). Like the name suggests this is a means to keep all kinds of valuable camera goodies safe and happy. The ICU is also fully customisable with hook and loop dividers giving the user the ability to tailor the unit to their specific needs. F-Stop is far from the first company to use a system like this but in my opinion, they have nearly perfected it with a few smart ideas. Unlike many similar systems, the ICU can be Velcro’d into the bag’s aluminium frame. This allows the ICU to be locked in tight and essentially become a part of the bag’s internal structure.
I like this feature so much because I don’t end up with a big heavy cube moving around in my pack while I’m walking. Keeping that weight secure and mostly static makes it much easier on the wearer’s back when really putting on the miles. Using Velcro to attach the ICUs also means there’s nothing stopping the user from taking the whole unit out and swapping it for something else. The ICU that I was given by F-stop was their large variant but they sell different sized ICUs to fit different needs. There is also nothing stopping anyone from ditching the ICU system altogether with the aforementioned aluminium frame helping the bag keep its shape.
This level of modularity allows the Tilopa to be useful in so many different situations. If I were going on a big photo shoot and needed to bring all my gear in one bag, I’d use the XL ICU. If I were planning an overnight camping trip where camera gear was a secondary concern, I could simply slide in the medium ICU so I’d have more space for a sleeping bag or good. I have even taken out the ICU all together and just used the entire main compartment to house all my clothing for a flight.
The primary access point into the Tilopa is through a zippered panel against the wearer’s back. I have seen many other camera bags utilise this design in the last few years and I always thought it was a bit gimmicky, to be honest. Once I used the back panel to access my gear it started to make sense to me why so many camera bags were using this feature. By putting their primary opening on the back of the bag, F-Stop allow the Tilopa to lay on its back where it has a weather-resistant fabric. The alternative to this in the past has been to lay the bag on the ground so that the back padding is getting dirt or wet (weather permitting). Then when I would go to put my bag back on I might have some water on the back padding or small rocks that have crept into the mesh. Not the case here.
The Tilopa also comes with many smaller mesh pockets inside of other compartments and openings on the bag. Us photographers love these little pockets because it gives us a place to put extra cables, batteries and media cards. On the sides of the pack there are expandable side zipper pockets for longer items like a water bottle or an extra pair of pants. I would have liked to see their pockets be flow-through like on one of my Kelty packs, this would make extra-long items like tripods and trekking poles easier to secure without getting snagged on so many tree branches. On top of the side pockets are the reinforced carry straps and these straps are solid. When I cinch down something with these straps, I know it’s not going anywhere. Right below the bottom straps, there are hardened rubber loops. Usually, when you strap something heavy to the side of a bag the straps come loose and the item begins to sag down. The rubber loops act as a catch to hold your gear in place so it can’t slide down while you’re on the go. Couple this with the excellent straps and you have a great way to carry everything from tripods to skis.
There are multiple hanging points for an ice axe along with compression straps on the back of the bag for securing even more gear. The Tilopa comes with two sets of what F-Stop calls “Gatekeepers”. Think of the gatekeeper as an additional compressor strap for any part of the bag. In my experience, these little guys are very useful for attaching uncommon items on the back of the pack like snowboards or crampons. I think the best thing about the gatekeepers is that they are not preparatory to F-Stop packs. You can use them on almost any bag with compression straps or Molle.
The bag also features a large padded laptop/ water bladder compartment. Due to the ICU system, the compartment is located on the back of the main compartment of the bag. It’s not an ideal spot because it is difficult to gain access to but it’s still nice to have.
- The ICU system with a back access panel
- The pack is incredibly comfortable even after many miles on the trail
- Build Quality is second to none
- 20-year Limited Warranty
What’s Not –
- The pack does not come with an easy way to store a water bottle
- Color selection is very limited, only 3 colors available at the time of review.
- Additional ICU inserts are pretty expensive
F-stop bags are built for diehard photographers who want a bag that is durable enough to withstand constant contact with the outdoors. I’m rough on my gear and I need a bag that is going to stand up to constant abuse. At the end of the day, the Tilopa is probably the most rugged bag on the market and the ICU system certainly makes it the most customizable. Take the ICU out and you have a great day pack or even a small overnight backpack.
Disclaimer: The Tilopa used was provided by F-Stop and subsequently used for this review. The content of this review was not shared with F-Stop before publishing. Our reviews are unbiased and never modified to keep a brand happy.