One thing I’ve learned over the years as a photographer is that the search for the perfect camera bag seems to never end. I’d also go as far as to say that there is no such thing (or at least, not a single perfect bag for all situations). Fortunately, some bags do come very close.
In this blog post, I’ll talk about a bag that has become my go-to for most situations and is my current partner in work and travel: the f-stop Loka UL. I became an f-Stop Gear Ambassador in 2018, basically brought on to test out their products in the field and give my feedback. I received the Loka UL and accessories after an initial needs assessment with their product expert (shoutout to Filip!). After 6 months of using the bag, I now feel confident to share my experience with it. I should also say at this point that they did not ask or pay me to make this review, and all opinions are 100% my own.
First of all, let’s establish exactly what I do. Most of my commissioned work is event, editorial, and portraiture photography. I am often out in the field and away from home for 2 or 3 days at a time, doing multi-day shoots for magazines or covering events for companies or organizations. Personal work includes travel and landscape photography, which also often involves being away from home for a few days. My camera kit is pretty much the same for all shoots: 2 Fuji mirrorless bodies, pro zooms, a fast prime and speedlight. For more portraiture-centric shoots, I’ll swap out the zooms for the 23, 35, and 56 fast prime trinity and a Godox AD200. On top of this, I also need to bring clothes and other necessities for the trip.
The Loka UL
When choosing a bag initially, I knew I wanted the lightest bag possible. Many bags are very well-built and padded, but also weigh a few kilograms just by themselves. At a mere 1kg, the Loka UL minimizes this weight impact while finding a good balance with build and durability. The internal aluminum frame keeps the bag rigid and the materials definitely feel like they will last. I’ve found that the Loka UL’s 37L capacity is great for 1-3 day trips, including gear, clothing, and other necessities. The outer compartments can easily hold water bottles, light stand, or tripod, making it a flexible bag no matter what type of shoot.
Modularity and organization is the name of the game, and f-stop has come up with a great system to get this done. The following items are what I use to keep my gear and other things within the Loka UL.
The key component of the f-stop system is the ICU, or Internal Camera Unit. These are well padded modules for storing your gear. The front flap has a zipper and a removable insert for rigidity and additional padding. They come in various shapes and sizes, which makes your pack fully customizable. f-stop bags can typically fit up to 2 ICU’s, depending on the capacity. ICU’s also make it easy to store your gear in different configurations and move them from one bag to another or even use them to store the gear outside the camera bag if needed. I personally have the Medium Slope and the Small Shallow ICU’s.
Packing Cell Kit
The Packing Cell Kit holds clothing, towels, and other necessities, keeping them organized within the bag. No more clutter of clothes or socks spilling out and hiding in dark corners of the bag. I typically use the largest one for clothes and the small one for toothbrush, shampoo, soap, etc.
The Laptop Sleeve is exactly what it sounds like. The f-stop one is made with the same durable materials as the bags. It’s well-padded and the handles are located in exactly the best places to easily get it in and out of the backpack. I use the 15 inch version, but they also make a 13.
The accessory pouch (I use the Medium size) has become the permanent home for my batteries, chargers, memory cards, cables, etc. Again, it’s well-padded, well-made, and designed to fit and work perfectly with the f-stop bags.
The combination of the lightweight Loka UL and the internal components above have made packing much more convenient. The modular way everything works makes it easy to move stuff in and out of the bag as well as mix and match combinations easily and based on the shooting needs. The ‘cell-based’ approach is so much more organized and less cluttered than having to pack everything piece by piece every time. Everything is well thought out, fits and works together perfectly for a great packing and carrying experience.
In theory, one could make their own cell-style camera bag with various pouches and inserts. In fact, my DIY spirit would encourage you to explore that. But if you want something ready to go out of the box, then f-stop makes everything you need.
Packing gear: Disassembled vs. Assembled
One thing that has changed a bit with my habits since getting the f-stop gear is how I pack my camera equipment. I used to try and pack the gear assembled, i.e. lenses attached to the camera body, as much as possible in order to be ready to shoot at any moment. Quite honestly, the idea of disassembling my kit and packing it like that was not very appealing to me. However, I have since realized the advantages of packing disassembled, mainly how efficiently it uses the available space.
The f-stop system seems to be more geared towards disassembled packing. While you can certainly pack your gear assembled into the ICU’s, the way the bags open up don’t really provide any quick access to gear while wearing the backpack. Security and most efficient use of space seem to be priorities over quick access in the f-stop designs.
Not just for work, but also for play
While most of the article has been focused on using the bag for work, it has also proven to be an amazing bag for traveling with the family. Depending on where we are going and the length of the trip, I use either the small or medium slope ICU to pack my travel camera kit (usually a body and 1 or 2 lenses), Mavic Pro drone, and a tripod. Again, the combination of ICU and packing cells kit allows me to bring everything I need in a single pack.
Pros and Cons
-Weight: the bag truly lives up to its “ultra light” name.
-Adaptability and modularity: ICU, cells, and pouch system allows for an infinite number of configurations based on needs
-Security: the rear-entry design of the bag keeps the gear harder to reach especially good while traveling
-Build: the material is light and thin, but strong enough to carry up to 25 lbs of gear. The aluminum frame keeps the bag rigid and adds to the toughness.
-Not a quick-access bag: this bag was not designed to shoot out of quickly. If you need to get to your gear while wearing the bag, look elsewhere.
-Zipper: I haven’t experienced this myself yet, but have received feedback from trusted friends and numerous reviews from people who have had the bag for longer. They say the zippers wear out and get harder to use over time. I will definitely look out for this.
There are still times that I would like to shoot quickly out of a bag. It may not be in line with f-stop’s current design philosophy, but maybe they can come up with a special line of quick-access ICU’s and bags that are especially designed to shoot out of. Perhaps a slim, top-loading ICU that can be quickly and easily accessible in a shoulder bag or sling. Maybe even a side loading ICU where you can swing the backpack around, open a side zipper and quickly grab your camera.
Overall, I have really been enjoying the Loka UL and the f-stop system as a whole. It has made my life easier during photography assignments and personal trips. The modularity, build quality, and even the system’s good looks makes this a bag I would recommend to any travelling photographer.
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