REVIEW: f-stop gear Sukha by Jacques Crafford

In October 2016 I became the lucky owner of a f-stop gear Camera bag. In case you’re not familiar with the brand, they’re crafted with the adventure & travel photographer in mind with a strong focus on high durability and comfort.

Photo – Kyle Meck

What sets this brand apart from all the other manufacturers is their modular ICU (internal camera unit) system. Most camera bags have a large internal compartment designed to hold camera gear as well as some external pockets for ‘other stuff’ like extra layers and snacks. One can usually customise the internal compartment, but the amount of space you have for camera gear and for other stuff is set in stone. f-stop’s modular ICU system works very differently – they offer ICU’s of various sizes that are interchangeable amongst a range of different sized shells (the backpack).

If you’re going on a shoot and you need a ton of camera gear, you can take your largest ICU, which fills the entire shell with camera packing space. If you’re going away for a weekend or an overnight hike and you’d like to add more ‘other stuff’, just add a small ICU to take the basic gear and it leaves most of the shell available for clothing etc. If you’re very set on the gear you always shoot with, the other approach is to stick to a single ICU and get different sized shells. If you don’t need much space for other stuff, take your small shell. If you need space for hiking equipment or a few nights’ travel, just swap out the ICU into your bigger shell and you’re ready to go. This revolutionary approach to camera backpack design is what has made them the undoubted leader in the market.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT MODEL

My profession as a travelling filmmaker made me lean towards the SUKHA Shell with the Tele Master ICU. This unit fills the entire inside of the bag providing you with ample space for photography / filmmaking gear. My main motivation behind the SUKHA was to enable me to transport my Drone (Phantom 4 Pro) and all my essential camera equipment in ONE bag, which is why I chose to max out the space for camera gear.

I needed a bag I can throw on my back, take with as carry-on luggage when flying, yet still be able to hike with. Something that can withstand the sometimes extreme conditions I find myself in when filming in the field. If this sounds like the kind of bag you’re looking for, then keep on reading!

10 months and a whole bunch of adventures later, it’s safe to say that I put the bag through its paces! From Icy Iceland, through a tropical rainstorm in the Philippines. From carrying it high up in the Swiss Alps, all over the Italian Dolomites and doing various hikes in South Africa, I can confidently say that I love this bag, although that might be an understatement!

Putting shoes back on after a river crossing in the Drakensberg. Photo – Kyle Meck

First let’s look at the specs:

  • 68.6cm tall, 35.6 cm wide and 30.5cm deep
  • Weight: 2KG
  • Volume: 70 Litres
  • Compartments:
    • Main 70L compartment, with openings at the top and across the back of the bag (between the bag and your body)
    • External “shovel pocket” along the entire front of the bag, including a tiny drainage hole at the bottom.
    • Two Velcro pockets within the shovel pocket – one which extends the entire length of the pocket, and one smaller mesh section.
    • Smaller zipped compartment on the outside of the shovel pocket
    • External top pocket
    • Two mesh compartments inside the external top pocket – one Velcro and one zipped
    • Large zipped compartments on both sides of the bag
    • Zipped mesh pocket on the lid of the bag’s interior
    • Laptop/water bladder compartment inside the bag
    • A small zipped pocket on the back flap inside the bag
  • Materials: Water resistant canvas exterior, rubber along the bottom for mud and water protection.
  • Suspension: Removable aluminium frame.
  • Straps: Sternum strap and comfortable hip belt. Additional stabilizer straps above the shoulder pads
  • Attachment points all over the bag for hanging a tripod, skis/poles, or other straps
  • Emergency whistle on the sternum strap
  • Side straps to compress the bag or hang a tripod
  • Hydration system, including a water bladder/laptop compartment
  • Laptop: Fits up to 17 inches

Wait did you say 70 litres!? Before I continue let me answer the question I’m sure you are dying to ask first: How does the size affect travel?

The Sukha in Aloe next to the Tele Master ICU

SIZE / TRAVELLING WITH THE SUKHA

I’m not going to lie, this bag is huge. In fact I even got mistaken for a base jumper in Switzerland once. When I say it’s huge you must be wondering how on earth does one fly with it!? Well it’s safe to say that I have taken this “oversized and overweight bag” successfully onto 16 domestic flights and 12 international flights (counting returns).

Although I got some questions at the check-in, I was always able to get away with “it’s photography gear”. The only time I really got hassled was at London Heathrow by an uninformed check-in official. After getting the manager involved they apologetically let me on the plane under the banner of “it’s EXPENSIVE photography gear”.

Enjoying the views of the Drakensberg. Photo – Kyle Meck

AIRPORTS AND CARRY-ON REGULATION

I did not take a single International Flight where the plane didn’t have enough space for the bag (full of gear and with the ICU already inside). I did however have 4 encounters on domestic planes where the bag just couldn’t fit in the top compartment so I simply took the ICU out of the Shell and placed them next to each other which made it fit easily. Bottom line, they still let me keep it with me in the overhead storage.

Now that we have taken the size & travel issue out of the equation let’s talk about the things that I consider to be most important to the travelling adventure photographer. To me 3 things come to mind before I even consider the price: Comfort, Functionality & Durability!

Climbing up the Amphitheater’s chain ladders. Photo – Kyle Meck

1- COMFORT

You will be wearing this on your back so yes, if you do the kind of shoots that require hiking or a lot of walking, this should be your first and most important factor to consider. Let it be clearly known that “huge” doesn’t necessarily mean “heavy”. I don’t know how the design works but it always feels much lighter the moment it’s on your back!

The most important part of any backpack is the shoulder straps. On the SUKHA, f-stop didn’t make any sacrifices! The shoulder straps are very well padded and there are multiple clinching locations for fine tuning the bag to adjust for your personal weight. The multiple-point suspension system is easy to adjust in different terrains and once you connect the hip-belt and sternum-strap it feels like a professional hiking bag, except it is filled with camera gear.

I’ve done some strenuous hikes with a fully loaded bag and I can honestly say that I never once felt any discomfort other than the normal strain that comes with a steep climb that will also be felt with other professional hiking bags. With the comfort being such a big win for the SUKHA, I think it’s main target is the hiking photographer!

Italy’s magnificent dolomites

2- FUNCTIONALITY

Every compartment feels incredibly well thought out, from the bottom-pad for storing the waterproof cover to the internal laptop pocket, which is perfectly placed for weight balance and maximum protection against bumps and drops.

*Note – All f-stop mountain series bags have a hypalon pad on the bottom and the Tilopa and Shinn also have it on the front. Hypalon is one of the most indestructible materials that are still flexible and can thus be used on a backpack. 

The Good

One of the main features that make f-stop gear backpacks stand out from the crowd is back panel access. Most other camera packs are accessed from the front, which requires having to put the pack down onto the hip- and shoulder belts. If the terrain is in any way dirty, that all transfers onto your back. Most hiking backpacks can only be accessed from the top and you usually have to do a major unpack/repack if you want access to your camera equipment amongst all the hiking gear. With the SUKHA the back panel access makes it easy to get to any part of the bag without getting any of the backside dirty. The ICU is customizable so I’m able to structure the inside differently for some jobs although I always have my drone in there.

Here’s an example of what I generally fit into my bag:

MY GEAR SETUP FOR ICELAND:

  • 2 Sony Alpha Mirrorless Bodies
  • 4 Canon DSLR Lenses (70-200mm, 16-35mm, 35mm and a 50mm)
  • DJI Phantom 4 Pro
  • 2x DJI Phantom Batteries
  • 2 Sound Recorders with Microphones
  • Tons of smaller accessories.
  • 13″ Macbook Pro
  • One Glidecam HD2000 (attaches on the outside)
  • Some Clothing, Snacks, and Water

Being able to fit all my essentials into one bag was not only convenient to carry around while hiking, but also made the entire travel experience (like flying etc.) that much more enjoyable.

*Jacques was a bit too busy shooting to take images of his gear configured in the ICU, but this is how we usually advise people to do it. This configuration can comfortably take a phantom and it’s remote, 3/4 batteries, chargers, propellers, DSLR Body, 4 lenses and a full Lee 100mm Filter kit. All of this fits in just the ICU, which still leaves 4 large external compartments on the shell available for storage as well as several smaller ones. 

 

The Bad

The bag is designed to keep your gear safe and dry. That being said if you’re on the go and have to stop periodically to swop lenses or grab bigger accessories, it can be a little frustrating since you have to take the bag off your back first. I strongly recommend getting an additional external pouch or two, and mounting them to the waist belt of the SUKHA. This will at least allow you to access another lens or even a bottle of water for that matter which brings me to the next issue.

The lack of a side pouch for water bottles. F-Stop removed the mesh pockets to give more room for the zippered compartments on the side of the bag – which can also hold water bottles but now instead of just reaching and grabbing a bottle for a quick sip you have to swing the bag to the side and unzip it first. It’s not a deal breaker but probably the only thing I would change on this bag if I could.

*We advise using a 2.0l bladder in the side pocket as the f-stop bags have dedicated routing on the shoulder belts for a hydration system. The bladder can be stowed in one of the large side pockets or in the internal pocket which doubles as a laptop sleeve. This will also balance out a tripod mounted to the other side of the shell. 

3-DURABILITY

The SUKHA is nearly indestructible, built top-to-bottom with extremely durable materials and rugged workmanship. This bag is made to last and I could tell from the first time I laid eyes on it. From the buckles to the zippers, the materials and workmanship all around is of the highest standards.

From extreme sun, lots of rain, to gravel, mud and snow this bag had proper exposure yet seems impervious to all these elements. I mean it pretty much looks the same way it did when I got it, despite months of “abuse”.

How well does it do in the rain?

On various occasions this bag passed the “rain test” with flying colours, but one really stood out to me. We started an early morning hike up the Sentinel Peak in the Drakensberg. The howling winds and horizontal rain was only surpassed by thick mist that made our journey up most challenging, even though the forecast was predicting a clear summit. We hiked through the rain and the mist for 2 hours, completely soaked from head to toe only to break through the cloud inversion moments after the rain stopped. Needless to say my gear was dry and it felt good being able to put my confidence in the bag, especially after a very rainy trip in Iceland.

*f-stop prides itself on vintage shells – they frequently showcase their ambassadors’ shells that have withstood nearly a decade of the elements. These things are the armoured tanks of camera backpacks. Come sand or snow, with an f-stop pack you can embrace the elements rather than fighting them.

PRICE / VALUE:

Okay let’s face it, these bags don’t come in cheap. At a Price of +-R9-10K (Sukha Shell – R5 995.00 | Tele Master ICU – R3 995.00) the SUKHA is not your average camera backpack and is considered by many as a luxury item. I’ve always been a firm believer in buying quality support gear and price is usually the last thing I look at. So here’s my argument in why I think the bag is worth the price:

Instead of considering the price of the bag, rather consider the price of your gear. If you have R300K+ worth of gear that needs to be kept dry and safe in the midst of harsh conditions, then that in my opinion changes this from a luxury item into a necessity. That is if you can justify the amount of time you will use the bag… for me it was a no-brainer!

WHO IS THE SUKHA FOR?

If you often go on outdoor adventures with loads of equipment and you’re looking for a “one bag solution” that will be permitted on airlines but still protect your gear from all the elements, then SUKHA is the perfect bag for you!

If you don’t need that much gear but enjoy going on overnight backpacking trips, the SUKHA can also work for you. With just one medium or small sized ICU filled with camera gear, you’re left with plenty of room for a sleeping bag & other camp essentials, food etc. It’s like having a really good hiking bag except you have a “dedicated compartment” for your gear that’s made to keep it safe!

If you don’t plan on hiking or climbing with your gear it might be better to consider something like a water/dustproof rolling case and then the SUKHA is not the best option.

Spot the photographer – can you find me?

CONCLUSION:

To me, getting this bag was like falling in love. I liked it from the start but the more I used it, the more I realized what an excellent investment it is. Now as I reflect back on my trips, I can’t imagine going on an adventure without it!

Yes, they are expensive but a good backpack can be likened to taking out insurance for your gear. What’s the point in spending all that money on cameras and lenses but you risk the gear getting damaged every time you go out?

The bottom line is that this bag caters for a certain individual and if you can see yourself in this category of adventure & travel photography, I want to encourage you to invest in one. I have yet to find any bag that offers more comfort but at the same time, is able to withstand the toughest of circumstances! I give the bag a 9.5/10

NEXT WEEK – CONFIGURING THE TELE MASTER ICU FOR A PHANTOM + DSLR KIT

Jacques Crafford is a freelance filmmaker with a deep-seated passion for still photography. He specializes in adventure & travel films which have enabled him to travel all over the world. For more of his work, check out his Instagram account

 

Photo – Heinrich van Schalkwyk

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