Daniel Groves

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Review: F-Stop Gear Guru UL Camera Backpack

Published: 3 May 2017 · Tags: technology, camera, gear

The end of a search for a camera bag that fits an adventurous lifestyle.

Camera bags are one of those things that are surprisingly personal. Some people don’t feel the need for one at all, while some of us are rather picky and want something which fits our exact criteria; I fit the latter of these two groups.

Lsat year I wrote about my first impressions after switching from Nikon to Fuji, and with that it bought a problem for me: my camera system had shrunk so much that it now rattled around in my ageing Lowe Pro camera bag. I never really liked that bag, so it made the perfect excuse to look into a new bag that I really would like.

When I started looking for a new bag I had something of a rather specific criteria in mind: I wanted to be able to fit my full camera setup inside, have room to expand in the future, be able to squeeze my down jacket, waterproofs, food and my JetBoil inside. On top of this I wanted it to be small enough to use on the mountain bike, be able to carry multiple tripods, be comfortable to wear all day, and to have a sensible ratio of camera equipment to personal possessions: something just about every manufacture gets wrong!

After investigating the offerings from multiple companies including Lowe Pro, Evoc, Dakine, Tamarac, and Peak Design, I eventually stumbled across the line of F-Stop bags. They looked good, but they were more expensive. After a few weeks of thinking about it, and multiple chats with the F-Stop team via their online chat system I decided to make my move: I ordered a small-shallow ICU1, a medium-shallow ICU, and a the F-Stop Guru UL. As far as I can tell only Paramo’s London ad Keswick branches are the only shops that stocks any F-Stop gear in the UK, and being reluctant to travel that far to view and try a bag, I ordered the lot online direct from F-Stop.

Features

The Guru UL is a well-featured bag. Its light — really light — for a camera bag at around 1kg. The Guru UL comes in at about 25l which sounds relatively small, and you’d be right, it is. This isn’t a bad thing though, as with the F-Stop interchangeable ICU system you can easily change the ratio of camera-gear to other-equipment in a few seconds. This means I can cinch it down small enough to ride hard on the mountain bike, yet it will happily expand large enough to take a surprisingly large pile of gear.

 alt: F-Stop Guru UL loaded and ready to go in my local woodlands.
F-Stop Guru UL loaded and ready to go in my local woodlands.

The bag fully loaded still doesn’t look huge, yet I can carry two full-size tripods (externally), my JetBoil Mini Mo, mug, spare gas canister, two head torches, a hand-held torch, map, compass, snack, two liters of water, down jacket, and numerous other things, as well as my medium-shallow ICU. It is genuinely surprising how much the bag will hold despite its small size thanks to some clever use of materials from F-Stop such as military-grade mesh stretch-panels on the front-most pocket.

The bag features two shoulder-strap based pockets for some emergency energy snacks, or as somewhere to stage an extra lens cloth and two plastic cargo straps. I don’t use these for carrying gear, so I’ve tucked one back up on itself to make space for my Peak Design Capture Pro clip, which tucks perfectly below.

 alt: F-Stop have got the padding dialed on the back and straps for the Guru UL; also note the Peak Design Capture Pro mounted on the left strap.
F-Stop have got the padding dialed on the back and straps for the Guru UL; also note the Peak Design Capture Pro mounted on the left strap.

To further expand the equipment you can reach on the move the bag has two waist-belt pockets, one made of the same nylon as the majority of the bag, and the other from their mesh to make it expandable for slightly bulkier items.

 alt: Convinient fast-access pockets are on both sides of the waist-band. Perfect for on-the-go snacking.
Convinient fast-access pockets are on both sides of the waist-band. Perfect for on-the-go snacking.

The bag goes further too, with water hose routing to a large pocket in the centre of the bag, a velcro strap to stop your rain-cover blowing away, and multiple mounts for the F-Stop Gatekeeper expansion straps.

 alt: Gatekeeper points cover the F-Stop Guru UL for additional external capacity.  alt: Gatekeeper points cover the F-Stop Guru UL for additional external capacity.
Gatekeeper points cover the F-Stop Guru UL for additional external capacity.

The bag has two side pockets (mesh, with rip-stop nylon bottoms) to tuck your tripods feet into and straps at the top and bottom to keep them other control, and to help cinch the bag down as small as possible.

Through all of this one of my favourite features is how you access the camera equipment. The Guru — like the rest of F-Stops bags — is rear opening. This means when you put the bag down on wet ground the back-panel does’t get wet, and as a result it doesn’t make your back wet when you put it back on. It also means you don’t have to faff by removing any rain cover, and it presents all of your gear neatly when you need to access it.

 alt: Gear laid out in the small-shallow ICU
Gear laid out in the small-shallow ICU, stowed at the bottom of the bag.

Cargo loops inside the access door means you can keep essential small items immediately available too, such as a lens-pen for removing grease and rest from your camera lens, a remote shutter release, or even a pen.

 alt: The back of the ICU opening as loops for storing those small fast-access items.
The back of the ICU opening as loops for storing those small fast-access items.

Build Quality

The build quality from this bag is unlike anything I’ve seen before from a camera bag manufacture. Everything about it feels solid, from the thickness of the nylon, to the density of the mesh and the solidity of the metal frame that holds the back of the bag rigid.

The base of the bag is made from a heavy duty material that feels like it could go through a nuclear war and come out the other side in one piece. The ZIPs are by YKK so you know they can be relied on, and the bag is covered under warranty for three years. Given the conditions the F-Stop clientele are likely to use their bags in this speaks confidence to me.

 alt: Attention to detail on the on the front panel of the rucksack.
Attention to detail on the on the front panel of the rucksack.

Each part of the bag has been carefully thought out — the padding is thick enough to provide a good level of comfort while it’s thin enough to keep the weight down. The webbing straps are solidly sewn, the clips are all of high quality, and the moulded foam backing is thick and dense.

This bag feels like it was designed to take some serious abuse.

Comfort

A lot of camera bags go down the “use plenty of padding” school of comfort. F-Stop Gear have put a bit more thought and creativity into this — they’re more concerned with where the padding goes over how much of it they apply.

The devil is in the details, and they’ve got this nailed on the Guru UL. The shoulder straps are thin, but well constructed, so they conform to your body. Because they conform to your body they spread their loads better, and thus they’re more comfortable.

 alt: The waist-band of the bag forms perfectly around you when pulled in tight making it dead-comfortable.
The waist-band of the bag forms perfectly around you when pulled in tight making it dead-comfortable.

It’s the same story for the waist-band. It’s made of of the same dense neoprene-foam hybrid material that perfectly comfortable, and doesn’t get hot. It’s just as thing as the shoulder straps so it keeps the weight down and allows them to mould to your body so they’re once again perfectly comfortable. I’ve never actually used a bag that maintains so much comfort for the amount of weight it’s carrying.

The bag has an internal aluminium frame in the back of the rucksack which transfers weight cleanly to the waist, and helps maintain the structural integrity of the bag. Many camera bags ‘flop’ when they’re not completely full — the padded camera area is structurally strong, and the top half tends to be less so, causing it to fold and become uncomfortable — the internal frame on the Guru UL eliminates this entirely.

ICUs

The ICUs are the true unique selling point of the F-Stop system — and part of what truly draw me in. ICU stands for Internal Camera Unit — essentially it’s the camera bit of the camera bag. These are padded cells that take all of your camera equipment and can be organised internally with the same divider system as most camera bags.

Because the ICUs are removable (it only takes a couple of seconds) you can easily configure the divide between volume of camera gear and volume of ‘other’ gear. As a result of this I own two ICU units — a small shadow and a medium shallow — out of a selection of ten at the time of writing.

The ICUs available range hugely; some are tiny units that will take a single mirrorless camera body, and maybe a second small lens, while others are designed for 800mm cinematic lenses, or for multiple pro bodies with a range of lenses. It really depends what you want to get out of your bag as to which you’ll choose.

For me the two I’ve chosen are the biggest that fit the Guru UL. The larger of the two creates a rough 70/30 divide as is traditional with a camera bag, while the smaller takes on a status closer to a 50/50 divide.

Cost

This is my single biggest issue with the pack. In the UK there’s no official distributer. Paramo stock a few of the F-Stop bags in some of their stores, but that’s a long and expensive trip to buy a bag for me. You can, however, buy direct from F-Stop Gear who will ship your goods from the European warehouse.

The configuration I have is around €280, which works out was £240 at the time of writing. Mine cost a little less though as I purchased it before the pound completely crashed. To further add to that UK residents will get stung by an additional €17 shipping (about £15).

I don’t object for paying good money for a high-quality product like this, although I know many will bulk at that price. I do wish I had ordered a rain cover and a pair of Gatekeeper straps when I ordered the bag now as the cost for these seems excessive when you consider the premium shipping rates for two small items.

For the cost of the pack I really do feel like including the rain covers and gatekeeper straps would have been a nice touch — or even offering them at a slightly discounted rate given the amount of cash being spent. With the mesh panels on the Guru I can’t see me trying it out properly on the mountain bike until I’ve got a rain cover to keep the mud out in the British climate.

Summary

So there you have it — solid and highly configurable camera bag — but at a premium price tag. Although it sounds like an expensive investment — which it is — it’s worth considering how much more you’re going to enjoy what you’re doing when you’re both comfortable and you know your equipment is safe.

When I next upgrade my larger 35l mountain bag I’ll coming straight to F-Stop and picking up the right bag for the job — safe in the knowledge I’ll be getting a solid product that’s well made and will suit my photography workflow perfectly. I can’t recommend these enough.

 alt: F-Stop Guru UL laid-out next to my tripod for fast access while shooting.
F-Stop Guru UL laid-out next to my tripod for fast access while shooting.
  1. ICU is an abbreviation which stands for Internal Camera Unit.