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Category Archives: Photography Equipment Review

We stopped for a morning hike up to Devil’s Kettle. It was a nice day when we started. When we reached the lower portion of the falls there was a lot of spray and it was almost impossible to take any photos.

Devil's Kettle

Devil’s Kettle

We walked up the steps to view Devil’s Kettle and grabbed a few photos. As we looked off to the Northwest we could see some black clouds so we decided to head back to the car.

Judge-C.-R.-Magney-State-Park16-5-_4719

We were almost back to the car when we heard sever claps of thunder. We had just met some other hikers heading up to the Kettle. We took off for the car and they followed. About a minute after getting in the car the skies opened up.

Judge-C.-R.-Magney-State-Park16-5-_3928

About a year and a half ago I purchased a new Manfrotto Pro BG055CXPRO3Carbon Tripod. It is a good all around tripod and works well for the type of photography I do. I don’t specialize in any type of photography but engage in Landscape, wildlife, macro and some studio photography. I also have several heavy lenses and the heft of the BG055CX provides a very stable platform. The price was right and other photographers seemed happy with it so I decided to give it a try.

It is the third tripod I’ve owned. I don’t even remember what brand my first one was but it was really cheap and after spending a day photographing out on the ice of Lake Superior it fell apart.  My second tripod was a Manfrotto 190XB. I used this for a number of years when I first started serious photography. One day I was out photographing in deep snow. I had the legs extended when I was moving from one location to another. I tripped and caught a lower tripod leg between my legs and bent it. The tripod was still usable but I was already thinking of upgrading because I wanted a more stable tripod so this incident provided the impetus to start looking for a new one.

I looked at a wide variety of tripods from the most expensive to the mid range. There were a number of them that I liked and would have purchased but they all had the twist type leg locks. I have a variety of skiing and hiking poles with twist leg locks and my experience with them has not been the best. I’ve had them fail on me at different times. In cold conditions they are difficult to adjust. In addition, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to easily tell if the tripod legs were really locked when using twist locks. I tend to get a little excited when I find a great subject to photograph and the last thing I wanted was to set the tripod down and discover that one or more of the legs were not locked. With the BG055CXPRO3 it is easy to see if the legs are locked because it uses a locking lever. I already had experience with similar leg locks on my 190XB and that worked out fine. That was the deciding factor in choosing the BG055CXPRO3 over some of the other brands.

When I received my first BG055CXPRO3 I noticed that one of the lower legs did not extend easily and I could see where it was scraping against something. I returned it, at my expense, and ordered a second BG055CXPRO3. This time I didn’t have any problems with the legs extending.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1173Setup is very easy. Just flip the locking lever and extend the legs to get the tripod at the right height. When the legs are at the right height just flip the locking lever back to its original position and the legs are locked.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1167The BG055CXPRO3 comes with a spirit level to enable you to level the tripod. Normally this is not an issue because I usually use a shoe level on my camera. However, I do some panorama photography and it is important to have the tripod level when shooting panoramas.  My190XB did not have a spirit level and I ended up using a level that attached to the center column. It worked but having a level on the tripod gives you one less thing to keep track of.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1160The angle of the legs can be changed by pressing down on the locking button, slightly closing the leg toward the center column to release the lock. While holding the locking button down spread the legs to the desired angel. Release the locking button and you will hear a clicking sound when the leg is locked into position.  Each leg can be adjusted independently which comes in handy when shooting on uneven surfaces or if you want to adjust the height or angle of the camera. There are four different angles ranging from 23 degrees to 89 degrees which means that the tripod can be placed almost flat on the ground. In order to place the tripod at the 89 degree angle you must move the center column to a horizontal position. This is discussed later.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1155The BG055CXPRO3 comes with an 18 inch center column. To raise the center column loosen the locking knob and raise the column to the height you want. Tighten the locking knob and the center column is held firmly in place. Because I’m short and the tripod with the legs full extended is so tall I rarely use the tripod with the center column extended.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1176The BGT055CX features a center column that it can be placed in a horizontal position. This maneuver can be easily accomplished. Simply loosen the locking knob, raise the column to its fullest extension while pressing the center column release button located the bottom of the center column. When fully extended rotate the center column 90 degrees and slide it into the hole in the collar and lock the locking knob. It sounds more complicated than it is.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1184Placing the center column in a horizontal position allows you to fully spread the legs of the tripod and photograph from ground level. It requires a little more effort on your part to photograph at ground level because you need to go through the effort to place the center column in a horizontal position and adjust the camera to photograph from this position.

 

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod--12-11-_1180The fact that the center column swings up and horizontal is also a plus if you have limited space to set the tripod and there is an object in the way. By placing the center column horizontal it is sometimes possible to shoot around the object blocking your view. I’ve also used it when shooting from a platform with a railing. Sometimes the railing is in the photo and by using the horizontal center post its possible to move the camera out over the railing. This feature also allows you to shoot directly down on an object without getting the tripod legs in the photo

 

Markins-Ball-Head-12-5-_0191aThe one problem I’ve had using the center column in the horizontal position is with macro photography. This most frequently occurs in the early spring when many of the wildflowers are small, close to the ground and found on a steep south facing hillside. It is particularly frustrating when photographing in the field and finding that the center column is in the way and prevents me from lowering the camera into the proper position. In essence the center becomes a fourth unwanted  leg. I also find it frustrating to maneuver the camera into position once the center column is in a horizontal position. In these situations I need to rotate the camera into a vertical position using the vertical notch in the ballhead. I also usually need to loosen the panning knob and rotate the entire head in order to get the camera and lens into position. This is easy when working on at normal height and on a flat surface but more difficult when working on a hillside. While the center column does allow the user to lower the tripod as a practical matter it is not a tripod I would purchase If I were going to be doing a lot of macro photography close to the ground. You can purchase an optional short center column for this tripod but that only allows you to spread the legs to about 60 degrees.

 The presence of the center column is a tradeoff. As I noted it adds more height to the tripod, allows you photograph around objects and photograph at ground level. This makes it a good all around tripod for a wide range of photography which is what I do. 

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-12-_0899I use a Markins Ballhead on my tripod so the first thing I did after figuring out how to use the tripod was to mount the ballhead on the tripod. The tripod comes with a 3/8 inch mounting screw. Simply screw the ballhead to the mounting screw. Raise the center column to gain access to the bottom plate at the top of the center column and then tighten the three screws up through the base to the bottom of the head. This prevents the head from unscrewing accidently. I frequently carry my tripod with a camera mounted so having the ballhead loosen would not be good.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1186The tripod also comes with a hook that allows you to hang a weight from the top of the tripod.  In order to use it you need to have a weight to hang from it. Most likely this is going to be a camera bag or pack. However, the hook is located in such a position that it can be difficult to hang a bag directly from the hook because the center column is in the way. I use a shoelace that I drape over the hook and attach to my pack. Because my pack is usually quite heavy I set the pack on the ground and use the shoelace with a lock to adjust the tension to provide a little more stability. With a weight attached you will get some additional stability in conditions where there could be movement of the tripod. I use it mainly in windy conditions. It also might be useful when shooting in a stream but I have yet to give it a try since I can’t use my pack as a weight.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1164The tripod also comes with a hanging ring that allows you to attach an optional carrying strap. I’ve never used this feature so I can’t comment on how well it works. I normally carry my tripod in my hands, over my shoulder or in my pack. See my earlier blog on this topic. The tripod is also stable enough that can easily be used as a walking stick which comes in handy when walking over rough terrain.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-12-_0895The tripod comes with a tool to adjust the tension on telescopic legs to make them easier or more difficult to extend. I’ve not had to adjust the legs on the BG055CXPRO3 but  I did have to do this a few times on the 190XB so I’ve always carried the tool with me. The tool is designed to clip on to one of the legs but that is a disaster waiting to happen. With a slight nudge it will come unclipped. However the ends of the clip have holes in them so I just took a long plastic tie and attached it to the leg so it can’t come off.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1174One of the other things I did when I first received the tripod was to tape the rubber feet to the legs of the tripod. On my 190XB I started losing the rubber feet. This usually happened when I placed the tripod legs in mud or crusty snow. When I removed the tripod the rubber tips came off. The solution was an easy one. Take some electrical tape and wind it around the top of the rubber tip and onto the tripod leg. Problem solved.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1155aOne of the issues I had with my 190XB was the tension that allowed me to change the angle of the legs. You should be able to spread the legs and have them remain at the set angle. After using the tripod for a while the tension on the hinge became loose. Sometimes when I lifted the tripod one or more of the legs would flop to a vertical position. A couple of times when I set the tripod down I hadn’t noticed the leg swing closed and the tripod almost tipped over when I set it down. There is a screw at the top of the leg that can be adjusted although with limited success.  An Allen wrench that was included with the tripod allowed for the adjustment. Something I had to do fairly frequently. The BG055CX uses a different type of screw to keep the legs tight. After looking through the box when the tripod arrived I couldn’t find the tool required. The last item on the instruction sheet contained a reference to a T25 Torx key. Something that was not supplied. I finally called the company and found that the tool was not supplied but that I could purchase a T25 Torx key at most hardware stores. I went out and purchased one thinking I would be tightening the legs constantly but in the year and a half I’ve owned the BG055CX I’ve only had to slightly tighten one leg once. Strangely the instructions do not mention using the Torx key to control the swing of the legs. They only mention using it to remove the locking collar on the legs.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-11-_1170One of the first things I noticed when I picked up the tripod to carry it was that the upper legs of this tripod were much greater in circumference than on the 190XB. On the 190XB  I was able to use some pipe insulation to put around the leg so it wasn’t as cold to carry in the winter. Because of the larger legs and my small hands it quickly became clear that pipe insulation would not work very well. I just couldn’t get my small hands around the leg with pipe insulation attached. I spent several months looking for a solution and finally found that using flexible bandages that are used to wrap the legs of horses was a good solution. I wrote about this in an earlier blog. I’ve had the initial leg wraps on for over a year now and they are still going strong although I’m thinking of putting another layer of wraps on for the winter photography season.

Manfrotto-BG055CXPRO3-Tripod-12-12-_0893The BG055CX is a tall tripod with a height of 55 inches with the legs fully extended and the center column down and a height of 69  inches with the center column fully extended. As it turns out this tripod is a little too tall for me. The 190XB with the legs fully extended was about the right height. With the BG055CX  legs fully extended it is too high for me to comfortably photograph. This means a little more adjustment to the legs to get the right height. On the positive side the fact that I have more height to work with makes it much easier to photograph on uneven surfaces without using the center column.

I’m currently using both tripods side by side while doing some bird photography. When I just had the190XB  I didn’t realize how unstable it was. When I move from the 190XB to the BG055CXPRO3 I can really tell the difference in the stability. If I were looking for a tripod I would definitely start out with the BG055CXPRO3. I’ve used it now for over a year and have been very happy with it.

I purchased my first Markins Ball Head after I had returned from a day of winter photography on Lake Superior. My cheap tripod had broken in the cold weather. It had a built in head so I also needed a new head. I spent several agonizing months reading reviews of ball heads and trying to find just the right one. I finally chose Markins because it seemed to provide good value for the price. The head supports large lenses with a light weight head. It is maintenance free except for routine cleaning. Markins uses an Anti-twist flange type mounting plate which is compatible with the Arca-Swiss type quick release clamp. I’ve been using Markins ball heads for a number of years and have been very happy with them. 

Markins Ball Head

I do a wide range of photography including avian, landscape, and macro. The Markins ball head works very well for avian photography. It has a very smooth movement and I have no problem following birds in flight using the Markins head. Using it for landscape photography poses no problems other than cold weather which I’ll address later. My main problem with it revolves around macro photography in the field. I’ll also discuss this in greater detail later. 

In this review I’m actually reviewing two different Markins ball heads because they are essentially the same the only visible difference being the size of the head although the interworkings are different and have improved over the intervening years. 

I won’t go into the technical details regarding the Markins ball heads because Markins has an excellent website that covers that ground. In addition to the ball head you will also need to purchase a plate for your camera and or lenses. The website has a plate finder feature that quickly lets you determine what you will need. 

 A number of years ago I purchased a Markins Q3 ball head which I have continued to use. A year ago I purchased a Markins Q20 ball head because I purchased a much heavier lens to use for bird photography. In retrospect I could have probably continued to use the smaller head because it worked with the heavier lens but I didn’t want to risk damaging the smaller head when using a heavy lens. I now use both heads with the smaller one mounted on an older tripod. 

The Markins ball heads are easy to setup. The first thing you need to do is screw the ball head onto the 3/8 inch screw at the top of the tripod.  I’m using a Manfrotto tripod and it has three screws that tighten to the bottom of the head to prevent the head from unscrewing. That’s all there is too it. 

Markins Ball Head

Once the head is firmly mounted on the tripod the next step is to adjust the torque limit dial. The torque limit dial limits the range you have to turn the ball locking knob to loosen or tighten the ball. You are going to want to set the minimum friction. To do this you lock the ball tightening the progressive friction control on the ball locking knob. You also want to lock the panning disk by tightening the panning lock knob. Unscrew the torque limit dial using your finger nail. Mount the camera and lens on the ball head. You then slowly loosen the progressive friction control on the ball locking knob. The goal is to find the setting (sweet spot) where the camera and lens stays in place on the head and can still be moved with ease. Once this position has been found you can tighten the torque limit dial to set the position. Then if you want to lock the camera/lens into position you can do so with only a slight turn of the ball locking knob. 

Once the torque limit dial has been set you are ready to start taking photos. This is a unique feature with Markins and justifies some additional comments. The use of the torque limit dial is intended to allow you to adjust the tension on the ball locking knob so that the camera/lens combination stays in place and yet can be moved with ease. This is called the sweet spot. Even when using my Nikon camera and Nikon 500mm lens I’m able to set the sweet spot so that the camera and lens remain in position even if I’m not holding on to them. If the shot changes I can easily rotate the camera and lens without adjusting the tension control ball. Markins has a video on their website showing how easy it is to move the lens and camera once the torque limit has been set. If, for some reason, I want to lock the camera into position I can do so with just a slight turn of the tension control knob. I can even physically move the tripod without locking the head and the lens will stay in place. However, I  usually don’t do this with a large lens on the camera. This works well if you are using the same or similar camera/lens combinations. If you are using vastly different camera/lens combinations you will likely need to change the torque limit dial to adjust each to combination. As an aside, once you are familiar with the Markins ball head and are using a variety of cameras and lenses you may want to fully unscrew the torque limit dial and control the head movement using only the ball locking knob. 

Cleaning and maintenance of the Markins ball head is relatively simple. Unscrew the torque limit dial, if you set it previously. Unscrew the ball locking knob and remove any visible objects. Lower the quick shoe into the notch for vertical use. Put a little WD-40 on a cloth and apply it to the ball.. You can rotate the ball in all directions to spread the WD-40. I then use a lint free cloth to remove any excess WD-40. I sometimes repeat this sep several times. Markins also suggests tightening the ball locking knob slightly when rotating the ball. 

The Markins Ball Head is a precision instrument and, in my case has taken some abuse and still continued to work. On one occasion my tripod fell into a small stream with a sand filled bottom and was there for several minutes before I could rescue it. I thought for sure that it was done for. However, I brought it home and dried it out. I then used a vacuum cleaner to remove any dried sand on the head. Once it was dried I cleaned the ball a number of times over the next few days using the instructions noted earlier. After cleaning it worked fine. 

I typically clean the head periodically to make sure it is working smoothly. One of the problems I’ve had involves photographing in really cold weather. When photographing in cold weather If the ball has any moisture in the mechanism it will freeze up making it difficult to rotate the camera and lens. I always clean the ball with WD-40 prior to heading out in cold weather. WD-40 removes the moisture from the ball mechanism. If I’m going to be in the field  several days I will bring cleaning supplies along with me so I can clean it at the end of the day. I once spent a day out on Lake Superior photographing the Apostle Islands Ice Caves when the temperature was well below zero. Each time I leaned into the camera to take the photo the moisture on my breath froze onto the ball head including the ball. By the end of the day the head was difficult to work. 

Camera in horizontal Shooting Position

Center Column Horizontal

Another issue I have with the head is that it only has one notch for vertical use. In my case this most frequently is a problem when I’m doing macro photography in the field. I should point out that I am using a Manfrotto tripod with a center column that swings up and horizontal. This allows me to spread the legs and place the camera very close to the ground. When I place the camera into this position I find it is very difficult to maneuver the camera into position. In these situations I need to raise the camera into a vertical position using the vertical notch. I also usually need to loosen the panning knob and rotate the entire head in order to get the camera and lens into position. This is can be frustrating particularly if I’m working on a hillside. This is as much of a problem with the tripod as with the ball head since I wouldn’t have this problem if I didn’t have a tripod with a center column. Because this type of photography is a small portion of my overall photography I’ve decided to live with the problem. If I were going to be doing a lot of macro photography in the field I would probably consider a different ball head or, most likely, a different tripod setup. 

Flopping Forward in Vertical Notch

Flopped Forward not Lined up with Vertical Notch

The flip side of this is that the head only has one notch for vertical use. I’m extremely absent minded and when I get really focused on a shot I sometimes forget to tighten ball locking knob when I’m going to move the camera.  If the ball is loose the camera and lens can flop forward. If conditions are just right the lens could fall against one of the tripod legs. This would happen if one of the if the tripod legs is lined up with the vertical notch. Since there is only a single notch the likelihood of this happening is reduced. I have had several times when the tripod head has flopped forward but it stopped because it was not lined up with the vertical notch. 

The other problem I’ve had is the quick release clamp knob and the panning lock knob have a similar feel although they are slightly different sizes. On several occasions I have gotten so focused at finding a great subject to photograph that I’ve loosened the quick release clamp knob rather than the panning lock knob. Markins does have a safety pin which is designed to prevent the camera/lens from sliding out of the clamp if the clamp is not fully secured. This has saved me on a number of occasions. Unfortunately one time it didn’t and it turned into a disaster. I was photographing at Willow River State Park in the winter and found some incredible ice.   I had loosened the panning knob because I was shooting down and needed to move the notch to allow me to do so. I also inadvertently loosened the quick release clamp knob. Apparently I loosened it a lot because when I picked the tripod and camera up to move to a different location The camera and lens slid forward out of the clamp and fell into the river. This was one of those events that I was able to watch in slow motion.  This was clearly user error but the knobs are similar enough that I’ve made this mistake several times. Usually the pin saves me but not this time. Proof once again that not everything can be made idiot proof. 

When I purchased the second Markins Head I had the choice of purchasing a quick release leaver rather than a quick release knob. The former would eliminate the above problem. I finally decided to continue with the knob because most of the time I’m out doing photography I carry the camera attached to the tripod and I felt this provided a more secure attachment. This is just my opinion and may not actually be true.

Bubble Level

The Markins Ball Head comes with a bubble level mounted on the back of the quick shoe. The value of the bubble level is debatable. When using my Nikon camera and with the camera mounted using the camera lens plate you can see the bubble level. Unfortunately, I’m short so most of the time I have trouble looking down at the bubble level unless I lower my tripod. If I mount my camera on the head using the lens plate on the lens it is impossible to see the bubble level. I typically use a hot shoe double axis bubble level mounted on the camera and find this is a much better solution. 

As I noted earlier Markins has a wide variety of camera and lens plates available. Markins has done a good job of designing the camera plates. They have a raised flange on the plate that wraps around the camera in two places and prevents the plate from rotating loose. I’ve never had a camera or lens plate become loose. They are also relatively thin so they are not in the way when storing your camera.

 Markins has a panorama system included on the head. I don’t take a lot of panorama shots but I occasionally use this feature. There is a locking mechanism and by simply turning the panning lock knob you can rotate the entire head 360 degrees. It’s easy to use and I’ve been able to create some great panorama shots.

Overall I like the Markins ball heads. I’m retired  and I’m out doing photography on most days so I use my ball heads almost daily sometimes under difficult conditions. They have held up well under heavy use. I’ve mention several issues I’ve had with the Markins heads and I will leave it up to you to decide if they would be an issue for the type of photography you do. I should add that each time I’ve had an issue or question the staff at Markins has been very helpful in resolving it.

 

Last spring I finally decided to start looking for the perfect photography backpack. Up until this time I had been using a couple of old backpacks that were truly backpacks and not camera packs. I would put my camera in a soft case and dump it into the pack or wrap it up in some clothing or towels. This worked but I decided it wasn’t a good way to treat my camera gear. I also ended up moving gear from one pack to another on a frequent basis. In addition one of the packs did not allow me to carry my tripod on the pack.

In a previous life I was involved in purchasing large amounts of equipment for the state and was familiar with documenting needs. So I decided to write an request for Information (RFI) in which I documented what I needed in a pack. Since I’m involved in a wide range of photography from landscape to birding to macro I carry different equipment depending upon the type of photography I’m doing. I also have a quirk that I don’t like to change lenses in the field if I can help it. In the RFI I documented what type of equipment I would typically carry for each type of photography and what I would normally carry regardless of what type of photography I was involved in. I then sent the RFI to a number of companies that looked like they might have packs that would meet my needs.

One of the companies that responded was F-Stop. This is a relatively new company that has really taken off in the market place. To get started they sent sample packs to a number of adventure photographers to have them evaluate the equipment under field conditions and hopefully write reviews. They advertise themselves as an adventure pack company. I wouldn’t put myself into that category since I typically only do day trips and usually the most I would hike would be ten miles in a day. However, I’m out doing photography probably 250 days per year.

After reviewing a number of responses I decided to go with the F-Stop Tilopa BC pack . However, when I went to order the pack I discovered that business was so good that they had almost no packs in stock. I called them and they were able to find what I needed in-spite of the low stock numbers. Within a week the pack arrived. I’ve been using it now for over 6 months and love it.

Before I start I want to make sure you understand the terms front and back. It’s important because of the design of the pack. The back of the pack is where the shoulder straps are located and the front of the pack faces away from you.

Large ICU Unit

F-Stop uses a different approach for their packs. The pack comes in two parts. The backpack (shown above)  which can be used as a regular backpack and the Internal Camera Unit or ICU which comes in four different sizes ranging from small to extra large. This allows you to adjust your bag configuration to meet your needs as they change between trips or over time without purchasing a new bag. I chose the large size because it allowed me to carry the equipment I typically use when I’m doing photography. The small and medium ICU can be combined to form the equivalent of an extra large ICU.

A second difference is that access to the camera gear is through the back of the of the pack. I really like this feature because I can lay my pack on the wet ground or snow and have easy access to my camera gear. It also means that the pack straps don’t get dirty and wet while I’m trying to get at my camera gear. This is really a great feature.  It’s easy to remove the pack and lay it on the ground and it is also easy to pick it up and put it on with little effort. It has a Thermoplastic Polyurethane coating  (TPU) on the front of the pack to protect it from water and abrasion.  At the same time you can also stand the pack on the ground. The bottom is flat and also has a TPU coating so you can stand it on wet ground or snow and the gear will not get wet. The down side of this configuration occurred one day when I was too lazy to take the pack off and asked my wife to get my camera out. She kept unzipping zippers looking for the camera and only then did I realized she didn’t have access to my camera gear from the front of the pack.

I won’t bore you with the technical details which you can find on the F-Stop web site. I should add that they do an excellent job of describing the their products on their website. Instead I’ll describe some of the major features of the pack along with my comments.

Starting from the top the pack has a small compartment with a seam sealed zipper. There is enough room to carry most of the ten essentials and a few odds and ends. I usually end up putting my wallet, car keys and cell phone in this compartment along with some snacks etc. You could also store extra memory cards and batteries etc.

The next top zipper provides access to the pack itself and makes it a top loading pack. This is where you insert and remove the ICU from the pack. This is also where you access other items you want to carry in your pack. Depending upon the size of the ICU you also have enough space for clothing etc. I usually put my extra clothing in this compartment or use it to store clothing that I remove while hiking.

On the front of the pack there is another large, but shallow, compartment that you can use it to store a wind breaker or other light clothing. It is also large enough to store an Avalanche shovel. There is a drainage hole so snow melt will drain from the bag.

The bottom of the pack has two storage areas with seam sealed zippers. One is accessed from the front of the pack and is a small storage area. I’ve never used this one. F-Stop calls it “Pack it in, Pack it out” trash compartment. The other is access from the back of the pack and is fairly large. I use this one to store the pack rain fly (sold separately) and the rain cover for my camera. Both are things I rarely use so they are out of the way of day to day activities.

The pack also has a pocket for the water bladder with a slot for the tube to exit the bladder compartment. The exit point has a Velcro closure so it can be closed  when not in use. Because most of my trips are in the Midwest and are day trips I’ve not used this feature. However, it is great to have it for my trips to the Southwest where I need all the water I can carry F-stop also sells a hydration sleeve that fits over your water bladder to offer extra protection in case of a leak.

There is also a padded sleeve large enough to hold a 15″ laptop. The sleeve is accessible from the top of the pack.

Mounted on Pack

The tripod can be carried on either side of the pack or attached to the back of the pack. I typically carry on the side. The side pockets and straps are well designed for carrying the tripod. The bottom side catch sleeve for the tripod feet can be attached to the pack with Velcro strips when not in use. The fact that the camera gear is accessed from the back of the pack means that you can attach your tripod to the front or sides and not interfere with access to the camera gear.

Skis can also be carried on either side or the front of the pack. Again the fact that the camera gear is accessed from the back of the pack means that you have access to it without removing the skis.

The pack incorporates the MOLLE attachment system and meets international standards. It can be used with F-stop attachments or third party add-ons.  Again I have not used this feature but it is handy to have for future use. I do use the many straps and bungee cords on the pack to attach water bottles, ice crampons etc.

I typically carry my water on the side pockets. The side pockets are designed for carrying skis and don’t seem to be well configured for carrying standard water bottles. I ended up purchasing a water bottle with a slimmer design which fits a little better. This is one of the features of the pack that could use some redesign work. On the other hand, it is my choice to carry my water bottle here rather than use a water bladder.

The straps have good padding and are easily adjustable. I’m small 5’4″ but find the pack has a comfortable fit and makes it easy to carry heavy camera gear for long distances.

The second part of the f-stop pack configuration is the Internal Camera Unit (ICU). As I mentioned this comes in four different sizes ranging from small to extra large and allows you to easily change configurations depending upon what you want to carry on any given day. If you want to carry less camera gear and more other gear you can use the smaller ICU. If you want to carry more camera gear you can swap out the smaller ICU for a larger one. The ICU’s come with a protective sack with a drawstring top.

The ICU unit is a basically a padded box with lots of straps and dividers that can attached in a variety of configurations to meet your specific needs. I really like the fact that I can easily change the configuration of the ICU depending upon the type of photography I will be doing. I typically carry a couple of cameras with the lenses attached. The ICU has a cover that can be zippered closed. For the most part I don’t zipper it shut because it is a little inconvenient to unzip and zip the cover and then have to unzip and zip the back of the pack as well. I usually just fold the ICU cover in and zipper the pack shut.

One issue is the top of the ICU is soft so when you store additional gear to the top of the pack it tends to compress the top of the ICU up against your camera gear. This can make it a little difficult to get your gear in and out of the ICU.

The ICU unit can be easily removed from the pack and has its own handle at the top so it can be carried separately. This might be useful if you have several ICU’s that you are bringing on a trip. You can also easily use the ICU’s as storage for camera gear around the house.

Conclusions:

As I said I really like the pack. It fits well and is a big improvement over the three packs that I was using for photography. I don’t have to constantly move my gear from one pack to another depending upon the type of hiking or skiing I am going to be doing.

If I had to change anything I would probably redesign the side pockets to make it a little easier to carry the larger water bottles. I would consider a hard top to the ICU so that it doesn’t compress when gear is loaded in the top of the pack. I also might change the zippered opening on the ICU so that it can be zippered off and removed. This would make it a little easier to get at equipment and at the same time allow you to reattach it for longer trips where you would not be accessing the camera gear as frequently.

In an effort to provide full disclosure this is the equipment I typically carry when hiking. A Manfrotto 055CXPro03 tripod with a Markins Q20 ballhead attached. I normally carry two cameras, a Nikon D300s and a Nikon D80s. One serves as a primary camera, with the lens that I think will be using most frequently on the hike, and a backup camera also with another lens attached. The two lenses that I will have mounted on the cameras will vary depending upon what I will be photographing. I commonly carry a Tamron 28-300 mm, Tamron 200-500 mm, Tamron 11-18 mm and a Sigma 150 mm macro lens. I also use a F-stop Tilopa BC camera pack.

I engage in a wide range of photography including landscape, avian, macro, wildlife etc so it is rare that I can’t find something along the trail to photograph. It is also important to note that I am one of those lazy photographers that can think of all kinds of reasons for not taking my camera out of the pack. Usually it is something on the order of I’ll catch that photo on the way back or I’ll probably see something better later . As a result I rarely carry my primary camera in my pack. I’ve missed too many shots because I found a flower or some animal jumped out or a bird flew to a nice perch along the trail .

Normally I carry my primary camera and lens mounted on the tripod. This does mean that the camera needs to be secularly attached to the head. You also need to watch so the camera strap doesn’t drag or catch on something. When the camera is on your shoulder you need to be aware of low limbs so you don’t hit your camera or lens on a branch.

Mounted on Pack

If I’m going to be photographing something that is several miles away and I know I will not be doing any photography on the way to the site I will put the camera in the pack and attach the tripod to the outside of the pack. This rarely happens because of the range of photography that I do. The f-stop Backcountry pack allows the tripod to be attached to either side or the back of the pack. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve carried the tripod strapped to the pack.

Two Shoulder

If I’m going to be hiking for some distance (10 miles) and I know I will be photographing a variety of subjects along the way I mount the camera on the tripod and carry it over my shoulder. Typically I use a two shoulder technique when hiking any distance. In this technique two of the legs are closed together and the third leg is opened allowing me to distribute the weight of the tripod, head and camera on both shoulders with the upper legs of the tripod resting on the backpack shoulder strap padding. This works well on a wide trail where the legs won’t be interfering with oncoming hikers or get caught in brush. If you are on a narrow trail I shorten the legs so they don’t stick out. This approach works well in the Midwest where the trails are normally through forests. Frequently on long hikes I’m photographing fauna along the trail so shortened legs with one leg opened is ideal for photographing close-up shots.

Single Shoulder

If I will be hiking just a few miles and photographing along the way, I generally use the single shoulder technique. In this technique I close the tripod legs and  carry the tripod and camera over one shoulder.

Hand Carry

Walking Stick

If I’m just moving around a shooting location such as a waterfall I will carry the tripod and attached camera in my hand. The hand carry is the easiest and offers great flexibility when moving about. The tripod, even with the camera mounted, makes a nice walking stick for uneven ground and while wading in streams. It has saved me from falling on a number of occasions.