The F-stop Tilopa, the most comfortable camera bag I have used but is it worth the money?

Think camera bags, and you will almost certainly imagine bags built with the robustness of a Sherman tank and fitted with more pockets, buckles and straps than you will actually know what to do with. Regardless of the manufacturer, there is a certain expectation that the materials used will be nothing less than the finest ever made and the build quality flawless. Well, I’m happy to report that, after extensive testing, the F-stop Tilopa camera bag meets all these expectations. It is a superb bit of tailoring, which incidentally looks spectacular in pale blue. However, as handsome as the bag is, one must ask, What sets the Tilopa apart from every other camera bag on the market?

First, the F-stop Tilopa itself is not a camera bag per se but rather a backpack in the “let’s go hiking in the Drakensberg” kind of way. On its own, you would be hard-pressed to say that it was ever designed with photography in mind. Instead, it bears all the hallmarks of an Alpine trekking bag with a myriad of external pockets, space for a hydration bladder and even points for attaching climbing ropes and skis.

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To make the bag useful as a piece of photography equipment requires purchasing a separate Internal Camera Unit or ICU. The ICU comprises the core of a bag-within-a-bag system which, as regular readers will know, is something I’m not terribly fond of. I always see a bag within a bag as being rather redundant and an inefficient use of space. Needless to say, there are certain undeniable upsides to the duffel duplication and for the Tilopa, the benefit comes by way of having the option to customise how much of the pack is dedicated to photography and how much is dedicated to trekking.

 The F-stop Large Pro ICU with my gear.

The F-stop Large Pro ICU with my gear.

F-stop sells a total of seven ICUs that can fit inside the Tilopa and they cover a vast range of sizes, from just bigger than a wallet to those that leave no space for even an energy bar. My test unit came with the Large Pro ICU, which very nearly held all the gear that I ordinarily carry. A few odds and ends, such as my spare batteries and so on, had to find a home elsewhere in the main bag and, while less than ideal, this is not enough for me to suggest buying a bigger ICU. As it was, with the Large Pro version of the ICU installed inside the Tilopa, the portion of the bag available for trekking gear was whittled down to only space for a raincoat and some lunch.

With the Tilopa being as full as it is once laden with photographic gear, I can’t help but think that it’s a case of “jack of all trades but master of none”. The F-stop website specifically states that “the Tilopa works well for both multi-day trips and short day hikes off the beaten path” but coming in at a mere 50 litres, even without camera equipment at all, I just can’t see how this is an accurate description. I cannot imagine any hiker in any part of the world overnighting off the beaten path with only 50 litres of gear – certainly not in South Africa. There is simply no way that a tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food, etc. are going to fit, and that’s to say nothing of a camera and a lens or two.

So, if it’s not an overnight bag then it must be a daypack and I am happy to report that the Tilopa begins clawing back some ground in this category. Its hiking heritage sees the bag being constructed around an internal frame made from aluminium tubing and the rigidity provided by the frame perfectly complements the bag’s lush padding. It also features a fully functional hip belt and this results in, without question, the most comfortable camera bag that I have ever used. In fact, the Tilopa ranks highly on my all-time list of the most comfortable bags I have hiked with. Even with a tripod strapped to the outside, the bag is still compact and well balanced, offering all the performance and control that you would expect from a first-rate walking bag.

Unfortunately, the Tilopa’s hiking prowess comes, quite regrettably, with some cost to photography. One of the attributes that I value most in a camera bag, especially on day walks, is quick access to my camera. With the Tilopa, regardless of how you go about it, getting at your gear is a chore. One option is to go in through the top of the bag, removing the aforementioned rain jacket and lunch before extracting the whole ICU and finally gaining access to your camera. The alternative is to enter through the zipping back panel but the size of this access port is limited by the bag’s frame. The result is that the second set of zips which permits entry to the ICU sits under the frame and, as such, undoing these is fiddly work.

The logical question to ask then is whether or not the clumsy camera access is enough to warrant disregarding the bag’s stellar comfort levels. Essentially, Would I advise that others look elsewhere for a photography daypack based on the Tilopa’s poor ergonomics? Well, I wouldn’t. I would happily sacrifice ease of access and choose the Tilopa over my existing camera bag for day-to-day landscape photography purposes. It is that comfortable.

A more important question, though, is if I would part with my hard-earned money to buy one and the answer here is, No, I wouldn’t. The F-Stop Tilopa, the Large Pro ICU and a rain cover (because, surprisingly, the rain cover is an add-on) will set you back a whopping R7,385 and that’s a hefty price tag for a daypack. That sort of money can buy you much larger hiking and trekking bags that would do the job of multi-day off-the-beaten-path expeditions – and you would have change left over to buy an ICU or a third-party equivalent. For a daily camera bag, there are many bags available today that give up a little in terms of comfort, a lot in the way of price and offer far easier access to your gear.

If the F-Stop Tilopa could hold 25 litres more and cost R1,000 less it would have lived up to its own sales pitch and made for an extraordinary “off the beaten path” piece of kit.


Addendum (2018-01-31)

After my testing of the F-stop Tilopa, it came to my attention that my application of the ICU unit covered only one its intended use cases. F-stop also recommends that to increase gear accessibility, the lid of the ICU, which in my video is the fiddly inner flat, can be folded away such that only the primary access port requires any zipping.

To better understand what I'm on about, the video below sheds light on the matter from the 01:05 mark onwards.

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Thank you to LANDSCAPEGEAR.CO.ZA for providing the Tilopa used in this review. If you are looking for further details on the Tilopa or other F-stop gear then please visit landscapegear.co.za