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Bag review: F-Stop Ajna

Camera bags. We all have (at least) one and there are always reasons to complain. I started out with a Lowepro Flipside 200, which soon became too small to fit my gear. It also was not watertight and didn’t come with a rain cover. Living in the Netherlands, I ended up remedying that by adding a Osprey XS rain cover as a backup. Then came the Domke F-2 Original. I had been eyeing this bag ever since I started. I looks the part in my opinion, gives quick access to cameras and lenses, and doesn’t scream ‘camera bag !’ to the outside world too much. Unfortunately, this one too is not watertight. It survives a little drizzle or a light shower, but I wouldn’t trust taking it out in an autumn storm.

The F-Stop Ajna is the latest addition to my camera bag collection and I intend to keep it that way for now. I needed a bag that was watertight, could pack plenty of gear and preferably allowed for a modular layout, so that I can use it for multiple occasions and with varying kits (sizes). This is not only nice for holidays or trips to rainy destinations, but also makes me much more comfortable going out when the weather is not so nice to begin with. I purchased it in December 2015 and have taken it with me on many local trips, but also on a vacation to Vietnam and business trips in Europe and to the US. I believe to have sufficient experience with the bag and the ICU system to give a well informed perspective.

Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by f-stop in any kind. I purchased the bag and the ICUs of my own money and I am not paid to write this review.

Overview

F-Stop manufactures high-quality, modular photography backpacks aimed at the more adventurous type. Most of their bags are water sealed, provide excellent protection against the elements and offer a plethora of straps and zippers to attach both photography and adventure gear.

Weather sealing

The weather sealing on the Ajna really is top notch. All zippers are heavy duty and either covered by some water repelling material or rubberized. In both light and heavy rain I have not had any problems or water penetrating into the bag. The bag is not fully water proof though, so don’t expect you can take on a swim or set out for open waters.

All zippers are either covered or rubberized for excellent weather sealing.

You can enter the main compartment via the top, but this will only show you the top side of the ICU. To actually access the camera, you have to open the zipper in the back cover. This offers great protection against pickpockets, and makes that the bag is put down on its weather protecting surfaces when you are using it for example on wet soil.

Internal Camera Units

The gear is stored in what F-stop calls ‘Internal Camera Units’ or ICUs for short. Each ICU comes with dividers that can be moved and fixed in place with Velcro. On the outside, the ICUs have velcro straps that loop through plastic d-rings inside the bag that allow it to be fixed inside the backpack. I find this an easy way of storing my kit, as I now own several of these ICUs. The ‘Small Pro’ holds my speed lights, triggers and gels, the ‘Medium Slope Pro’ holds my dSLR and lenses and the ‘XLarge Pro’ holds my entire 4 x 5 kit of camera, lenses, film holders, light meter etc.  The Ajna is big enough to hold the ‘Medium Slope Pro’ and the ‘Small Pro’ stacked on top of each other, or just the ‘XLarge Pro’. If you use one of the smaller ones, there is plenty of space left to have the backpack second as a day bag or a light travel bag (say, 2 day trip).

For extended trips of a few days, the Ajna is large enough to hold the ‘Medium Slope ICU’ and some clothing. The ‘XLarge Pro’ really fills the entire bag. If you need to carry a full kit, and want to do hikes of several days, consider going for one of their larger bags: the Sukha or the Shinn.

The ICUs come with dividers that allow several layouts in the bags. Some of the dividers are pretty awkwardly shaped though, making them only really fit for one configuration. Having multiple ICUs gives a lot more freedom, but it would be nice if F-stop would sell these separately. The dividers have a soft outer cover to prevent scratching and are Velcroed into place. Except for the somewhat awkward shape of the larger ones, I never had any issues with the dividers. With every ICU also come elastic bands that can be Velcroed to the dividers, to protect gear from falling out of the bag when its opened. I use these in the XLarge ICU as an extra safety catch to prevent the lenses from falling out (I never had gear falling out of the bag though).

Storage options

The Ajna (and to my knowledge all) F-stop bags offer plenty of storage options inside the bag and plenty of straps to connect other items to the bag. The main compartment offers roughly 40 liters of storage capacity. On top of that, there are plenty of pockets and pouches to stow additional gear. For example, there is a small pocket in the bag cover that is revealed when you open the back. It is the right size to store filter holders, cleaning cloths and the like. On the top of the bag there are two pockets: one on the outside that is zippered with a rubberized zipper and one on the inside. Depending on the gear I am carrying, I use these for maps, compasses, spare batteries, notebooks, etc.

On both sides of the bag there are two slim pockets that span almost the entire height of the bag. I use these to store one or two of the tripod legs, or use them for water bottles on short trips. When the bag also seconds as a day pack, I use them to store sandwiches or dry socks.

What’s to like?

Me, walking with the bag on my back, tripod in the hand. Vietnam, 2016

The Ajna is the crossover between a large camera bag and a hiking pack. Even with heavy kits, such as the 4×5, the bag is comfortable to wear. The hip straps, the stiff frame inside and load tensioners on the shoulder straps allow for a good distribution of the weight onto your body, which make the weight almost go unnoticed in comparison with normal camera backpacks or shoulder / reporter bags.

It is large enough to take plenty of photography/video gear that you may need in the field on day trips and if you can do with a smaller ICU, it is also great to have it second as a day pack. At 1.7 kg empty it isn’t heavy for its size either. Its many pockets and straps allow for sufficient ways of packing the bag the way you want and keeping everything readily accessible.

The weather sealing is the main reason I decided to buy the Ajna in the first place. When it rains one out of every three days some protection against water is very nice. Without it I often defer from going out to shoot, because of the weather. Every pocket is protected in one way or another.

Complaints

The velcro taps on the outside of the ICU loop through d-rings on the inside of the bag. With the Ajna, these loops are fixed right underneath the reinforcing frame.

As I said in the first sentence of this review: there are always things to complain about, and the Ajna is no exception. Swapping out ICUs can be a pain. The straps that have to loop through the d-rings of the ICUs are very close to the reinforcements of the back flap of the backpack (see photo on the right). You will have to remove all items from the ICU, then put it in, and then refill the bag. “Hot swapping” of ICUs is not really an option, unless you do not need the ICUs to be locked in place.

Also, attaching a tripod to the outside of the bag isn’t ideal. Where other manufacturers have added small pouches for one of the tripod legs to rest on when it is strapped to the bag, the Ajna requires an alternative mounting strategy. You could use the one of the side pouches, but this throws off the balance significantly, making it uncomfortable to wear. It also reduces the water proofing, because the bag will be partially opened all the time. The alternative is to strap it either on the front of the back, or on the top. On the top makes your bag rather wide, while mounting the tripod on the front moves the center of mass away from your back, making its apparent weight increase considerably. F-stop does sell a separate tripod bag (49 USD, April 2017) that can be connected to the bag. Given that many photographers also carry tripods, I think an integrated option would be preferable.  If you have any suggestions on how to properly do this, let me know in the comments!

The tripod can be stowed in one of the side pockets and strapped to the bag using the compression straps.
The tripod can also be strapped to the front side of the bag using the accessory straps.

I would like to point out, that the Ajna is marketed as being the largest pack you can still take as hand luggage on most airliners. Although this may be true for some airliners, 2017 airline guidelines for some American and most European airliners are more restrictive. If the bag is full, you cannot cheat your way into hand luggage by compressing it slightly. Be aware of this when flying! I have brought it as hand luggage on KLM, ChinaSouthern and Delta flights, without any problems so far, but this can never be guaranteed.

From a hiking bag perspective it should be noted that it is a one-size-fits-all concept. Due to the layout of the bag, the back is not adjustable to your height for optimal comfort. If you are planning to use it for long hikes, this may be of concern.

Price

So, if this is such a great bag, what kept me so long from buying into this system? That is an easy question to answer: price. F-Stop bags are far from cheap. The medium sized Ajna is priced at 250 euro for the bag only. On top of this, you have to add at least one ICU at 60 euro to 250 euro a piece (depending on the size). At the end of the day you have a very expensive camera bag. Although I do believe that a good camera bag, as any good camera equipment, will be a long term investment, it really took me a long time until I could justify for myself to buy into the system. You do, however, get what you pay for and the bag is worth its money in my opinion. I have not listed this as a downside, because many quality camera bags are in this price range. Consider for example the price tags on Pelican cases, Billingham bags, ONA bags, or the larger bags by Lowepro and Think Tank. These too will easily cost you 350 euro plus when bought new. It is up to you to decide whether paying such a price is worth it.

Conclusion

Would I recommend the Ajna for everyone? No, every photographer has its own specific needs and these will probably be different from mine. If you are traveling with bigger cameras or might also want to store more than just the camera kit, I most definitely recommend you consider the F-stop Ajna or one of the even bigger packs though! Don’t let the relative lengths of the pros and cons sections fool you, I really like using this bag.

The bag is made of high quality materials, is watertight and offers a plethora of straps for you to attach other hiking or camping gear on the outside. In combination with the ICUs, it offers a flexible way of storing and transporting several camera kits that I find very useful. It is especially useful for short trips or hikes, but can be used for longer trips if you can accept a smaller ICU. It’s a keeper for me!

Published in Miscellaneous

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