This review covers 4 different “back panel access” backpacks as well as four carbon fiber “travel” tripods. Back Panel Access to me means that the access to the camera gear is through the panel that touches your back. Travel to me means the tripods had to be small when collapsed and light weight. Small enough in fact to fit INSIDE the camera compartment of the backpacks in question. Back panel access is crucial for landscape photography because you’re constantly working in messy locations. Mud, snow, sand, you name it we’re standing in it shooting. If you set down a traditional backpack in these scenarios it goes on the ground straps/harness down when you access the camera which means you wear whatever it was set on when you’re done. This makes me get wet and dirty far too often so I much prefer bags with access on the same side as the harness. The tripods are all picked to be the most stable options but that fit inside the bags listed. Here’s what we’ll be looking at for bags:
and here are the tripods:
- Gitzo series 1 traveler tripod GT1545T
- Feisol CT-3441S
- Sirui N-1204 X
- Davis & Sanford TR654C-36 (comes with a ballhead & plate)
Of the four bags and four tripods in question I own all four of the bags (incase and f-stop for 2+ years, the mindshift and lowepro are new this fall) and two of the tripods (sirui and davis & sanford). B&H was kind enough to loan me the gitzo and feisol. I’ll say right now that all four bags are great bags but some are better for some things while others are better for different situations. The tripods are even closer, they’re all great options and it really depends on what you’re looking for. There are really no bad tripods in this group, but I do have my preferences…
make sure you click the HD/1080p option when you watch the videos!
Let’s go over the tripods first since it’s the closest and also the most number happy! Here are the specs on the tripods:
max height column up/down
legs & center column in mm
For me the tripods are all about being as solid as possible while fitting inside the bag of choice. I prefer carbon fiber for a lot of reasons, it’s lighter in general, it feels less cold in the cold, but also because it’s better at absorbing vibrations. I also feel it’s better in the salt water environment I’m in/around most often as metal seems to corrode faster.
Another consideration for tripods is you need a head to go with a tripod. There’s really three parts to this equation; support = camera plate + head + tripod. You need all three sorted out to get good support. I’m an L-bracket user. I used to buy RRS (really right stuff) L-brackets exclusively but there’s quite expensive ($125~$150) and amazon has (Chinese) options for ~$25… It’s a non moving part so as long as it’s shaped well it works. I’ve been very happy with my neewer plates for both my a6000 and a7rii. Head wise this is my travel tripod setup which is geared towards being compact (fitting inside the bag). A smaller diameter base on your head often means the legs fold in closer making the whole package smaller. For this reason I’ve been using a sunwayfoto FB-28 with my sirui for 2 years. When I was shopping it was the best small head I could find. I also don’t tend to use pan knobs so that extra control is more of a hassle as you need to line up 2 knobs with the legs when you invert them. Unfortunately they don’t make that head anymore and the new version has a pan knob now… But it’s still one of the best bang for the buck options I’ve seen. Here’s the link. RRS also makes a BH-25 that’s similar (but 25% more expensive). It also ditches the panning knob but their main knob has this great lever on it but I wonder if it would also be harder to align between the legs when inverting everything? Then they have their BC-18 that looks awesome and tiny/light… I actually found it by reading the gitzo GT1545t review on B&H (yes the very tripod I’m reviewing!) as a user there has it on his. The issue there is the BC-18 comes with a male thread on the bottom (most tripods have a threaded hole) so you have to REMOVE the stud/post from your tripod, put in an adapter bushing (the gitzo has one, they’re easy to find at B&H, search for a “3/8″-16 to 1/4″-20 Reducer Bushing”).
The issue with the sirui came to light when I went to photo expo this fall and saw the new lowepro whistler 450. I liked the bag a lot and wanted to replace my f-stop with it but the sirui won’t fit inside by about an 1″~1.5″… So I started looking for a tripod that fits inside the lowepro but also only has 4 sections/3 locks without having pencil thin sections. This list ended up being pretty short with the feisol and gitzo being the two obvious options.
As I mentioned, this has been my personal travel tripod for two years now. I bought it when I was still using a canon 5Diii and it could support that as long as I wasn’t using anything bigger than a 70-300. The tripod itself can support more but I’m using a very small sunwayfoto FB-28 ballhead which has it’s limits with longer lenses with the torque they can produce. Now that I’m a mirrorless shooter it’s been even more capable. As I said above the only reason I’m looking to replace this set of legs is that it’s slightly too long. The sirui has the option to use the center column with one of the legs as a monopod as well. Everything is made well and has held up well to two years of use in and around salt water. This is a $400 set of legs so for me it better meet your needs exactly for that price. It’s feet are permanent which is a negative to me as I like to use spikes when shooting landscapes but need an option to switch to rubber feet for interior work.
Pros & Cons:
- + Has a monopod option
- + good track record (I’ve owned and used it for 2 years w/o issue).
- – ~$400 seems expensive when you put the D&S next to it.
- – fixed feet, rubber only.
- not much else pro/con wise here, it’s basically the baseline for all comparisons below!
The feisol is the first of two tripods B&H was kind enough to loan me for this review (I’m an affiliate of theirs). This is definitely the largest tripod in the group in terms of the build of the tripod. Everything is bigger here, the feet, the leg locks, the diameters of each section of the legs. What this gets you is a more solid tripod but at the cost of being slightly heavier but also taking up more volume in the bag. It’s also the shortest of the group with the column down or with just the first section of the column… Yes it has two center column sections but the higher you go on a single center column the less stable everything becomes… For that reason this is my least favorite tripod of the group. It takes up more space in the bag (diameter wise) and it’s shorter than I’d prefer. The added leg diameter isn’t worth it for me as I haven’t had a problem with the sirui/D&S twins or the gitzo (which has the skinniest legs in the group).
Pros & Cons:
- + Largest diameter legs in the group (most solid support, can hold more weight)
- + tallest height when using both center column sections
- – need to use two center column sections to get the height!
- – center columns aren’t “anti twist”
- – heaviest in the group
- – fixed feet, rubber only.
The gitzo is easily the nicest tripod in the group. And you pay for that. It’s the most expensive option by a long shot. You do get a nicer tripod because of it but I don’t think you get better images. IE I don’t think it’s any more stable, the details are all just a bit nicer… The center “spider” is a nice casted magnesium piece where the others are all machined aluminum. The leg angle locks are fancy sideway rotating affairs that are very nice. Those two combine to make for a smaller center “spider” which makes the tripod take less volume in your bag. The leg locks have the best rubber grips on them by a large margin and the locks are shorter which means more of the leg is used to go toward it’s height with less overlap. The rubber feet are also shaped with a steeper angle so they grab onto rocks better somehow and they’re replaceable if needed (and you can get spikes or a convertible set). Again, lots of minor details that all add up to a nicer package. Interestingly there’s no hook at the bottom of the center column, but it does have an eye in the center casting that you can tie a line to to tie your bag to to add weight. It does come with a shorter center column option but you have to swap out the long column to use it. The gitzo also only has 2 angles for it’s legs then the inverted setting (the others all have 3 then inverted). But gitzo also uses a wider stance on it’s legs in the normal position which means the tripod is slightly more stable. This sacrifices overall height slightly but it’s only an inch sorter w/o the center column which is worth the stability to me. The gitzo is the only tripod in the group to not come with any padding on the legs, but with a carbon tripod this is less important, but worth noting. Another detail that’s quite nice is gitzo makes the platform for the head a smaller diameter on smaller legs. It’s also positioned so it sits just below the thickest leg lock. One final detail is that the carbon gitzo uses has a great double crossing pattern on the outermost layer that looks fantastic. The only complaint I really have with the gitzo is the price. At $740 it’s significantly more expensive -vs- the other options in the group. It’s the nicest option and it fits inside the lowepro perfectly (and it’s easier to get into all the bags) but yeah, $740 is a hard pill to swallow for me.
Pros & Cons:
- + easily the “nicest” tripod in the group, lots of small details are just better…
- + lightest in the group.
- – most expensive in the group…. by a significant margin.
- – shortest in the group.
- + smallest in the group when folded, easiest to just drop in the bag and go.
- + awesome leg locks.
- + removable feet, so can carry a set of spiked feet and swap or get convertible feet.
- + nicest rubber feet in the group, they’re wide but “thin” so they grip better.
- + cast center spider is compact and also great looking
- + best looking carbon in the group
- – no hook for those that need one (but there’s a cast loop in the spider you can tie anything to and is a lighter solution).
This is the wildcard in the group. I’ve noticed this tripod on B&H’s site a few months ago when a friend was looking for a good inexpensive tripod. I couldn’t really recommend it because I’d never seen or heard of Davis & Sanford but it’s specs were hard to ignore. I had to see what it was about so I ordered one for myself (it’s not on loan, I bought it). Out of the box it’s VERY similar to the sirui. Similar specs across the board except for a few differences. First up and most obvious is the price. This tripod costs $170 and comes with a ballhead and plate! You do lose the monopod option but you gain convertible feet… That’s right, the least expensive tripod in the group is the only one in the group with convertible feet! This might not be a crucial feature to everyone but it’s something I’ve had on my induro CT313 for ~5 years now. Doing arch work I use the rubber feet, outside I use the spikes. Threading the rubber foot up/down is MUCH easier than a set of feet you swap on and off (been there, done that). One area this set of legs differs from the sirui is that the hook under the center column has a weird plastic part around it. This forces the center column to protrude about ~1/2″ below the bottom of the “spider” when everything is collapsed. For most this probably isn’t a big deal but I’m putting these legs inside the bags in this review and that ~1/2″ was just enough to make it work. So I unthreaded the hook, removed the plastic bit and hook, and replaced the bottom plate. Now the center column sits flush with the spider! The other really nice thing with the D&S is that the switches for the angle of the legs has a very nice and easy shape to it. It’s easier to get a finger on than both the feisol and sirui.
The negatives with the D&S would be that out of the box the tension with the legs isn’t tight enough. Grab the tripod by one leg and it opens leaving the rest of the tripod behind. But they provide you with the tools needed to tighten the screws and you can tighten them enough to meet any preference (IE I over tightened them!). The platform for the head is also larger in diameter than is needed. This means when you invert and close the legs they touch the platform before they touch the ballhead which keeps the legs spread a bit wider than needed. The last negative is hard to count as a negative as it’s the included ballhead. Yes that’s right, the least expensive option in the group has a ballhead and plate thrown in for “free”! The reason it’s a negative is it’s a heavy ballhead that’s got the traditional 3 knobs on it that just means it doesn’t work cleanly with a tripod that’s designed to invert. The knobs end up straddling one of the legs and the clamp ends up fighting with the third leg with it’s lock in the way as well. Now, it’ll still fit in the backlight 26l or incase camera inserts with this head and like I said, it’s included in the price… But with all the other legs in this test I’d be adding my own small travel ballhead to them so it’s only fair to do the same here as well. Once you replace the head the legs fold neatly around the head without any issues.
Pros & Cons:
- +++ CHEAP!!!
- + seems to be a clone of the sirui but at less than half the price.
- + includes a ballhead and plate for the price.
- + very nice “locks” on the legs to invert them (the blue levers)
- +/- blue accents, could take or leave…
- – leg tension is loose out of the box + fixable with included tools
- + tallest in the group when using one or no center column
- + feet are convertible out of the box, spikes and rubber!
- ? there’s some metal on here (spikes and in around the leg rotation mechanism) that might not be stainless enough if you put it in salt water (like I do) at this price. Time will tell…
- – not a lot of mileage on one, haven’t seen any other reviews, how will it hold up?
- – ballhead is heavy and makes it tricky to collapse the legs and line up the knobs (not the best travel head) but it’s free at a price that’s <1/2 the others so it’s very hard to call this a negative (I have my sunwayfoto FB-28 on mine)…
- – hook design leaves center column ~1/2″ below the spider which makes it ~1/2″ longer in the bag, had to REMOVE the hook and put just the plate back on to make it fit in the larger bags (the hook on the sirui fits flush).
and now onto the bags… I’m trying to get myself into that one perfect photo backpack… As I’m sure most of you know this is almost impossible because we don’t do the same thing all the time in terms of where we go OR what we shoot. Some times you’re in the city, sometimes on a mountain, sometimes you’ve got a bag of primes and flashes, other times it’s tripods and zooms and filters. But my goal here is to get one bag that does everything I do (which ranges from architectural to skiing to landscapes to weddings) without needed a bag for each genre…
I’ve had this bag for two years now and it’s been a surprisingly good bag. I bought it to see if I’d like back panel access bags and I realized they work really well for me. The great part about this bag is it’s very low profile and it blends into the sea of backpacks out there. It’s a great bag for flying under the radar. It’s got one tiny incase logo on it and very few straps or anything else to draw attention to the fact that it’s a camera bag. This bag has plenty of room for a laptop and tablet in the front compartment and I’ve even put in my full filter kit (in a mindshift filterhive) and my strobe kit (in a think tank modular bag). But when there’s nothing in this section it practically disappears and this is easily the thinnest bag in the bunch when there’s nothing in the front section. This thinness is due in large part to the fact that it’s got the thinnest camera section was well. The camera insert is only ~5″ deep where the lowepro and mindshift are both 6″ deep. This inch could make a big difference if you’re using something like a 5Diii that really fills the smaller bag. Even my a7rii when on it’s side gets tight in the incase where it drops right into the mindshift or lowepro. The overall height of the incase makes the longer tripods fit perfectly. The inserts are well built but not quite as nice as mindshifts. The back panel opens sideways which I actually prefer to the top down opening of the others as the flap stays out of the dirt/sand better. There’s a nice quick access opening at the top of the bag which lets you get your camera out of the top in a hurry. It’s also got the nicest handle in the group at the top… The biggest negative for me is the lack of a hip belt means it’s not a comfortable bag to hike with for a full day. But this is also the cheapest bag in the group by a lot priced at $140! If you’re looking for a bag for short hikes or prioritize having a very stealth bag over all else this is the bag for you!
Pros & Cons:
- + cheapest bag in the group.
- + least camera bag looking.
- – thinnest camera section (can’t hold a pro body).
- + thinnest camera section means thinnest bag though…
- – most organic looking shape, least boxy.
- + great accessory pocket up front.
- – no hip belt
- + love the “sideways” opening to the camera compartment, door/flap stays off ground better than others.
- – back panel zipper is smaller than the rest, doesn’t flow as well.
- +/- has worn OK for 2 years, but some seems are starting to show stress (not coming apart, just shows some mileage).
- + quick access flap at top of bag to access just the camera.
- + nicest grab handle of the group at top of bag.
If the sirui and D&S tripods were twins the incase and mindshift bags also share a lot of similarities. The mindshift is basically the outdoor version of the incase. It’s built better and has the best camera insert in the group. Mindshift/Thinktank just know how to make no nonsense camera inserts. They use thinner padding that gives you more room. For me it’s the correct amount of padding as I want some protection but prefer having space -vs- bloated padding (and you can always double up on inserts around items you’re worried about). The zipper pulls are the nicest in the group and even though the main zipper is the same here as in the lowepro and f-stop, it somehow works slightly better here. Possibly because of the shorter pulls on the zippers? The front pocket is almost identical in layout to the incase with room for a laptop and tablet and plenty of accessories and or lunch and some layers. There are great water bottle pockets on both sides on the outside with straps above so you can store a tripod on either side here if you like. It’s also got a great setup to put a tripod down the middle of the back but it’s furthest away from you meaning it’ll throw your balance off a bit, even with a light tripod. There’s another small pocket on the back as well. The harness is nice but maybe not quite as nice as the lowepro. This bag (and the lowepro) comes with it’s own rain fly (an extra on the f-stop). Basically this is the bag I would suggest to anyone reading this review unless you’re a hardcore skier. The side straps couldn’t quite handle skis but this bag will handle just about anything else. You get a lot for your money at $250. If that seems a bit steep for you and you can live without the hip belt the incase is your answer. The backlight is the answer if you’re hiking at all and it still doesn’t scream camera bag (as long as you keep your tripod inside the bag) when out and about.
Pros & Cons:
- + best all around bag in the group
- + best camera inserts by far.
- – a bit boxy in shape.
- – fabric on back panel and straps LOVES to pick up sand…
- + great harness AND it fits me at 6’4″.
- + 2:1 on hip belt makes it easy to tighten.
- + plenty of storage options on outside of bag for tripods, water bottles etc.
- + includes rain cover.
- – a bit boxy looking.
- +/- while not super stealth looking it still doesn’t scream camera bag.
- + great zipper pulls!!!!
- – grab handle at top of bag is thin (so are the whistler’s and f-stops), thinktank has a much nicer handle on their own trifecta bags.
This is the bag I want to win me over… But it’s not perfect… As I said earlier I spotted this bag at photo expo in NYC and tried my sirui in it immediately only to realize the camera insert is juuust a hair too short. Turns out the compartment itself has TONS of room, it’s just that the insert lowepro has designed for this bag has very heavy and stiff foam or even plastic boards in the sides and top and bottom. This eats up valuable room and it makes the sirui and D&S twins just too long to fit. Take the insert out and the longer tripods swim in there… The rest of the bag is built VERY well. The material is hard to explain. It’s got an almost rubberized feeling to it. It’s heavier than the f-stop but in a way that feels like it’s more waterproof/resistant and less likely to rip. It’s got awesome straps and buckles for putting skis on the side in an a-frame (see below) or for a snowboard centered on the back. The snowboard straps are even removable for skiers to give easier access to the snow tool pocket. And that’s right, this bag has a snow tool pocket, NOT a laptop sleeve (I’ve always questioned f-stop for this on their dedicated ski/snow bags, they’ve got a padded laptop sleeve why?). This compartment has a grommet in the bottom to drain water and a nice rubberized hypathalon (?) layer between it and the camera section. There’s a hook up top for your water bladder so the drain and barrier make sense. The harness is the best in the group. The material on the bag flap is great as it’s not mesh so it doesn’t pick up dirt or sand, but it’s got enough relief to it it’s not one hot flat panel on your back. The sternum strap is not only a whistle (the backlight has this as well as the f-stop) but it’s fixed on the left strap in a way you can EASILY clip and unclip it ONE HANDED!!! I didn’t really realize how nice this is until I’d used the bag a few weeks and keep finding myself trying this with the other bags now as well. The straps are probably all a bit longer than they need to be as I’m 6’4″ and have PLENTY of extra strap/wedding at each adjustment. I would hate to see someone not fit due to short straps but this is close to overkill IMHO (and it costs more and weighs more).
Pros & Cons:
- + best bag for carrying skis/snowboard.
- + great material, feels rugged and a bit more waterproof/resistant (time will tell).
- + includes rain cover.
- – over protective camera insert gives up space for padding (can’t fit the sirui/D&S in the biggest bag in the group?).
- – very boxy with the insert in the bag (boxy rectangle with “boards” in the sides mean there’s zero give).
- – to put it this way, if this bag had the mindshift insert it would be my winner hands down…
- + no laptop compartment in a ski specific bag as it should be!
- + snow tool pocket is nicely waterproof and has a drain hole.
- + buckles/straps are heavy duty so they’ll take the abuse ski edges put on a bag.
- + great material on the back panel picks up zero sand.
- + great harness, has the same 2:1 hip strap but also has the non dangling sternum strap that’s amazing (one of those “why did this take so long to figure out?” moments).
- + most comfortable bag.
- +/- biggest bag in the group (this can go either way but they make a smaller version if you don’t want big!).
- + great zipper pulls
- + dedicated ski bag means extra storage is for snow tools, non skiers/riders will consider this a negative as they laptop/tablet storage isn’t quite as nice.
- – gray on gray zipper pulls on the non camera zippers are hard to see at dusk/dark, gusset pulls should be gray but the rest should be a contrasting color.
- – Main compartment zipper pulls aren’t quite as nice as the mindshift but this is just being super nit picky…
- – orange?
- +/- has a fiberglass stay for shape.
- – thin grab handle at top.
This is a great hiking backpack that can carry a camera. By that I mean the bag itself is great, but f-stops ICU system leaves a lot to be desired. I know a lot of great ski photographers use f-stops but I just can’t get over the ICU system and how it feels like an add on and not a cohesive unit. I owned the loka for over two years before I upgraded to the satori which is basically just a larger version of the same bag. I’ve had my satori for two years now as well and I’ve put countless miles on both skiing and hiking. Another oddity with this bag is the fact it’s got a padded laptop sleeve. Obviously photographers travel with laptops quite often but NOT when they’re skiing… Lowepro left this out on the whistler and instead built a dedicated snow tool pocket (which a padded laptop sleeve can fit in easily when traveling but not hiking/skiing). In the end I just really don’t like the inserts and the way everything else in the bag loves to come out that back panel once you open it (a larger insert would plug the whole better admittedly). For this reason I’ve been looking to replace this bag for a while now and the whistler is the first bag that can match it’s performance skiing. The only thing this bag is better at -vs- the whistler is the fact it’s inserts come in different sizes. You can go with a tiny camera kit and load the rest with gear which is nice. But you can do something similar with the whistler by either not filling the camera insert with camera gear or just removing it and using a smaller insert.
Pros & Cons:
- + light weight.
- + nice harness, has 2:1 hip belt buckles
- + most wide open storage options…
- – because of the above sometimes things “float” around in the bag as it can be one massive compartment if you want it to be.
- – ICUs are worst camera insert in the group.
- – has a padded laptop sleeve in a ski/hiking bag, when was the last time you took your laptop skiing? Plus, if you say “for traveling” yeah, OK but don’t we all have padded laptop sleeves/cases already? So a slot for a shovel that your padded laptop bag goes in when traveling makes way more sense…
- – if your bladder were to leak that’s in the “laptop sleeve” which isn’t waterproof/resistant that water is then inside the rest of the bag (the lowepro has it in it’s own pocket with snow tools [that can get wet] with a grommet at the bottom so it drains and keeps the water away from everything else).
- +/- has an aluminum stay for shape.
- – thin grab handle at top.
To wrap this up lets break it down into some picks for best bags and tripods for different things. For me here’s the breakdown, The satori is the loser all around. I was the best ski bag but the whistler has taken over that role pretty convincingly. The incase is the pick if you’re on a budget or if you want the most stealth bag in the group. The whistler is the new ski bag and it gives the backlight a run for it’s money overall as well. It’s slightly bigger so if you’re as tall as I am (6’4″) it might fit better and it’s built with slightly heavier materials (more durable in theory but also heavier). The best bag in the group would have to be the backlight 26l. It’s really the best all around bag here. The only thing I wouldn’t do with it is strap skis to it and hike tucks but that’s not it’s design (just something I’m looking for). It’s got the best inserts, the best accessory storage (although the incase is basically the same) and a great harness.
In short, if you’re a big guy or skier buy the Whistler with the gitzo but otherwise go for the backlight and D&S.