F-stop’s Tilopa BC Camera Bag Review

I’m a bag hound and I mean it. Not just camera bags – any kind of bag, suitcase, satchel, purse – ANYTHING that makes carrying my stuff easier, more convenient, less painful, more fun and cooler… I’m in. Ask anyone who knows me… I’m a self-proclaimed professional when it comes to bags! It’s not just vanity, either; I’ve also got back, neck and shoulder issues that I can pretty much manage with good biomechanics… and ergonomically correct carrying gear. So it was no light decision to choose the right camera bag for my trip to New Zealand in February 2013. I went there to help coach Trey Ratcliff’s New Zealand Photo Adventure and needed a bigger bag than I owned. It had to haul alot, but be effortless to carry, fit me well, distribute weight perfectly, have zippers and options galore, fit under an airplane seat, in the overhead bin or on a bus easily – and provide ample options for whatever situation I put it in. No small task!

Enter:  F-stop camera bags.

(And before you even ask; no, they’re not paying me to say any of this!)

I borrowed a friend’s Loka model F-stop for a week and loved it. For regular photo excursions, it would be purrfect. My only concern was space. I needed to carry a bit more than the Loka could do comfortably – and also wanted the option to throw my laptop inside. Enter the Tilopa BC. Both the Loka and the Tilopa BC are from F-stop’s Mountain Series of bags… suitable for camera gear with ICU’S, or for any kind of gear without. I’m so stoked about my Tilopa that I wanted to talk a bit about it here – and even explain a couple of the differences between it and the Loka, since I waffled between the two. Maybe you are too! Meeting F-stop and the Tilopa BC has been like the sun breaking through storm clouds! You can also see the video I made about the bag, complete with a special appearance by Trey Ratcliff.

Here’s the rundown:

Tilopa BC by F-stop

This is the view from the back… it’s what people following you will see. Of note is the fact that you do NOT access your valuable camera gear from this side. I love that. It keeps light fingers from prying where they ought not!

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Next, the right side view. Here, you’ve got super sturdy straps with quick-realease buckles that allow you to attach a tripod (if you choose to carry yours on the side), carry extra clothes, poles, skis, or anything you want to attach. You can also cinch these straps down tight if you want to flatten the profile of the bag, which is what I did here.

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On the left side.. same idea. Attach water bottles with carabiners or even a low profile bed roll.
Regarding tripods; I prefer to either carry mine by hand or attach it to the back for ergonomic reasons, as you’ll see shortly.

BackPanel

Here’s F-stop’s description of the back panel: “Jersey laminate EVA-padded back panel with raised padding for ventilation and comfort control.”
Here’s mine: “Comfy, Comfy!” I’ll admit, it seemed a little stiff at first, but the more it broke in, the more this panel assumed my form like a fine Italian shoe. It has a chest strap too – which is adjustable up and down by a few inches. I honestly don’t use this very often, but wanted to show that it exists, for those that do.

With Tripod

As I mentioned, I mostly I carry my tripod by hand. But when I do want to attach it to the pack, this is how I do it. The two quick release buckle straps on the backside cinch it down nicely, so my sticks are solid and secure with no wiggling about. I prefer it centered on the back like this, since having it on the side pulls on my back and doesn’t feel great. This solves the issue!

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This is a sneaky little zipper section at the bottom of the pack, where you can put small anythings, really – but it’s self contained and waterproof for trash or wet stuff you don’t want to mingle with your valuable gear or dry layers.

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Right behind it is another, larger waterproof section. F-stop bags are highly water resistant, but you can also purchase a rather elegant rain cover as backup. Unfortunately, I waited too long to order, so I threw a few kitchen garbage bags in there just in case we got caught in a truly torrential downpour. Besides, I figured if we did hike in somewhere and needed to haul out garbage, I’d be set! I even included a couple of produce bags as rain protection for my camera, complete with rubber bands for handy customization.  I’m just fancy that way. Ha!

Back Panel

Now we get into the heart of the matter. This is where you access your gear. When you carry the pack, this is against your back. But when you want to get to your rig, you just zip open up the whole thing. You can even leave the waistbelt buckled, spin it around the front and swap lenses without ever putting the bag down. I did this alot! The zipper is big, strong and slides easily. I love the way you don’t have to dig around, peering into the depths of a black hole to see what the heck is down there. It’s all sitting right there, snug in its awesome ICU, or Internal Camera Unit.

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Flip that flap back and voila! Everything you need is at your fingertips. ICU’s comes in a variety of different sizes and depths. Here, I’m using the shallow large size for my Canon 5DIII 4 lenses and 2x converter. I can also fit my Sony NEX-7 and it’s 3 lenses if I’m super organized. My large ICU still leaves some room above it for smaller items like gloves, snacks and such. If you use a smaller ICU, then you’ve got even more room at the top. That’s when the Tilopa BC can serve as an overnight backpack.

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Inside the flap, there are 2 large, flat zipper pockets. I put batteries, allen wrenches, manuals, etc. in there. There are also 2 small flap-top pockets with velcro closure at the top for small items like nail clippers. Nothing ever needs to get lost again!

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Looking inside from the top of the bag, you can see the handle of the ICU. This is where you pull it out to swap out ICU’s for a quick change to a different camera set up.

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Here’s my ICU pulled halfway out. As you can see, I fold the top of mine back underneath the unit…

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… but you can also zip it closed first. If you have multiple camera set ups, you can have them ready to go in separate ICU’s, then swap them out when you need them. Some people even check their larger ICU’s when they fly, although probably with cables and such inside – not valuable cameras!

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Unlike the Loka, the Tilopa BC has a laptop sleeve, which you access from the top, same as the ICU. Here, you can see that it sits right behind the ICU. The sleeve fits up to an 18” laptop – and this photo shows my 17” fitting nicely. If you don’t put a laptop in the pack, you can throw other stuff in there – or let it flatten down for a lower profile.

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Here’s a look inside the “lid” as I call it… the main section at the top that zips open. On the underside is another zipper compartment, made of a sturdy netting material. I throw lens caps, carabiners, cable release and other small items in here. It keeps things tidy!

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Above the “lid”at the very top of the bag is another zip compartment. That has yet more little compartments for things like memory cards, flashlight, protein bars, gloves – or whatever you want to round up and have handy. The zipper is completely water sealed.

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I’m super picky about backpack fit. So I really appreciate the dual adjustments on the suspension straps on both shoulder harnesses. This shows the one at the top, which lets you fine tune the snugness up high and helps keep the upper portion of the pack stable. This is one of my favorite adjustments, since a sloppy fit up high fatigues my neck and shoulders like nobody’s business. This renders that mess a non-issue!

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This strap adjusts the lower portion of the shoulder harness. When you get the upper and lower adjustments just right, even a heavily laden pack will feel like a featherweight!I’d like to add that it’s the dual adjustments you can make to the waist belt, combined with those of the shoulder straps that makes the F-stop backpack fit such a winner. When I was a kid, my dad custom-built an aluminum frame backpack just for me, since none of the conventional models of the day fit me. It was awesome. I haven’t felt anything like it until now!

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The Tilopa has a decent sized separate zipper section on the back of the pack. The Loka has one too, but this one’s bigger. I used it to put my waterproof/windproof layers where I could grab them quick if the weather turns. It did… and I did!

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If you like to carry water with a drinking tube, the H20 velcro opening provides handy access.

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Between the Velcro and the flap, you can run the drinking hose from inside the pack without letting the weather in. I didn’t need this feature on this trip, but come summer in the Sierras where I live, I’m sure I will be!

So there you have it. My Tilopa BC provided a ton of options for me on my New Zealand trip! Lightweight, super sturdy, water resistant, with about a million pockets and places to put things, plus the flexibility of using the pack all by itself for regular backpacking – or with the brilliant ICU cases – all made it a winner for me!

25 thoughts on “F-stop’s Tilopa BC Camera Bag Review

  1. Pingback: F-stop’s Tilopa BC | blog.karenhutton.com

  2. The F-Stop bag looks great, spacious enough to hold tons of gear and sturdy. Even when its falling out of the overhead storage and wacking me in the head! ;-)

    • HehHeh… and yet, if memory serves… it never did actually wack you in the head! That’s how awesome this bag is… it has a head sensor in it. TeeHee!

  3. Great and very thorough review of the Tilopa BC, Karen! Thanks for confirming my suspicions that the Shallow Medium size will work well for me. ;-) Looking forward to giving this a try. Cheers!

  4. Thanks for the review Karen. But I have a question that I haven’t seen answered in any other review about this Tilopa: would it fit comfortably a 6’2 guy like me? The shoulder straps don’t seem adjustable in height…

    • Pierre… I have a friend who’s about 6’4″ tall and a big guy. He has a Loka and Satori, both made by f-Stop. The Loka and Tilopa BC are very close in size and fit. He wears them all the time and loves them. So does Colby Brown, who is about the same height. Truth is, I had seen so many guys who are all much larger than me with f-Stop backpacks that I started thinking they’d never fit a smaller person. In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this review, to debunk that theory. Although I don’t work for the company nor have access to 100′s of case histories – my bet is that it would most certainly fit you. From there, you’d have to decide if it fits the WAY you want it to. I honestly haven’t met anyone (yet) who doesn’t love them.

  5. Great review!

    Thinking of getting one of these for when I go on hiking trips in Europe now!

    Where did you get yours from? I can’t seem to find third party stores that sells them?

    Also I’ve notice Trey’s got a white colour one which the fstop site doesn’t show. Thanks!!!

    • Thanks Tim!
      Yes, I’d sure take one of these bags hiking too! I got mine from f-Stop. To my knowledge, they don’t sell them through third party vendors, at least not at this point in time.
      That lighter colored one of Trey’s in the video is an older one, in a color that’s been discontinued. I know alot of people have asked about that! He’s actually got a black one now as well.

      Hope you enjoy yours! (Tell ‘em I sent you!)

  6. Hi Karen, great review. I’m so stoked about purchasing this bag, if not for the hefty price tag, that I can only dream by watching your video review over and over again and feel jealous but happy somehow – That’s just strange, I know.

    I would still want to know though, whether the size of ICU affects whether you can still snug in your laptop into the padded sleeve? I am intending on putting in my 15 inch MBP-R but with a laptop sleeve in it as well into the padded sleeve integrated with the Tilopa-BC. It’s just for added protection and a lot of self-assurance.

    Can I know if you did consider getting the Sloped ICU, if yes and why you didn’t choose that and went for the shallow version?

    Thank you!

    • Hey Kenji,
      With my shallow ICU’s I have no problem fitting my 17″ laptop into the padded sleeve. In the video, I had those outer straps cinched down to show how you can make it lower profile if you want it to – but I’d loosen those and let the bag expand a bit if I wanted to throw my laptop in there as well. For me, it gets a bit heavy to carry ALL my camera gear and a laptop – but I do like having the option for when I only want to carry a lens or two, some clothes and my laptop. Or if I’m going to be out shooting all day in variable weather like we get in the mountains, there’s plenty of room for clothing layers without the laptop.

      As for YOUR question; with my shallow ICU’s, there’s definitely plenty of laptop room. It actually accommodates sizes up to 18″. So, I think you’d have room for a 15″ laptop and a sleeve-within-a-sleeve… but since I didn’t actually try that configuration myself, I can’t speak with absolute certainty. The f-Stop folks could answer that question for sure!

      And yes, I did consider getting the sloped ICU. But for me it didn’t make as much sense, since I don’t use a battery grip on my camera. The deeper “Pro Series” ICU’s are designed for folks whose cameras are outfitted with camera grips, the shallow ones are for those who aren’t. The sloped ICU’s are “Pro Series” deep at one end – then graduate down to the shallow depth. I just didn’t need that. I do like having that extra space available for the option to stuff clothing layers or other gear/food in there for when I go hiking or on short overnight trips. Hope that helps! :)

      • That’s brilliant, I am so thankful I checked back here for your reply. Thank you for the detailed reply, it was absolutely helpful. :)

        Do continue making all the behind-the-scenes videos, it’s great for people like myself who don’t have the opportunity or means to travel. It’s great to know the thought process behind each photo too, as well as the composition through showing the live-view.

        Thank you, Karen!

    • Well, I haven’t had occasion to place one in the pack, Curtis – so I don’t have the perfect answer for you! I’d probably try one of the outside pockets myself. I haven’t ever asked F-stop about that. Would be curious to know myself!

  7. Hi Karen, I’ve just viewed your video on tilopa, just wondering what is your height? (if you don’t mind of course)
    I haven’t been able to find many photos of the bags on different women’s build. From the bag photos the tilopa and loka looks about the same in height? I’d like to have the options to carry more but I don’t want to look like a moving turtle haha. Thanks in advance ;)

    • Hi Dee,

      I’m 5’5 (and a half)” tall. I’m kind of short waisted, so this is about the biggest bag I’d want to carry. I had a dilemma of choosing between the Loka and this one… and yes, they’re exactly the same height. The Tilopa expands more than the Loka does – and is also a little heavier duty construction in the shoulder and waist harness department. I wanted to carry a little more too… hence the Tilopa. I was really glad I had it on the New Zealand trip, because for the kind of adventures where you just have more stuff with you, it’s great. For regular day trips or an afternoon’s shooting around home, I’d be totally happy with the Loka. Truth be told – I wish I had both! But choices must be made sometimes. sigh.

      Varina Patel is a wonderful pro photographer… she carries a Loka: http://www.photographybyvarina.com/photography/videos/camera-bags-high-and-dry.
      She’s about 5’6″ or 5’7″ (she’s a little taller than me, not sure by how much) and is fairly long-waisted, so you can see what it looks like on her.

      I wish they had those bags somewhere one could try them! I find the Tilopa quite comfortable… and in the same breath, I’m also going to say that I’d love to see one designed for a woman’s body!
      But of all the ones I tried… F-stop feels the best to me. I sure hope this helps!

      • Oh thanks so much Karen for the quick reply. I’m only 5’2 and totally wished I can try them on somewhere before buying them. I am fairly long bodied with super short leg so maybe i can work this bag.. I do like the look of the front of the tilopa just that little bit more than the loka. Such dilemma… Thanks for the link to the photo.. and info ;)

  8. Hi Karen,
    Great review! I’ve been wanting one for a while now. Is the Tilopa carry on sized or did you check it and carry the ICU with you on the plane?
    Thanks!

    • Oh my goodness… I didn’t see your comment, Kyle. Sorry for the delay! I carried this puppy on board for all my flights to NZ. It fit in every overhead bin on that route. I recently traveled to Nashville and experienced Delta’s “small regional jet”. More like a tuna tin! I didn’t have this pack with me, but suspect I might have had to carry the ICUs on those flights. It probably would’ve fit under the seat in front of me, but would have been cozy. Hope that helps!

  9. Hi Karen great review thanks. After seeing a couple of reviews and before seeing yours I purchased the Loka and must say I love it. Yes the Loka is a tad sml for a laptop but i have used mine with the shallow icu and got a 13 macbook in there (all be it snug) lol. I wouldnt be without it now and cant wait to use on my Smoky Mountains workshop in Apr 2014.
    Cheers.

    • Sorry – I almost missed your awesome comment, John!
      PERFECT selection, that Loka – congrats! Ideally, I’d like my Tilopa, a Loka AND a Guru. hehheh. A tad overkill, but I’d use ‘em all!

      The perfect bag is so hard to find that when you do, it’s like arriving at Mecca. ;)

  10. Great review Karen,
    Having batteries and stuff in the “flap” close to your back, doesn´t that make it uncomfortable wearing the backpack? To me, who gets quite “warm” and sweaty wearing backpacks, especially in places with warmer climate it seems that the side of the “flap” that´s facing the back isn´t so ventilated. What´s your experience wearing the bag while trekking long distances?
    Thanks!

    • Hey Kenneth, thanks!
      I never even feel the batteries in the back flap, so that’s not been an issue for me.
      As for long treks… I haven’t carried the Tilopa on long ones yet. Mine have mostly been a couple of hours, max. In fact, for anything awfully long I’ll probably carry my f-Stop Guru, which I just got for such purposes. One thing I’ve learned is that the Tilopa lets me easily SO much weight that it’s actually a bit much for my knees. I had been so concerned about finding a pack to feel good on my back and shoulders – that it never occurred to me I’d find one so great that it lets me carry more weight than I should.

      As for warmer climates, I can’t honestly speak to that since so far I’ve not carried it anywhere that it’s been super hot.

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