Thursday, November 21, 2013

Grand Tetons (click on the photo for the full-size image)

Photographing The World in Mud Puddle ~

A Review of the Loka Camera Bag 

Click on any photo for a full-sized image (Yevgeniy Rudoy photo)

Why am I pictured laying on the ground with a pack on my back? No, I wasn't run over by car, and I didn't trip over my tripod. I was working on a photograph, looking into a muddy puddle at a reflection that could only have been seen, and photographed, from ground level.  (To see what I saw and photographed, look no farther than the top of this webpage, and feel free to click on the image.)

The first time I learned to see the world in a reflection was an "ah-ha" moment. To ancient (and contemporary) Hindus, the word they would use for that moment of sudden enlightenment would be "satori." 

(Yevgeniy Rudoy photo)

Sheep Operation in Wyoming

Great Pyrenees Puppies

That might explain the names given to a trio of camera backpacks by the F-Stop company: Satori, Tilopa (the name of a long-ago Buddhist teacher), and Loka, which in Sanskrit is the word for "world." 

Over the years, I’ve had a number of fine backpacks designed to carry camera gear, including excellent packs from Lowe-Pro and Tamarac. In April of 2013, a participant on one of my photo trips gave me a Loka and asked if I would review the pack. While I haven't posted to my blog in over a year, I've returned the favor by writing my review. 

I'll let the cat out of the bag right now: The Loka is well-built. In that sense, it's no different than any other high-end pack. There are some clever design differences, though, that set it apart from other packs I own. 

Target audience: This is a pack for self-sufficient photographers who might take up to a full day to lose themselves in a city, to hike, ski or climb in the mountains, and leave only footprints in the desert or at the beach. To that end, the Loka comes with plenty of bells and whistles. Well, technically there are no bells. But there is – literally – a whistle, one that’s integrated into the sternum strap buckle. 

Features: The Loka, with 2,558 cubic inches (37 liters) holds its shape with the help of a lightweight internal frame. There is a comfortable and surprisingly easy-to-adjust waist strap, and easily adjustable shoulder straps. 

There are plenty of internal and exterior pockets, including a large zippered outside pocket that could hold a detachable snow shovel scoop. There are places to store media cards, smart phones, and spare batteries. There’s a large interior sleeve to house a water bladder (I put my iPad or my laptop in that pocket. My water bottle goes into one of the exterior mesh side pockets). And the pack will fit into the overhead storage bin on a plane. 

Elasticized Side Pocket

There is a mesh pocket under (as well as over) the pack's lid

Construction:  The Loka is, like my other camera backpacks, extremely well-built. Stitching is reinforced throughout and thicker layers of material are used where the pack is likely to come into contact with rough terrain. There are compression straps, beefy buckles, a somewhat less than beefy nylon carry handle, and YKK zippers, heavy-gauge where they need to be

The Loka is also fairly littered with attachment points – i.e. a cornucopia straps and buckles –  to secure everything from tripods and trekking poles to ice axes and snowboards. Optional stretchy straps ("gate keepers") – long and short – offer additional ways to secure gear. The straps on the pack itself conform to the internationally recognized MOLLE (pronounced like the name "Molly") attachment system used by the U.S. military, NATO, police, fire departments, and now photographers. I feel it incumbent upon me to reveal that Molle stands for Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment.

My ice axe easily attaches to the Loka; will I ever use it with my ice axe? Probably not.

How it Feels: With the Loka fully loaded, I can't jump as high or far as I could without the pack, nor rise from a mud puddle as easily as I could unencumbered by the  weight of the pack. That said, it's a close-fitting pack and it doesn't throw me off balance; I've got no fear scrambling over boulders in the Tetons or walking up a flight of stairs in Brooklyn. 

At your option: In addition to the gate keepers, additional optional accessories include a tripod bag with a clever roll-top design that can accommodate a wide array of tripod sizes, a rain cover that can be hidden in a bottom sleeve of the Loka, a nylon envelope that gives extra protection to a water bladder, les pouches, etc. I've purchased some gate keepers, the tripod bag, an extra ICU and the rain cover. 

The Roll-Top tripod bag can secure a variety of tripods; do I use this with a tripod? Yes!

Cover flap for water bladder hose just below the zipper for the pack lid

Design Difference #1: Like every other photo backpack, a series of interior padded pockets protect camera equipment. The protective pockets in the Loka, though – and the pockets in other packs made by F-Stop – are in a removable padded case. Most other photo backpacks are filled with non-removeable pockets. The removable cases in the Loka are what set the F-Stop packs apart from the competition. 

Small ICU in foreground, medium ICU with storage bag behind

F-Stop calls these cases Internal Camera Units, or ICUs, and they come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The size of the ICU, from the extra-large to the small, will determine how much space is left for clothes and other non-camera gear. Except for the largest ICU, which will fill a Loka, these cases snuggle into position in the bottom or top of the pack, with everything else sitting above or below. 

Because ICUs are sized differently, the Loka can also serve as a more traditional daypack, rather than just a backpack for camera gear. With a small or medium ICU, the Loka will carry clothes, food, a laptop, etc. This is what makes it easy to a photographer with a Loka pack to be a self-sufficient for a day. 

Each ICU has a zippered top that folds out of the way once it's inside the Loka. Each ICU comes with heavy-duty cloth storage bag, too. And an ICU doesn't have to live only inside a Loka. 

At home, an ICU can serve as storage container to help organize the voluminous amounts of camera gear that photographers tend to collect. It can serve the same purpose on the road, too. In fact, the ICUs make the Loka itself somewhat of a shell; it’s up to each photographer to configure the interior of the pack, with one or two ICUs, or no ICUs at all. (By the way, at home my older camera backpacks do hold and organize some of my photo gear.)

More than one ICU can fit into a Loka, and there are ICU attachment points inside the pack. In practice, I haven’t needed to attach any of my ICUs; they seem to fit snuggly enough that they stay in place. 

When I conduct a photo tour I like to travel light, walking out to wherever from my car or a van with just with a camera hanging off my neck, and an extra lens in a pocket. When I do that, the Loka itself has served as a base camp for the rest of my camera gear I don’t want to take with me. When I do have to walk any distance with more than I can stuff in my pockets, I’m happy to swing the Loka onto my back.

What's in My Loka? As you can see in the photo of my open ICU, I carry an extra body and extra lenses (I've usually got a 20mm or 70-300mm lens on the camera, and the other in a pocket.)  My additional optics are usually one of my macro lenses, sometimes my compact 400mm f/5.6 lens, and a 1.4x teleo-extender.

The pockets atop the pack hold spare batteries, polarizer and neutral density filters, a set of allen wrenches, a lens cloth, a spare end cap and lens cap, and spare SD and CF cards.

As I'm usually out walking with a group, I'll tuck a substantial first aid kit into the main compartment, along with any extra clothing I think I might need. I might stash a water bottle in one of the side pockets; an air blower (to help remove dust from the sensor when I change lenses) is often in the other pocket. By the way, it's probably a good idea to use an air blower at the end of each day of camera use.

I also have a couple of Molle-conforming lens pouches that I can attach to the hip belt when I want faster access to an extra lens or two.

Design Difference #2: Many photographers I've met have a major complaint about camera backpacks: they have to be removed to reach what a photographer needs. That's the nature of the beast, though, for those who want or need to carry more than they can put into shoulder bag. And once the pack is off, photographers have to unzip their packs to reach their gear. If they put their pack down on the ground or the snow, the part that touches their back faces downward, and it's apt to get some dirt or snow on it.

It’s the opposite with the Loka. The well-padded portion of the pack that is against a photographer’s back is outlined with heavy-duty zippers. Unzip the pad, pull it forward, and all the padded ICU compartments and whatever else is in the pack are accessible. With the pack on again, the back of the photographer stays clean and dry. 

The inside of the pack can also be accessed by unzipping the double-pocketed lid. While it’s not the easy way to extract a lens from the bottom of a pack, going in from the top is the quick way to reach a jacket or sandwich.

I imagine whoever came up with the idea of letting photographers into the Loka in this new way experienced their own moment of satori.

(Yevgeniy Rudoy photo)

Irrigation machine in Barstow, California

(Yevgeniy Rudoy photo)

Cowgirl, Jackson Hole

One Caveat: I like everything about my Loka. You, good reader, might not like one thing about the pack: it's very difficult to score one, and can be just as difficult to purchase any desired accessories. F-Stop is apparently a small company and demand often seems to outstrip supply. So if you want a Loka, be patient; it may be a while before you have one. The wait, though, will be worth it. (Right: Kidd photo)

Sunset Over Monument Valley
"Loka" to Buddhists and Hindus has a more nuanced meaning than just the "world." It can mean a world that is spiritual rather than a spacial. I like to think my Loka backpack is a bit like the spiritual world, because while it's part of the greater reality we all inhabit, it's also separate from everything else. It is an artfully shaped amalgamation of plastics, serving as a vessel for the tools – camera equipment – that help me see, understand, and photograph the physical world around me, a physical realm that can include magical images of the world found inside something as mundane as a puddle of mud.

Have I enlightened you about the Loka? If you seek greater understanding, look no farther than the F-Stop website, here.

Note: Click on any photograph for the full-sized image.

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