Over the past year I have been on a search to find an ideal backpack to use for bringing my photography gear into the field. During my search I quickly realized that a perfect pack just doesn’t exist for all uses. So, instead of trying to find a pack that would work both for a day hike and a weekend camping in the mountains, I focused on trying to find one that would be as versatile as possible. This search eventually led me to giving the F-Stop Ajna a try.
Reasons I Decided to Try It
My photography takes me to outdoor environments ranging from bustling urban areas to remote mountains. After realizing that the same pack that was practical for a backpacking trip was just never going to be convenient for photographing in a crowded city, I narrowed my search to bags in the 40-liter range with three reasons in mind:
- It was a nice mid-range size that would not be too ridiculous to carry around if I needed all of my gear for a shoot in the city;
- It would be large enough to bring both camera gear and some select hiking/camping/travel supplies on a trip;
- It would (hopefully) be carry-on compliant so that I could keep my camera gear with me on airplanes.
I have been using the Ajna bag for about 3 months at the time of this writing, and have used it as my sole camera pack on a photography trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, as well as weekend trips to White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. I have stuffed it in the overhead bins of airplanes and (almost) hid it under the seats of other airplanes when the overhead bins were too small. I have loaded it up with 25-30 pounds of gear and taken it on 12-mile hikes. I have also worn it in wind-driven rain and snow. It’s only been 3 months so far, but Ajna and I have seen some things.
As of this writing, the F-Stop Ajna retails for $249, while the Large Pro ICU shown in this article is an additional $99. From what I have seen, this puts it in a price range competitive with other similar camera packs.
According to F-Stop’s website, the Ajna measures in at 23.5 inches tall, 13 inches wide, 10.5 inches deep, and weighs 3.75 pounds. Note that this weight does not include the internal camera unit (ICU) that you’ll want to get with the bag, which adds another 1 pound or so depending on the size of the ICU.
The bag is described as being carry-on compliant, which I found to be true when flying on a standard sized aircraft with 3-seats on each side of a center aisle. However, on my flight to Glacier National Park, my connecting flight was on a smaller plane with 2 seats on either side of the aisle, which also had smaller overhead bins. I wasn’t able to squeeze the bag into the overhead bin (although it was close), which meant that I may or may not have stuffed the Ajna under the seat in front of me and just sat in a way that blocked the view of the fact that the bag stuck out into my leg space. I still think that I could have made the Ajna fit in that overhead bin had I packed differently. I had books and supplies packed in the front and side pockets of the bag, which limited how much the compression straps on the exterior of the pack could reduce its profile. So, if you think you might have a smaller-than-average plane on your itinerary, make sure to leave the front and side pockets mostly empty to ensure that you won’t have to unpack your Ajna during boarding to try to make it fit.
With my first camera bag being a get-what-you-pay-for $50 backpack that I used every last thread of before the straps finally ripped off, I immediately noticed the high quality materials used to make the Ajna. Most of the exterior of the bag is made from thick, durable, rip-stop nylon, while the bottom of the bag is covered in a flexible, synthetic rubber. The zippers are beefy and either seam-sealed or covered with a large flap, which was a pleasure to see since flimsy zippers were the most noticeable deficiency of other cheaper packs I had tried in the past. Likewise, the clips, buckles, and fasteners around the bag are made of thick, hard plastic that don't seem like they would go down without a fight.
The bag features several sets of compression straps on the sides and front of the pack that can be used to cinch down parts of the bag when you want to keep its size to a minimum. When you want to load up the exterior of the bag with extra gear such as a tripod or trekking poles, however, these straps double as a very reliable system to secure gear that may be too long to fit inside the body of the pack.
In addition to the compression straps sewn onto the bag, the Ajna has fabric loops in various locations on the exterior of the pack to be used in customizing how you carry gear on the exterior portions of the pack, including on the top and bottom of the bag. This customization system is one of the things that enticed me towards the F-Stop Mountain Series, since it meant that I could “expand” the capacity of the bag by easily attaching a tent, sleeping bag, a stuff sack, and other bulky materials to the outer parts of the bag, obviously with the caveat that, if I’m hiking in inclement weather, I risk soaking all of those things I just mentioned.
Your main camera gear is designed to be accessed from the Ajna via a large padded panel on the back of the pack (the portion resting against your back when wearing the bag). This panel is covered in a dense padding to protect the inner part of the bag. Like the rest of the bag, the zippers on this panel are beefy and work well, meaning that camera access is simple and frustration-free.
As for aesthetics, the Ajna comes in four main colors which range from borderline camouflage to basically the opposite of camouflage: Aloe (Drab Green), Anthracite (Black), Nasturtium (Orange), and Malibu Blue. For those looking to keep a low profile, the Drab Green and Black color options are pretty basic. For those looking to make a bold fashion statement or just plain stick out in a landscape in case of a need of rescue, the Orange and Malibu Blue options are bright and would stand out like a sore thumb in most natural environments.
The fifth color option shown in this article is the Red Bull Photography version of the Ajna, which I ended up choosing not only because I liked the color scheme, but because it came in a package deal with a Large Pro ICU, which I had planned to get to go with the pack anyway. At the time of this writing, the Red Bull version of the bag doesn’t appear to be available on F-Stop’s website.
The organization that comes with the F-Stop Ajna is, like the rest of their Mountain Series bags, one of the main selling points of the pack. The bags are marketed as being highly customizable, meaning that you buy the bag itself separate from its internal component (the ICU), which you can mix and match to fit your needs. On the downside, however, this customization can also go too far since the bag doesn’t include a rain cover (sold separately).
After much deliberation, I eventually went with the Large Pro ICU based on the reasoning that, if it provided more space than I needed from my camera body and lenses, I could always fill the remainder of the space in the ICU with clothing layers or other gear. In retrospect, I would like a little more space in the top part of the bag that would have come with getting a Medium sized ICU instead, but so far this hasn’t been an issue when packing for a photography shoot. During my trip to Montana, the Large ICU was the perfect size, as it allowed me to fit a Nikon D750 with an attached 24-120mm, Nikon D610, Tamron 150-600mm, Tamron 15-30mm, Nikon 50mm f/1.8, and several accessories.
The main compartment of the bag is basically a large void where the ICU is meant to be placed. The ICU itself is a padded, rectangular case with configurable Velcro, padded diveders so that you can arrange your gear however you would like. In addition to it being customizable, one of the biggest benefits I see to the ICU system is that, in the event that there is not space for your bag in an overhead bin on an airplane, you could always remove the ICU (which has a handle for carrying), and slide it easily under the seat in front of you. This makes sure your most expensive camera gear stays with you at all times, which I consider to be highly important seeing as I have done work in the past at a major international airport and watched how some of the bags are handled.
As for pockets, the Ajna has a pouch at the top of the pack above the main compartment holds a decent amount of accessories, and even has a small key chain for when you don’t want your keys in your pocket, but want to keep them in an easily accessible location. I keep things like filters, my cable release, and other small items in this pouch. The main compartment below this pouch also has a small zippered netting inside that is useful for flatter objects like a card wallet, microfiber cloths, and documents like trail maps or a passport.
One of the simplest parts of the bag that drew me towards the Ajna were the two side pockets that are a perfect size to fit water bottles. In my search for a camera bag, I found this feature to be surprisingly absent on many bags. Since I have never been a big user of hydration bladders, the Ajna’s side pockets are a huge plus for me. For those that do want to use a hydration bladder, the Ajna is equipped with a zippered pouch on the front of the bag with a small hole at the bottom to drain water away from your gear in the event of a spill.
The front pouch also doubles as a place to store a computer or tablet (assuming you choose either a hydration bladder OR the laptop…), which F-Stop says can fit up to a 13-inch laptop. I did find that my 14-inch Lenovo fits in this pouch. However, the pouch has no padding protecting the laptop from the outside world, so you’ll want your computer in a padded sleeve of its own if you want to transport your laptop this way. I think a 13-inch laptop in a padded sleeve would fit fine, but a 14-incher in a padded sleeve would prevent the pouch from zipping up.
While the functionality of the Ajna is very good, the comfort is where I would look for F-Stop to improve in the future. For a few hours of wear while loaded up with gear, I didn’t find the bag to be too uncomfortable. However, on longer hikes, I found comfort to become more of an issue.
Due to the rigid and somewhat angular design of the back panel and bottom of the pack, I found it difficult to find a way to get the pack to feel truly comfortable on my back. The padding of the back access panel is clearly meant to protect your gear, not provide comfort, so I found that after awhile the dense foam padded started to feel uncomfortable. Similarly, I found that if I wore the bag too low, the edge of the pack where the back panel meets the bottom would dig into my lower back and spine. If I brought the pack up higher, the hip straps were up around my stomach, meaning I couldn’t use them to take some weight off of my shoulders without also putting pressure on a few vital organs. Similarly, the shoulder straps could also use a bit more padding, as they start to dig into your shoulders after a while.
For size reference, I’m a lanky 6’1”. So, while I say the Ajna needs a bit more padding to be comfortable, I’ll concede that I probably could use a bit more padding to meet the Ajna in the middle.
Overall, the F-Stop Ajna is a well-made, durable pack that will more than serve its purpose helping you get your gear out on the trail in a way that it can be protected and organized. I’ve scraped the pack against rocks and trees, taken it in wind-driven rain, and hauled it on long hikes. Here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of the F-Stop Ajna.
- Durable: the Ajna can take a beating and keep on going.
- High Quality Materials: F-Stop clearly didn’t skimp on materials with the Ajna, which is clear from its rip-stop fabric, beefy zippers, and more.
- Customizable: Organize the pack how you would like depending upon if you would rather haul more camera gear than hiking gear, or vice versa.
- Organized: If liking that the Ajna so much for having side pockets perfect for water bottles is strange, I don’t want to be normal.
- Carry-On Compliant: And the ICU is easily removed to keep your valuables in your possession in the event that it isn’t.
- Comfort: What the Ajna lacks in comfort is makes up in functionality, but at the end of a long hike, you might not care about that quite so much.
- Customizable: The Ajna’s material is fairly water resistant, but come on, how much trouble is it to just include a darn rain cover so I don’t have to buy it separately?
- Laptop Sleeve: Too small for larger than a 13-inch laptop, and not padded enough for a laptop or tablet not already protected with a sleeve. And, if you use a hydration bladder, you’ll need to find a new spot for your laptop altogether.
- Customer Service: See below
A Few Words of Caution
While F-Stop made a great bag in the Ajna, getting your hands on one might not come without challenges. F-Stop’s issues getting orders to customers in a reasonable amount of time are well-documented (take a look at the comments of anything they post on Facebook). I waited 4 months to get mine after being assured prior to placing my order that the bag would be delivered in one month. And, from what I can tell from people I’ve talked to, I’m one of the lucky ones.
I found F-Stop’s customer service to be extremely unreliable with regard to getting useful information and time estimates. I’ve also talked to photographers who canceled or returned orders and waited months to be refunded. Bottom line: I can recommend the F-Stop Ajna itself. However, if you plan to order an F-Stop bag with a specific date of travel in mind, you may want to look elsewhere to increase your chances of having the bag you buy show up for trip.