Finding the right camera bag is as difficult as buying the right pair of shoes. They don't fit comfortably, hold your equipment well, and they're never cheap. Yet, they're necessary. Though there are ways to circumvent the disaster that is the state of camera bags these days, the F-Stop Guru does a near-perfect job of getting it right for photographers.
The F-Stop Guru is a day-pack sized camera bag meant primarily for outdoorsy type situations. The Guru molds the best aspects of a regular hiking bag with the needs of a photographer. The build quality is great, and it looks as sporty as backpacks can get.
The Guru looks like you could pick it out of a line-up on a wall in REI. In addition to the bright colour, F-Stop does other things a little differently than most bags. They sell a line of separate inserts that are designed to clip into the inner frame of their bag models. There are a multitude of options. Each bag has its limits as to which can fit inside. A handy chart explains each insert's size — leaving you to decide what suits you best.
I'm working with a Guru containing a Pro ICU Small insert that could comfortably hold a Nikon D800 with 24-70mm zoom lens, along with a SB-800 flash. The whole insert fits compactly behind a zip opening on the inside of the pack, which is protected by your back. Provided with the insert are a ton of dividers and even elastic straps to keep your equipment secure as can be. I've never seen an insert come with straps, so it was definitely a nice touch.
Once everything is secure inside the bag — and it does feel very secure — you zip the back up and have the top opening available to fill the rest of the space with anything you need. There's no side access, which is disappointing, because you have to take the bag off of both your shoulders to get at the camera compartment. However, when I've had side-access on other bags, I've found that I almost never used it. Still, options are great, and if F-Stop could figure out how to make it work both ways, kudos.
A backpack should not inhibit your movement, and the Guru's hip straps and chest straps are more than fantastic. They feel just right for running around on precarious terrain. The weight of a bag should extend off of you, not hang from your shoulders. Most camera bags skimp in this area, letting the bag feel like the heavy loads they are. Not the Guru.
Although it's built almost exactly like a backpack you would take camping, the bag falls behind when it comes to the back panel. For a bag clearly trying to be a hiker's best friend, there is no good back ventilation. Both Gregory and Osprey bags of comparable size have a mesh separation that keeps the bag off your back. The Guru has just a heavily padded back panel that presses up against you. Some sort of separation would improve things drastically.
The "laptop sleeve" on this bag is terrible. I have a Surface Pro 3, which is practically the thinnest computer you can buy, and it's still difficult to get into the sleeve. Also, it isn't a straight compartment — it goes along the curve of the pack, because the camera sits next to the flat of your back. Also, the lip of the sleeve is elastic making it easy to snag the computer. It's usable, just very annoying.
My other minor complaint is that the hip straps aren't fully adjustable. Yes, they do shrink down pretty tight, but the actual straps themselves were still unable to tighten down to the point where I felt as secure as I wanted to be.
The Guru also comes with a rain cover that stashes below the seat of the bag. It's completely out of the way, as opposed to clipped on in a separate pouch, like an old Kata I had used to own. It makes the rain cover much less of a nuisance.
The bag looks and acts like an outdoor pack should. The chest strap and hip straps secure the pack to your body better than almost any camera bag I've used. It can work even without a camera insert in it, making it a fine daypack. Being able to custom tailor the bag's storage capabilities makes this a great option for photographers.
The hip straps are a one-size-fits-all situation, which, just like a pair of drawstring pants, doesn't work for some people. The laptop sleeve just makes putting a laptop in the bag a painful experience. The back panel gives pretty poor ventilation — it's a sweat machine during the summer. No side access is a bummer.
Should You Buy It?
The Guru runs for $US150 without an insert and can range, depending on the insert you get with it, from $US214 to $US234. This puts it at the pricier end of things to carry your equipment around in. However, the bag is the real deal. Looking at it, it just rings to the Eagle Scout in me that wants to have a totally comfortable and reliable bag.
I had my gripes, but they were minimal. If it weren't for the Guru, I'd probably just opt for carrying my camera around my neck out of sheer disgust for the function of most other bags. The F-Stop bags set the bar higher than most others. Dare I say they are good camera bags.