A couple of years ago, the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection (SOWPBP) took a look at the specs of 16 different camera backpacks. As a result of this investigation, I purchased an f-stop Loka, and have been really happy with this bag. f-stop is replacing the Loka this month with the 40L Ajna ($318 with a large ICU).
I’ve had a long-term relationship with the nice folks at Think Tank Photo, and reviewed their original Rotation 360 bag for The Online Photographer back in 2007. I’ve used a few of their other bags over the years, including the Retrospective 7 and Streetwalker Hard Drive. I also loaded beer into an Airport Airstream and then gave it away.
MindShift Gear is the sister company to Think Tank Photo. MindShift now has 5 photo backpacks in their lineup with a rotating waist belt design. I was intrigued by the new MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Horizon 34L [Amazon | B&H] ($259) that is about the same size as my Loka. The MindShift marketing folks kindly sent me a bag for review. I packed up the Rotation 180 Horizon, and compared it side-by-side with the Loka.
photo Backpack Design
The key design features of the Loka (now Ajna) is f-stop's ICU system. The bags open from the side that rests against your back to reveal your choice of padded camera insert. This allows you to customize the ratio of photo & non-photo gear. The inserts are expensive, but the system provides excellent flexibility. Some photographers buy an additional insert for packing flexibility and gear storage.
The MindShift Gear Horizon 180º Horizon's piece de resistance is the quick access to your gear from the rotating waist belt. This design has made a quantum leap since I first tested the original Think Tank Rotation 360. The waist belt is held in place by a super trick magnetic latch. Push down and then rotate the waist belt around to access your gear. When you're done shooting, the latch makes it super easy to lock the belt.
The waist belt of the Rotation 180 Horizon is great if you need to switch lenses without putting down your bag. The rotation feature would also come in handy if you need to grab a flash or other accessories quickly. My EOS 6D just fit in the waist belt with the 24-70mm f/2.8L lens mounted. When packing the Horizon, I preferred to use the waist belt for carrying extra lenses and accessories. A body with a lens already mounted doesn't use the waist pack space efficiently. If you're using a smaller mirrorless setup, the waist pack will likely work really well.
The Loka has smoother zippers, but this may be because my bag is so broken in. Both bags have nice zipper pulls. The contrasting green color of the Horizon's pulls makes them easy to see. The Loka's top pocket opens more fully, and includes two small organizer pockets. I store business cards, change, phone charging cable, pens, and a small iphone mic in the top of my Loka. Things would be less organized in the Rotation 180 Horizon. Both bags have an integrated key holder.
Inside the Top Section
The amount of space left on the inside top of the Loka will depend on which Internal Camera Unit (ICU) you choose to hold your photo gear. I have a Large Pro ICU in my Loka, and this leaves room for some food, 2 extra layers, a hat and gloves.
The Horizon has more room. However, to carry as much camera gear as the Loka, I would need to use the extra camera insert (sold separately) in the Horizon. With the insert in place, the amount of camera gear I can carry is about equal to the Loka, but with a bit less room for food and layers. The MindShift insert will fit a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and is nicely built. The $44.99 price tag is very reasonable, especially compared to f-stop's expensive ICUs.
Both bags have mesh pockets in the top section. The Loka’s black mesh pocket is about the size of my hand, and located on the underside of the bag's lid. The Horizon’s mesh pocket is a full size green vertical pouch.
One downside of the Loka's design is that items can slip down between the ICU and outside of the bag. But maybe that extra energy bar will come in handy on another trip?
Outside Pockets and Straps
Both bags have a pair of compression straps near the top of the bag to make sure smaller loads are secure. The Loka adds a second set of compression straps at the bottom to hold small side mounted tripods or light stands. These straps can also help your water bottles stay in place.
The Loka has a single seam sealed vertically zipped outer pocket that’s just big enough for a very light rain shell or outer layer. The Horizon has a horizontal pocket near the top with slightly more width and depth. A small tripod securing strap tucks away neatly at the outside top.
The Loka has two sturdy, adjustable horizontal straps across the outside of the bag that fasten with a buckle. If you’re not using these straps to carry a tripod, they work really well for securing a jacket or extra layer. The Horizon doesn’t have straps on the outside, but there are daisy chain attachment points along the outer section of the bag. Both bags have accommodations for carrying an ice axe if you're trying to take photos of the abominable snowman.
Shoulder Straps and Sternum Strap
The Loka’s shoulder straps are sleek and comfortable, with just enough foam padding. The sternum strap adjusts nicely for my 6’1” height, and includes an integrated emergency whistle. The Rotation 180 Horizon’s shoulder straps have a more pronounced s-curve shape. The Horizon has slightly more strap padding than the Loka, but it’s less dense. The straps are comfortable, but I didn’t like wearing them without fastening the sternum strap. The sternum strap adjustability on the Horizon works well.
The Loka has plastic d-rings on the lower portion of the shoulder straps, but the Horizon does not. However, the Horizon does include a fabric attachment points further up the strap.
The Loka's back panel has slightly thicker molded foam at the top and bottom to provide extra comfort and breathability. The Rotation 180 Horizon has a much more ergonomic back panel, with excellent padding on the lumbar area, and two air channels between the middle and top foam sections. The slightly less dense foam of the Horizon is well suited to providing a balance of comfort and airflow.
Again the Loka's approach is to use thin, highly compressed padding on the waist belt, and the results are very comfortable. The Rotation 180 Horizon has slightly thicker but less dense padding. The Loka’s center buckle is solid and easy to use. The Horizon’s buckle is slightly smaller and less sturdy. Both bags tighten by pulling inward on the waist belt straps, which is a great design for dialing in the optimum fit. And even at 6'1" the waist belt sits properly around my hips on both bags.
The Loka has Molle attachment points on both sides of the waist belt for accessory cases. The Rotation 180 Horizon has a single strap attachment point on the side of the waist belt, but I’m not sure that I’d want to use it for an accessory case, as this may impede rotation.
Most importantly, when comparing the bags, I noticed that the Loka’s waist belt wraps a bit further around my hips towards the front of my body, providing greater support.
BAG RIGIDITY AND LOAD TRANSFER
The Loka includes a lightweight aluminum internal frame that provides good rigidity and load transfer when the bag is full of heavy camera gear. The MindShift Gear Horizon does not have an internal frame, but the stiff plastic inserts provide a surprising amount of rigidity for their weight. I thought the Loka would be superior here, but the Horizon performs well.
The Loka routes hydration to the right, and includes a 3” mesh guide on the right shoulder strap for the hose. The Horizon routes to the left, and has a ¾” elastic band. The Loka is designed to store the bladder on the inside center of the bag, which seems a bit too close to my gear. You can get a hydration sleeve [f-stop | Amazon] to store your bladder in if you’re worried about drips, and at $12 it’s cheap insurance. The Rotation 180 Horizon stores the bladder in a separate zippered compartment on the left of the bag. This provides easier access, and less chance of leaking on your gear, although you give up a water bottle pocket on that side.
Speaking of water bottles, the Loka has an expandable mesh pocket on each side that can carry a large water bottle. The bottles can be secured with the lower compression straps. The Horizon has a non-expanding pocket on the left that is deep enough to not worry about a bottle falling out. This made me wish the Loka’s pockets were a little bit deeper. I tested both with a 27 oz kleankanteen. F-stop put bigger side pockets on the new version of this bag, the Ajna.
CARRYING A TRIPOD
The Loka can carry a small lightweight tripod in a mesh side pocket, secured at the top with a compression strap. A slightly bigger tripod could be carried by putting two of the legs through the horizontal straps on the back of the bag. This works OK for anything up to a Gitzo 2 series, but is not ideal. There is not a traditional tripod cup on either the Loka or Ajna. This is a major design oversight, as there’s not a good way to carry a full size tripod.
The Rotation 180 Horizon has a nicely designed tripod cup that tucks away neatly when not in use. The Rotation 180 Horizon will work with larger tripods. There are 2 small straps on the outside of the bag to secure the tripod, and the straps tuck away when not in use. A really nice design.
Carrying a Laptop
Neither of these bags has a dedicated laptop compartment, but I have carried a 13” MacBook Pro in both. A computer fits between the ICU and back panel of the Loka. You'll probably want to use a sleeve, or consider the Large L/T ICU that has a padded laptop compartment. My computer fits just fine in the top section of the Horizon. Even with the additional camera insert in place, there’s just enough room for a 13" Mac in the green mesh pouch. An iPad Mini fit inside the Horizon's waist pack, too.
The Loka has loops that will take additional gatekeeper straps [f-stop | Amazon]. These allow you to mount a sleeping bag to the top for a quick overnight photo blitzkrieg. The Rotation 180 Horizon has additional daisy chain attachment points on the back. If you need more capacity than what will fit in the Horizon, consider the larger, more expensive, and versatile MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Pro [Amazon | B&H]
Both of these bags are light, really well made, and comfortable to carry. The choice boils down to how the design philosophy fits your photography style.
If you travel to a location, put down your bag, and shoot for a while, the f-stop Loka (now Ajna) is more versatile at balancing photo and non-photo gear. I also found the shoulder and waist straps slightly more comfortable. The Loka's downsides are the price, product availability, and tripod carrying capacity.
If quick access to your gear is a priority, or you shoot in wet/muddy conditions where you don't want to put your bag down, the MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Horizon 34L [Amazon | B&H] should be at the top of your list. The waist belt with magnetic quick release buckle is a really great design.