I was working in my first photographic retail job in 1998 when Lowepro launched their original Street and Field series. The S&F series' modular design let you tailor and adapt your carrying system to suit the specific needs of a job and the shooting circumstances. I remember being impressed with it back then - I loved all the various component parts that could be combined or removed to create the perfect set-up.
In today's photographic environment where photographers may have to carry a range of camera, video and computer gear and turn their hand to more than just taking pictures, a modular system that can be adapted on a shoot by shoot basis makes perfect sense, so it's no surprise that Lowepro have revamped their Street and Field gear in the form of the new S&F Series. This revamped line-up features 17 different products which can be combined in an almost unlimited number or ways to best suit your shooting needs.
The lovely gents and Lowepro UK sent me over a box containing some of the S&F bags, belt and pouches for me to try out and see if my love affair with the S&F system could be rekindled.
S&F core system
If you're intending to build an entire system of S&F components, then you need to start with a core product. These are the items that will form the foundation of the system and will allow all the other components to be mounted on your person. The bare minimum is either the Lowepro S&F Deluxe Technical Belt, or the Light Utility Belt. These can be used on their own or combined with either the S&F Technical Harness or Technical Vest for maximum comfort and carrying capacity. The box that I received from Lowepro contained the S&F Technical Harness and Light Utility Belt.
Light Utility Belt
What Lowepro says:
"Designed to be very flexible and suit a variety of shooting scenarios, our S&F Light Utility Belt is constructed of segments that slide independently around the main webbing for easy access, comfort and load adjustment. Add or subtract up to 10 SlipLock™ compatible pouches or cases to create your ideal kit. The inventive segment attachment system allows you to wear the parts in multiple ways. The removable and adjustable shoulder strap may be used to help stabilize a heavy load or to create a single shoulder bag solution with attached S&F™ components. It features a cable-friendly design allowing cables or wires to be threaded through the belt, then between belt and pad, for secure cable/wire management. Pair the belt with another Lowepro compatible bag—such as our Toploader Pro™ AW—to be prepared for a shoot with a variety of lenses, filters and spare batteries."
What I say:
The way the Light Utility Belt has been designed involves the combination of a webbing belt and separate padded sections with the SlipLock loops. It also come supplied with a detachable shoulder strap, and this combination of straps, padding and belts makes the Light Utility Belt look unnecessarily complicated when it first comes out of the box. However, it doesn't take long to get it untangled an in position around your waist, and once there you realise the benefit of its design. The padding makes it incredibly comfortable, even with multiple pouches containing heavy camera gear attached. If you really are loading it up to the max, then the shoulder strap helps secure the load and make the whole thing more stable, but it's the well designed and forgiving padded sections that will ensure you could wear the belt all day with minimum "chafage".
What Lowepro says:
"The S&F™ Technical Harness is ideal for a photojournalist or photographer who needs go light and move fast when covering an event. This lightweight, supportive and flexible design helps to lessen the load when worn with our S&F™ Light Utility Belt or S&F™ Deluxe Technical Belt (both sold separately). Top-drawer features include: a lapel strap keeper that secures your camera strap via sturdy straps, SlipLock™ attachment loops for expanding carrying capacity (add a S&F™ Phone Case 20 to have a smartphone close at hand), and a sternum strap with a built-in safety whistle. Its detachable handle cup and restraint straps turn an additional Lowepro shoulder bag—such as the Classified™ AW or Magnum™ AW—into a convenient backpack, allowing the photographer to carry even more gear."
What I say:
Much like the Light Utility Belt, upon removing the Technical Harness from the bog it looked like one large tangle of webbing and buckles with no obvious way of telling what went where. Unlike the Light Utility Belt, though, working out how to put the Harness on was not a straightforward task. Although it doesn't take long to work out which way up and round it goes, working out how to attach it to the Light Utility Belt (both the Harness and the Vest have to be used with one of the S&F belts) is a more challenging task. There are no instructions included and what may seem on paper (or screen) to be an easy enough process is actually rather difficult when there are no obvious connection points on the Belt to accept the straps on the Harness. After studying images on the web for a while I guessed at how the two were supposed to be connected and, although I managed to come up with a perfectly workable solution, I've still no idea if this was actually correct.
But it's not all bad - once in place the Harness is just as comfortable as the Belt and the combination of the two makes it possible to carry even more gear in comfort. Perhaps more importantly, it allows the wearer to carry heavier gear more comfortably - ideal if you're a long-lens shooter or carry more than one camera at a time. The Technical Harness also features some rather nice touches and demonstrates Lowepro's attention to detail. While the inclusion of an emergency whistle on the sternum strap may only be of interest to the most hardy adventure photographers, the popper straps on the shoulders that are designed to hold your camera strap in place will be appreciated by anyone who has had their skin rubbed raw by a heavy camera on a rough strap swinging around their neck.
Once you're got the base for your S&F system you can start picking the components you want for your gear , your type of photography and your style of shooting. At the heart of all the component pouches is Lowepro's SlipLock attachment system - an attachment device that is quick, simple and very secure.
The long, rigid flap passes through the SlipLock loop on the S&F Harness, or Belts, or any SlipLock Loop equipped Lowepro bag, or even your own trouser-belt for that matter and attaches via hook and loop material to the bottom of the pouch. A second flap then folds up and over the end of the first rigid flap and again attaches with hook and loop material to secure everything in place. This system allows bags and pouches to be connected and removed easily, but still remain secure when in place.
There are 13 component cases in the current S&F series, although there are also many other Lowepro pouches that have SlipLock attachment and could therefore be used with the core system. Lowepro sent a selection of the S&F components for me to use with the Technical Harness and Light Utility Belt.
Lens Exchange Case 200 AW
What Lowepro says:
"Our breakthrough, purpose-built design allows a one-handed lens exchange. This inventive case is ideal for busy photographers who need to switch out lenses as they work. The patent-pending lens exchange feature temporarily holds and separates the two lenses as the photographer detaches the working lens and grabs the second. After the lenses are exchanged, the bag collapses back to a single-lens carrier. A Lowepro first, it includes: two mesh pockets for lens caps, body caps or filters, a patented, built-in All Weather AW Cover™, a SlipLock™ attachment tab, and an easy-grip main handle that opens the compartment wide for easy and fast access, secure metal snap closure, removable and adjustable shoulder strap, 2 D rings, and durable, moisture-resistant outer fabric. The S&F Lens Exchange 200 AW features a travel-friendly design that collapses flat for easy packing into a larger bag."
What I say:
Sometimes products come along that promote themselves as a solution to a problem that nobody ever really had and one that has been invented purely to necessitate the requirement for a solution that the product offers. With me so far? The Lowepro S&F Lens Exchange is NOT one of those products. In fact, it's quite the opposite and addresses an issue that any photographer with more than one lens is likely to have come across at some point. Out in the field (or mountain, or city) changing lenses can be easier said than done. If you've nowhere safe to place one lens while you're adding or removing the other from your camera you end up stuffing it in your pocket or balancing it in your bag or trying to hold on to all 3 items (both lenses and the camera body) simultaneously in a risky and potentially expensive juggling act.
The clever design of the Exchange 200 makes this manoeuvre simple by offering a way to safely stow 2 lenses briefly whilst providing a safe and secure way of carrying one unused lens while the other is attached to the camera. To make it clear, it's not designed to carry two lenses so only has to be large enough to accommodate one. However, the cunning accordion-like fold-out design does provide a place to sit two lenses while one is being removed from a camera and the other added. It really is an ingenious and well thought out pouch, but if the mechanics of it are still not particularly clear, have a look at this video from Lowepro:
Slim Lens Pouch 55 AW and 75 AW
What Lowepro says:
"Minimize it. Collapse it. Work with it. Our S&F Slim Lens Pouch AW series is a lean and streamlined solution that offers freedom of movement for working photographers. The pouch provides reinforced protection at critical mount and glass points. The snag-free top edge allows for a smooth removal of a lens from the case. And its inventive construction flattens for easy packing when not in use. Convenient features like Lowepro’s built-in All Weather AW Cover™, a SlipLock™ attachment tab and a removable/adjustable shoulder strap keep things flexible as weather and assignments change."
What I say:
These Slim Lens Pouches are another good example of Lowepro's design team addressing a common issue and coming up with a good solution. Anybody who carries large lenses will appreciate at that, while you need a bag large enough in which to fit the lens when it's not in use, once the lens is attached to your camera the same gargantuan pouch becomes an annoying obstacle to your photography. This is perhaps even more of an issue when you are swapping between to sizeable lenses where you will have one heavy, lens-stuffed lens pouch plus the inconvenience of the empty lens pouch getting in your way.
Although hardly ground breaking in their design, both the 75 and 55AW Slim Lens Pouches function in the same way. Their collapsible/expandable design with two patches of hook and loop closures - one each for their full and empty positions - are strong and reliable enough to comfortably hold and protect your valuable lenses, but also fold down to a conveniently compact size so that they can be stuffed into another bag or left in position on your Belt or Harness without being a hindrance to your shots.
Quick Flex Pouch 75 AW
What Lowepro says:
"Our “spring-loaded” flap design on this convenient accessory pouch keeps it partially and securely closed while you work. Its sloped shape speeds access—allowing you to grab a flash, radio or other needed accessory while you work an event or cover an important assignment. Its streamlined design offers freedom of movement. Key details keep things flexible: a built-in All Weather AW Cover™, a SlipLock™ attachment tab, an adjustable/removable shoulder strap, YKK zippers with large pulls, and an interior pocket."
For the vast, vast majority of photographers, this bag will be used for a flashgun and batteries, rather than a radio or anything exciting like that. The spring-loaded flap is more than a little annoying to start with, particularly as you're trying to put smaller items into the front pocket of the pouch. However, its purpose becomes clear in use where it's possible to remove a flash instantly from the main compartment without spilling any un-required contents as you move about shooting. Although the sprung lid doesn't create an air-tight seal, if closes enough and offers enough resistance to stop anything but the most determined accessory from accidentally escaping.
The Quick Flex Pouch 75 AW shares a particular bit of clever design with the Lens Exchange 200 AW which, whilst not by any means a headline feature, shows that Lowepro have again been paying attention to the details. Both bags have a popper-closure on the top/back of the lid. This is here to be used along with the zip closure for additional security, or instead of the zip for faster access. The issue with the popper-closures is that you can find yourself pushing down on the contents of the bag beneath the popper when trying to close it, potentially damaging your equipment. Like I said, it's only a small thing, but the design of the popper on the S&F bags allows you to slip a finger behind the press-stud, thus making it easier to fasten and protecting the contents from pressure damage. Clever, no?
Utility Bag 100 AW
What Lowepro says:
"Our all-purpose design provides versatile storage space for all kinds of photography and audio gear—like camera bodies, binoculars, batteries and mixing units. A wide and angled opening lets you access items quickly, and the fully padded interior with an adjustable divider protects fragile equipment while being stored or carried. Lowepro’s patented, built-in All Weather AW Cover™ ensures your gear is protected from the elements—when needed. Additional, convenient details include a front zippered pocket, 2 D-rings, SlipLock™ attachment tabs, and a cable port."
When I see "Utility" I assume it refers to something that can do or be anything. I blame Batman for that. To be honest, there are very few pouches that aren't at least slightly adaptable in terms of what they can carry and how they can be used, but the Lowepro S&F Utility Bag 100 AW clearly sees itself as something special. In essence though, it is just a medium sized rectangular bag that can be mounted on any SlipLock loop or carried on a shoulder strap. Like most of the S&F accessories it has an All Weather (AW) cover, a zip closure and a padded interior. It really isn't very exciting. However, there are a couple of nice features; the wide and angled opening does make it possible to get all manner of equipment in and out with efficiently, and the fancily titled "Cable Port" (a hole in the back of the bag) allows leads to be fed into the bag - presumably so you can use the pouch to carry an external battery or similar. To be fair, then, the Lowepro Utility Bag 100 AW is more reliable workhorse than exciting polo pony, but that should be seen as a good thing.
What Lowepro says:
"Keep hydration right at hand. Our modular bottle pouch is crafted of stretchy neoprene to provide a snug fit and help keep liquids insulated. Use with a bottle or canteen—or make this pouch your accessory “grab bag” for convenience. Details include: D-ring, SlipLock™ attachment tab, drawstring and toggle closure. Please note: Bottle not included."
What I say:
Well, not a lot really - the Lowepro S&F Bottle Pouch pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a pouch for a bottle, even if that bottle is not included. Of course, you could put any other, similarly sized cylindrical object in there, but as it's just a neoprene pouch it doesn't offer much in the way of padding and protection, so I wouldn't recommend putting a lens in there.
Compatible gear and availability
As mentioned before, although all this gear forms part of the specific Lowepro S&F range, there is a whole range of additional bags that these accessories will fit on and work with - any Lowepro rucksack, shoulder bag or top-loader that has a SlipLock loop is compatible. There are also plenty of pouches and cases that can be used with the S&F Belt or Harness system - many of the small camera pouches and lens caseslens cases have a SlipLock tap on the back. In short then, the new Lowepro S&F system is a worthwhile and successful update of the modular approach and certainly gets a big thumbs-up from me.