Frankenpack - A Pain-Free Photo Backpack Mod

Frankenpack - A Pain-Free Photo Backpack Mod

How to combine an ergonomic day pack and a camera insert to create a pain-free alternative to classic photography backpacks.

I’m 38 years old, and I’m a bit of a wreck. A lifetime spent behind a desk combined with bad luck playing the genetic lottery will do that to you. I love tramping (aka hiking, if you are a non-Kiwi), but years ago I was not enjoying the experience any more. Back and neck pain had finally caught up with my sedentary lifestyle. It was time to find a new carrying system.

I fell in love with Aarn Packs, a New Zealand outdoor gear company that specialises in ergonomic backpacks (or bodypacks, as they call them), after exploring the market for a while. Considering that they completely reinvented backpacks, that’s a bit of an understatement. I started using one of their bigger overnight packs and my pain just went away.

Aarn Liquid Agility

Aarn Liquid Agility

When I started getting into photography, their photo front-pockets really came in handy as well. While these pockets are great on overnight trips, they are a bit cumbersome for landscape photography.

And so I went on and bought an F-Stop backpack. The Guru is a classical photo pack that is accessed through a zippered back compartment. I loved that design since it allows me to just drop the pack in the dirt, unzip the whole pack panel, and have a clean space to work with. My F-Stop was an amazing photo pack that suffered one big problem: It was built by a company with an emphasis on photography rather than ergonomics. Within an hour of carrying it fully loaded, it was literally a pain in the neck.

The ICU fits nicely

The ICU fits nicely

So I had a chat with the friendly team at Aarn Packs to see if they had a pack that could fit a standard camera insert (F-Stop calls them ICU). To my surprise they did: Aarn’s Liquid Agility 30L day pack. I compared measurements of pack and ICU, and things looked promising.

Once I put both parts together, it was almost like the pack had been made with the ICU in mind. It fits perfectly with some room to spare at the top. Since the back panel of the pack happens to be rigid in places, the pack will not bulge and spill the contents stored in the ICU. It is as good a fit as you will ever get with two products that were never meant to work together. The fit is nowhere near as snug as in an F-Stop pack, though. Where an F-Stop pack can be unzipped with one hand, the Liquid Agility needs a bit more coercing. Where my Guru was boxy and rigid, the Liquid Agility is soft and malleable. The Aarn Pack just takes a little longer to open and close.

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

However, that is a compromise I’m more than happy to make. Just like my tramping packs, my new Aarn Frankenpack simply made all the pain go away. Let’s have a look at how they pull that off.

Shoulder-straps: The pack uses a technology called U & V flow. Normally each shoulder-strap is sewn into the pack at the top and bottom. It is really just a rigid strip of fabric with some padding. The straps on this pack on the other hand are free-floating. They form a loop that freely moves through a clip (top) and a little tunnel (bottom). While that sounds awfully technical, it feels amazing. Where a normal pack keeps my shoulders from rolling freely while I am walking, they can move naturally with the U&V system. It’s hard to explain how this feels, except really floaty. Using a normal pack feels as restraining as a straight-jacket in comparison.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Hip-belt: The belt is fairly sophisticated for a pack of this size. It is adjusted with two straps on each side. A belt with a single strap can only be pulled painfully tight to achieve a good fit. Two straps on the other hand allow to mold the belt exactly to the shape of your body. I find it achieves a much better fit with less padding, while staying more comfortable at the same time. This is really important since the hip-belt should carry most of the load. It takes weight off the shoulders and eliminates neck-strain.

The carrying system

The carrying system

The pack has a lot of the standard bells and whistles. With the ICU fitted, there is still space at the top of the main compartment. That’s where I put my filter pouch. The inside also has a small zippered compartment where I keep my business cards.

The outside sports two large stretch pockets and a ton of loops, straps and attachment points. I can easily attach a 0.7L water bottle and a full-size tripod to the outside.

The whole front of the pack is one big zip compartment. It runs along the whole height and width of the pack, but it lacks a little in depth. Throw something in at the top, and it will drop all the way to the bottom. It has two smaller zip compartments on the inside, but they are too small to store anything bigger than a mobile phone. To be fair, the front compartment of my F-Stop Guru was equally awkward to use. I assume this is a design drawback of packs with rear-accessible main compartments.

Note that you can attach Aarn front pockets (non-photo ones) to this pack to gain more easily accessible storage for little nick-nacks.

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

The plus in carrying comfort comes with a few drawbacks. Where an off-the-rack F-Stop pack is opened and closed in seconds, the Liquid Agility requires a bit more coercing. The V-Flow strap has to be unclipped at the top, and the zippers do not run quite as easily due to the softer materials. Especially when closing the pack two hands are needed to straighten out the zipper. This is largely due to the ICU fitting so snugly at the bottom. This is not a design flaw, but a drawback of me stuffing a third-party ICU into a pack it wasn’t designed for.

Aarn Packs constantly improve their packs. What I would like to see in future versions of the Liquid Agility is a redesigned front compartment. Items just drop to the bottom, never to be seen again.


There is a lot to like about this pack. It fits a standard F-Stop ICU, which easily turns the Liquid Agility into the most ergonomic photography backpack that I’ve tried. Materials and craftsmanship are beyond reproach, and it fits plenty of gear, clothing and extras for a landscape photography outing of several hours. I went from trying to keep my F-Stop pack as light as possible and still coming back in pain, to throwing extra stuff into my Liquid Agility and not minding the pack at all. This backpack comes with a few drawbacks, but if you value ergonomics above all, you should give an Aarn Frankenpack a chance.


Aarn Liquid Agility
Read more about Aarn’s pack technology here and here.
F-Stop Large Pro ICU

This article was first published on the Lightforge blog

Meet-Up at Crater Rim

Meet-Up at Crater Rim


Crater Rim in Christchurch has some pretty amazing views across Lyttelton Harbour. Smart as we are, Rob and I had worked out the one day in autumn when the sun seems to rise right out of the mouth of the harbour. So, naturally, we thought we'd share this magic day with our fellow photo geeks. (If you wonder how we managed this incredible feat of foresight, have a look at Rob's article about planning apps

On the Monday before the event we noticed that only a handful of people were signed up. We were totally happy with a more intimate event, but advertised it in a few more photo groups anyway. 

Even though numbers had surged by Friday, it did not prepare us for the utter madness that greeted us at Crater Rim on Saturday morning. 


The scene was almost worthy of the circus at the Church of the Sheppard or the Wanaka Tree on a slow day. An estimated 35ish people had gotten out of bed early to greet the sun with us. What an awesome turnout!

We parked up Summit Road to a point where one poor guy got stuck in a ditch. In the spirit of Top Gear we had to abandon him eventually to get up to our spot in time. Whoever you are, we hope the professionals got you sorted out quickly :)

For Rob and me, Crater Rim has always been an all-or-nothing location. We either find ourselves in a cloud, or it's an intensely glary sunrise with not a single cloud around. As it turned out we were blessed to the no-cloud option. Not ideal, but us photographers can't be picky. We'll work with whatever bone mother nature throws our way.

A big thank you to everyone who came along. You're all heroes for getting your butts out of bed early!

With this many people attending we had a hard time catching up personally with everyone. It was just like organising a party. So many people, so little time! If you feel neglected, make sure to call us out on the next meet-up. 


Hero Holiday Queenstown 2017

Hero Holiday Queenstown 2017

Sometimes you have to be lucky. With our recent Hero Holiday in Queenstown we could not have been any luckier, had we scripted it. We were literally wedged in between two cyclones. One of our students made it just in time after being delayed by flooding of biblical proportions on the North Island.

Heroic posing

Heroic posing

But our luck did not stop there. Our group of students was not only incredibly charming, most of them were veteran photographers as well. They say that doctors make the worst patients. We hope we passed the test of making the workshop interesting for total newbies and experienced workshoppers alike. We even had a landscape painter with 30+ years of experience attending, of all things! Many thanks to Lindsay for not shooting down our creativity modules at every turn. I'm sure you could have!

Getting it all lined up

Getting it all lined up

Labelling a workshop with 14-hour days a Holiday is something of an inside joke. Then again there's no better way to get people used to the idea of being at the mercy of sunrise and sunset times than to jump right in. Fortunately our guys were total champs at getting out of bed at ungodly hours, then standing in the cold and dark, listening to our ramblings at 6am in the morning. 

Sweet classrooms

Sweet classrooms

It can be heartbreaking to drag people away from a beautiful location just because the clock is ticking. We try to keep a good balance between utterly polar factors like spontaneity and scheduling. A few times we had to drag people on to the next thing on our list. Since no one was kicking and screaming, we considered that a win. It's a good strategy anyway: Maximise your chances by moving on to do something different every now and then. It's too easy to get stuck on one thing.

Suddenly, astro!

Suddenly, astro!

One of my favourite moments of the whole workshop happened when we arrived at Lake Hayes in the very early morning. While astro photography was not part of the curriculum, we ended up compressing some of the lessons of that morning in favour of shooting the stars. Why waste time talking when conditions are perfect to hit the shutter button?

Click, click

Click, click

There was so much to enjoy about this trip. The group was awesome and laid back, the weather went easy on us, and hey, after all it is Queenstown! There's something to be said for conveniently accessible world-class spots, followed by amazing food after a day of hunting and gathering the light.

We are pretty lucky, aren't we?


Rob and Dennis were the ultimate professionals who shared heaps of valuable knowledge, including apps, planning and safety equipment. We applied that knowledge at awesome locations!

The excellent organization and planning meant that not a moment of the long days was wasted. It was also great to hang out with a like-minded group of enthusiastic people. I would recommended the Hero Holiday to others without hesitation.
— Nick Farrelly about the Hero Holiday at Mount Cook 2016

Landscape Photography Apps Compared

Landscape Photography Apps Compared

The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it
— Ansel Adams

An epic landscape image starts life in your imagination, but turning that idea into a finished image needs a little planning. What season will work best, what kind of conditions, sunrise or sunset, blue hour or astro? Where will the sun rise or set? What else is close by if conditions dont work out?

Like most Landscape photographers I have a mental calendar of places and times, but to really plan a shot I use a whole bunch of tools to help. I'll be looking at three of the most popular ones here. They all show you the basics, and let you save locations or entire plans and will let you fill your diary with shoots.

The Photographers Ephemeris



'TPE' was the first serious sunrise/sunset tool I found, originally just an online web tool using some maps API's, its still available for free online. Its the simplest tool out of the three here, but sometimes that makes it the quickest tool to use. It'll show you the basic sunrise and set positions, moon cycle and positions, elevation and even a Bortle map for light pollution.

Simply set the date and location you are interested in, and it will show you the ephemeris details in the lower panel. Swipe between information and use the time slider to see where the sun and moon will be.

It is fast and simple, and will get you the basic info without much effort.




Known on iOS for the last 4 years to have a great balance between features and ease of use, Photopills gives you many tools to help your planning.

The primary 'Pills' are:

  • Planner
  • Sun/moon finder
  • Exposure and DoF calculators
  • Time lapse
  • Augmented reality
  • Star trails/spot star calculators

Alongside the Pills tab is 'My stuff' where your own plans, awards and points of interest sit, and 'Academy', where links to the user guide, videos and even T-Shirts exist.

The meat, though, is the planner, and superficially this looks a lot like TPE.

By using the top panel you have several more options for information display, including the milky way (visibility and centre finder).  Swiping between these shows you different information. One of the key things here is each panel has a button on the left to enable its special feature (milky way arch or blue/golden hour colours etc).  These can all be enabled or disabled independently.

The centre section showing the map has a few buttons: One to expand the map almost full screen, cutting down on clutter, and others to drop target pins, etc.

The lower panel shows by default a 24 hour graph you can scroll or zoom in for more precise control over timing.

Below this is a row of buttons for saving/loading plans, finding stuff, and the Augmented reality (AR) modes. You can also easily share your plans with others online.

Photopills daytime AR mode

Photopills daytime AR mode

The AR modes are heaps of fun. Hold the phone up to the scene and it will show you (after calibration) exactly where the sun or milky way will rise or set at any time of year. This is probably the best tool for planning when you can visit the location beforehand.

and night AR mode

and night AR mode

One of Photopills' secret weapons is the desktop widget that can run live on your phone's launcher (or notification area on iOS). These can show you all the info you need for today, or list your plans. From here you can launch directly into the app.




I've used this app for a few years now, as it was the most complete Android option I could find. It was always tricky to use because of the depth and clutter of the interface. It recently underwent a complete redesign, which makes it far easier to use than before.

Planit!Pro covers all the same basic ephemeris information the other two apps do,  plus a few other modes like meteor showers, light and shadow, panoramas, and tides. It is in fact the only planning app that does include tide information, even though on my phone it is a little slow to use. The list of tools include:

  • Camera/scene location (2 pins for distance/elevation etc)
  • Depth of field
  • Panorama
  • Sunrise/set, twilight and special hours (golden, blue hour etc)
  • Exact positions of sun/moon
  • Stars and star trails
  • Milky way location
  • Meteor showers
  • Dark skies
  • Time lapse
  • Sequence (sun/moon over time)
  • Exposure calculator
  • Light and shadow
  • Rainbow position
  • Tide height, Tide search
  • Map modes including google street view

The milky way finder is great, and it has a zoomable bortle scale light pollution map. Both combined allow you to plan your astro trips quite well. This is paired with the milky way calendar, which quickly shows you the best time to shoot (moon cycles and time above horizon etc).

One of the cool things with Planit!Pro is you can search by event then filter the results. So I can search a location for low tide in the next month and then filter by golden hour or new moon or whatever and it will show me a list of dates/times that meet my requirements. Makes planning something complicated far simpler!

Panorama mode will calculate how many shots you need for your composition based on your focal length.

It does have an AR mode, but its far more difficult to use compared to Photopills. Though it does have the ability to plan your composition on location with photos taken previously.

There is a free version lacking some key tools for avid landscape/astro shooters. It is worth trying before you buy the full version.


Its difficult to dismiss any of these three apps. They all do the job, and do it well.

TPE is by far the simplest, and that makes it quick and easy to use. Its also far more limited, but covers the basics of sun and moon positions and moon cycle.

Planit!Pro has some incredibly powerful tools if you take the time to learn how to use the app. Even with its reworked interface and built in help, it is often tricky to use. The flipside is it's incredibly versatile, and can combine a bunch of tools/views in one to give you all the information you will ever need. It is also the only one with tide information!

Photopills, at its most basic, is almost as easy to use as TPE. At the same time it offers almost the depth of Planit!Pro. It has become truly cross-platform recently, and has the most awesome AR mode.  It is also a lot more social than the other two apps, with plans shared between groups. love the widgets.

For me, I am more likely to use Photopills now, as it has a nice combination of depth, features and ease of use.

Meet-Up at Godley Head

Meet-Up at Godley Head

Avoiding the glare

When you spend as much time planning and preparing landscape photography workshops as Rob and I do, the reason for our efforts sometimes fades into the background.

Waiting for sunrise

We started Hero Workshops for our shared love of photography, and to enable others to enjoy it as much as we do. When spreadsheets and emails threaten to take over our lives, it's time to call a Hero Meet-Up, meet other photographers, and head out to shoot.

Rob looking for his camera

The latest iteration at Godley Head had a rough start. Bad weather required us to postpone a previous attempt on short notice. Imagine our bliss when the forecast predicted a calm, sunny morning this time. We were finally getting away from our spreadsheets!

Not the worst way to use an old bunker

It was a beautiful morning to be out and about. The light breeze invited to just sit in the tussocks and watch the sun rise over the horizon. Not that we did sit down. The photos weren't going to take themselves, after all.

Unfortinately, the lack of cloud cover didn't allow us to take the killer shots we had gotten out of bed for so early.

Getting all the gizmos ready

As so often in landscape photography, we had hoped and planned for certain conditions, and made the best of what we got in the end. It is almost always the unexpected shot, taken after packing up and taking out my gear twice, that I end up liking the best:

Lyttelton Harbour & Banks Peninsula

Lyttelton Harbour & Banks Peninsula


Hero Meet-Ups are randomly announced landscape photography events. Join us for free advice, take photos with us, and have a coffee afterwards. Watch the Meet-Up section and our Facebook page for the next event.

Two Boy Scouts in Queenstown

Two Boy Scouts in Queenstown

'Just another day at the office!' is what went through my mind when I took this selfie of Rob and me. An evening like that is what made us fall in love with the outdoors and photography in the first place: Sitting on a mountain, overlooking a vast, overwhelmingly beautiful landscape, and knowing that we, as photographers, can take a slice of it home with us. One click at a time.

The Remarkables and the Lower Shotover 

The old saying that 'the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle' applies. We want our students to experience a healthy balance of learning and fun, so our non-shooting hours were spent chasing around Queenstown. We had a long list of locations from shooting here previously. But the nitty-gritty of fitting them into four days required feet on the ground. Not that we needed much of an incentive to go to Queenstown!

The shore of Lake Wakatipu is not short of subjects

Getting some face time with astrophotography legend and Queenstown local Jordan McInally was a special treat. At some stage a spontaneous 600m climb up the Remarkables was in short order considered, approved, and finally rejected due to a lack of sleep, gear and stamina. One of us even forgot his tripod, but I'm not going to tell names. You know who you are!

One of Jordan's special astro places

Rob and I absolutely cannot wait to get on the road in April. While a scouting trip is fun, it is the experience of exploring as a group of enthusiasts that makes these weekends truly special. With an office like that, working weekends is a burden that we will happily put up with.

Moke Lake on a gloomy morning

What: Hero Holiday Queenstown
When: Friday 7/4/2017 - Monday 10/4/2017
Mission: Learn how to plan, shoot and edit your own landscape hero pic
Included: Accommodation, tutoring, handout materials, welcome package, a lot of ideas, a big smile on your face
Price: $1500
There are still a few spaces available. More information here.

Dennis & Jordan looking for the mother of all compositions