For some photographers, the camera bag is a vital piece of equipment. Not only is it a space for protecting valuable gear from the elements, but it’s a space of concealment for other bits and pieces too. For others, camera bags are unnecessary barriers preventing the photographer from having the camera ready to capture the decisive moment. I fall into the first camp, with my bag not only a space for camera equipment, but for notebooks, novels and empty packs of cigarettes to trick bystanders into thinking I smoke. While some bags do undoubtedly impede shooting, with the camera under dozens of pockets behind zippers under patented military grade water-resistant GORE-TEX® unreachable on your back, there is still something to be said for a high quality, no-frills bag. I have found such a bag and am going to show it to you (the internet sometimes calls it a “review”). Sans unboxing video, as this is a bag and did not come in a box (although it *does* come in its own lovely bag…go figure that one out).
Billingham have been making camera bags in England possibly since the time of the Romans*. It may or may not be that long, regardless the products they produce reflect a fine attention to detail that has been all but lost in the mass consumer market. The Billingham Hadley Pro (RRP AUD$445) is a mid-sized bag capable of carrying multiple 35mm bodies, lenses and film. This style of bag, synonymous with Leica-inspired street photography, need not be limited to Cartier-Bresson wannabes.
*check before publishing
The Hadley Pro is very much a traditional-style bag, made from canvas with a leather trim, and is also offered in a canvas-like synthetic material called Fibrenyte. It is available in black (an eminently sensible choice) or tan (for those who love safaris and wish Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia), along with a whole heap of other colours to go with your “oh my God, were you blind when you bought that?” à la carte Leicas. The canvas gives the bag a natural water resistance, as does the Fibrenyte, without delving into the world of cheap and nasty synthetics. The main flap covers the top of the body and fastens to nickel quick-release toggles.
These straps are adjustable depending on how full your bag is. This design does away with the loud zips and click-fastener systems seen on other popular camera bags, resulting in faster and quieter access to the camera/novel/notebook/cigarettes/One Direction Annual you may be keeping inside the bag. The rear of the bag features a waterproof zippered flat pocket, perfect for keeping documents or a slim flask of liquor in.
As nice as the outside of the Hadley Pro is, inside the canvas flap the bag really shines. For such a comparatively small bag it is endlessly versatile. The main compartment sits in the canvas bag and is partitioned by velcro dividers. Depending on your desired equipment setup, the bag could store one 35mm body with a couple of small lenses and film, or two rangefinder-style bodies, lenses and film. For the record, I’ve had it as full as one Leica body with two lenses, Nikon dSLR with superzoom, Nikon remote release cable, passport, hard drive backup device, missus’s compact camera, headphones and yesterday’s copy of the International Herald Tribune (it’s still a better read than today’s Herald Sun).
The entire main compartment is in fact removable, meaning larger items can be stored if necessary. This makes the inside of the main bag another useful space for storing documents and keeping them flat. In my case, it’s usually a book of a Beat poet whose work I’ve never actually read, but looks enticing to attractive young undergraduates studying literature and/or philosophy whom I sit opposite on the train. I would not recommend this compartment for storage of larger hardcover fiction titles, such as those by word assemblers Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum (or any of his ghost writers). Aside from the fact that they won’t fit, you are doing yourself a disservice and look entirely ridiculous reading it in public. Buy a Kindle or something. At least you can read your trash in hidden shame behind the shiny veneer of anonymous plastic.
But I can hear you all crowing, “$445 RRP is far too much for a camera bag when I can’t put canned ham on the table to feed the children of us, the humble working families struggling what has the government ever done for us”, and I would be inclined to agree had I not experienced the aqueduct — I mean — this bag. With your common or garden variety camera bag often running above $100, this bag is really not that much more, considering what you get for your money.
The only caveat is the longevity of the canvas material…I know, I know I’ve crowed on about how hard-wearing these bags are, but it does depend on your wardrobe. So, being a hip young* person, I often find myself wearing denim jeans (and sometimes even actively dress myself in them). Denim is no friend of canvas, at least not when it comes to durability. Denim is harder than canvas and, depending on where you wear your Billingham on your body, will wear out against denim (the cool burn mark below was exacerbated by my pair a month month denim habit).
Eventually, the top flap (and strap) was too badly worn to continue using the bag. Fortunately for a bag costing many dollars, Billingham offers a five year warranty with their products. I contacted Billingham and they sent a replacement bag. A freakin’ replacement bag! I’ve had my new bag for about three years and it’s wearing fine. That said, the next Billingham I buy will be made from Fibrenyte, the aforementioned tougher synthetic canvas-like material.
Considering the time I’ve owned these bags and the thousands of miles travelled (it comes with me literally every day), I consider the price has been well worth it. I should also note that Billingham actually offer a repair service with replacement components, so you don’t have to discard your bag when it begins to wear and is out of warranty. Other bags I have used over a lesser period of time have since been retired with extreme prejudice. But really, so long as any wear doesn’t impact the bag’s ability to carry shit, a worn Billingham, like a worn Leica M, looks much cooler and hardcore than a shiny brand new thing.
*check before publishing
Camera bags aren’t for every photographer and Billingham’s range will not be suitable for all bag-using photographers. But if you are in need of a well-made, highly protective camera bag, a Billingham may be your answer. And it earns instant street-cred in fancy European camera stores. Just saying.