Billingham Bags: Why I Like Them

An Apology

I must start by digressing from the topic to say: I’m sorry for posting this a day later than scheduled. I was intending to post on time, but I was tired to the point of collapsing onto my keyboard, which isn’t the most efficient (or enjoyable) way to write these posts.

The Explanation

Being a massive Arctic Monkeys fan (they make up well over 75% of my music collection across all formats), I made the trip to Wellington on Saturday for their concert at the TSB Arena, then returned yesterday. It was a superb experience, though very tiring. When you add that to a hectic week in the lab, severe fatigue results. But, that’s a small price to pay for your first ever rock concert, by your favourite band, in a city you’ve never visited before, whilst celebrating a piece of lab work that didn’t go horribly wrong.

This is one of only two photos I took during the concert. I was there to enjoy the music and the atmosphere, and I did. Samsung Galaxy Ace 3.
This is one of only two photos I took during the concert. I was there to enjoy the music and the atmosphere, and I did. That’s probably why, for once, I’m not fussed about the blurriness. Samsung Galaxy Ace 3, Night Mode.

Introduction to This Week’s Post

As this week’s title implies, I’m partial to Billingham camera bags. To my mind, they are one of the most capable, adaptable and durable bags on the market.

Billingham was founded in the 1970s, and after initially producing fishing bags, became well regarded for their photographic shoulder bags. Since then, they have evolved to produce a wide range of bags, both in canvas (my preference) and FiberNyte (a synthetic alternative), aimed at all levels of the photographic market.

My first encounter with the brand came while reading a Leica magazine from the late 1970s, where they were the most prominently featured bag manufacturer. Upon finding that they were still in business (and realising I needed a new bag), I took the plunge, and bought myself a Hadley Pro for my 21st birthday. After having this for almost 18 months, I added a Stowaway Pola to my collection.

Hadley Pro

The Hadley Pro is the latest incarnation of the original Hadley shoulder bag. Size-wise, it sits in the middle of the Hadley family. I chose this bag because of its removable padded camera insert, top handle, and zippered pocket for A4 paper on the back. To improve its capacity, I added two AVEA 5 pockets, which strap onto each end of the bag. I also added an SP20 shoulder pad, to make heavier loads more tolerable.

My Hadley Pro, in its usual configuration. Most days, this is what I carry with me.
My Hadley Pro, in its usual configuration. Most days, this is what I carry with me. The AVEA 5 pockets are strapped to each end with leather straps and brass press studs. Also shown is the SP20 shoulder pad.

I was soon smitten with this bag. Fully loaded, the main bag can hold an SLR, flash, short and long lenses, plus film and other small pieces in the front pockets. The front pockets have poppers on the sides, so that they can be expanded out for extra capacity. When travelling away for the night (such as to Wellington for the concert), I often just remove the camera insert, and use this as an overnight bag; without the insert, it will take a towel, toiletries and a change of clothes with ease.

Weather-proofing is excellent, as the bag is able to routinely survive heavy downpours without leaking (the best I’ve managed is two 90 minute stints in a torrential downpour within a couple of hours of each other). Comfort has been superb, too, with the shoulder pad conforming to my shoulder and working quite well to spread the pressure on the strap. However, the neoprene gripper on the underside does slip on my waxed cotton jacket, as it is susceptible to coating itself with wax while I walk.

AVEA 5

The AVEA 5 pouches share the same virtues of weather proofing and capacity as the bag range. The pouches can hold the PEN Mini with a lens (up to the Olympus 14-42 mm) fitted, which provides easy access to a camera, without needing to pop the main compartment flap. A drawstring runs around the outer top edge, so that it can be sealed further against the elements.

One feature I love (which isn’t advertised) is a slip pocket at the back of the pouch. It appears to have been put there to prevent items in the main part of the pouch being scratched by the brass press stud fasteners on the back. I find it’s an ideal place to store notes and pens.

Stowaway Pola

While I bought this to use as a waistpack, it is advertised as a carry-on bag, which can hold a small camera system, and essential travel documents. Having travelled through Cambodia with it for a month, I can attest to its suitability for this. My only gripe was a lack of internal dividers in the main compartment, but I glued a velcro strip into it, so that it was able to take the dividers from the Hadley Pro.

The Canon Canonet 19, perched atop a tan and khaki Billingham Stowaway Pola bag.
My Stowaway Pola. This view shows the intersection of a number of the different pockets, and the Canonet gives some indication of how capacious it is for a compact bag.

For me, the stand-out feature is the wide array of pockets, all varying in size. There is a large pocket under the main flap for added security, as well as zippered pockets (including the main compartment), and an open pocket at the back (ideal for a map when out walking). As well as belt loops at the rear, there is a matching shoulder strap included, which can take the shoulder pads from the larger bags.

While I didn’t expect the top zipper to be weather proof, it has proven me wrong, surviving heavy rain showers without letting water through to my gear.

Quality

Billingham still makes bags in a traditional English workshop. The craftsmanship is evident, with high quality materials and sound assembly. They charge a premium over a number of other manufacturers as a result, but I feel it’s worth paying extra to get a bag which is going to last a few decades

The only marks on my bags are from general wear and tear, and none of them have threatened to compromise the integrity of the canvas. After numerous encounters with bushes, a lot of rain, and the occasional showering with salt water spray, none of my bags have done anything other than age gracefully. That, to me, confirms their inherent quality.

In terms of quality of protection, I can’t fault them. The padding used is thick and soft, cosseting whatever I place in the bags. Nothing has been damaged, and I believe damage prevention is the whole idea of a camera bag.

Style

There’s a classic appeal to a canvas bag trimmed in leather with brass fastenings. Personally, I feel this comes down to the simplicity of the lines, the way the leather accentuates them, and the way the brass sits with them. Aesthetically, this means the bags match anything; ranging from a suit and dress shoes; through a field jacket, jeans and boots; to a t-shirt and shorts with canvas shoes. I like how seamlessly the bag blends into whatever I’m wearing, wherever I’m wearing it.

Conclusion

I bought my Billingham bags based on the company’s reputation for quality, and the ability of the bag to adapt to any situation. So far, they have lived up to that reputation. After a few couple of years of near daily use, I’m very happy to have made the decision to switch to them for the bulk of my camera bag requirements.

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