Billingham have been making camera bags since the 1970’s, in a reasonably broad range of sizes and styles. I became exposed to the brand while reading one of dad’s old Leica magazines from the ’70’s, and promptly decided that one day, I would own a Billingham. I always thought that the simplicity of their form and layout endowed them with an elegance that’s so often lacking on modern camera bags.
A couple of years ago, when the cheap shoulder bag I’d been using developed rather a large hole, leaked all over, and left me with a chronically sore shoulder, I decided that the time to plump for a Billingham had finally arrived . After some research I selected the Hadley Pro and an AVEA 5 pocket, both in black canvas with tan leather trim, and a tan SP20 shoulder pad, as a 21st birthday present to myself. A year later, I bought an extra AVEA 5 pocket to add to the bag. I selected the Hadley Pro because of its carrying handle, zippered document pocket, and ability to accept the AVEA pouches. I chose to buy the AVEA 5 pouches as they are larger, and therefore more usable, than the AVEA 3 pouches. The SP20 shoulder pad is the widest of the new generation Billingham shoulder pads, so I chose over the others it as it would theoretically provide better weight distribution on my shoulder.
The intention of this post is to share my experiences with the Hadley Pro, AVEA 5’s, and SP20, in terms of quality, utility, and comfort.
The materials are of good quality, with thick, well-tanned top-grain leather, soft canvas, and well crafted brass fixtures. Seams are generally well stitched, and often feature double stitching for added strength and preemption of wear and tear. The camera insert has the softest lining I’ve seen in a camera bag, with reasonably thick (though quite soft) padding. The dividers hold the soft sides of the insert rather well, and the velcro area is of a good size to help keep the dividers in the desired place. Waterproofing has been applied to the canvas, and is highly effective, no doubt aided by a layer of butyl rubber between the waterproof canvas outer and the polyester lining. Plastic toggles on the pouches are substantial and feel quite durable.
Besides a few loose threads on the pouches, and an off-square top flap on the bag, there were no fit and finish issues with the bag or its accessories upon delivery. In the past few years, the only wear I’ve managed to cause is: stretching of one of the leather fastening straps, a brass popper occasionally jamming and showing signs of digging into the canvas on the oldest AVEA 5 pouch, a patch of worn canvas on the top where the strap was rubbing, the internal lining of the bag becoming partially unstitched on one side, and a crack in the neoprene underside of the shoulder pad. Some of these were easily rectified, or may be easily rectified: I stopped wearing the strap diagonally across my chest, which prevented the strap from rubbing on the edge of the top flap (which was only happening due to the top flap being off-square); the stretched leather fastening strap is a replaceable item (and leather stretches a little, anyway); and the point at which the inner lining came partially unstitched was tied off (it has since stopped), and only affected one of two rows of stitches (obviously, wear was factored into the design). The other items that have worn (the cracked neoprene and jamming popper) are repairable, or replaceable.
One of the major quality drawcards for me is the fact that I’m able to send the bag back to Billingham for repairs at any stage in its life. This means that I’ve got the bag for life, which saves the hassle of having to buy a new one. Further, this lowers the environmental impact of the bag, as it requires fewer resources and less energy to make running repairs (if they are ever required) on this bag than having to buy a new bag every few years. Speaking of purchasing, when comparing the cost versus lifetime of my old bag and the Billingham, the Billingham will have paid for itself in roughly 15-18 years. Based on anecdotal evidence I came across while researching Billingham bags, it is more than likely that my Hadley Pro will last longer than 20 years without requiring any costly repairs. Long term, this means more money for things to put inside the bag.
I’ve always found the bag rather usable, especially with the camera insert in place. Sure, sometimes I wish it could carry more, but: firstly, I have a backpack for carrying larger amounts of gear; secondly, limiting the amount I can carry helps to increase the longevity of my back and shoulder; and thirdly, limiting what I can carry makes me think more carefully about what I’m likely to need, which prevents wasting space with things that never get used. Being relatively smaller than a number of other shoulder bags, the Hadley Pro can’t, in my experience, comfortably fit a laptop over 13″ in screen size. The Hadley Pro Large, which was not available when I bought my bag, appears to be capable of handling a 15″ laptop, in addition to carrying a little more gear.
With the camera insert removed, it becomes rather a good bag for overnight trips, especially as the AVEA 5 pouches can handle a small camera or camera and lens combination quite comfortably. The bag is also the perfect size to sit on the front seat of the car, so I quite often use it as an inanimate assistant when I’m on a long trip on my own, or running errands around town. It’s also the size of most rear footwells, and slides under most airline seats, for times that it needs to be stowed out of the way.
Rather than describing the kinds of kit the bag can carry, I thought it would be easiest to show, with the following images, the kinds of kits that I tend to carry:
As you can see from the images above, some quite comprehensive and diverse kits can be carried in the bag. Since inserts are available separately, it’s possible to keep multiple different kits ready in different inserts, and drop them in as and when required. The inserts are also usable to provide a good degree of protection inside larger bags, such as checked luggage, or even a tramping pack.
The one constant between all of the configurations I carry is that one AVEA 5 pouch is reserved for my prescription eyewear; one front pocket is reserved for cables and spare batteries; and the other front pocket is reserved for flash drives, SD cards and earphones. Since the pouches are able to be detached from the bag and worn on a belt, they are flexible enough to be used as small cases when a full sized bag is either impractical or not permitted.
Accessing gear is fast and silent with the brass studs and their corresponding leather fastening straps. When unfastened, the top flap folds well clear of the camera insert, the foam top of which also folds clear of the equipment inside. I’ve found this system far faster and more reliable than zippers, and more pleasant than those horrible plastic clasps I always seem to break.
I get the occasional twinge in my shoulder, but that only tends to happen when I’m tired and carrying the heaviest items in my collection all at once. Thanks to the soft canvas construction, the bag conforms to my waist, so I’m able to carry a large amount of weight on my thighs, thus reducing the burden on my back and shoulders. The SP20 shoulder pad covers my entire shoulder, and the neoprene underside grips most garments well, although it tends to slide off waxed cotton quite easily. The five foam blocks on the inside of the pad are thick, and each has tapered edges to help them conform to the shape of your shoulder. Due to the stiffness of the leather on the top side of the strap, the foam blocks develop a sort of “memory”, and after a short while, the whole shoulder pad becomes permanently curved. I find that the shoulder pad spreads the load well, and believe that its an essential accessory which makes the bag far more livable.
Carrying the bag with the top handle is about as comfortable as carrying a briefcase. Although there is a fibreglass reinforcement bar under the handle, its strength is still at the mercy of both the front fastening straps and the top flap stitching. The design of the top handle on the Hadley Pro Large appears to be better, with the handle made by joining an A-shaped strap fastened to the front of the bag with an A-shaped strap fastened to the rear of the bag. However, as I’m unlikely to see one in person (let alone buy one) for quite some time, I can’t comment on the difference in comfort between the standard and the large sized bags, especially when fully laden. That being said, I suspect that any difference in comfort will come down to the frame of the person carrying it.
I’m very happy with my Hadley Pro: it’s an elegant, well crafted bag made with excellent materials and sound construction, very versatile, and comfortable enough to be a near daily companion. It’s survived everything I’ve taken it through in the past three years, including torrential downpours, bush walks, trips out of town, full days shooting large camera kits, the daily commute, and shifting piles of paper and computer gear.
In that time, I’ve come to view it as a design classic, in the same vein as the ’57 300C, or the Wayfarer design of sunglasses: simple, elegant, timeless, and rarely or never out of place. Like any classic, it’s not perfect, but its quirks and scars tell a story of a bag that’s been toted around proudly for three years, in which it’s worked its way to becoming one of my most cherished possessions.
I don’t ever see that changing.