Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: At what price, beauty?
The Long Version: If a camera bag that's made out of canvas with a removable insert, expandable front pockets, and no noisy velcro closures sounds familiar, it should: it's the description for the Domke F1X and F6 that I've written about before. They're great bags, and until last Tuesday, I thought they were pretty expensive.
Last Tuesday, I met my first Billingham bag.
The Hadley Pro, the subject of this review, is possibly Billingham's most popular bag. It's the replacement for the Original (medium) size, and the line is also available in Large, Small, and the even smaller Digital. (The 'Pro' has a couple of distinct features that I'll get to later in the review.) On paper, it reads very much like a Domke bag, making it yet another example of gear to try in a store instead of shopping by the specs.
Both bags are canvas, but the tighter weave of the Billingham's fabric and the attention to detail in its construction leaves the Domke looking a little like a burlap sack. They both have removable inserts, but the Domke's is held in by velcro, while the Hadley has a single snap button. Domke uses metal carabiner-style clips to keep the lid closed, but its British counterpart uses elegant adjustable leather over brass or nickel studs. The F6 and the Pro both have grab handles, but one's a fabric strap attached to D-rings, the other is a shaped handle sewn and riveted to a fiberglass stiffener that's placed within the double-layered fabric top.
"What will fit in the bag" is a popular subject on camera-gear forums. Normally, people will want to know if a particular synthetic box-on-a-rope will hold their Canon 30D with its accessory grip, or their Nikon D300 and 18-200 f/dark. When people talk about the size of Billingham bags, the metric is invariably how many Leica rangefinder bodies and lenses they can carry. There's a reason for that: Billingham's Hadley Pro costs triple what the Domke F6 does, and they hold about the same amount of gear. Compared to the more similarly-styled Domke F803 Waxwear, it's still over twice the price.
One of the grand achievements of camera bag design may be getting them to not look like camera bags. Crumplers and Domkes are the ones usually included in this group, but even the Lowepro 'Slingshot' series gets credited with this ability, and Think Tank's built a whole series around the idea of an 'Urban Disguise'. This black-on-black Hadley is probably the second-least camera-bag-looking-bag I've seen, but that's because it doesn't have contrasting trim. The Billingham khaki-tan bags are very distinctive, and anyone who knows them will know what's inside. Even worse, because the bags themselves are expensive, they imply a higher value for their contents which is bound to make them more popular for smart camera thieves. (Dumb camera thieves will just have to make do with stealing Lowepro Slingshots.) No camera bag is really going to provide anti-theft protection, especially if you actually use your camera.
This photo shows what the Hadley Pro was carrying in the third image of the review. There's a D700 with Stumpy attached, an SB900, 85/1.8 and 35/2.0. Being a satchel-style bag, the D700 is about as big as it can hold without bulging, but its deep-but-narrow design means that the big 105VR doesn't need to be detached from the camera. The front pockets are still empty, and they can hold quite a bit as well. The SB900 could sit in one, as can my Sony PCM-D50, which isn't a small audio recorder. They even have a second snap-button that lets the front pleated pockets expand, and the buckles on the straps let them lengthen to hold the lid securely closed. It can even have accessory pouches attached to the sides, creating extra room for phones and compact cameras.
During one recent outing, I had the D700 and F100 down each side, with the 50/1.8 and 105/2.8VR stacked down the middle. A 35/2.8, with the awesome HN3 metal hood attached, was underneath the F100 body; I probably could have put a similarly-sized lens under the D700 as well. (Substitute any large body without a portrait grip for the D700; the F100 is a solidly mid-size camera.) I couldn't have pushed it much farther than that, but I also had my big iPod, Blackberry, and wallet in one front pocket; a spare roll of film and an 8oz flask - for water, honest - in the other. The result wasn't light, but the bag looked like there was nothing in it.
But buying a Hadley and stuffing it to the gills is an exercise in missing the point. (That's what the other Billingham styles are for.) It can hold a lot, but it's easiest to work from - and looks better - when it's more modestly encumbered. My typical load for it is shown in the photo below. My GH1 has the 14-140 lens attached, and two more lenses are stored down the side. Beside it is my audio recorder, leaving room in the front pockets for batteries, iPod, sunglasses, and so on. It makes for a great working kit and travel bag. It's nondescript but stylish, small enough to carry into MoMA, and pretty much indestructible. About the only way to improve it for travel would be to add a slim compartment inside one of the front pockets to hold a passport.
The Hadley's insert is fully padded and takes up the entire main compartment, and is held in place with a single snap. That's plenty to keep it in place when the bag is being used, but it's worlds easier to remove and set aside than Domke's partial-compartment insert that's secured with velcro. I'm not convinced that I'd actually use the Hadley as a satchel, aka 'murse', as I have other bags for that purpose, but it's always nice to have options. Perhaps I can use it for job interviews. How many other candidates will have bags with serial numbers?
There are two real differences between the Pro and amateur Hadley bags. One is the top handle, with its fiberglass stiffener in the lid, and the other is the zippered pocket across the back. These are huge improvements over the original design, and I wouldn't have bought the bag if it didn't have them. When I'm out with my Domke F6, the rear slash pocket is where I put handy little things like my blackberry or color checker while I'm shooting. It's also able to carry books, papers, and tickets when I'm waiting in line to board. It's so useful for quick and easy access that I'm not sure that I like the Billingham's flapped and zippered closure. It makes the pocket waterproof, but it's at the expense of spontaneity and capacity - no matter how well it's designed, it's not quite what I want it for.
The zipped pocket itself isn't wide or deep enough to hold a magazine; with the possible exception of Time or Newsweek, few of them lack enough substance to fit. Even a simple sheet of paper needs to be folded before it can be carried, which is acceptable for maps, but the Hadley is nobody's briefcase. Fortunately, magazines - even the fairly thick B&H Catalog - will fit behind the divider in the main compartment, making the current flight restrictions a little more manageable, if no more understandable.
In actual use, it's easy to forget that the bag's even there. Its slim profile makes it easy to slip through crowds, parked cars, and other narrow spaces; its small size means that it probably won't weigh very much once the camera is in hand. The fit and feel of the satchel style is very different from the boxy bags that I'm used to, and while stacking lenses means that fewer are immediately accessible, it's a fair trade.
The leather lid-release tabs needed a little familiarization, and I do wish that there was a hole half-way between the second (aka 'too tight') and third (aka 'too loose') positions on the adjustment buckles. I've left my understuffed Hadley at the slightly tight position, which keeps the lid fully closed when I lift the bag by its handle, and once the leather has broken in it should be easier to use. Reaching my phone in a front pocket is possible with only one catch undone; when it was time to change lenses, the lid folds back on itself instead of needing to be fully flipped up and out of the way.
I started this review by emphasizing the cost of the bag, so it's a sensible place to end as well. When sorted by price, Billingham takes up the top seventeen spots out of the 567 items that B&H lists under "shoulder and gadget bags". The Hadley Pro model currently first appears as #42, and all of the first 41 are considerably larger. There's no doubt that it's a premium product, and we all need to pay the internet bill and all of our other necessities. Absolutely nobody really needs to spend this much on a bag.
But looking at it the other way, photography isn't a cheap pastime. The Hadley Pro costs less than the price of a modest prime lens or a basic telephoto zoom, a good compact camera, or a few of the cheaper bags that the gear-obsessed photographer will accumulate but not use because they're just not quite right. Far more affordable than a high-end tripod system, a Billingham bag is also an investment that relatively few photographers will make, but it's one that will last for years and be a pleasure to use. If there's some photography money that's been declared surplus, it's a relatively cheap thing to buy the best of. You won't regret it.
Updated 10 February 2011: After another year's experience with this bag, I've written a follow-up article that you can read by clicking on this gratuitously long link.