Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: What can change in a year?
The Long Version: The Billingham Hadley Pro has been my main camera bag for over a year now, so it's time to take a look back and see how it has performed. The initial review of it is here; it provides some background on what the bag is, what it holds, and how it compares to the more common Domke bags that (superficially) share its specifications. Since that was written my Hadley was with me on a day trip to Chicago and a ten-day stay in New York City; in this past year I've bought three new cameras, eight more lenses, and even another camera bag. This review is looking at everything I've learned in that time, and how my opinions and the bag have changed.
Camera bags are one of those things that get outgrown as equipment changes, but I'm pleased to report that my Billingham has been immune to that problem. Everything that's packed into my Hadley Pro in the lead photo for this review has joined my collection after I bought the bag. The left side has a 500ml water bottle, and the centre has a Hasselblad 500c/m medium format camera. (Note that it's wearing the CF150 f/4 Sonnar, not the smaller and more common 80/2.8 Planar.) Rounding out the contents is a Zeiss Ikon with a 1,5/50 Sonnar attached, and it's sitting on top of a 2/35 Biogon. There's also the paperback novel that's artfully peeking out of a pocket, and plenty of room for film and other necessities in the other pocket: this bag is ready for a day doing just about anything without looking overloaded.
There are a few reasons why the Hadley Pro has outlasted the other bags that I've bought. For one thing, it's such a great size that it's the bag to buy even if something smaller could do the right-now job, so it's not likely to be outgrown. And speaking euphemistically, having one is such a luxury that not using it simply isn't an option; there's a certain amount of dog-wagging when it comes time to chose and carry photo gear. The 500ml water bottle and Hassleblad were both bought after checking to make certain they would fit in the Hadley. When I choose my equipment I simply prefer to use the cameras that will fit comfortably in the Billingham; when I look at other camera bags I can't find any that I would prefer to own or use.
Naturally, the Hadley shows some wear and tear after a year's use, but it's nothing extraordinary. I took an opportunity to compare mine to a brand-new bag, and I was surprised at how little difference there was. Yes, my bag (on left, bigger version here) looks a little more 'lived in', with the fabric of the strap and the handle showing a bit of fuzziness, and the leather on the side has been scuffed up. The leather latches that keep the bag closed have worked in exactly as I expected, and there's just a small wear spot on the corner of the lid where the strap rubs against it. Not bad for a bag with a couple thousand kilometres on it, and one that I use as my general-purpose bag most of the time. My Hadley just shows a little bit of character – it's a long way from being disreputable.
One feature that separates the Pro from the amateur Hadley models is the top handle. This attaches to a reinforcing strip within the lid, which creates a convenient place to accumulate dust and lint. The bag can be cleaned with a damp cloth, but I usually just dust it off by hand from time to time. It is true that black shows dirt easily, but I love the look of the black fabric with black leather and nickel hardware. Very classy and professional but without drawing any undue attention to itself, and it still looks great with jeans.
The top handle is one of the standout features of this bag, and shows no sign of weakness or tearing after my first year with it. I use it all the time, and now I can't imagine buying a bag without a decent handle. In confined spaces, whether a bus, boat, plane, or submarine, it's been an easy way to control the bag and make sure it stays with me, even when I haven't been able to sling it over a shoulder. I use it without thinking and don't notice it the rest of the time. If there's a higher compliment to pay to a design, I can't imagine what it would be.
The aspect of the Pro that I initially wasn't thrilled with is the flapped-and-zippered rear pocket. The Domke F6 that I've previously used for travel has a rear slash pocket that's left open at the top, and the flexible bag means that it can hold an airline ticket one moment and a novel the next. That's been very handy when my flight's finally called and I need to rush somewhere after an hour of waiting. The Hadley design is less convenient to use and can't hold as much, but trades that for security that the Domke can't match. The Hadley is unquestionably better when it comes to carrying passports and those other paper extras that shouldn't stay behind in a hotel room, and magazines and novels can slip into its main compartment or a front pocket, respectively. I have gotten used to this slightly slower but more dignified way of storing items, but I still wish that it had an open slash pocket at the back, and slim passport-sized slots within the two front pockets.
I hesitate to mention it, because it really is a minor thing of no significance, but I do wish that the pleating on the expanding front pockets would fold down a little more neatly. Even when they're empty, and even when the bags are new, they like to pouch out the way they have in these photos. But then again, I wear button-down collars to work while my colleagues are comfortable in band T-shirts and hoodies, so perhaps I'm a little more – for the sake of politeness – methodical than most.
While my Hadley and I were attending PhotoPlus Expo in New York City last year, we were lucky enough to be able to visit the Billingham booth. I was able to spend a few minutes talking to a vice president whose last name happened to be the one on the products. While I know intellectually that Billingham is a family business, actually meeting one of the family came as a surprise. We talked briefly about camera-store retail in Canada, and he gave me the little trinket that I've clipped to the left side of my bag. It's a black leather strap with a nickel stud closure that slips into one of the side attachment points, and originally held a split-ring that I've replaced with a small biner clip. I have no idea what it's actually for – I suspect it's a novelty keyring – and there's nothing like it listed on their website as available for sale. I use it as a place to snap a wet `brolly, and it makes me feel suitably British to be able to say that.
While I will pick a different bag if I know that I'll be facing heavy rain, I've never had any problem with the canvas Billingham in the occasional shower. The latches hold securely, and the design of the cover leaves no gaps for water to sneak in through. The material in my bag is still new enough that the Stormblock waterproofing has water beading long before it wets the fabric. Once that effect wears off, the canvas will swell when it gets damp, tightening the weave and blocking water from entering in a way that synthetics can't. So despite the natural fabric and leather trim, this isn't a bag that needs to be coddled or protected from the big bad world, and mine has held up very nicely despite being exposed to the rigours and hardships of normal use.
I have met people who are genuinely unable to understand why they may someday own more than one camera bag. I suspect that anyone who has read this far has a small closet with camera bags that don't get used any more, and a small selection of ones that still do. Well, a year with me is like spending several years with a more sensible photographer, so the fact that I still reach for the Hadley first is a major endorsement. Since it arrived in the house I've put away my trusty Domke F6 and used my Crumpler 6M$h only once; the Hadley Pro has taken over all of my small/medium camera carrying duties in addition to becoming my carryall when I don't need something as big as my Timbuk2 messenger bags. The massive Domke F1X is the only other camera shoulder bag that I occasionally still use, while the one camera bag that I bought last year is a Kata 261PL backpack for my Fujifilm GX680 medium format SLR. Every other time that I've felt the pull to buy another small bag I would just end up looking at different sizes of Hadley, and since I already own the best one, I've seen no reason to buy anything else.
Despite my love of travel, I don't drive. All of my getting-around is ultimately self-powered, even if that means I have to get myself onto a train or a bus, and I have to carry everything I'm going to need for the entire time that I'm out. Having the right bag is very important, and has a direct impact on my happiness and comfort. Billingham's Hadley Pro isn't the only bag I use, but it's by far my favourite, and there needs to be a reason why I can't use it before I'll carry something else. Even my beloved Domke F6 never crossed over into general use, but I'll still choose my Hadley for those rare times when I'm not bringing a camera. Yes, it's expensive, but if something unthinkable happens I would replace it in a heartbeat. I can't think of much higher praise than that.
last updated 10 feb 2011