hadley pro

The Best Damned Camera Bag

Okay… maybe that should read “the best damned camera bag for me”. But I like flashy titles.

This is a tumblr review of this beast of a camera bag:

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The Billingham Hadley Pro Photography Bag

Let me get this right out of the way. This isn’t a cheap bag. In fact, it is one of the more expensive camera bags on the market today (all the Billinghams are). For what this bag costs, you could buy a half dozen LowPro Adventura camera messenger bags and still have money left over for several rolls of film. In Canada, it’s difficult to find this bag under $300. I bought it during a very brief sale at B&H Photo where I got it for $189 USD.

I’d been admiring Billingham bags for nearly a decade. I saw my first one about 10 years ago, and marvelled at the stealthy look of it - I forget the model but it didn’t look like a camera bag at all. Price sticker shock always kept me away. When I saw the Hadley Pro last fall in person, I really, really wanted one, but again, sticker shock plus a growing inventory of camera bags kept me away.

Yeah - a growing inventory of camera bags. I have six different bags of a big enough size to hold more than just a body and lens, and three additional ones for smaller cameras. Nine bags. And I really never liked any of them. My most expensive one was the Kata 3N1-20 sling bag. I bought it because I thought a sling bag with nice side compartments and quick-access would work for my shooting and travelling style. But what they don’t tell you is sling bags work great on 150lb guys; not so much for bigger people. It certainly never worked well for me. I’d get tangled in it. It never felt comfortable. And accessing the side compartments was never easy for me. Plus it looked completely stupid on my frame.

The final straw for me - the one that made me decide to get the Hadley Pro was a few months ago when, using the Kata 3N1-20, I dropped a camera because I got tangled up in the bag. Fortunately, it fell on grass and wasn’t damaged, but I nearly had a heart attack. I decided then and there I would never be frustrated by a camera bag again so I asked my friend with the Hadley Pro if I could borrow it for an afternoon of shooting, just to try it out. He lent it, and it was a complete eye opening experience for me. I couldn’t believe how well the bag worked for me. I’ll get into why later in this review, but that was the straw… I decided to buy one. Fortunately, I hit upon a sale and coupon situation with B&H, and scored the bag at a great price.

The Billingham Hadley Pro

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This is pretty much a no-comprise, exquisitely designed, hand made bag from the UK. All the materials are top of the line - metal bits are usually brass. Leather bits are just that - leather. Stitching is almost perfect. And while many Billingham bags are made with a very advanced canvas (with extreme waterproofing), my particular bag is made with another material exclusive to Billingham - its called Fibernyte. If you didn’t know that, you would swear it was natural canvas - it is that realistic. But it is also better than canvas: it is 10% lighter; it is more waterproof than Billingham’s canvas waterproofing system; it holds dye colours better, and it is even more supple and pliant than new canvas (mimicking well worn canvas).

The bag is full of ingenious designs. For instance, the outer top flap is designed to easily fold back and out of the way without much resistance thanks what Billingham calls a “darted flap corner design”. I can’t believe how well it works. If you want this flap out of the way, it gets out of the way and tucked in behind the bag.

Another great design element is the removable insert. The insert is what protects and sorts your camera gear, and unlike most other camera bags that have foam padding built into the walls, with velcro everywhere, the Hadley Pro has a completely self contained insert with minimal velcro usage; once you set up the insert for your style of photography, you’ll probably never hear the tear of velcro, ever again. This insert is also great because by simply removing it, you’ve converted the bag into a full blown messenger bag with a heckuva lot of room inside. It’s not an overnight-travel bag size, but definitely a day tripper size for travel.

Another design trick: the top handle on the Hadley Pro? It looks like it is anchored to the top flap by four brass pins, but in fact it is anchored, invisibly, to a stiff bar underneath the fabric which runs across the top. This pretty much guarantees the handle will never tear off the top flap, even after 30 years of use.

One thing I really like about the Hadley Pro is that it has space behind (or in front) of the removable insert for a slim notebook computer. My Macbook Air fits perfectly with heaps of room to spare, and I barely notice it in there when out and about. It will also fit the 13" MBA in a pinch.

There are many other great features on this bag: here’s some photos to walk you through some of them.

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Two layers for sides
The Hadley Pro’s insert can be configured for a three pocket setup, but the left and right pocket can also be two layer, thanks to two included flaps that have velcro on one side. Here in this picture, I’ve set up the left side to hold a lens in the bottom, and set up the flap so it is about 2/3 of the way down in the insert. Click the picture to see the larger version on Flickr.

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Flap Down
With the flap down, I can still fit a flash, a second, larger lens, or any compact camera, including lens. I can easily fit a Leica rangefinder with lens, Hexar RF with lens, or a Fuji X100 into this pocket with the flap down, and a lens below it. Click the picture to see the larger version on Flickr.

These next two pictures show the front pockets. They hold a lot of stuff, and can hold even more if you unsnap the expander fold. The parts are all brass and metal. I typically get a half dozen rolls of film, several filters, a notepad, pens, cleaning cloths, batteries and other accessories in the front pockets.

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The pocket flaps are perfectly stitched and feature solid snaps and details.

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The side area where the main strap attaches is very solidly connected. That is a big chunk of leather, and it is also designed to work with Billingham Avea accessory outer pockets, which attach completely securely through the leather sides.

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Around back is a zippable pocket that, on the Hadley Pro, is big enough to (barely) hold a A4 sized magazine. It can also take a super slim netbook, but I prefer to put my Macbook Air inside the bag, just behind the removable insert.

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The Bottomless Bag

When I borrowed my friend’s Billingham Hadley Pro, I couldn’t believe how roomy and spacious the bag was despite it’s seemingly slim profile. I was able to get the monster Canon 5D MkII with a 24-105 lens into the bag with only a bit of a bulge, and still get a 580EX II flash, the Hexar RF with a 50mm lens, and a 28mm f1.8 Canon lens into the bag and it looked… slim. It was amazing.

I have three setups for this bag. First one is “street photographer, day bag” setup. I can get my Macbook Air, a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens, a 50mm Hexanon-M lens, a Nikon FM3a with a 85mm f2 lens, and a Fuji X100 into this bag and still have room for a soft drink can. And to most people, it looks like I have a messenger bag with a few books in it.

Second setup is my travel setup. I get a Canon t2i body, a 28mm f1,8, 50mm f2.5 macro, 100mm f2.8 macro, and the 18-55mm kit lens in the bag. I also fit in one of my rangefinders (now usually the Leica) with a 50mm lens. Or I can ditch one of the lenses for the Canon and put in a 430 EX II flash. I still have room in the pockets for chargers, filters, rolls of film and more.

Third is my assignment setup. I get the Canon 5D MkII with a 35mm f1.4 L lens in the middle. The 24-105 L and a 50mm macro goes on one side, my two flashes (580 EX II and 430 EX II on the other side. Chargers, spare batteries etc up front in the pockets. Casual observers have no clue there’s almost $6,500 worth of pro equipment in this bag.

That there is one of the great things about this bag. It does not look like a camera bag. It looks like an upscale, Yuppie style messenger bag. I feel vulnerable at times, in certain situations, with my other camera bags - not at all with this one.

Here’s two pictures showing the “street photographer” setup - with everything out of the bag, and with everything in.

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This next picture shows the side profile of the bag with everything above placed inside the bag. I’ve photographed it with the diminutive Leica IIIf to show you how wide the bag is.

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The slim nature of this bag is also one of its bigger perks. It is designed so that most of the weight is inside, closest to your body - the slim profile helps with this. The result is a bag that, even when fully loaded, wants to hug close to your body instead of always tugging outwards and leaning outwards, which happens often with wider (front to back) bags. Even fully loaded, this bag stays in tight next to you.

Conclusion

I have found the perfect camera bag for my styles of shooting, my level of comfort with a bag, and my means of accessing the equipment inside. The Hadley Pro from Billingham is versatile enough to handle different needs for me. It can be my portable office and still carry a few lenses and bodies. I can put my lunch and a water bottle inside, and still fit a rangefinder and an SLR in there. Something very important for me: it has space for my notebook computer. And if I want a day tripper luggage bag, it converts to that use in seconds.

The construction and materials are first rate - seriously, the best I’ve ever seen on a bag, camera bag or luggage. Even with all that, the bag weighs in at 990g with the insert in, and around 750g with the insert out - it is extremely lightweight for all it offers. The slim profile is fantastic, and the expandability of the pockets and options for outrigger pouches make it even more versatile.

Sure, this is an expensive bag. But you know what? I’ve got a closet full of camera bags, with over $400 invested in them over the years. If I had bought a Billingham bag 10 years ago, I would have probably saved over $200 of that money, and had much less frustration with the thing that carries my photography equipment around. Billinghams are built to last for decades, and their guarantee and warranty service completely backs that up - there’s no “end” to their warranty for original owners. Who else offers that kind of warranty? Not Kata. Certainly not LowPro.

The bag looks and works great with a wide range of cameras. But I think it looks best with the Leica.

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