During a recent expedition into the deep, dark depths of the uncharted territory usually referred to as “the loft”, I discovered my old diaries and, with your indulgence, I should like to share a few extracts. Please, please forgive me…
Today I saw a vision. Her tan coloured skin looked so gorgeous and exotic that I assumed she must be from somewhere abroad, but my friend says she is as English as I am. I wanted her as soon as I saw her, but she is out of my class; out of my reach. I dream that I may one day get my hands on her…”
It’s been such a long time, but she came back into my life today. She still looks great and I find I want her as much as I always did. But alas, when I saw her she was draped seductively over the shoulder of a fit young man and he was proudly pulling her close to his side as he walked down the road, showing her off to the world. He caught me staring at her and he smiled that satisfied, smug smile of a man who knows exactly what he has. I was so embarrassed to get caught like that…”
OMG I can’t believe it! She crossed my path again today and I finally got up the courage to ask if I could spend a little time with her; the answer was ‘yes’! After all these years I have finally got to touch her and what a sensation! She is so soft and smooth and she still has that tan. It’s so hard to believe she is as old as she is – she has hardly changed at all since that first time I laid eyes on her!
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep her. I want her passionately, but she needs so much more than I can give her; I know I just don’t have what it takes to fulfil her.
But wait, what’s that?! She has a little sister? Several little sisters? And quite a few younger cousins?! Oh I’m such a bad, bad man…”
Back in the Real World
Okay, so “she” is the Billingham 550. I’m telling you, I really AM in love with this bag. It is so beautifully made and everything about it just shouts quality. Actually, that’s wrong, Billingham bags don’t shout; they speak up confidently with a strong and steady voice as befits a lady of breeding and class!
I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to buy a new camera bag and I feel I deserve to have the bag I want this time, instead of just another bag I can afford! My constant dilemma is that most of the opportunities I get to use my camera are whilst out on a family trip. However, I often end up leaving the camera bag (and contents, of course) at home. This is because the prospect of lugging all that stuff around all day as well as trying to control two kids and all the paraphernalia that they command is usually too overwhelming.
Do You Like ’em Big, or Do You Like ’em Small?!
So I found myself thinking about getting a really small bag, with just enough space to carry what I need for the day. No battery charger, probably no flash gun, probably no light meter, no hard disk card reader, no cables and whatever else is usually hidden away in the bag. Pick the lens for the trip, put it on the camera, put the camera in the “day” bag, sling the bag over the shoulder and go.
Now the next thing I know, I’m unpacking not one, but three Billingham bags; the classic 550 (sigh!), the small and very attractive 107 and the equally attractive but slightly “bigger boned” sister, the 307. The idea is to see what works best for me; one huge bag with everything in it all the time, or a smaller bag packed specifically for each trip.
I had really high expectations for these bags and although I anticipated their arrival with much excitement, I was also a little anxious that they might not be able to live up to several decades of self-perpetuated hype. However, I was not disappointed in any way. The second you take a Billingham in your hands you know what you are holding. The materials, the construction, the engineering (yes, you heard me – the engineering. I know it’s a bag, but Billinghams are clearly not just chucked together). It’s a feast for the senses; it looks great, it feels great and it smells great! I’ll bet it tastes great, but I sense I may be ever so close to stepping over the line!
As you may have gathered from my earlier diary entries, I decided even before seeing the 550 in the flesh that I could not really do this bag justice. It is really, in my opinion, aimed at the professional (or at least overzealous amateur) photographer, carrying around multiple camera bodies and a plethora of lenses. However, there is far more to the Billingham 550 than this (she is no shallow, one-trick pony and anyone who says otherwise is gonna get it, right?!). I’m told that many 550 owners use the bag as a travel bag as well as camera bag and I can certainly see how this would work. I love the idea that I could keep my camera gear in there and also pack in a jumper and, well, just about anything that I take on trips, to be honest! Even heavily packed, the 550 is comfortable to carry, thanks to the thick, padded, webbing shoulder strap. Okay, over time it can start to take it’s toll on your shoulder, but much less so than any other bag I have tried.
The 07 Series Billingham
Alongside the 550, I am also trialling the 107 and 307. These bags are similar to each other, the only real difference being the width. In truth, for a small bag the 107 does not seem that small when you first pick it up. I have a Canon 50D with the battery grip fitted and a 24-70mm L zoom, which is a pretty large bit of kit to put in a small bag, but it fits perfectly well leaving plenty of room for other small bits and pieces. I took the 107 on my recent trip to London with my camera fitted with 70-200mm zoom. I also kept my wallet, train tickets, map, mobile phone, memory cards, house keys and at one point, a small bottle of water in the bag. The 107 proved a good size for this scenario, being small enough to not be a burden on public transport and just big enough to contain what I needed for the day without having to completely unpack it to find my wallet.
Possibly the most important thing about the 107 which I learned from the London trip was that I could carry it over my shoulder all day without it becoming at all annoying, which is a very new experience for me. It was a blistering hot day and I walked around six miles and travelled on two trains and a bus without once wishing I had left the bag behind. This is all down to the design of the shoulder strap, as well as being very broad, it has a padded section which is, for want of a better expression, “a bit sticky”. Not only is the weight spread, but the sticky bit stops the bag from slipping down which can be a problem for slopey-shouldered blokes like me.
At the weekend I took the bag to a family gathering with camera (as above) and second lens as well. This is where the size of the 107 bag becomes challenged. My camera and both lenses are all on the large size, but they fitted in the 107 (only just and without the padded divider inserts) very snugly. This was fine for transporting, but would not really be practical if I were on a trip where I needed two lenses and may not have anywhere flat and clean to rest while changing lenses. Fortunately the 107 has two bigger sisters (207 and 307), and the 307 has enough room to slot my camera and spare lens into the padded inserts, which is a much better scenario for me.
Billingham Bags May Not Suit Everybody. Sorry!
- Billingham bags don’t have all those little zip up and elasticated pockets for putting your memory cards into and that kind of stuff.
It’s true, they don’t. They don’t have all those fiddly, irritating, awkward places to search for things I need to find in a hurry! I keep my cards in a purpose-made case anyway, so I don’t care.
- Billingham bags are expensive.
Yes, they are expensive. But when I tried to get hold of a 307 in Khaki/Chocolate I was told they were out of stock on account of them selling like “hot cakes”. I thought this was odd at first, but it is obvious really; it’s about value for money. After all, Mercedes and BMW cars are expensive, but they sell plenty of them – quality comes at a price.
The Billingham bag is a thing of beauty. You don’t buy it solely for it’s practicality, although I believe it actually discharges it’s duties perfectly. Other bags have things and stuff and nooks and crannies. The Billingham has class and style and dignity and quality. Maybe the price will put you off, or perhaps the lack of zippy-lastic pockets is a deal breaker for you. For me, the Billingham bag is something special and you either feel it or you don’t.
Which One Is It To Be?
Well, it’s going to have to be both the 307 and the 550. I have a 307 on order now and I have gone for this one first because it perfectly answers my immediate need – to have my camera with me much more often than I have done in the past. I will have to wait a little longer for the 550, but apart from a few minor improvements it is the same design as when it was first made in 1978, so I don’t think I need to worry about missing the boat. And for me, this shows how perfect the 550 is as well as telling me what I need to know about the Billingham company.
The Last Word
My wife is a bag connoisseur (I think that’s French for “freak”!). Up until recently, though, she paid zero attention to any of my camera bags. When I lifted the Khaki/Chocolate 107 out of its packaging for the first time, she took her eyes off of EastEnders for a moment and said these four words: “Wow, that is beautiful!”. I don’t believe any other camera bag make would invoke such a response.
A big thank you must go to JP Distribution for the loan of these bags.