Review: Billingham 550 / 307 / 107 Bags

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…

Summer 1987

“Dear Diary,

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…”

November 2004

“Dear Diary,

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…”

June 2009

“Dear Diary,

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!

550-khakitan-400033I 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.

550-top-viewHowever, I’m still haunted by “her”; the 550. I can afford her now, I want her so much and all those years of craving won’t be easy to just brush aside.

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.

First Impressions

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.
107

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.

07-inside-detailAt 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!

web_banner_bill07_webBefore arranging to test these bags for myself, I did a little Googling for reviews. There were several slightly negative points made (by several slightly negative people, I suppose!).

  • 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.

20 Replies to “Review: Billingham 550 / 307 / 107 Bags”

  1. The 107 is a great bag indeed and I throughly enjoy it myself. The lack of annoying clips and velcro at every opening make the bag so much nicer IMO and who cares about silly storage tucked away underneath pockets and gear, this has everything right where you need it.

  2. Enjoy the challenge of choosing a Billingham bag – never easy given the range!

    My first was a Billingham 225 in traditional tan and leather, an excellent all round travel bag ideal for a single camera and flash unit, plus an alternative lens, which saw tropical beaches and snow covered mountains on five continents and lasted longer than my 35mm film cameras did!

    It was a little too small for carrying my studio kit – camera (which was now digital) plus a backup and a couple of lenses and flash meter and IR trigger – so it was joined by a tan and leather Billingham 335 which has proved big enough without being too cumbersome. More than enough pockets to loose spare batteries and media cards and other gadgets in – even a long lost lens cap which turned up in one of the pockets the other day!

    The most recent addition has been a Billingham Hadley Small in black and tan, as I was looking for something smaller and more convenient for a single SLR when out and about, still getting used to this one, but it certainly gets a lot more use than the others!

  3. Well, I have to agree. I bought my 550 in 1992, and since then it has been dunked into water, showered, washed, muddied, travelled around the world and never let me down.

    Except the one time a rivet that held on the end pocket snapped on me. I was truly, genuinely shocked, slightly sad and dropped Billingham a line to enquire about repairs. They explained that those old studs were not used anymore, newer ones had been designed, and sent me four new studs free of charge which were a doddle to replace and of very high quality.

    The superflexes inside get tired after a few years, but are easy to replace. The outside just lasts.

    But, after all these years, I rarely use it as a camera bag, perhaps to store kit in at home, but not out and about. Shoulder bags are not good, they’re slow, unbalanced and hard to access. No, it’s a travel bag now and very good at its job.

  4. I was sitting on a decision choosing the 107 or the 207. I always liked the small bag – a ‘shooter’s sac’ for small profile that allows quick movements. I found the 107 perfect for me.

    On initial testing, I had a 50L and 24L as well as a gripped 5D2 with me. It fitted fine and it appeared that it was pretty much a 2 lens, gripped body and 1 lens bag. Took it home and jammed as much equipment as I could. I realized a 24L, 50L (mounted), 85L, 135L and 16-35L with the 5D2 and a flash. Boy, that’s 5 lenses, 1 gripped body and 1 flash in a small profiled shooter’s sac!

    Needless to say, I was pleased with this beautiful bag.

  5. Elena – when I first learned that they had replaced the traditional canvas with a high-tech material, I felt a little disappointed to be honest. However, having had experience of both types now, I would choose the synthetic material even if canvas were available as an option. I think the most important issue here is that the bags are still manufactured by people who clearly care passionately about the quality of their products. It feels right and that is important to me.

  6. Thank you for your quick response, I was debating between the 206 they sell in the US and the 207. So hard to buy a camera bag without actually trying it for your kit, you helped me to made up my mind.

  7. Elena – I was fortunate enough to have a whole bunch of bags to carry around for a while in order to write the article. I ended up choosing the 307 for my own use and I love it. The feedback I get from other people who own (or have owned) a Billingham bag has been very positive.

  8. Hello Hester. I have not had my hands on any of the Hadley range (so I can’t say if they are the same), but the 107 model I had for review certainly had removable inserts.

  9. Robin – which bag are you referring to? I have the 307, but no iPad so I can’t test it. However, even if the iPad would fit in the compartment I don’t think I would want to use it for that purpose as I don’t think it would afford it much protection.

  10. I’m also facing dilemma trying to decide which one I’m getting. I’m narrowing them down either the 307 or 335. They seem to have similar specs. I’m planning to bring 50D+15-85+70-200 f4 IS (preferably mounted)+580EXII. Would love to hear your input. Thanks Gary.

  11. Francisca, I don’t have hands-on experience of the 335. However, my kit is similar to yours (50D + 24-70 + 70-200 + 430EXII) and it fits in the 307 well. With the 70-200 mounted it is a very tight fit and you will need to carefully arrange the inserts (in mine, the front of the 70-200 sits on top of the insert at an angle). Also, I put the lens hoods in the bag on top of the camera, which is a pain if you need to quickly take the camera out of the bag and start shooting. The 307 has enough room, it’s a matter of how you arrange it and whether you can compromise a little if you need to.

  12. Hi Gary,

    A year on I would be interested to hear how the Billingham 307 is working out for you. I have been using Lowepro for years and have three configurations but, like in your review, I now have a tendency to leave kit at home to use a smaller bag. I always end up needing something I didn’t bring!! I have three international trips coming up soon and I need most of my stuff with me. Can you recommend the 307 for a Nikon D3 plus 6 lenses and tripod travelling by air and public transport?

    Thanks

    Paul (Dublin)

  13. Hello Paul. I know I’m in danger of sounding like a Billingham salesman, but a year later I still love my 307; it suits my requirements perfectly. Of course, I did have the luxury of being able to borrow four different bags at the same time for a couple of months in order to review them, before I purchased.

    The 307 will definitely NOT be the right bag for you – there is no way you could carry a D3 plus six lenses (unless they are all very small and you don’t mind them rubbing against each other!). I carry two (fairly large) lenses and I would not want to attempt a third.

    If you follow one of the links in the article to JP Distribution, they have quite a bit of info of what you can fit in each bag. I would advise caution – they show what you CAN fit, but that is not necessarily in a way that would make it convenient for you.

    The best advice (as suggested by the distributor) is to find your nearest dealer, take all your kit there and work out which one works best for you.

    Billingham bags, as great as I think they are, are not cheap so you really need to be sure you are getting the right one!

  14. Gary,

    Good advice as always. Like most I have been in search of the perfect bag for some time and clearly it is a matter of a selection of bags appropriate to different uses. The search continues. I will certainly try out the Billingham range.
    Many thanks
    Paul

  15. Hi Gary! thanks a lot for the useful review on Billingham wonderful bags. A couple of questions though…. I wonder if the Delta pouchbag can be attached to the 107 or 207… and would I be able to fit a Canon 7D with 24-105 attached plus 2 small lens (50 f/1.4 & 10-22mm) plus a flash in 107? Would you be able to tell me how substantial different in size between the 107 and 207?
    Many thanks!
    (Danti)

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