Billingham Bags have been around for decades and are synonymous with quality and durability. I purchased one more than 20 years ago and it is still in use today, so with this in mind I thought I would put together an article covering its strengths and weaknesses after such long term use.
The model in question is the 335 and it was at a Camera show in London, back in 1992 that I made acquaintance with Martin Billingham who demonstrated several models to me in both nytex and canvas finishes. I wanted a traditional look so settled on khaki canvas. At the time, my camera collection consisted of two bodies, three prime lenses and a flashgun so I was looking for something to house this and have room to spare for growth and a few personal effects. After being shown the spacious 500 I was introduced to the 5 Series, specifically the 225, 335 and 445 models. The design of all three was the same, the difference being in size only. To me, the 335 seemed to be the ‘goldilocks’ bag – the 225 was too small while the 445 was too large. So I left the show having made my purchase and looking forward to rounding my small collection up and rehoming it.
Canvas Billingham bags have a unique smell that I really like, presumably emanating from the properties of the canvas and the waterproofing used to treat it. Over the years I have come to associate it with quality and even today when I open the bag, the smell is still present but much faded with time – subliminal or what?
Looking at the bag from the front two large bellowed pockets are present that easily house items such as batteries, cleaning equipment, film, memory cards, chargers etc. These are accessed separately from the main compartment meaning that the bag does not have to be unzipped to get into them.
Behind the pockets is the first, smaller, zipped compartment that I tend to use for cable, filter and extension tube storage. It is not large enough to put lenses or camera bodies in, but it is not designed for this – this is what the main zippered section is for. Inside the main section is a partitioned space that holds (for me) two camera bodies with prime lenses and ever ready cases, a flashgun and five further lenses, including a couple of telephotos. This pretty much fills the compartment. The inserts that form the partitions are fixed in place by Velcro and can be reconfigured to suit the user’s requirements. When new, the inserts were well padded, but this seems to have degraded over the years to what is best termed as a thick material devoid of padded properties. The inserts can be replaced with new ones, but I have never really considered it a problem. A nice feature of the main compartment is the ability to tuck the top zippered part back allowing total open access to the gear contained within.
All of the compartments and pockets are covered by a large canvas flap that fixes down to high quality brass studs attached externally to the front pockets. This forms an excellent shield from the elements if the weather turns bad. For extra security two canvas straps surround the bag, which are closed by a high quality leather handle. Once this is snapped shut by means of heavy duty press studs, the contents are totally secure. Also included is a wide ‘Y’ shaped delta strap that allows the bag to be slung over a shoulder. The design helps to prevent the bag tipping forward – particularly useful if it is open. A wide shoulder pad helps spread the weight out a little.
To the rear is a further zippered pocket that I tend to keep documents, a map and a portable reflector in – it isn’t really big enough for much else. Underneath are four high quality brass feet that help keep the bag off the ground – useful when setting it down in damp conditions.
After more than 20 years of use I am pleased that the bag has held up well, and it bears testament to the high quality materials used in its manufacture. It has been exposed to some harsh conditions during its life and, apart from a few scratches, the canvas retains much of its original look and has faded little. The waterproofing remains good, although I am sure it is not as repellent as when purchased. All stitching is as good as the day it was made and the leather trims and grab handle are secure exhibiting nothing more than a little ageing. Zips are fine as are the brass fittings. In fact all that has shown signs of deterioration are the inserts – not bad at all in my opinion.
Over the years my camera collection has grown a lot, completely outsizing the capacity of the 335 but I guess this was inevitable. Add-on pockets are available that expand its capabilities a little but in reality no single bag could house it all, and if it could it would be far too heavy to move around. Even the 335 gets uncomfortable on the shoulder when fully loaded, which is why I tend to favour rucksack style bags now.
Looking over the 335, I can see that it probably has a couple more decades of life in it – possibly more. Its beauty lies not just in the design and choice of materials but its longevity and reparability. And that is what is great about Billingham…they make bags for life and will happily carry our repairs. They are not inexpensive but having used one for so long it is not difficult to understand why. Would I buy one again? – absolutely, but lugging a shoulder bag around all day has become more difficult as I have grown older, hence my preference for rucksack styles now. Would I recommend one? – again, absolutely.