When traversing with photography equipment, you need a camera bag that can travel the same way you do: with a minimalist’s panache. It’s difficult to capture the perfect portrait on the subway when your behemoth camera bag, complete with suitcase-style rolling wheels, is only accessible through a seven-digit combination and retinal scan. The Billingham Hadley Range ($165-$250), however, combines handsome craftsmanship with a compact size for the contemporary photographer.
Billingham began making fishing bags in 1973 with the admirable mission of creating durable yet debonair angling gear. In the late seventies, Martin Billingham learned that New York City photographers were using his fishing bags to carry their camera gear. By 1978 Billingham had transitioned completely to producing camera bags. Though the product purpose changed, the mission stayed the same. Today Billingham, which is still owned by the Billingham family and based in England, makes — by hand — perhaps the most refined camera bags a photographer can carry. Each bag, whether the digital, small, large or pro size, has a rugged allure, lending the sense that your son will happily use it in twenty years.
We recently spent a weekend in New York City with the Billingham Hadley Small ($204), a handsome shoulder bag with a hefty woven strap and adjustable compartments. The Hadley small was capacious enough to hold an Olympus OM-D with vertical grip, three lenses (one mounted), a large strobe, and several spare batteries with the charger. There’s even a slim pocket in the rear of the bag to comfortably hold an iPad mini.
A good camera bag must have a harmonic balance between security and accessibility, and Billingham has nailed it with this bag.
The first thing we noticed about this bag was its attention to subtle yet sublime details. The side flaps act as storm guards; there’s handsome contrast stitching on the leather trim; the closure straps are easily adjustable; metal snap buttons on the front pockets allow for expansion (the buttons bear the Billingham moniker). Like the Louis Vuitton purse our better half talked us into buying, the Hadley Small even comes with a satin carrying sack for protection while in storage.
But this isn’t a bag you put into storage. The exterior of the Hadley Small is crafted out of three materials: leather, brass hardware, and canvas, which in this case is waterproof. There is no plastic; there are no zippers. The interior of the bag reveals loden-colored, closed-cell, high-density foam — which is Billingham-speak for very superb padding. Our gear fit comfortably yet snugly enough to not have any play. A good camera bag must have a harmonic balance between security and accessibility, and Billingham has nailed it with this bag.
With the Hadley Small slung pleasingly over our shoulder, we received several glances of quizzical admiration from passersby, who seemed to wonder (almost audibly), “Are you a savvy photographer, or are you Rupert Psmith?” Of course no trip to NYC would be complete without an unexpected rainstorm, and though our loafers were chagrined, the Hadley Small welcomed the drizzle: water beaded effortlessly off of its tightly woven canvas. While sauntering through Central Park photographing the ducks where Holden Caulfield once walked, we saw a myriad of other camera bags, but only one other Billingham. The man carrying the Billingham strolled by with his Nikon slung over his shoulder, and like members of an esoteric brotherhood, we shared a nod.
No camera bag is perfect, though. The Hadley Small could be wider (front to back), and the khaki canvas, the handsomest color option in our opinion, will undoubtedly show every scuff and stain. Then there’s the price: for sixty dollars less you can buy a Think Tank Retrospective 5, which has a slightly greater capacity and will rest more comfortably against your hip.
But when you buy a Billingham bag, you’re not merely buying it for function. You’re buying it for form; you’re buying it for legacy; you’re buying it for the subtle nod from the other photographer in Central Park who knows you have an understated masterpiece pitched over your shoulder. This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Billingham Hadley Small: it doesn’t scream camera bag. In fact, it doesn’t scream anything. Instead, it dares you to not stare at the rhythmic folds of its canvas, yearning for the days when consumer goods were made to exist in perpetuity.