Function and elegance: Billingham camera bags


Handsome, durable, and cavernous: the Billingham 550Carrying photo equipment on safari presents a conundrum. It’s critical that camera bodies and lenses be protected from dust, moisture, and impacts. Yet everything must be quickly accessible and organized in such a way as to allow fast identification. 

Over the course of 20 years of photojournalism and hundreds of equipment reviews, I’ve used at least a dozen camera bags and carrying systems extensively, and a couple dozen more for long enough to become familiar with them. Without doubt the most bombproof was the Lowepro Omni Pro Extreme I still own—a padded, suitcase-shaped, compartmented nylon bag with a panel flap that opens the entire contents to view, and which fits inside a completely water- and dustproof Pelican 1520 case. It received its ultimate test in Zambia, on a game drive in an open Land Rover when our guide was trying to get ahead of a huge herd of cape buffalo. I was in the middle seat; the case was on the rear seat next to a fellow journalist who, in an unfathomable act of mindlessness, balanced it on the rear rail of the moving vehicle while he changed positions. The first I became aware of what he’d done was when I heard him say, “Oh,” and turned in time to see the Pelican case hit the ground on a corner and bounce like a 14-year-old Russian gymnast, then cartwheel three or four times into a large pile of herbivore dung.

 Bombproof, but heavy and low on convenience: The Lowepro Omni Pro Extreme Nothing inside was even jostled—and I doubt any other camera case I’ve ever used could have accomplished the same feat. The problem with the Omni Pro system is access: From fully closed (which mine fortunately was when it took the header) to fully open requires unsnapping the Pelican latches and opening the lid, unsnapping the soft case’s handle, undoing two Fastex buckles, then unzipping the case and grabbing a camera to photograph the elephant which has since abandoned its bluff charge, gone back to browsing, and fallen asleep. The full system is also very heavy for its volume—and that volume is restricted absolutely to the dimensions of the hard case. Two SLR bodies, a flash, and three lenses pretty much max it out. You can carry the Omni Pro without the Pelican, briefcase-like, but it bulges oddly with the weight of the contents, and the proud “Lowepro” logo has the same number of letters as “Steal me.” (What I’d give for a camera bag with a big fat embroidered label reading something like, “URINE SAMPLES— KEEP UPRIGHT”) 

My least favorite camera bag is ironically one of the most iconic: the Domke F2, beloved of grizzled chainsmoking photojournalists (even, inexplicably, my wife Roseann, although she isn’t grizzled and doesn’t smoke). Constructed of undeniably stout and good-looking canvas, the Domke offers zero impact protection for the contents and next-to-zero protection from dust. The spring-steel clips that hold the lid closed must be manipulated with two hands if you need them open in a hurry, and side-pocket flaps gap wide enough to eject batteries if the bag is tipped. Perhaps the F2 works for covering the Academy Awards (“Look this way Ms. Watts!”) or climate-change conventions in Zern, but in the field it’s a dead loss, for me at least.

Domke: Fine if your preferred photo subject is Naomi Watts. For several years now I’ve used a Mountainsmith Endeavor (first a prototype, then a production version), and I’ve been highly impressed with its utility, physics-defying interior space (in bright yellow for visual contrast), decent padding, and excellent dust protection. A sleeve on the back slides over the extended handle of a rolling carry-on bag, and the shoulder strap is sufficiently padded for long carries. The Endeavor even endeavors to be socially responsible: Its sturdy Cordura-like fabric is made from recycled PET bottles. At $140 it’s a bargain. I still recommend it, and the company makes several variations on the theme.

Tough and versatile: The Mountainsmith Endeavor  Only a couple of things made me want more. First, I wasn’t enamored of the black, rather high-tech appearance of the bag, especially compared to the organic look of the Domke. That was a purely personal issue; another was purely geographic: We spend a lot of time in East Africa, some of it in tsetse fly country—and tsetses are attracted to black (and blue). Time after time, I’d be driving through miombo woodlands, dressed properly in non-tseste-attracting khaki, and would look down to see the Mountainsmith bag being used as an aircraft carrier by a half-dozen or more of the little bastards. (A recent study suggests that blue and black initiate a strong landing response in tsetses because those are the colors of the shadowed areas of foliage where they hide.) Finally, even the Endeavor couldn’t hold all my equipment, and it was the antithesis of the accessibility already mentioned to have gear divided between two bags. 

In the meantime, years and years ago (like, in the days of film . . . ) I had met a photographer who used only a pair of superb Leica M6 rangefinder cameras for his work. Three lenses—a 28mm, a 50mm, and a 135mm, if memory serves—comprised his entire professional suite. He carried the lot in an exquisite bag of khaki twill woven so densely it had a silk-like sheen, and set off with leather trim and brass hardware. “It’s a Billingham, from England,” he said when I asked. I immediately downloaded . . . no, wait—I called and had a catalog mailed to me. Martin Billingham, it turned out, began making bags for fishermen in 1973, then a few years later discovered that photographers in New York had adopted them to carry Rolleis instead of reels. A keen photographer himself, he embarked on a tentative change in direction, which proved so successful that production soon shifted entirely to the photographic market. The business is still family-owned, and all manufacturing remains in England in a factory in Brierley Hill, just outside of Birmingham. 

  Billingham’s flagship bag, the 550, caught my imagination—as did its price, far beyond my means at the time. Reluctantly, I filed the catalog away (in the same drawer as the Leica M6 brochure . . . ). But a couple of years ago, while planning a trip to Kenya, the Billingham wormed it way into my thoughts again, and I realized that I had three or four other nearly new camera bags I no longer used. A quick flurry of eBay activity and I was close enough to spring for the balance. I took a deep breath and clicked “Buy now” on the B&H site. 

There’s always a danger in fulfilling a long-held dream, whether it be buying a high-end product, meeting someone you’ve admired from afar, or journeying to a place you’ve read about since childhood. In our minds such experiences are always perfect; fantasies never include downsides. Fortunately Martin Billingham did not disappoint.

Perfect in every detail. The material on the 550 was just as I remembered, so tightly woven it’s classified as fully waterproof, and astonishingly resistant to grime and stains—in fact I’ve been having a hard time giving this bag the patina it deserves. (By comparison the canvas on the Domke looks like sack cloth.) The top flap covers a lengthwise zipper, so contents in the main compartment are well-protected yet accessible in seconds. In a vehicle I leave the flap unbuckled so all I have to do is flip it out of the way and slide the zipper to pull out a clean camera. Inside that main compartment I have at present one 5D and one 5D MkII body, a 24-105L zoom, a 17-40L zoom, a 70-200L F4 zoom, a 300L F4, a 1.4 converter, a 15mm Canon fisheye, a Tamron 90mm macro, and two EX flash units. Outside pockets—two large and flapped, two small and zippered, and a big flat zippered one on the back—hold all those things so necessary to modern digital imagery: spare lithium-ion batteries and chargers, a sensor-cleaning kit, a data-transfer device, and spare CF cards in their own case. Synch cords, the 240-page manual to remind me how to access half the functions on the 5D MkII . . . on and on. Should I need even more space, the 550 comes with two flapped end pockets that attach or come off as necessary. 

Is the Billingham 550 perfect? No. For example, the flaps of the exterior pockets, while superior to those on the Domke bag, still fit too loosely for my comfort, and the snaps are impossible to close with one hand unless there’s something bulky inside to press against. I wish there were a zippered closure under each flap; that way you could keep the zip closed for security during transport, or leave just the flap snapped for quick access while shooting. Also, while the shoulder strap is comfortable and strongly attached, picking up the full bag (mine weighs 25 pounds all up) by the carrying handle makes me very nervous, as it’s secured only by two thin leather straps and buckles. And a final nitpick: A pretty leather luggage tag is optional. C’mon, Martin—for $500 I think you could throw that in. In a futile gesture of protest I transferred an old black Lowepro luggage tag to my 550. Sadly, it looks rather naff, so I’ll probably succumb and order the correct one. After all, from the looks of things this bag will be with me for a long time. 

The Billingham range starts with the 550 and goes all the way down to a single pouch with a belt loop, perfect for a point-and-shoot. And yes, they still make a bag specifically designed for the Leica (digital) rangefinder system. 

Some day . . .