Choosing a camera bag (In praise of Billingham)

Billingham System camera bag
Camera bag nirvana courtesy of Billingham

Camera bags are pesky things. It’s hard to spot their inadequacies until you use them in anger. And they can get expensive. You can end up buying several before you hone in on something that works for you.

Planning to buy the right camera bag

As with any piece of photographic kit, an honest review of exactly what you will use your camera bag for is needed. Easier said than done.  Which probably explains why I currently own several camera bags that I never use.

Questions to ask before buying a camera bag are

  • What type of excursion do you expect to use this camera bag for?
  • What will be the practical demands of your bag usage?
  • What sub-set of your equipment will you expect to carry in the bag?
  • What else will you need to carry in the bag?
  • Do you require more than one bag to cover different situations rather than trying to make one size fit all?

Before buying a camera bag it is worth laying out your camera gear on a table plus whatever personal kit you want to carry. Decide which bits you will typically want to take with you and what you will leave behind. Not much point in taking enough flash kit to floodlight the inside of the Tesla Gigafactory if you are planning to do landscape photography.

As I’ve already said, I have several bags, admittedly some of which I never use. The bag I  use changes depending on what I plan to do. It may make sense to focus in on a particular type of photo excursion and accept that you may need to acquire other bags for other situations.

Spotting the design problems

Camera bags in general and backpacks in particular are designed on the assumption that you basically want to carry a camera and a laptop. You find what looks like the perfect bag,  optimised beautifully to carry your camera kit. But it’s no good if there’s hardly any space left for your phone and a Mars bar.

If you are planning to buy a bag that is comfortable to carry while protecting your gear, there’s a good chance that you will be walking around with this bag for protracted periods of time. I regularly travel with my camera bag, often on foot. My interest ranges particularly to street photography, so I need to be able to get a camera out at short notice and without having to put the bag down and fuss around. Backpack style bags are out. If you’ve ever tried a backpack camera bag you will probably have learned the hard way that not only do you have to put it down in the dust to get at stuff, but sooner or later you will fail to zip it up properly and some expensive kit will tumble onto the ground.

A soft bag is primarily designed for portability. If, however, you are planning to simply drive to your photo shoots, you might be better to consider a hard case.

whoever designs those backpacks that leave no room for your personal stuff presumably never actually tested them in anger

Which brings me to a bugbear of mine. I don’t know about you, but when I go out and about, whether town or country,  I often want to take something to eat and perhaps a bottle of water. Depending on the circumstances I may also want to carry an extra fleece, a waterproof shell and a safety kit if I am going out into the wilds. Since everything I have with me needs to be carried I will avoid taking a heavy laptop. So whoever designs those backpacks that leave no room for your personal stuff presumably never actually tested them in anger.

And so to Billingham

After trying several variations of shoulder bag, backpack and bum bag I finally arrived at the bag that is an epiphany, the Billingham 5 series.

As far as I am concerned, Billingham make the best camera bags and they are built to last for years if not decades. Leica seem to think they’re good enough for their cameras too. One of mine is an out of production Billingham System bag. It’s every bit as good as the replacement 335 model but cost less. The other is a 225. I bought them on eBay and refurbished them with replacement inserts and other parts directly from the Billingham website. They are none the less in great condition, other than a patina of age that gives them gravitas.

I use the Billingham System ‘335’ equivalent for full-frame Nikon kit, which includes lenses, a body, a speedlight, filters and plenty of room for batteries and all the rest of the gear. If I am out for a more serious walk I can use it with a smaller mirrorless kit but also carry some trekking gear besides.

I also have a smaller Billingham bag about the size of a 225 that I more generally use for my Fujifilm mirrorless kit. The layout of these is fantastic. You can retrieve your camera and any other major kit without taking the bag from your shoulder. Once the main compartment is unzipped you can fold back the bag top to make putting your camera in and out really easy. It’s rugged, well padded, and has plenty of pockets to house everything you need. It is also made out of robust material that cannot be easily torn, cut or otherwise vandalized.

I also imagine that they look pretty cool in an Indiana Jones kind of way. No need to put me right.

Disclaimer: I have no association with Billingham other than being a satisfied customer. They have offered me no blandishments, financial or otherwise, to say nice things about them. So if  Billingham are reading this, a shiny new 335 in khaki FibreNyte and tan will be humbly accepted. I can hope.

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