Billingham 550 camera bag

"You get what you pay for"
How many times have we all heard that? Whether it's in reference to a prestige car, cheap shoes, wedding photographers, supermarket beef-burgers or, as in this case, camera bags - it stands to reason that the more you pay, the higher the quality of the product you should expect - right? Well, let's see...
The Billingham 550 camera bag has a RRP of £579.99 (yes, you read that correctly - £580!!!) and you'll be hard pushed to find one for anything less that £500 on the street. Billingham (http://www.billingham.co.uk) say
"The 550 was the first soft camera bag manufactured in Britain. It's continuing success, both as a spacious camera bag and as a general travel bag, has meant that, apart from a few very minor improvements, it remains much the same as when it was first introduced.
 "

(http://www.billingham.co.uk/acatalog/The_Classic_550_Camera_Bag.html)

Photographers say 'it's a legend', 'The Daddy', 'built to last', 'it'll outlive me' (just a few quotes I've heard and seen on forums over the years).

15 years young - my 550

Built from canvas with 'Stormblock' waterproofing and using cotton thread which swells when wet (to prevent water getting into your bag) the 550, like all Billingham bags, doesn't need an additional cover to keep it waterproof. I bought mine back in 1998 at the recommendation of a good friend, and mentor, Dr Bill Cullen (although Bill favours 335's and 445's). Several things helped me choose the 500 over a 445, such as the removable side pouches being included as part of the price and the stitching on the strap. Now, let me explain that last point a little more: At the time, Billingham advertised the fact that the point where the 445 attached to the bag had two straps with a single row of stitching (the main strap forms a 'Y' at the ends) while the 550 has a single strap all the way with double stitching for increased strength - that was the winner for me:

 Bear in mind - this is how the stitching looks after 15 years (!!!) of being used and hauled around the world.

Now, don't think for a second that this means the 445 won't last as long - there are countless examples which have lasted decades and are still going strong - I merely use this to illustrate something which, to me, made a difference.
The 550 swallows a load of kit, and I've used mine to travel all over Europe, Asia, Hawaii and, of course, the UK and carry everything from my old EOS 5 and 1n film cameras (and assorted paraphernalia) to a modern digital kit. It's been across the Sahara desert and North Africa (even accompanying me on camelback with bedouins as they hunted desert hares and gazelle with their saluki dogs - actually, I must get round to scanning my old transparencies at some point) and caught in some good, old Scottish downpours and it has NEVER let me down. I'll be honest, though, if you load it full - it gets HEAVY! Nowadays, it acts as my B-bag - it houses my backup bodies and assorted bits'n'pieces when I shoot weddings etc. In addition to the main compartment, there are four pockets (two zipped and two press-stud on the outside) and the two removable pouches, so there is an incredible amount of space. It changes from time to time, but here's what it carries just now:

EOS 1Ds and 3 spare batteries, EOS 3 film camera with batteries and a couple of rolls of film, 2 speedlites - 540EZ and a Yongnuo 580 II, grips for one of the 7D's and the 40D, various filters, some cheap Yongnuo triggers (back-ups for the Strato 2's), cleaning kit, remote releases, lens caps, battery pack for the 580 EX II, tripod plate, extension tubes and the 40D goes nosedown in one of the dividers with a Sigma 17-70 f2.8 lens attached.

It'll fit a lot more than that, but I find this is enough to carry, especially with a spine which doesn't appreciate the life I've lived (If you read my previous blog post, you'll see that my main kit is transported in a Think Tank Streetwalker HD backpack and I transfer my kit to work out of their Skin Set v2.0 belt pouch system - reviewed here: http://ksgphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/thinktank-photo-skin-set-v20.html)
The supplied dividers will let me store a 70-200 f4 L lens without the hood or collar attached too and I've used it like this with a body attached nose-down without too much trouble.
It's big, it's heavy, it's expensive - and I wouldn't be without it! I simply love this bag. There's just something about Billingham bags which 'do it' for me. I can take it to a wedding and it doesn't look out of place, stick a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on for travelling and it still works. It just oozes (don't you just LOVE that word?) quality - it fits in anywhere. One of my jobs is to take some official photographs for my old regiment, the Scots Guards, which means occasionally shooting events where there are members of the Royal family in attendance. I've tried taking along my backpack, but it just doesn't 'work' - walking into St James' Palace in London with my 550 over my shoulder does. I know that may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but like it or not, when you carry a Billingham bag you stand out from the crowd as someone who appreciates quality, who knows that for every job there's a functional piece of kit which will do it and who knows that you get what you pay for.
My 550 is 15 years old this year and seems like it will go on forever. However, I now find that I need a smaller bag for everyday use - one which I CAN'T fill with tons of kit. If I have space - I fill it, so I need a small bag which will let me carry a DSLR, 2-3 lenses, speedlite and my iPad. After much hunting around, I finally settled - yet again - on a Billingham (to be honest, it couldn't be anything else). A couple of days ago I took delivery of a new Hadley Large and I'm very pleased to say that even though it's smaller than the 550, the attention to detail which Billingham are famous for is just as high. At the bottom I've attached a few comparison shots to show the differences between both bags (don't worry, this won't turn into a double-review) but I'll finish off with answering my original question: Do you get what you pay for?
Whilst I admit, my 550 was a wee bit less than the current asking price of nearly £600, I don't regret it for a second and if I was faced with the same choice today, I'd still come home with a 550. Yes, it's big. Yes, it's heavy. Yes, some of the inserts don't work with modern large diameter lenses, so you'll ned to consider replacement ones. But YES, it works. YES it lasts. YES it looks better as it gets older and YES, in my opinion, it's worth every, single penny. When I was discussing this post with my wife, she noted that in the 10+ years we've been together, I've bought  a LOT of camera bags and all have failed somewhere down the line. Straps have frayed, clips have snapped, zips have broken and bags have burst. They have all served a specific purpose at the time, but they simply have not lasted. We accept that nowadays with 'modern' bags - like mobile phones etc., they have a shelf-life and you will need to replace them eventually, so you're always looking out for a replacement. When you buy a Billingham, you don't - you just look for another one to join it.

The zipped pocket at the back is ideal for carrying papers, a magazine, passport etc. and even an iPad (although I'd recommend having it's own case for protection as the outside is unpadded)


Enough pockets for you? 


A wee peek inside - newer designs do make it a bit easier to get into, but I can live with this. 

How big are the side pouches? Big enough for an EOS 1Ds with a wee bit of room leftover.



The handle splits which makes it easier to tuck a jacket across the top when travelling (the handle can't be used while the straps are undone, you need to lift it by the strap - one area where the 445 wins, in my opinion). 



The very comfortable SP20 pad has neoprene to prevent it slipping off your shoulder.

And here it is compared to a new Hadley Large (There are several colour variations available, including black and sage, but I kinda have a sweet-spot for khaki canvas with tan leather - in case you hadn't noticed):
Just as tall

 But a lot narrower - and lighter

Okay, so you don't want to see the dirty bit at the bottom, but look at the condition of this after 15 years! Not too shabby.



Comments

  1. ive had 3 billys a 445 and 2 well used 550,s they are the best easily but the weight with a lot of nikon kit used to to get heavy!! and yes when worn in they have a great patina !

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks David, my friend Bill has a room at his studio with a few 335's and 445's - all are a good age and looking great - I've tried to convince him to part with a 335 once or twice but he's having none of it ;)

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  4. Looks like a great bag! I’ve been looking for a new camera bag, but it gets confusing in the stores. I appreciate the review; you’ve given me some points to consider.

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