Clearly, we like Think Tank Photo. That much is clear from John's posts and the responses.
I've been paying very close attention as all this goes by, for one very good reason: my tripod.
What? Let me 'splain. I bought a solid, sturdy, high-quality tripod, a big Gitzo Studex, when I was in my early 20s, and then very rarely thought about tripods again. I used it with 35mm Contaxes and monorail 4x5s and everything in between. Then, just a few years ago, here on TOP, I took another look at tripods, did some comparison testing, and ended up with what might possibly be the most pleasing photographic purchase I've ever made: a Gitzo Mountaineer GT 2531. [*See Update below.]
I used to say "there is no such thing as a good tripod," because of the hard split between what you want when you're carrying it (lightness, smallness) and what you want when you're using it (heaviness, sturdiness). Wrong. Turns out, tripod technology had improved by leaps and bounds since I bought my big old Studex from old Mr. Baker at Baker's Camera on Tenley Hill back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. There is indeed such a thing as a good tripod, and the one I have now is definitely it. It's wonderful. (I also have a Gitzo Rationelle Pan Head like this one, on which I use a Kirk Quick Release Clamp like this one. All together it makes for an expensive tripod setup, but I used my last tripod for thirty years, and I expect this one to see me out.)
My current cameras (and kits) are considerably smaller than the ones I used to lug around, and I could use a smaller bag. So anyway, having learned my lesson with tripods—updating can be a good thing—I figured I'd pay attention when it came to bags. For you see, I am probably the least "bagaholic" photographer on the planet. I'm quite amused and entertained by all you fellows who buy up camera bags like they were consumables. If I think hard, it seems I have indeed owned several camera bags and cases over the years, usually to go with specific cameras, although the only one I used regularly was for my early Wista 4x5 field view camera (Wistas have gone down in quality over the years considerably; mine was gorgeous. Current iterations, not so much). That bag was a Tenba, if memory serves.
Otherwise, I did the same thing with bags that I did with tripods: bought a good 'un early on and forgot about it.
I'm fairly well convinced that my bag, which I'm sure I bought during the Reagan years, is a Billingham 225. In khaki, to be precise. The style might not be your thing, and I understand that. In another lifetime, however, I lived with a statuesque blonde on a farm in Vermont, an expert rider who looked positively stunning, I have to say, in jodhpurs and tall polished riding boots, and the Olde Englishness of the Billingham and its vague overtones of saddlery always somehow puts me in mind of her. Not a bad thing.
At first thought the old bag seems like it might be highly susceptible to improvement in the same way that my antediluvian Gitzo proved to be. It has a strange but by now very familiar series of flaps and closures, and I don't even have any dividers or compartments for it—I just junk stuff in and let it clunk about. It weighs a lot when empty. It's not terribly roomy—sometimes I stuff it to the gills and other times one little camera rattles about in it alone. It has always seemed fine to me: I need a bag, and it's a bag. But maybe modern materials science and refined research and design can do leagues better. Think Tank?
On the other hand, a few considerations came up in the comments to John's post. Nicolaas brings up an Achilles' heel of, for instance, Domkes:
You may also dial in the climate factor. Once in Hong Kong I got my Domke (partially) rain-soaked. And when, after days and days it finally stopped raining, it remained heavily overcast, windless, steamy, sauna-like. With the relative humidity turned to eleven the bag's thick canvas simply would not get dry, for days on end. My guess is when you're living/working in a place that's perpetually hot and murky you're better off with nylon than with canvas.
The Billingham by contrast sheds water serenely; I've learned not to fret about it in the rain, as its contents always turn up bone dry once home. As Hugh writes:
Billinghams show their quality when you have to work for hours in heavy rain—that's why you see so many of them used by UK sports shooters. They also stand up to 20–30 years of heavy use.
Then there's its rather remarkable durability (as Hugh mentions). Mine has held up remarkably well. Rob writes:
I've used a Billingham Hadley Pro for years now. I can't say enough good things about it. It wears incredibly well, is totally waterproof [rainproof, is the word I'd use, but we know what he means], and is easy to access very quickly, while being baffling to get into by those who don't know the elegant quick release fastening system.
I've tried many other bags over the years, including some nice Think Tanks, but still the Billingham is the most practical, the nicest hanging from the shoulder, and soft enough to mould to the body discreetly. Because of its ingenious closure system, it doesn't have any Velcro to silence. This bag is very well thought-through, and oozes quality.
My "other" camera bag is a Domke F-803 that came over the transom as a freebie when I was Editor of Photo Techniques in the 1990s. Although a decade or so newer than the Billingham, it looks like it's been through a hard tour in Afghanistan, all tattered and worn. And I don't even use it that much. I gather this is one thing people like about Domkes—who likes new jeans? (Well, besides me?)—but, honestly, my Billingham could pass for two or three years old without stretching credulity, and it's at least a quarter of a century old now. And that's without ever conditioning the leather, which I clearly should do (except I don't know how). Its durability is quite remarkable. It's pretty much the same bag now that it's always been, and it doesn't even look bad.
Of course, it was quite pricey—there's that to consider. Then again, all you "bagaholics" buy bag after bag after bag, and I haven't. I couldn't say for sure, but I think the price of the 225 has only gone up about a hundred dollars since I bought mine. Which means my Billingham has cost me about $11.50 a year—a number which is still going down because the 225 hasn't finished its tour with me yet. Wonder if John (or David Alan Harvey!) has gotten away with an annual budget of $11.50 for camera bags?
These ruminations were triggered by Peter Rees, who wrote:
The discussion of Billingham bags was disappointingly prejudiced and offhand. I have two Billingham bags, both very well-sorted pieces of kit; the larger one especially (the 307) is packed with clever ideas and more than a touch of modern tech hiding within the beautifully crafted, traditional exterior. Best of all, there's no Velcro in sight.
...And you know, I rather think he's right, by Jove. Here I was thinking that camera bags have probably improved like tripods did, and that I should take a fresh look and buy something moderne, in hopes that something new would run rings around my quaint old clunky Billy. But I think I've reached the opposite conclusion instead. I've given the Billingham my very own firsthand 1:1 longevity test and it has done nothing but serve its purpose unperturbably for a quarter of a century.
So I think what I might get for my smaller current camera kits is just...another Billingham.
If I decide the horsey, country-house style isn't proletarian enough, then I'll just do what New Yorkers do and go with basic black.
Sometimes, the old solution really might be best.
P.S. This really does suggest a showdown, though: The $175 Think Tank Urban Disguise 40 versus the $282 Billingham Hadley. With the much cheaper ($65) but similar Lowepro Event Messenger 150 thrown in as a measure of value (the even more similar and even cheaper $30 Lowepro Exchange Messenger bag is evidently on the verge of being discontinued, although Amazon has some left).
[*UPDATE: I swear up and down I had no idea this was coming when I wrote this post yesterday, but, just hours after I finished writing this, B&H Photo announced a big money-saving sale on Gitzo Mountaineer carbon-fiber tripods. You can save between $125 and $200.]
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Steve Pritchard: "You see? You see how insidiously bagaholism creeps up on you, unawares? You start the piece claiming to be the least baggist photographer there is, and by the end you're itching for a showdown! Myself, I have a Hadley Small for my GXR-M kit, but I'm about to take the plunge on a D600. I see a Hadley Pro in my future. I'm thinking, black with black trim and chromed brass fittings. When did I start turning into my Mrs?"
Pieter Krigee: "What about this:
"The Billingham Hadley Pro in blue with orange interior. A very limited edition. Available at Nivo-Schweitzer, Haarlemmerdijk 114 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands."
Mike replies: If you're a color photographer, maybe!
Paulo Bizarro: "I have bought a Billingham bag about 20 years ago. I remember it was expensive, but the old adage 'you get what you pay for' sure holds true with Billingham bags. I still have it, of course. As far as shoulder bags go, they are the best."
Jason: "I purchased a Billingham bag about 20 years ago; the shop accidentally ordered the wrong colour. I didn't fuss too much about it and remember saying, 'Oh, that's fine. I'll just get the other colour when this one wears out.' Of course, twenty years later after multiple trips round the planet and back...it still basically looks new."
Tim Bradshaw: "I liked your article on Billingham bags, and particulatly the statement that they are somehow English.
"Billingham bags are beautifully-made leather-and-canvas things, which when new probably smell of nothing and when later cleaned might smell faintly of leather and old sails. Both the canvas and the leather will wear prettily over the decades. You could imagine leaving such a bag to your younger son in your will (your oldest son would, of course, get the house on Long Island, along, perhaps, with your mistress).
"Billingham bags, in fact are what cultured Americans think English gentlemen might use: they are, in fact, New English. Of course, no Englishman would be seen dead with a Billingham bag, let alone in polite company, any more than they would be seen about with a Leica ('the Rolls-Royce of cameras': ostentatious, vulgar, probably available in pink).
"An Englishman's camera bag is nothing like a Billingham. Indeed, it is not very much like a camera bag. It is made of a material which might once have been waxed cotton but is now mostly grease and patches. It smells of mould, ferrets, fixer and old blood—it is usually better not to ask where the blood came from. It is not, of course, padded: the owner will improvise padding from folded up broadsheet newspapers, none later than the '60s. It may have a strap, and this may not be made entirely of string. In one of the outer pockets there will be a quarter-plate darkslide for a model of camera not made since before the Great War. In others there will be OS maps of Afghanistan, passports (all expired) several glass syringes, and Kendal mint cake. In the bottom of the bag will be a dense layer of detritus including feathers, the mummified remains of a mouse, some filters in imperial sizes, a Watkins Bee meter possibly in working order, much string, a remote release, apparently partly eaten bits of film, and what might be the remains of the original strap. It is better not to investigate this layer too closely.
"The Englishman's camera bag is not left to his children. Rather, they discover it years later in a cupboard, slightly mouldier than it once was and apparently having served as a home to several generations of small birds. No one particularly wants it, but since it is, somehow, useful (certainly more useful than something made of leather, canvas and salt air), it is adopted and so persists."