In Praise of the Billingham Hadley Pro

During my teenage years in 1970s Birmingham, my passion for photography was ignited when I discovered a book called The Concerned Photographer in my local library. The book featured the work of photographers like Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith and someone who would become my all-time hero, Don McCullin. Their images inspired me to make my first tentative steps into street photography with an old Praktica SLR camera.

I remember seeing a picture of McCullin with a couple of Nikon cameras around his neck and an intriguing canvas camera bag hanging from his shoulder. A bag, which I later discovered, was manufactured by a company in Cradley Heath, less than twenty miles from where I lived. The company, M. Billingham and Co., have been making bags since 1973. Originally their bags were aimed at fishermen but were being adapted for photographic use by photographers in New York. The founder, Martin Billingham, picked up on this and decided to switch production to making camera bags and the Billingham camera bag was born.

Several years later, in 2006, when I was looking for a ‘proper’ camera bag, I remembered that McCullin picture. Having a bit more money available, I purchased my first Billingham bag. It was a Hadley Pro in the iconic colour combo of khaki canvas and tan leather outer with olive lining and insets. Little did I know that this bag would still be in use in 2023, as Billingham celebrates their 50th year of manufacturing here in the West Midlands where I, and they, still live.

Billingham bags are well known for their incredible durability and reliability. I love the materials they use to make their bags: the waterproof and tear-resistant canvas, the leather accents and brass hardware that add a stylish look and the buckles and zips – no nasty velcro here – which give the bags a more refined and classic finish.

When worn across the body, the bags are super comfortable and, most importantly, contain ample storage space that protects your gear from impact and is configurable to your requirements. There are now many shoulder bags for carrying camera gear on the market, but in my opinion, none match Billingham’s practical and aesthetic appeal.

My Hadley Pro has travelled with me all around the world. Although I never became a professional photographer, I have always taken cameras on business trips to capture images from the streets of the cities I have been lucky enough to visit. The bag, and consequently my camera gear, have survived being dropped and soaked, extremes of temperature, and being unceremoniously shoved in numerous luggage racks and under many aeroplane seats.

Although Billingham now makes a Hadley Pro that caters for laptops, I have never had any trouble squeezing my 13-inch MacBook into the original Hadley Pro, either with the insert or without, when it doubles as a messenger-style bag.

I like to carry the minimum of kit with me on assignments (usually just a single camera body and a couple of lenses). When I need an extra lens or camera body, the AVEA 5 end pocket extends the Hadley Pro by just the right amount without adding too much additional weight.

My Hadley Pro is still serving me well. It has picked up some scuff marks on the back from rubbing against various pairs of jeans I have worn over the years and has developed a lovely lived-in look. The bag has outlived several pairs of jeans and numerous brands and models of cameras and lenses I have owned.

I have added a few more Billingham bags to my collection, but it is the Hadley Pro I carry with me on most of my assignments. I won’t be retiring this bag anytime soon and expect it to be around when Billingham celebrates their centenary year (even if I am not).

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