Billingham 335: Long-Lived Classic Camera Bag
Billingham camera bags have been manufactured since 1979, six years after the company was founded, when it initially made fishing and game bags. They are some of the best-made bags in the world. The company uses first class materials, the build quality is superb, the bags are highly water-resistant and, despite a few quirks, the designs are mostly functional.
The Billingham 335 lineage can be traced back to a bag that was released in ’79, and has evolved over the decades. Today, it remains as one of the most popular models of their entire line. It has significantly more carrying capacity than their other popular model, the Hadley Pro.
The 335 is a traditional camera bag, rather than a slim, messenger style satchel like the Hadley. Although this is an over-simplification, I would define a messenger style bag as a bag that’s so slim that a photographer can only slide one major piece of equipment (e.g. a camera body with a lens) into the main compartment, and that equipment is contacting both the front and rear walls of the main compartment. Chances are, the slim messenger style camera bag can’t stand up on its bottom when placed on the floor or ground, either.
My definition of a “traditional” camera bag (and this is only my personal definition) is that it can hold at least two major pieces of gear between the front and rear walls of the main compartment. And that it’s wide or deep enough (front to rear measurement) that it easily stands on its bottom when placed down on the floor.
For those photographers who carry a lot of gear to location, especially a full working system, large DSLR’s or medium format bodies, one of the Series 5 bags, like the 335, is a great choice. The size and features really make it easy to work out of, like a mini-studio on the run.
I was actually given an earlier iteration of this bag, over 15 years ago. At the time, I was partial to the slim Hadley original bag, which has a simple closure and insert system. I was a bit startled at the number of closures required to completely seal up the 335.
Like many photographers, I assumed that the 5 Series needed to have all of its multiple closures done up, each and every time I opened the bag. And I didn’t explore the various insert sizes that could really customize the interior of the main compartment to my specific equipment. As such, I didn’t understand and therefore, didn’t end up liking the 5 Series bag, back then. My opinion has changed since I’ve started using it again.
In the Box
Besides the Billingham 335 bag itself, a brand new 335 will also include an SP15 Shoulder Pad, and two Superflex inserts: the 8-15 and 9-18. There’s also a flap that can be Velcro’d into various positions.
Canvas or FibreNyte
Billingham’s 335 is available in either canvas or FibreNyte.
The model I’m reviewing uses Billingham’s StormBlock canvas. Using the word “canvas” is a big misnomer though. Billingham fuses two layers of canvas together, with butyl (similar rubber that racing bicycle inner tubes are made from) creating a truly waterproof material.
I would never claim the entire bag is waterproof, in the sense that you shouldn’t expect the 335 to keep its internal contents completely dry if you submerged it under water. But the Billingham canvas is quite weatherproof. When you close up a Billingham bag fully with its various zippers and flaps, rain or snow won’t get through the material. Nor does the material absorb rain or humidity staying damp.
I used Domke bags 22 years ago when I was a photojournalist in Asia. I still have a soft spot for Domke bags, but their conventional canvas (I didn’t have their waxed canvas RuggedWear at the time) would get damp and take days to dry. With Billingham’s canvas, there’s no such issue.
FibreNyte is an alternate material to Billingham’s canvas. It’s an artificially made material that is bonded (again, via Billingham’s Stormblock butyl rubber) to polyester. It too, is rain proof and supposedly has better abrasion resistance and retains its colour longer than canvas.
I have FibreNyte material on another Billingham, but because it’s still new to me, I can’t confirm if it really is more abrasion resistant and has superior colour retention (Billingham’s claim) when compared to canvas. The material is supposedly lighter, but when taking into account the entire bag, it’s hard to tell the difference. In either case, it’s safe to say that either Billingham’s canvas or FibreNyte will result into a rainproof bag.
Commonly available colours for the 335 include khaki, black and sage (a mid-green). The model I’m reviewing uses black Stormblock canvas with black leather trim and the brass is nickel plated.
Vegetable tanned Leather
A nice treat on all of the Billingham bags I’ve bought is the quality of the leather. Vegetable tanned for longevity, just a bit of maintenance will keep it supple and avoid cracking over the years. I wax the leather with either Nik Wax (easily obtainable from an outdoor equipment store) or even regular leather shoe wax.
Done every half a year or so, and it should keep the leather looking great. More importantly, it keeps the openings for the clog ball closures in the straps supple and functioning over the long term.
I have a Hadley Pro that’s over a decade old that I’ve maintained this way, and the leather is still in good condition.
Nickel Plated Brass fittings
The 335 I have has all its brass fittings nickel plated. The combination of all back with the nickel colour is tasteful. Bare brass is used on other colour combinations, and looks great too.
More significantly, I find Billingham’s metal fittings work very well and last a long time. When I got my first Billingham over 20 years ago, I was a bit skeptical at how well and secure the seemingly primitive clog ball closures would last. Where were the “high tech” Velcro or Fastex closures, like one sees on technical wear or other camera bags?
Over the decades, though, I’ve come to appreciate the function, longevity, ease of use and silence (no ripping Velcro sounds) of Billingham’s clog ball closures. The 335 uses them to close the two front dump pockets and the main flap.
Billingham 335 Size
In size, the 5 Series starts out with the smaller 225, and then the next size up is the 335 being reviewed here, followed by the 445 and then the behemoth 555.
The features in each bag are the same. What distinguish each model are the dimensions of the width and height (not depth – I’ll get to that, shortly). The 335’s INTERNAL dimensions of the main compartment are:
WIDTH: 350mm (13 & ¾”)
DEPTH: 150mm (5 & 7/8”)
HEIGHT: 210mm (8 & ¼”)
The 225 is obviously smaller in both dimensions, and the 445 is larger, with the 555 larger still. So each size can be viewed as Small (225), Medium (335), Large (445) and Extra Large (555).
While each size is a distinct step up or down in width and height from its neighbouring model, all Series 5 have the SAME main compartment DEPTH. That is, the measurement from front to back, inside the largest compartment.
The internal measurement of the main compartment’s depth is always 150mm or 5 & 7/8 inches deep. This is true from the smallest 225 to the XL 555. I’ve always found it curious that Billingham doesn’t emphasize this in any of their literature or website.
What this allows is the use of virtually the entire line of Superflex inserts in all of the Series 5 bags (and for that matter, the Series 7 too). All of them are 150mm from front to back.
The only restriction to this would be height. The tallest 21cm inserts won’t fit in smallest 225 bag, but otherwise, it’s all compatible across the board.
Please note that the external Depth dimension does get slightly larger from the 225 to the 445 (the 555 external depth is the same as the 445). This is due to fact that the front pockets get larger as the models progress upward in size to the 555.
The 335’s EXTERNAL dimensions, which measure out to all of the additional front and rear pockets, are –
WIDTH: 380mm or 15 inches
DEPTH: 240mm or 9 ½ inches
HEIGHT: 270mm or 10 5/8 inches
Main Compartment & Tuk Top
Double pull zippers seal up the main compartment. They pull open to almost half down each end of the bag. This allows the photographer, when working out of the bag, to fold the tops behind the internal front and rear padding of the main compartment. Alternately, you can also tuck the flaps over the front and rear of the bag. It keeps the main compartment wide open, for fast and easy access.
You won’t be scraping your fingers or lenses by the zippers when the tops are folded back. Billingham’s market-speak for this simple but smart feature is Tuk Top.
All four walls have slim, closed cell padding enclosed in nylon. The front and rear walls are a little higher, with the side walls a little shorter, to clear the zippers. The padding, along with the inserts, provide good protection for your main gear.
SuperFlex Inserts, Flap and Padded Floor in the Main Compartment
As mentioned, when purchasing a 335 new, it comes with two Superflex inserts: the 8-15 and 9-18. Also included is a flap that can be connected to Velcro attachments points on the front and rear inner walls of the main compartment, as well as one side of each Superflex partition.
Each Superflex measures the same, front to back, so they all fit the entire line of Series 5 and Series 7 bags. All Superflex inserts of any size can fit into any Series 5 or Series 7 bag, except for the 21cm high inserts (which can’t fit into the small 225 bag).
Each insert has two openings. The main opening is always a square.
The first figure in a Superflex ID name refers to that main square’s dimension in cm. The second figure in its ID name refers to that insert’s height in cm.
None of the Superflex inserts have a bottom or floor. Instead, there is a removable, heavily padded floor for the main compartment that provides excellent impact protection for the bottom.
Making the floor removable increases the versatility of the bag. I sometimes use the 335 as carry-on luggage for my clothes on a plane. Instead of loading my photo equipment into the 335, I pack a small camera system into my Hadley Pro. Being able to remove the floor of the 335 gives me a touch more room for my travel clothes and gets rid of the padding, which isn’t neccessary for carrying clothing.
The single flap can be used to subdivide negative space (i.e. open space that’s not occupied by a SuperFlex insert) into a top and bottom half. So two items can be safely stacked on each other, without fear of gear damage.
The two included Superflex inserts and single flap are a reasonable compromise between cost (too many inserts would drive the price of the bag up), yet it allows a photographer to use a new 335 bag immediately (no inserts included would mean you can’t sub-divide the main compartment until inserts are obtained).
Here’s are photos of the Superflex inserts and flap installed in one possible combination within the 335. The first picture shows the flap up, and the second pic has it down, dividing the open space evenly between a bottom and top half. For clarity, I’ve lined the padded, protective floor of the 335 with white paper, so that the viewer can clearly see the shape of the dark green inserts.
This photo shows a Fuji X system of four lenses, X-Pro1 body and an accessory light meter being carried in the stock inserts and the open space in between. The camera with lens attached is sitting in the bottom of the bag.
Another camera with lens can be stacked on top of the first camera. With the horizontal flap in place, it would safely separate the two, ready to shoot cameras.
But in order to truly optimize the organizational capability of the 5 Series, it’s best to measure the size of one’s gear and purchase additional Superflex inserts to match.
Due to the endless possible combinations that can be achieved and the limited amount of info on the web about how the Superflex system works, I’ll cover organizing the main compartment with Superflex inserts in much more detail in Part II of this bag review. It’s not a difficult concept to understand how the Superflex inserts are measured and how it works, but I’m surprised at the lack of detailed information available.
Note that I prefer not to carry my flash equipment or tripod inside the bag. I’ll talk about that further on, in this article.
Beyond the main compartment as described above, there are –
TWO EXTERNAL FRONT “DUMP” POCKETS
130mm or 5 1/8 Wide, 40mm or 1 ½ inches in Depth, and 250mm or 9 7/8 inches in Height.
Each of these have a pen pocket adjacent to the outer edge. Both pockets are protected from the weather and prying hands by full width, single flap, with clog ball closures for each pocket.
As their located on the outside of the bag, I tend to place inexpensive but essential items here, such as lens cleaning tissue and fluid, micro fibre cloth and a blower. So if anyone pick pockets them, there’s not a huge financial loss.
FRONT FULL LENGTH ZIPPERED POCKET
350mm (13 ¾”) Wide, 40mm (1 ½”) Depth, 250mm (9 7/8”) Height.
This is located between the front dump pockets and the large main compartment. Although it adds bulk to the 5 Series bag compared to the 7 series (which deletes this pocket), it’s a surprisingly handy and useful storage area.
This is a great place to put a small laptop and a full size Color Checker chart. But keep in mind that Billingham didn’t intend it for this use, so the bottom and outer facing wall are not padded in anyway.
I add a strip of closed cell foam to the bottom of this pocket, as it has a tendency to sag below the main compartment, and contact the floor when placing the bag down. So the foam prevents shock damage to a valuable laptop.
In addition, I have light armour on both my iPad and MacBook Pro 13”. Either one of these devices will fit into this handy pocket easily, and with their own protection and the added foam, I feel there’s sufficient protection from light impacts.
FRONT INTERNAL “DUMP” POCKETS
These are located inside the Front Full Length Zippered Pocket and are lightly padded. I tend to place spare camera batteries, small length cables and SD cards in cases, in these pockets.
REAR ZIPPERED POCKET
160mm (6 ¼”) Wide by 240mm (9 ½”) in Height
A flat pocket running the entire length and height at the rear of the bag, it’s good for carrying your camera’s manual and for papers.
ACCESSORY DELTA POCKETS
Delta pockets from Billingham are NOT included with the bag. But they are designed to fit at each end of the Series 5. These are very useful, and I’ll talk about them in detail in the Accessories section of this review.
DELTA SLING STRAP & SP15 PAD
The main shoulder strap isn’t a simple strap sewn into the bag at either end. From a single strap, it separates into an upside down Y formation, before attaching sturdily to the sides of the bag via a thick leather plate.
Billingham claims the wide connection points helps stabilize the bag and prevents it from rocking. To be honest, I’ve never had a stabilization issue with conventionally mounted, single straps on other camera bags (including Billingham’s Hadley). But the widely mounted Delta strap is a thoughtful design touch. This is also where the accessory Delta pockets are mounted.
Included is an SP15 Pad. It’s easy to pack a heavy load into a 335. The pad really helps distribute the weight on the shoulder, alleviating the pain.
The 335 stands on nickel-plated brass feet (half domes) that are mounted in thick leather. It’s a nice feature that keeps the bottom of the bag a few mm off the ground.
MULTIPLE GRAB HANDLES
With the flap closed, there are front and rear (exterior) carry handles that can be held together or snapped together (with the sewn-in leather grab handle) to allow the 335 to be carried by hand rather than the shoulder strap.
A really thoughtful feature is a THIRD carry handle, which is located inside the main flap.
With the flap open, I can now grab the front handle, combined with this internal handle, still pick up the 335 by hand and it will remain balanced. The two handles can either be clipped together or you can simply clutch them together. I use this feature all the time, once I’m on location and working. It’s great to be able to move the bag by hand a few feet, without having to close the flap each time.
I truly dislike carrying a tripod attached to my main camera bag. It makes the bag the more difficult to maneuver on location. Each to their own, but I wouldn’t recommend purchasing the accessory tripod loops.
Instead, I use a tripod bag with a semi-rigid casing around the tripod’s head (good protection for its handles). I also store the only awkward item that I can’t find a convenient place for within the 335 or in its accessory Delta pockets – a Gary Fong light modifier. This fits conveniently inside the tripod bag.
DELTA SIDE POCKETS: USEFUL ACCESSORY
As mentioned, I prefer not to store my flash equipment within the 335 itself. I don’t always use supplementary lighting, so I carry it, only when a specific assignment requires it.
I carry that gear in Delta side pockets, which have to be purchased as an additional accessory. Since Delta Pockets are an additional cost and have to be purchased in addition to the 335 bag, I’ll cover its use in Part II.
That covers the details of the Billingham’s design, features and benefits.
Part II will detail accessories to refine the organization of a Billingham 335.
In particular, ways of organizing the main compartment with additional Superflex inserts. This is an overlooked feature, yet it’s central to what makes the Billingham Series 5 (and 7) such functional bags.
I’ll also detail how I use the Delta pockets to carry a small but complete flash kit, for assignments when that’s required.
Part III will compare the features that separate the 335 of the Series 5 line, from the 307, from the Series 7 line. On the surface, they seem to be redundant designs, but they have three distinct differences which will easily decide which Series a photographer might prefer.
I’ll cover criticisms regarding the Series 5 bags that have cropped up over the years, and how to deal with them. And finally, the overall verdict on the Billingham 335.