This is the conclusion to the Billingham 335 review. I’ll cover how to choose between a Series 5 and 7 bag, some of the common concerns about the Series 5 design, and my conclusion and verdict on the 355.
Choosing between a Series 5 and Series 7 Billingham Bag
Billingham’s line-up of bags is usually in tight, focused categories. There’s usually no confusion when buying one type of Billingham over another.
- Street work with a small rangefinder or CSC system? Look at the Hadley’s.
- Smallest bag possible with one camera and perhaps an extra lens or two? L2.
- Minimal Leica M-specific bag? Billingham-made Leica M Combination bag.
- International travel with room for a pro laptop? Packington or Eventer.
For a full load of system cameras, there have been the Billingham Series 5 bags that have been around for decades.
Since 2009, another line-up from Billingham has been readily available, the Series 7. This one is an evolution of the no longer made Series 6.
On the surface, it seems to be a redundant line when compared to the classic Series 5. A quick glance of the Series 5 and Series 7 in pictures or even in person, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two designs.
But having used both in the “size 3” (335 and 307), I found that they had substantial design differences. In my opinion, it is these differences that determine which a photographer might prefer.
Before I delve into that, here’s where the Series 5 & 7 are the same:
- Both are available in FibreNyte fabric
- Both have similar color combination choices
- Both are camera bags designed to carry an extensive working photographic system
- Both are available in ascending widths, to accommodate bigger loads
- The Series 5 & 7 use the same line of inserts, called Superflex. Which means all of the bags in both series have the same internal dimension, front to back, of their main compartment – 150mm
With some many similarities, it’s the following differences that separate the Series 5 and Series 7 from each other. I would look at these differences and use them to choose between the Series 5 and 7.
Very different openings for the main compartment
The Series 5 unzips and then the flaps can be conveniently folded back, to keep the zipper teeth out of the way and to provide easy access to all contents inside the main compartment. Billingham’s marketing-speak calls this feature Tuk Top.
The Series 7 has a unique, doctor’s bag style opening made from carbon fiber rods. These open and stay open, without having to fold or lock anything into place.
Functionally, once the openings are both engaged they provide equal ease of access to their respective main compartments. The old school Tuk Top on the 5 Series takes a few seconds to position, both otherwise both work equally well.
If you’re a photographer that prefers to zip up the main compartment every time you pick up the bag, you will prefer the Series 7 opening, as there’s no active, additional step in order to get the top to stay wide open – it does it by itself.
On the other hand, the Tuk Top of the Series 5 folds back and sits just above the protective padding of the main compartment. It’s a bit easier to see and reach in, when compared to the Series 7 opening, which is a few inches above its main compartment when in open position.
Front Carry Handle position
When the front carry handle of a Series 5 is not clipped together with its rear counterpart, it can dangle perilously below the bag, catching on random objects. There’s actually a really easy way of dealing with this dangling strap on the Series 5 – simply tuck it into one of the front pockets of the bag.
The Series 7 front carry handle is mounted higher up the bag. When it flops down, it doesn’t do so below the edge of the bag. So it’s less likely to catch on anything.
Main Flap closure
The Series 5’s main flap closure needs to be threaded through the front carry handle’s brass rings.
The Series 7 doesn’t require that, the user goes to its clog ball closure directly.
Front Full Length Zippered Pocket for Series 5 only
The Series 5 has this. Inside this pocket, are two further dump pockets to carry and organize small items.
This is NOT a laptop specific compartment. It’s completely unpadded, nor does it have a protective floor. So use at your own risk, if you decide to store your valuable laptop in it.
With that said: I carry my MacBook Pro 13” with a hard shell armor case in this useful pocket of the 335. I’ve lined the bottom of this narrow pocket with some closed cell foam to provide protection on the floor.
The downside of this pocket is that it significantly adds to the bulk of the Series 5 bag.
The Series 7 lacks this feature completely. The 307l has a laptop specific carrying area, but it’s the only one of that line-up.
The Series 7 loses a significant amount of carrying capacity because it lacks this feature. It’s possible to jam a 13” MacBook Pro with a case in the main compartment of a 307, just outside the padded area, but it’s a very tight fit.
The upside is, that it keeps the Series 7 a slimmer and more svelte bag than its closest size counterpart in Series 5.
All Series 7 bags (except for the 307l laptop variant) are the same height
Unlike the Series 5 bags, which get taller as the width gets wider, all Series 7 bags have the same interior height of 220mm (except the 307l, which is 270mm). And because they all have the same interior depth (150mm), the only difference in size as you ascend in capacity with the Series 7 is the width.
This is neither good nor bad – it depends on the size of your camera bodies and lenses, and how you like to store them.
An additional note, is that the Series 5 and Series 7 sizes don’t have straight up matches. The Series 5 starts with the small 225, then goes to the 335 being reviewed here, the larger 445 and then the taller 555.
Series 7 starts with a very small but tall 107 (there’s no real Series 5 equivalent to that one). The 207 and 307 can be seen as a close alternate to consider when looking at the Series 5’s 225 and 335. But the next Series 7 model is the 307 again, but this time with an internal, padded laptop compartment.
Laptop-specific pocket in Series 7’s 307l only
Rather than having to wrap your 13” MacBook Pro in armor and line the bottom of the 335 (or larger) of the Front Full Length Zippered pocket, if you want a laptop-specific compartment, the only option in either Series, is Series 7’s 307l (or L, for Laptop).
The protective floor with a stabilizing ridge extends to below the laptop compartment, and the compartment itself is padded too. To accommodate the laptop compartment, the 307l is taller than the other Series 7 bags, going up to 270mm.
Billingham also eliminated the quick opening Clog Ball closures for the handles, as they feel it wouldn’t support the weight as well. So the bag has to be opened with slow to operate, dual, traditional buckle straps.
COMMON CRITICISMS ABOUT THE SERIES 5
I’ve noticed that over the years, there have been some criticisms of the design of the 5 Series. Some of them have even been addressed by Billingham’s 7 Series. I’ve found, that some of the supposedly negative aspects of the 5 Series can easily be dealt with or aren’t an issue when one is actually working with the bag. Here are a few issues I’ve read about, and how I’ve dealt with them when using a 5 Series.
“The front carry handle hangs dangerously low when not snapped together to one of the rear carry handles”
If left by itself, the front carry handle can indeed by an annoyance or even outright dangerous, depending upon the environment you’re shooting in. Billingham seems to have listened to this criticism over the years and addressed it with their Series 7 bags.
But the Series 5 bags can be used safely. There is a simple solution when working with the front carry handle unconnected to the rear carry handle. Just tuck it into the one front dump pockets. This keeps it out of harm’s way.
“The 335 is way too bulky compared to the Hadley Pro”
There’s no denying the 335 is far larger than a Hadley Pro. It’s depth (or front to back measurement) is huge when compared to the depth of a Hadley.
But it’s really “Horses for Courses”. The 335 is bulkier than a Hadley, but it also has a much bigger carrying capacity. Except for the smallest 225, a Series 5 bag is NOT what I’d recommend for a street photographer shooting in a dense, urban environment with a light load such as rangefinders or compact system cameras. The additional depth will result in bumping into people and objects, while in a crowd.
A photographer will need the room of a 335 (or larger) during location assignments where she or he is expected to bring a lot of gear, in order to complete the job properly. Having a lot of gear in a satchel style, messenger bag, makes for slower access. The slimness of messenger bags means that gear has to be stacked vertically (e.g. lenses). Its lack of depth actually becomes a disadvantage.
That’s where the Series 5 is truly suitable, and a photographer will be grateful to have their gear in a well-organized and easily accessible bag. The thicker depth of the bag means gear, for the most part, doesn’t have to be stacked on top of each other. Open the main flap and unzip the tops and fold them back, and you have instant access to almost everything in the bag.
“There are too many straps, flaps, snaps and closures in order to open and close a Series 5 bag”
There’s no denying that to completely close a Billingham Series 5, not including the rear pocket, a photographer would have to do the following:
- Un-tuck and zip up the main compartment
- Zip up the front zippered pocket
- 2 clog ball closures on the two front dump pockets
- Close the main flap and thread its two leather straps through front carry handle’s D-rings
- Attach the main flap’s two leather straps to its respective clog ball closures
- Gather the front and rear (external) carry handle & attach them together via two snaps of their grab handle
Admittedly, that’s a lot of steps. In practice, I rarely ever seal up my 335 to this extent. The only time I do all of the above is when I’m flying and the bag is going into the overhead or under seat compartments on the plane.
When I’m driving to location, the bag gets steps 1, 2 and 6 done, but I don’t bother securing the main flap.
On location, the main flap gets thrown back and I keep the main compartment open the entire shoot. When I move the bag, I use the shoulder strap or the front and internal carry handles, but I certainly don’t seal up the entire bag when I’m in the middle of working.
I often don’t access the front external pockets or the rear zipper pocket, as most of my active equipment (camera bodies and lenses) is in the main compartment.
In practice, it’s an exaggeration to say that the bag needs to be completely opened and closed, utilizing every closure, strap and flap. Most of the time, partial closure is all that’s needed.
“Billingham bags are too expensive”
There’s no denying that Billingham prices are higher than most other bags out there, like Domke and Lowe Pro. The price of the 335 alone is not cheap, and when you add additional inserts or side pockets as I’ve done, the cost goes even higher.
A lot of that cost is mitigated by the durability of Billingham products. I’ve been using Billingham bags for over twenty years, and the quality of their construction and material results in a very long-lived product.
I have one bag, the Hadley Pro, that’s over a decade old and it’s still weather proof and has no stitching coming undone after that time. In comparison, I owned another satchel type bag from another brand, that didn’t last more than four years before the stitching unraveled and the leather trim cracked.
So a lot of that cost can be amortized over a much longer usage period. Billinghams are definitely built to last.
Don’t forget that if you have multiple Billingham bags, some of the accessories can be used on other bags. The Superflex inserts and Delta pockets can be used in any Series 5 or 7 bag.
Verdict on the 335
- Well-thought out design, proven over decades of use and refinement
- 335 has excellent carrying capacity for a working system
- Top quality materials
- First rate build quality
- Will provide decades of service due to the last two points, so the high price can be rationalized
- Stormblock canvas or FibreNyte fabric stops rain and doesn’t absorb water like traditional canvas. Useful in heavy storms or tropical environments
- When the bag is fully closed, it is essentially weather proof (but not waterproof – don’t submerge the bag)
- Main compartment is well padded to provide decent protection for your camera bodies and lenses
- Quite usable for many photographers with the two stock Superflex inserts and flap, without having to purchase additional inserts
- Multiple sizes of Superflex inserts can be purchased to further refine the main compartment’s organization
- Delta Pockets can be purchased and attached to the ends of the bag to temporarily increase its carrying capacity
- With the padded floor removed, can be converted easily into a weekend travel bag
- Stylish and classic design makes for a professional appearance in front of the client
- If the all black color combination is chosen, the bag can go relatively unnoticed while carrying it in public
- Quite expensive (although its durability negates this issue, somewhat)
- Purchasing additional Superflex inserts and Delta Pockets adds to the cost
- The bag itself can be heavier (due to durable, rain proof material and use of leather fittings) when compared to other brands of bags with similar capacity
- Leather trim and straps require periodic maintenance (waxing) so that they don’t dry out and crack
- Photographers who prefer to completely seal up the bag will face a multi-step process
- The 335’s good carrying capacity also means a bag that’s bulkier than a messenger style, smaller bag like the Hadley Pro or Filson Harvey Messenger
- Front carry handle can hang dangerously low unless the photographer buckles it up or remembers to tuck it into one of the front pockets
- Traditional, English “game” or “fishing” bag styling may not be to everyone’s taste
Who should consider the Billingham 335?
Any photographer that carries a full camera system plus a laptop, to a location should seriously consider the 335. Ideally, the photographer will be at one location long enough to fully open the 335 (Tuk Top) to gain full access to its contents. A Series 5 bag shines when it’s used this way, providing the photographer full access to their main gear.
If a photographer carries a 13” laptop with armor or smaller, the front zippered pocket makes a great place to store that laptop. That pocket is missing on the Series 7 Billinghams.
Please note that this pocket is NOT designed specifically for the storage of a laptop, and has no padding. Make sure you have a protective shell on your laptop and place a strip of closed cell foam at the bottom of this compartment, to protect against impact.
If the owner is willing to purchase additional SuperFlex inserts, she or he can really customize the interior’s main compartment to organize their gear well and provide good protection. Adding Delta pockets, as an assignment requires is another great way to expand the bag’s capacity.
The Series 5 (and indeed, all Billingham bags) are fantastic in damp, rainy conditions. The material is truly waterproof and will protect your gear within, in any weather.
Build quality and materials used will ensure the bag’s longevity for decades of regular use.
Overall, a classic design that still works very well today, is weather proof, provides decent impact protection to your most valuable gear in the main compartment, is superbly constructed and will last for decades, which negates the high price.
If you missed it, Part I is the overview of the design, features and benefits of the Billingham 335
Part II details organizing the main compartment with the Superflex inserts. This is an overlooked feature, yet it’s central to what makes the Billingham Series 5 (and 7) such functional bags. It also covers the use of the accessory Delta Pockets.