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Billingham Hadley Small Pro Review

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A Very Brief History

Seeing as this is my first ever review of a Billingham bag, I trust you’ll forgive a bit of preamble. A bit of history is always fun, no? Before Billingham (M Billingham & Co Ltd, to be precise) there was ‘Brady’ and its Gelderburn and Ariel Trout fishing/forage bags. Indeed, the ‘M’ in M Billingham & Co Ltd, Martin, formerly worked for Brady before setting up shop on his own with his own range of fishing bags in 1973. Both Brady and Billingham bags were finding favour with photographers throughout the 1970s, and in 1979 Billingham diversified into producing camera bags. Billingham’s Hadley range of camera bags are direct descendants of fishing bags like Brady’s Gelderburn - the new Hadley Small Pro is the latest iteration.

Introduction

There is a perception that Billingham bags are more of a boutique accessory, perhaps because of their classical, English countryside appearance, and higher than average price. I don’t believe this is entirely accurate; whilst Billinghams are premium bags, and more expensive than many camera bags (LowePro, Think Tank, Crumpler et al), they are significantly cheaper than comparable items from Fogg and Hawkesmill

To be clear, the Hadley Small Pro is not my first Billingham bag, and although I’m a bit of a fan, I'll try to be objective in the review that follows. This bag hasn’t been provided by Billingham for review purposes; I’ve purchased this bag myself from Damien Lovegrove’s online shop.

My first Billingham was a Hadley Pro, which I bought over 15 years ago, and although this has served me well (and, I should add, continues to serve me well!), I wanted something a little more compact. I had been on verge of buying the Hadley Small, although I wasn't keen on the lack of a carrying handle or rear pocket, features that were very useful on the larger Pro especially when travelling. Fortunately, Billingham announced a new 'Pro' version of the Hadley Small in March 2018. So, here it is, in a very fetching shade of Sage FibreNyte with Chocolate leather:

The Bag

The Hadley Small Pro has the same attention to detail and quality as my larger 'Pro’. Other than the new features outlined above, the ‘Small Pro’ holds few surprises for previous Billingham owners - the quality of materials used is impeccable, with high quality leather elements, and sturdy brass fixtures and fittings. The contrast stitching is perfect and adds to the refined feel of the bag. The FibreNyte material does feel quite a bit different to the canvas of my other Billingham; a bit rougher, perhaps, although it is supposed to be harder wearing and more colourfast. Incidentally, Billingham has an informative blog post about the differences between the two materials. Both canvas and FibreNyte are bonded to a layer of butyl rubber, which provides excellent weatherproofing.

Billingham uses high quality materials including durable webbing, full grain leather, brass fixtures and canvas/FibreNyte fabric. The main fabric of the bag is bonded to a butyl rubber membrane in order to provide protection from rain.

The Hadley Small Pro conforms to the basic design of the rest of the Hadley family (with the exception of the Hadley Digital) ; a slim, body hugging profile, removable padded camera section, two front dump pockets and a darted and sculpted top lid that keeps rain out of the interior of the bag.

The darting on the top lid draws the sides into towards the top of the bag, preventing the ingress of rain. 

Two leather straps at the front secure the lid in place using brass studs, which Billingham calls 'clogballs'. These act as a quick release system, with the buckles used solely to adjust the length of the leather straps. The sequence of photos directly below shows the quick release system in action. From left to right, the 'clogball' is in the locked position in the smallest hole. To release, the top of the leather strap is pulled upwards so that the ‘clogball' is aligned with the larger hole and then pushed through.

Whilst the ‘clogball’ closure system can be a little cumbersome at first, it does become second nature and you’ll wonder why you ever settled for plastic clips or Velcro. That being said, I haven’t managed to master the one handed approach to undoing the bag and often have to use both hands.  The clear advantage of this system is that you can go full Ninja and open the bag without making a noise, which is perfect for weddings or other quiet situations. 

The length of the straps can be adjusted to allow for increased volume within the bag.

The front dump pockets each have their own individual flap which is secured with a standard press stud. The volume of each pocket can also be controlled to a degree with an additional press stud at the outer top corner of each pocket. The pockets are simple and unadorned, with no further subdivisions or additional pockets for smaller items. I prefer this pared back approach as many other camera bags often have too many pockets or fiddly sections where things get lost. 

Another key feature of the Hadleys (Hadley Digital excepted) is the removable padded camera section, which is secured by a single press stud. Whilst the camera section has its own padded lid there is no way to secure it when the section is removed from the bag, although in practice this probably isn’t a major issue. Once removed the bag can be used as a standard messenger bag. The insert comes with two full height dividers and two 'trapdoor' style dividers that can be used to seperate lenses vertically. These are fixed in place using Velcro ( the only bits of Velcro you’ll find on this bag!).

Although not designed to do so, both the 'Small' and 'Small Pro' can hold an iPad Pro 10.5” (or smaller) in the rear space between the padded section and the interior of the main bag. The obvious caveat here is that there would be no protection on one side, i.e. the side facing the back of the bag. It also makes bag a little more uncomfortable to carry against the body. 

The main selling point of Hadley Small Pro is the number of upgrades over the original 'Small', which are as follows:

  1. A carry handle on the lid of the bag. This also goes one better than my existing Hadley Pro because it inherits the soft leather underside from the Hadley One, which makes it more comfortable to hold for extended periods.
  2. Rear zipped pocket. Again, this is also better than my Hadley Pro in that it is weather proofed.
  3. Wheeled suitcase handle retaining strap. This also represents an improvement over the Hadley Pro.
  4. Detachable shoulder strap. Another innovation from the Hadley One, and another enhancement over my older Billingham.

These upgrades come at a premium of around £25 based on Billingham's list prices (£200 for the 'Small Pro' , versus £175 for the 'Small'). In practice, however, the older bag is generally retailing for around £50 to £60 less than the 'Small Pro', which makes for a tempting proposition. Whether these improvements are worth the extra cash is essentially down to individual needs; ultimately, it’s nice to have options. 

The carry handle is constructed from a sturdy webbing material, bulked out into a tubular shape, and benefits from soft leather panel on the underside of the handle. This makes carrying by hand more comfortable. Billingham has chosen to secure the handle to a fibreglass plate hidden under and betwixt the outer fabric and liner material - the weight of the bag is distributed over a wider area and should mean that increase the durability and service life of the bag. The design of the handle itself is almost exactly the same as the Hadley Pro, except for the addition of the aforementioned leather underside. I say almost, because the fibreglass plate seems to have some padding between it and the fabric of the bag, something not present on my Hadley Pro (I have no idea whether recent Hadley Pros have this feature) - I suspect this is designed to minimise wear from the edges of the plate on the fabric. Again, further evidence of Billingham’s attention to detail.

The rear zipped pocket is a feature that I loved on my Hadley Pro and it was nice to see it included with the Hadley Small Pro. The Hadley Pro has a fabric rain flap over the zip, which is absent from the 'Small Pro', however this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it is a weatherproofed zip. In practical terms this is probably a better solution, although the Hadley One also features both a rain flap (leather instead of fabric) and a weatherproofed zip. 

There be some plastic here...

The suitcase retaining strap is another feature imported from the Hadley One, although it's not necessarily one that I may make significant use of, although it may come in handy when I have to leg it from one side of the airport t’other. It fits easily over the handle of my Northface Rolling Thunder bag and I imagine most other similar sized handles on other rolling bags and suitcases (as an aside, the Rolling Thunder handle design is well thought out as the Hadley Small Pro comes can be removed very smoothly without catching - very handy when you’re in a hurry!).

The shoulder strap is now removable! To be fair, the strap on my Hadley Pro is very securely stitched to the sides of the bag and reinforced with leather, so I was never unduly worried that it would tear off. That being said, an easily removable shoulder strap is invariably more useful than a fixed strap, and Billingham have chosen an elegant method which uses the same 'clogball' and keyhole approach as the front quick release straps. The leather is reassuringly heavy duty as is the brass d-ring which secures it to the body of the bag. This approach is, in my opinion, better than many of the quick release straps used by other manufacturers (ONA's snap/trigger hooks, for example) and feels more substantial, secure and reassuring. Given the price of the bag, it would be nice if Billingham had included a shoulder pad of some description. 

Hadley Small Pro v Hadley Pro

The Hadley Small and Hadley Pro have both proven very popular bags and it has often come down to a choice between one or the other. I recall having the same dilemma and opted for the Hadley Pro partly because of size, but also the fact it had the top handle and the rear zipped pocket. With the Hadley Small Pro any choice can be made purely on size (and price).

With the increase in popularity of mirrorless cameras the Hadley Small Pro (or Hadley Small) is the obvious choice. It can hold a camera body with lens attached, plus a couple of smaller lenses stacked on top of each other. 

The Hadley Pro is markedly larger, with an internal volume of 6 litres, versus the Hadley Small Pro's 3.5 litres. My own experience with the Hadley Pro is that it felt like overkill for a single camera body with lens attached; the smaller bag is better suited for this situation. That being said, the Hadley Pro has almost double the capacity and is ultimately more flexible in what it can carry. The following photos show the difference in external and internal size (padded camera compartment):

The front dump pockets are substantially larger on the Hadley Pro and can fit a Bose QC 25 case, or thick paperback book. A feat that cannot be achieved with the smaller bag.

The difference in internal capacity is fairly evident.

When carrying across the body the Hadley Pro does seem to mould itself to the torso and hips better than the Hadley Small Pro. This is partly because of the larger size, but also the fact that has had a number of years of use. This isn’t to say that the Hadley Small Pro is uncomfortable to carry in this manner; it isn’t. 

A temptation with a larger bag is to simply fill it with stuff that you might never end up using. The smaller size of Hadley Small Pro forces you into some creative decision making regarding what to carry. 

Conclusion

Billingham's Hadley bags might not be everyone’s cup of tea, in part due the fishing bag heritage of many of their designs. I love the style, my partner doesn’t, but then you can’t please everyone. 

The Hadley Small Pro distills features of most of the Hadley range into a small and perfectly formed package. As with other Hadleys, the 'Small Pro' is ideal for street photographers or as a general walkabout camera bag. It is very well suited to modern mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X-Pro2 or Sony’s A7 series or film cameras such as Leica rangefinders. It probably isn’t ideal for larger DSLRs, but then there are other Hadleys that can accommodate larger cameras. In other words, there is choice.

As indicated previously, the Hadley Small Pro is very well constructed with no apparent flaws or loose stitching. I have found no issues with my limited time with the bag and expect to age gracefully in much the same way as my 'Pro'. Nevertheless, Billingham do provide a five year warranty for their bags, although I expect this will never be made use of (though I may well have jinxed that...).

As with every bag, there are a couple of improvements that could be made, after all, no bag is totally perfect. It would be nice to see a bit of reinforcement on the bottom the bag, e.g. an extra layer of fabric or leather, though this would add further weight. I would also like the ability to secure a travel tripod or umbrella using a similar arrangement to Billingham’s '7 Series’ bags. 

I have seen many references to Billinghams not looking like camera bags and therefore being less attractive to a would be pilferer. True, they don’t look like the archetypal camera/video camera bag, however I am not wholly convinced by the argument. To the casual observer it doesn’t like like a cheap bag, therefore it may contain some not inexpensive items inside. Personally, I try to be aware of my surroundings and that is often the best deterrence against theft.

Basically, I rather like Billingham bags. They look good, they’re hard wearing, they stop my gear getting wet and they age well. However, Billingham, if you are listening, I only have one gripe. There’s a bit of plastic on my bag now ;o).