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Introduction to the Billingham 307
Billingham camera bags need little introduction, they’ve been the choice of professional photographers since the mid-’70s and the Billingham 307 typifies all that’s great about them. There have been one or two imitators, most notably the well-regarded Classic range from the sadly defunct CCS (Camera Care Systems) and the hand-made range of bags from FOGG; probably the closest in terms of quality and materials, if not in design (FOGG were always pretty radical). But few have stayed the course the way Billingham has.
Most know Billingham for the huge pro-oriented 550, but the smaller bags, such as the 445 and 335 and the popular Hadley range have been popular with professionals and keen amateurs alike. So, while keeping those in the line-up, it comes as something of a surprise to see a new, similar-looking, 07 range appear alongside. Constructed of Billingham’s FibreNyte material, a fabric with an uncanny appearance, not to mention feel, of traditional cotton canvas, there are three models in total; the 107, 207, and 307 (think S, M, L); the latter and larger of three being the subject of this review.
Why do you need it?
On first inspection, the 307 has all the hallmarks of a traditional canvas bag from Billingham; supple canvas outer, fine-grained leather tabs and beading, brass buckles as well as tough canvas webbing for the straps. However, this Billingham (as well as others in the 07 range) is constructed from a very 21st-century fabric, called FibreNyte. While it looks and feels like traditional canvas, it’s synthetic and offers greater abrasion resistance and durability, it’s claimed, yet remains supple, soft and warm to the touch.
Thanks to a butyl rubber membrane, the fabric is waterproof, according to Billingham. In turn, this is bonded to a polyester lining; a three-layer fabric in effect. I’ve no reason to doubt the waterproofness, but bear in mind, like waterproof clothing, rain (especially wind-driven) can work its way past zips and stitching.
Despite that, the Billingham 307 has several advantages over other makes of camera bags. For a start, the 307 has a substantial-looking top flap, which is lined again in a rather fetching, green-coloured high-quality polyester fabric, which adds to the water resistance. It’s also extremely effective in keeping dust and detritus from entering the main compartment below. I know this from owning a Billingham 445 for over 20 years and it’s true of the 307.
Beneath the top flap is another barrier in the form of a very handy articulated closure, complete with heavy-duty zip. The design is very similar to a Doctor’s case and it allows unrestricted access to the main compartment and your gear. Carbon fibre stiffeners, or ‘wands’, are used to maintain the opening and shape. And it works very well, even working from the bag with it over your shoulder.
Like all canvas bags, the 307 moulds to your body, limiting the unwanted movement you get with nylon bags, so the stiffeners are particularly welcome as they don’t interfere unduly. I have to admit ease of access was an issue with my earlier 445, even though it had press studs on the inside wall to keep the zipped flaps apart. I really liked the improved access (of the 307), and for me, it’s a major step forward.
Inside, not much has changed over my earlier 445. The layout is the same, as are the Velcro adjustable dividers, although the foam used feels denser and is closed-cell now (so it doesn’t behave like a sponge). I always liked the layout though the two lens dividers in the 307, each divided again with two lens compartments, are smaller than that of my earlier (and larger) 445.
This means there are really only two compartments capable of taking larger 35 mm DSLR lenses, with filter threads up to 72 mm. Larger pro AF lenses using 77 mm threads and larger, won’t fit. The smaller compartments would be fine for some of the smaller Leica M lenses, or indeed the Micro FourThirds lenses. That said, they’re still a tight fit for the Olympus Pen 14-42mm zoom. I found they fitted a Ricoh GRD III I was testing perfectly and there was room for the 21 mm conversion lens, stored separately above too.
Between the lens dividers, a separate closed-cell articulated flap can be positioned using a strip of Velcro. I used this to lay a Canon EOS 7D body flat (facing down so the dust falls away from the sensor) on the floor with the flap over the top allowing for a second body (in this instance a Pen EP-1 with 17 mm pancake and optical viewfinder) to sit on top. It could easily have been another 7D body, or you could drop a Canon EOS-1D type body in upright instead.
Stacking equipment does have disadvantages; most notably you lose the quick unrestricted access to the gear beneath. And it’s always the gear beneath that you want, isn’t it? All the same, it’s barely an issue thanks to that clever zipped opening.
Front pockets are roomy for spare memory cards and batteries, even a field–recorder, but you’ll be surprised to learn these aren’t padded at all. To the rear is a document pocket up to A4 but better suited to US letters. Put anything else in it though, such as a pocket camera and it will be uncomfortable. Still for what it was designed for it’s handy. My only other slight concern is the arrangement of the grab handles. Like the original series, including my old 445, it has more than it really needs. The 307 has four; one pair made from webbing attached to the rain flap, and another set underneath. This second set, made from leather, is used when the rain flap is folded back.
It’s a different arrangement to the original bags, where the main grab-handle with the leather pad was attached to the front and would be used with either the single webbing strap under the flap if it was open, or with an identical webbing strap on top of the flap if was it closed. If you’re used to the original layout of handles it can be a trifle confusing if not, it’s something you’ll likely never notice. Just make sure you pick up the bag by the shoulder strap if you’ve not fastened the rain-flap securely, as the bag will tip forward abruptly.
With really only the rain flaps grab handles as a minor shortcoming, there’s still a lot to like about the Billingham 307. At around $499 / £415 inc VAT, it’s a pricey option, especially when compared with those sourced from the Far East. Be that as it may, I really don’t know of any other make of bag that’s likely to outlast it. With that in mind, if the 307 lasts only half as long as my old 445, I would say that would be money well spent.
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From the master of storytelling, this version of Larry Sultan’s seminal Pictures from Home is a reprint by MACK books. Expect to see a review soon.