Wednesday 8 August 2018

Review: Billingham 550

My Billingham 550 -  a veteran of many adventures and nicely worn in after 22 years of use.
Ten years ago, i posted a review for my Billingham 445 camera bag on this very blog. The review started "Billingham bags are a popular choice for many photographers looking for a robust way of carrying their expensive equipment around." I could never have imagined that the review would become the blog's most popular post, one of the most commented posts on the blog and is mentioned in the references on the Billingham Wikipedia entry. A popular choice indeed!

For many years, I've wanted to post a review of my trusty 550, the first Billingham bag i purchased 22 years ago, but for one reason or another i never got around to writing the review. To mark the tenth anniversary of my popular 445 review i thought i would finally write that 550 review... so here it is!

Worn but functional  - the original SP 20 shoulder pad
The story of my Billingham 550 starts in 1996 when i decided that i needed a new camera bag. I'd purchased a Jessop's camera bag back in 1991 which had served me well, but i decided that i really needed to upgrade to a better quality of camera bag. At the time, i was a photography student and one or two of my fellow students had Billingham camera bags (mostly 335s) that i could have a close look at. I purchased mine at Jessops (the other customers in the store at the time exchanged  impressive tales of how Billingham bags had saved camera kit) after weeks of looking at one in the shop window. The build quality was very impressive and i also liked the classic design - I still do all these years later. I finally decided to go with the 550 due to its size - it is a spacious bag - it could carry everything i needed. In an ironic twist the purchase of my 445 some years later would stem from the sheer size of the 550. More about that later.

So to the bag. As i said earlier the 550 is a huge bag that Billingham describe on their website as "our most luxurious bag - perfect for the photographer or the traveller. Even without the two detachable end pockets, it is still large enough to carry several camera bodies, lenses, flashguns and even some overnight stay essentials". The 550 was the first production bag for Billingham and has influenced the style of the bags that have followed. My bag is the classic khaki canvas with full grain tan leather and brass fixings, now all nicely worn in after many years of use and usually associated with the classic Billingham look, however two other colours are available including black and a rather bold Imperial Blue Canvas. The light colour of the bag does mean that the dirt can show but the 550 is very easy to clean - mud can easily be removed by just waiting for it to dry and then brushing it off. Soap and warm water usually removes dirt from the bag and you just leave the bag in the sun to dry. Simple.

Internal space is good with plenty of protection. Extra partitions can be purchased if required

The top zipper is excellent quality and strong . The top rain flap then covers and is fastened with two leather straps

The internals of the 550 are very spacious and can accommodate a wide variety of camera systems and lenses. The dimensions can be found on the Billingham 550 product page here. If you like carrying a mix of camera systems then the 550 has plenty of room to carry a medium format camera and a DSLR plus lenses. I regularly carry 6x6 and a DSLR in the same bag. The bag's depth is a serious asset with room for a high hammerhead flash gun like the Metz 75. The depth is also handy for keeping kit away from prying eyes and out of the weather . It also helps with what i call 'working out of the bag' - everything can stay within the bag when working at a location so you don't leave anything behind. With the internal partitions, the layout possibilities are numerous, though it can take a bit of trial and error to find that perfect layout to fit in all your kit. Billingham have a range of additional superflex dividers available to purchase but I've largely managed with the partitions that came with the bag. Whatever you need to store - the bag will fit it in. Right at the bottom of the 550 is the bag's 500 Superflex base plate that protects gear from vibration, knocks and the damp. It can also be removed if necessary to turn the 550 into a great travel bag, ideal for weekend trips away.

The 550 end pockets - large enough for a SB800 flashgun
Externally the bag has five pockets, two deep zipped pockets that can fit large items like a flashgun, and two smaller outside pockets with stud fasteners that are perfect for carrying filters, memory cards or other items. Once the top rain cover is fastened up using the brass buckles and leather straps, the pockets are pretty secure. More space is provided by the zipped external back pocket that can be used to store maps, receipts or documents. The 550 also comes with two detachable end pockets which i found useful for storing film and filter hoods. The detachable pockets have limited padding, just like the studded side pockets, so aren't really designed for storing lenses or any delicate objects. The pockets are, however, great as working pockets for placing film, memory cards etc during shoots or for keeping the rain away from items during a sudden downpour. Carrying the bag can be done using the leather hand strap or using the shoulder strap. The SP20 shoulder pad is wide and comfortable with a very grippy rubberised neoprene, making the task of carrying a well packed and balanced bag, a pleasant one.

The side pockets can carry a good size flash or lens but i tend to use it for film, filters etc

The external canvas skin of the 550 looks very classy, is incredibly waterproof and is about as durable as you can get. I've been in downpours with my 550 ( one rain soaked day at Sandringham in Norfolk was especially memorable) and often wished that i could get into the bag as well! Gear remains dry and well protected from water, sand, dust and mud. I mentioned in my 445 review that ' These bags are designed to take all sorts of punishment - the most common of which will be water. The water proof nature of the 445 is remarkable. I've been in storms and downpours which have thoroughly tested the bag, with no problems encountered at all'. That statement equally applies to the 550. A few years ago, during a visit to Norfolk, I accidentally dropped my 445 ( i was with it too i might add!) into thick harbour mud. The camera gear remained totally safe inside. The mud just washed off the canvas bag with the aid of a sponge and a bit of soap. Temperature control inside the bag is excellent too. During hot sunshine the inside of the Billingham 550 remains noticeably cooler thanks to the khaki coloured canvas (darker coloured 550s might not fare as well!) and the thick partition inserts. If the bag is kept closed then the contents will remain cool.

So what about the downsides? Well the bag's physical size can be a bit of a double edged sword. The 550 is of a size that can be quite difficult to carry in confined spaces such as a busy train carriage - especially if the end pockets are attached!. I decided to switch over to the slightly smaller 445, a few years later, partially due to that size issue. Another problem can be the weight. Fully packed the bag can be quite heavy so carrying it over rough ground or long distances is far from ideal for your back!. I found that out when visiting the Highlands of Scotland in 2012 where the backpack type camera bag is the better option. An interesting suggestion from the Billingham website states 'Many 550 owners use them as a safe store for all their equipment and use one of our smaller bags to carry just the specific gear they need to take the shot, going back to the 550 to swap lenses or bodies.  One final thing to mention regards the difficulty in carrying the bag by hand when the rain flap is open. The only way is to use the shoulder strap, as the buckles need to be fastened to use the leather handle on top of the bag. That said, closing up the bag each time provides extra security and develops into a good habit.

The 550 has plenty or storage with a variety of pockets to store away accessories.
In conclusion, the Billingham 550 is a great camera bag. Solid, reliable and comfortable to carry. It is not cheap but then quality never is. Billingham list it on their website for £600 but it can be found for well under £500. The secondhand option is also worth considering with a 550 in good condition going for around £200+. One thing to consider when buying the 550 is it will last a lifetime if looked after. Potentially it could be the only bag you may ever need to buy. I've had over twenty years of use, through college, university and freelance life... and mine is just nicely getting worn in. I expect I'll be using it in another twenty years or more. The bag provides a fantastic amount of storage for a range of camera systems including video and 5x4. The solid robust construction does come at a price, adding extra weight to the bag, but you get peace of mind that the 550 will take whatever you, or the elements, throw at it over many years and comfortably protect all your gear inside. Exactly what a good camera bag should do!

Like many photographers i have quite a few camera bags, many of which have been bought for a specific task or purpose. I would, however, never get rid of my 445 and 550 as they are the best camera bags i own. If you are looking for a big camera bag then you'd be hard pressed to find a bag with the storage space, superb build quality and protection offered by the 550. I certainly love mine.

My Billingham 445 bag review from May 2008 can be found HERE

The Billingham website can be found at

The Billingham 550 product page can be found HERE


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KiwiSnapper said...

I have a very old 550 I was gifted by a retiring photographer. It is at least 35 years old now and has the original stylised B logo with Billingham System written on it. The material is an early form of fibernite man made fabric.
I had it repaired 5 years ago because stitching had gone here and there, a zip was broken etc. and it was done FOC. I also had (not FOC) the interior re-done in the current style as the old ones had a sort of black closed cell Lego foam that fitted in slots etc. and was no longer repairable.
Since then I have not used the bag. It won't fit a laptop or large tablet easily (not surprising - they only existed on Star Trek and Space 1999 when the 550 was designed!) and it isn't tall enough for larger f2.8 zooms really. Also the shoulder strap isn't as good as the newer designs.
I have a 445 and I use that a lot. Also a matching Hadley One, which is probably the best small bag they make.

color variants said...

Billingham durability is fantastic and it enjoys a reputation for being the purveyor of quality-made camera bags.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your review on your camera bag. I want to recommend the water proof camera bags since you know the value of investing of a quality bag for our precious camera.

Anonymous said...

I’m currently using a Billingham 335 Nytex bag my boyfriend bought me almost 22 years ago. I’d looked at them in Harrods on a trip to London and felt the Nytex was less bright than the canvas. Over the years it’s seen service in many countries and seen me change system a few times too these days it carries a pair of Leica R8 plus 28mm and 50mm lenses plus spare batteries and films. I don’t need to carry everything except the proverbial kitchen sink, that the guy with no confidence. The front pocket carries a Filofax Deskfax, that’s my workbook. Other oddment go in my old safari jacket. My bags been twice around the world and simply doesn’t look like it. That’s a testament to Martin Billingham and his team. As I tell the natives: “a British product sold around the world”. That’s my twopennyworth.
Toby Madrigal. Winster. Derbyshire UK.

Dave Murray said...

I can testify to the longevity of the Billingham bags. My boyfriend bought me a 335 bag 22 years ago after I’d looked at them in Harrods photography department. It’s been twice around the world and simply doesn’t look it. As my equipment has changed, so the bag has remained in use. From Nikon F3 to Leica R8 then Nikon D1X. I’ve looked at the 550 but it’s really big and would get in the way. It wouldn’t work taking it on a plane. Now if you hold the 335 by it’s hand straps, it pulls it in, so if challenged to drop it into the metal fram to check it’s dimensions for cabin baggage, it works. Holding by the shoulder strap doesn’t. The 335 has a front pocket that my Filofax Deskfax fits into for notes etc. soon to be replaced by an 11” MacBook. Regrettably, the 550 omitted this. Pity. In crowded situations, the 335 can be pushed behind you. The bags are thoroughly British, just like Barbour clothes, 80% of which I wear regularly, at home and abroad. It’s not just wax coats for farmers. A trick to avoid your cabin bag being overweight: pop your heaviest lens in a pocket, safari jackets with big bellows pockets are best for this.

Dave Murray said...

My boyfriend bought me a Billingham 335 bag 23 years ago to replace an earlier model that was just too small. My bag has been twice around the world and simply doesn’t look like it. A true testament to the integrity of design and build. It’s the Nytex version in khaki with tan leather. More subdued than canvas but not as much as the Sage colour. I find it easy to push behind my back in crowded areas, but in such, especially abroad, it’s important to keep moving. It has always been able to accommodate my gear, even as that changed over the years. At the moment it carries two Leica R8 bodies and 35 & 50mm f2 lenses with films, batteries etc. All I need - in this game we don’t cart a lot of stuff about. The guy with confidence doesn’t feel the need to carry every silly little accessory, unlike insecure amateurs. I note that Richard mentions fellow students using the 335. They, like me, have clearly found this bag to be the optimum size. The front pocket carries my workbook, a Filofax Deskfax. When flying back to Blighty, if the tourists have boarded the plane before me, filling the overhead bins with umpteen bottles of duty free wines, spirits, and packs of 200 cigarettes, my bag isn’t too big to just sit on my knees. This gives me the opportunity to access my workbook or a New York Times in the rear zipped pocket. I’ve alway liked that Billingham stuff is 100% British, like my favourite clothes - Barbour. And they have more in common than you would imagine: damage a part of either your Billingham 335 bag, or your Barbour Cowan Commando jacket and the makers will repair and make it like new, if needed. Of course, a faded Billingham bag, a slightly disreputable Barbour jacket, nobody could possibly mistake you for a “CHAV.”

Cordovanman said...

Great bag for all of the reasons people give. But Billingham use 'craftsmanship' as an excuse for several poor design aspects. There are no secondary handles under the top cover like on smaller bags, which means it cannot be carried without the top flap/cover being secured. Also the Velcro of add-on dividers don't always line up internally and some inserts are simply useless: they are also stupidly expensive for the quality so I make my own from ripstop nylon and MemoryFoam carpet underlay for pennies.

There are great aspects to the 555, but frankly there are better and more useful bags in the Billingham range and elsewhere. Billinghamania is mostly about style and ego rather than pure utility. I own five or six Billinghams - they have all been modified by me (I am a jobbing leatherworker).