We Need to Talk…About Bags

Above is my well-used Billingham something or other. It’s one of the original 1973 bags, made at the Halesowen Billingham site where the first bags were sewn between 1973 and 1978. It’s a collector’s item apparently, not that I care, but it is nice to have an authentic vintage bag. Irrespective of how it looks in the photo, it’s still in great shape – all the leather is intact and functional, zippers all work, no rips or tears in the fabric. The guy who had it before me covered it in obscure sewn patches, literally everywhere, which I eventually removed. I’m left with a well-used Billingham…that I haven’t used much…until now. Now it goes out with me on my morning walks, slung over my shoulder, carrying a camera or two just in case in run into something interesting. All I need is some Doc Martens, skinny jeans and a man bun and I’m set.

Not seeing anything to shoot this morning, I hopped in my car, with Sigma SD15 in said bag, and headed to the skeevy part of town. There’s always good subjects in economically depressed areas, there to be exploited by ‘socially conscious’ liberal minded chroniclers of general human misfortune. Plus, you don’t even need to get out of your car, which limits potential interaction with the often unsympathetic locals. Below are a few gems from my morning ride, all of them shot with my Sigma SD15 and given the grungy B&W treatment in Silver Efex. Given my renewed interest in film, I would have chosen the F5 and some Fomapan, but my bulk loader hasn’t shown up yet so I’m limited to digital. Given a desire for a gritty, grainy, film look, I choose the SD15 over the Monochrom. Surprisingly, it just does the B&W film look better than the dedicated B&W Monchrom, which I’ve tried to explain elsewhere. [As an aside, the Foveons are technically monochrome cameras, having 3 discreet monchrome sensor stacks for each pixel – RGB – which means you can isolate any of them and have a native B&W Tiff file. As a practical matter if you just use the blue filter, which sits on top the the 3 stacked sensor, you get almost noise free B&W at ISOs up to 3200. This is one of the great little secrets about the Foveon that Sigma should be, but aren’t exploiting to the hilt; just build in a RAW Monchrome option that uses the top blue sensor layer, and voila!, you have a dedicated authentic monochrome capture option in a camera that also allows you to shoot color via its regular RAW file.]

Here are the results of my ride:


Camera bags: we all use them, most of the time out of necessity given the amount of stuff a photography assignment requires. They are not, however, one of my favorite photographic accoutrements. Mostly, they’re a pain in the ass, bulky and unwieldy in use, limiting your mobility, constantly needing to be repositioned against your body as you move about. If I’m able to access their awkwardly zippered interiors, I’m constantly digging in various sub-pockets, usually unsuccessfully, to find that last roll of HP5, or that LensPen, or that 21mm viewfinder I’m needing right now. Typically if I do succeed in finding something nestled away, it’s an exposed roll of film, an auxilliarry 28mm viewfinder I’d thought I’d lost forever a few years back, a ticket stub to the Vatican Museum or something similar.

Everything about them seems designed to limit whatever enjoyment you might otherwise be experiencing being out and about with your minty new Leica M6. And then there’s the issue of aesthetics and its interplay with practical concerns. A mint Sage Chocolate Leather Billingham Hadley One hanging around one’s neck at the Paris Clichy Metro stop is going to make you a lot of friends on your subway ride. It just screams “expensive things inside” and, based on prior unfortunate experiences with Paris Metro thieves, there’s a good possibility you’ll be exiting your Metro car without your bag, probably not even knowing it (Parisian Metro thieves have nicked me more than once, even when I’m fully aware they are in fact thieves. Among other things, they’ve gotten a Tag Heuer watch off my arm and numerous Euros out of my front pocket. My last unfortunate experience involved actually announcing to the guy lurking next to me that I knew he was a thief and he shouldn’t bother followed shortly thereafter by finding my wallet gone after I’d gotten off and tried to buy a bottle of wine for the dinner I was heading to. They’re good. Really good.)

My response to all this has been to use non-camera specific canvas bags, the rattier the better, something that looks like it’s carrying a few quarts of motor oil you’ve just purchased. Plus, they’re easy to get into, which of course cuts two ways – they’re also easy for other people to get into too, but, given the aesthetics, they usually don’t bother.

Not needing the Billingham, I sold it on Ebay for $175. It fetched that amount because of its vintage status. Seems excessive to me, but things are worth what people are willing to pay. I’m now back to my old ratty bag below.

A Generic Bag That’s Followed Me Around the World. Probably Not Ratty Enough.


Speaking of bags, a reader sent me a picture of his bag. He’s obviously been around a bit:

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4 thoughts on “We Need to Talk…About Bags

  1. Dan Newell

    Banana Republic used to sell Bellingham bags under their mark.


    They were/are people’s prices…..

  2. Dogman

    From my days of carrying around a bag for at least five days a week about eight hours a day….

    I’ve had a couple of old Leica brand bags, the ones without any padding whatsoever. Stuff them so full you can’t get to anything. Don’t drop them or things will break. One of them was a sickly burgundy color. I think it’s in the attic, making a home for the mice.

    Domkes are real popular. When they were brand new, photographers at both daily papers in town used them. Most of those bags had duct tape on the side that rubbed against the hip. Material was crap. Wore through quickly. But cheap at the time. But not anymore–they’re now cool.

    Lowepro was a popular bag. But the zippers would give out and the rough nylon would wear a hole in whatever clothes came in contact. Don’t wear a nice leather jacket using a Lowepro. Ask me how I know.

    Billinghams are the only bags I’ve ever used that I didn’t learn to hate. Somebody there must have actually used camera bags at some point. I didn’t know they are collectable. That kinda disappoints me. I hope they never do a Lenny Kravitz edition.

  3. Rob Campbell

    Carrying heavy bags, inevitably with the accent of the load on one side of the body or the other, puts uneven strain upon the bones and muscles. It seems true that many photographers end up with back problems; I’m sure that what my doc granddaughter tells me is my case of kyphosis comes from years of lugging around that worn-out case in the snap above.

    Oddly enough, in the day, all that advertising of “there be ‘blads within!” never once caused me any fears of being attacked. Perhaps if the legend had said Leica, I’d have felt differently; as it was, I doubt if many non-photographers had ever heard the world Hasselblad. Probably thought I carried spare parts for Ford.

    Today, I wouldn’t take that thing out of the apartment. Not that I think that the name of the camera brand is any the better known to the public, but just that, today, almost anything that belongs to somebody else looks like being worth the effort of stealing it.

  4. piers cox

    Thankyou for this article, one of my favourite subjects..
    When I first started camera assisting in television 30 years ago a well worn billingham was certainly a badge to be earned, I bought my first one in my last year at college and still have it. Although I haven’t used that one for a while I still know what is where exactly in it, rear pocket for chocolate only when the cameraman starts fading and so on. I now have a total of 7 I believe inc an early one as identified by the chart above. It’s my favourite due to the wear and tear. I also have two previously owned by Gerry Cranham (look him up) which certainly have history and marks to match. My canon p lives in a canvas gun shooting bag, small and indiscreet and will gently wear with use, my Nikon f2 lives in a very ratty old canvas fishing bag with a padded liner. These are well worth hunting down for that ‘look’ without the cost (I think I got my two for £15 on eBay about 10 years ago) All this is piled in with several porta braces, arri bags, ccs and generics kicking about so yes, I am a sucker..
    Now I just need to get my hands on the absolutely filthy Billingham I see on my train every now and then. It’s gorgeous and I want it..

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