Long-term bag review: The Billingham Hadley Pro 2020, six months and counting…

Call me a fan of long term reviews. I appreciate the time and experience that goes into creating them and they provide me with invaluable information that helps make purchasing decisions. It’s safe to say that the format has directly affected the way I review — among other things – camera bags here on EMULSIVE. This six-month review of the Billingham Hadley Pro 2020, which was released in August 2019, is no different.

I received the Hadley Pro 2020 you see here on loan from Billingham back in very early September 2019. While a few websites were quick off the mark to post their first impressions of it, I decided that time was better spent getting to know it and offering my thoughts after having lived with it for a while.

Here’s what I cover:


My initial pros, cons and “on the fence” thoughts

I mostly leave my review pros/cons to the bottom of my articles. For this one, I’m going to give you two: one set immediately below which covers my thoughts after first receiving the bag and another at the foot of the article after six months of intense use.

I’ve also added some “on the fence thoughts” I had about the bag on first inspection and covered them again at the bottom of the page to give you an idea of how they evolved/handled reality. Hope you find them useful.

Pros

  • It’s waterproof!
  • Love the expanding front pockets.
  • Better inner organisation.
  • Comfortable on long trips/shoots.
  • Cavernous without being excessively large.
  • Great build quality, attention to detail and thoughtful of design.

Cons

  • As long as the gear/things you want to carry fits, there are no downsides here unless you don’t like the design of the bag or don’t have the budget on hand. Check out the “Price pint” section below for my thoughts on that.

On the fence

  • The bag is approximately the same size and weight as the Hadley One. Why would I pick one over the other?
  • There is no dedicated laptop sleeve.
  • It doesn’t feel deep enough (from the front to the back of the bag).

Six months in…

There’s a reason the Hadley Pro is Billingham’s top-selling bag. As camera bag, it’s almost the perfect size for daily carry plus all the usual stuff that life has you carry along but there’s enough space in there to pack a couple of SLR/DSLRs, or medium format cameras.

An important note for readers who are comparing this bag to the “original” Hadley Pro: both bags have the same internal capacity. The difference in the external width comes from the strap fixings.

The main differences between the original Hadley Pro and the Hadley Pro 2020 are:

  • A removable shoulder sling
  • An improved top handle with leather underside for extra comfort.
  • A new luggage strap
  • A weather-proof zipper on the back pocket to stow and protect important documents.

It’s these small, meaningful updates over the years that help keep the bags relevant and improve usability for daily and occasional users alike – Billingham is nothing if not sensitive to its customers’ needs.

For non-photographers, the Hadley series has become more and more relevant as an alternative to small/medium-sized messenger and “work” bags. It doesn’t hurt that the bags look great and are easily paired with formal or casual work clothes. I’ll get onto that a bit later.

Note: EMULSIVE is not pivoting to become a fashion blog, no matter how much Ethan Moses might want that to happen.

In the months leading up to this test I’d been favouring the Hadley Small Pro for my everyday camera carry needs. It’s perfect for a single 35mm SLR or medium format camera plus a little point and shoot (tucked into an AVEA 7 end pocket, naturally). So, when the Hadley Pro 2020 arrived, I’ll admit to being intrigued about how it would fit (size-wise) between my Hadley One and the aforementioned Hadley Small Pro. These bags serve very distinct needs at either end of the “volume of stuff I need to carry today” scale and I still regularly use my brilliant fStop f1.4 for those days when neither will do.

Spoiler alert: it fit much better than expected.

The Hadley Pro 2020 is an update to a classic line. The usual suspects of excellent build quality, careful attention to detail and thoughtfulness of design are all there. They’re aspects of the brand that may lead some owners to baby their bags in an attempt to keep them pristine but my preference is to simply use them, care for them without tucking them into a warm bed at night just let them age.

Over the past six months, I’ve taken the Hadley Pro 2020 nearly everywhere with me: up small hills and mountains, on bikes, trikes, planes, trains and automobiles. The bag looks pretty compact in comparison to my Hadley One and weight-wise, while the Pro 2020 is only a little lighter than the Hadley One (1.2 kg/2.7 lbs vs 1.38 kg/3.04 lbs), it feels considerably lighter. It’s weird, very weird but psychologically an important factor in my choice of which to pick up given particular payloads of gear.

Ergonomics and ease of use

As with my other Billingham bags, this one has a shoulder pad – the SP40, to be specific. It is a must-have in my opinion and alleviates a lot of shoulder fatigue on long shoots, or when travelling on foot for extended periods with heavy gear.

Expanding on the psychological weight difference between this bag and the Hadley One for a moment, the strap on the Hadley Pro 2020 is the same 38mm (1½”) width as the older Hadley Pro and Pro Small. The Hadley One however, has a wider 5cm (2″) strap. It doesn’t sound like much but the added width/weight gives the One the feeling of being heftier than it is – especially when paired with the SP50 shoulder pad.

I for one didn’t expect to make that realisation, let alone for it to explain a few things about how I use the One. It was a lightbulb moment that could only have come from using the Pro 2020 nearly every single day for three months.

Please trust me when I tell you that when the penny dropped, I went off and measured the width of all my camera bag straps just to be sure I wasn’t going mad.

As with most other Billingham bags, the leather clasps on the front straps can be a little tight when you first get the bag but after a bit of use, the leather warms up and becomes supple enough to not present an issue. I open/close the clasps with one hand on feel without ever looking down to see what I’m doing. It’s as natural now as bringing a camera up to my eye.

As with 99% of owners, the buckles are only used to give the main flap a bit more reach.

Like the Hadley Small Pro, I love the expandable front pockets. It’s a simple arrangement: there’s a snap button which sits on each front pocket a few centimetres from the outer edge. When closed, the clasp creates a small space that’s perfect for clipping a pen into. In my case, I have a pen on one side and a keychain suspension hook on the other. Incidentally, I’ve been using the P-7 from TEC Accessories since 2012 and highly recommend it.

The expandable pockets are a small but welcome addition and — it’s a small thing — not having to fish around for my keys is very welcome. Of course, I could simply hang the keys on the front pocket but they invariably slide to the middle of the pocket, which just gets in the way. It nice little touch and gives me one less thing to sigh about.

When you need more space, just un-pop the buttons and you’ll increase the capacity of each pocket by 25% – from 1 litre to 1.25 litres.

The Hadley Pro 2020 comes with a full-width padded insert that can be removed if you want the bag to serve as more of a messenger/document bag. It will accept A4 folders/wallets/sheets comfortably. If you want to keep the insert inside the bag, there’s plenty of space between it and the rear of the bag for a small folio/sheaf of paper. In fact, the insert is only secured to the bag at the front (I guess) to allow you to do just that.

If you want more than just a giant main pocket with the insert removed, I can highly recommend dropping in a purse/tote organiser (not pictured).

One of my on-the-fence concerns above about the bag was its depth (front to back). In truth, the bag can bow open front to back considerably. I tend to keep the main compartment divider velcroed in straight down the middle, so didn’t see this bowing feature much over the first few months of using it and I had a eureka moment in December when I overloaded it.

In reality, I still prefer using the bag split 50/50 or 66/34. Oh, another thing I should say is that while handy, the flap of the insert easily folds behind itself into the bag if you want fiddle-free quick access (pictures 2 and 3 above).

If you’re a messy/clumsy eater like me, you’ll be glad to know the bag wipes down pretty easily and aside from a few points on the main flap/lid, which have worn due to the strap rubbing against it — see below — the bag is pretty damned spotless after having been dragged around for half a year.

This particular bag is the Sage FibreNyte / Chocolate Leather. Billingham’s FibreNyte looks similar to their canvas line and is very hard-wearing in comparison. The material stays looking newer for longer (less wear/patina/fade), although both fabrics are equally waterproof.

Finally: the back. There’s a full-width weather-proofed zip compartment and luggage strap (for sliding the bag over the handle on your roller suitcase). The compartment is useful for slipping in documents, flattened film boxes, wrappers and other junk you accumulate when out and about but I also found another use for it (further down).

What’s it like to use?

If the preceding section felt like more of a walkthrough of features than a real “what’s it like”, I’ve got you covered here. In short, the bag is stupidly comfortable regardless of if you have it on your shoulder or slung across your body. As it’s relatively wide and thin, it has a habit of warping ever so slightly to hug the body when not fully loaded. It’s not something I expected, much less considered but welcome nonetheless.

In terms of stashing gear, I find the best balance to be variations on the following:

  • As a “commuter pack” – single camera plus documents, iPad, umbrella (sandwich optional).
  • Packing a (small) camera system – 35mm SLR/rangefinder and 2-4 lenses or a medium format camera with 1-2 lenses.
  • Mixed-format photo trip – you have the time and energy to spend a day out with 35mm and medium format gear.

In a little more detail:

As a “Commuter pack”

I’ve mostly been using the Hadley Pro 2020 for my daily commute, normally with a single camera (35mm or medium format). There’s more than enough space left over for any documents and as you can see from the photo below, I found the rear pocket absolutely perfect for a small journal and my tiny Manfrotto PIXI EVO tripod.

It’s a great combination if you fancy using a smart bag for work but also want to make sure any camera gear you’re taking with you is protected.

Packing a (small) camera system

If you want/need some flexibility while out and about with a one or two 35mm bodies and a handful of lenses, the bag has you covered. If you’re a Leica user, the bag will comfortably fit a couple of bodies and half a dozen lenses (you and I both know that’s overkill).

More realistically, packing a single SLR plus 2-4 lenses along for the ride makes for a comfortable set-up without the danger of too much shoulder fatigue. Alternatively, a 35mm SLR plus a rangefinder works great.

I typically take it out in this configuration with the following gear:

  • Nikon SLR (F6, F100, FM3A or F2 – rarely more than one), filter kit, 85mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.2, Zeiss Sonnar 135mm f/2.8.
  • Hasselblad 2000FCW, Distagon 50mm f/4 CFi and Planar 80mm f/2.8 F
  • Leica M6 TTL 0.85 and Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8 plus Leica M2 and Voigtlander 21mm f/4

Additionally – because they’re small enough – I’ll usually pack a compact 35mm point and shoot in an AVEA end pocket.

Mixed-format photographer

This, or a variation of it, was my weekend combo for most of the past six months: Hasselblad 2000 FCW plus Leica M6 TTL or Nikon SLR, a little point and shoot and a bunch of film and accessories. I won’t lie, it gets heavy, especially with this particular lens choice. Strangely, the bag feels like it could hold more. Not that I’d want to, mind you.

The AVEA end pockets I reviewed a few months back give you additional storage space if you need it and believe it or not, the pack below still closes up without stress on the front clasps.

The downsides

I’m struggling but if I had to pick a personal one, my main – incredibly picky – gripe with the Hadley Pro 2020 is its inability to carry my Nikon F6 and 70-200mm lens with the lens mounted and loaded top-down in the bag. How’s that for specific? In fact, even just the lens (at 215mm) is too tall for the bag with the insert in use. It’s a comically lame and frankly silly observation but for those of you with long-ish lenses, it might be useful to know.

Having gotten over my top-down desires, I discovered that simply dropping the camera and lens flat into the bag works perfectly. Film and other accessories go in the front and after all, with a 70-200 mounted what other lenses do you need?

The answer, of course, is NONE. Ever.

As you’ll have guessed, the top-down loading “issue” isn’t really one and as the gear grid at the top of the article shows, the bag is fully capable of covering the vast majority of my needs while making sure I don’t overpack myself into a nightmare of life-long chiropractic therapy.

It’s hard to fault a bag made by a company that’s been at for 40 years. Build quality, choice of materials, service, support, longevity, design…they’re all up there. Whether the bag makes it from the store into your home really boils down to two things: is it in your budget and do you like the way it looks.

The former point I deal with below. For the latter, it’s a deeply personal choice. I know a few photographers who dislike the Billingham aesthetic, saying that they “look too much like camera bags”. That’s a fair point in some respects but what looks like a camera bag to you does not look like a camera bag to me and any of the “big names” could be faulted for making gear that stereotypically fits the niche.

I don’t have an answer here for you, I’m afraid.

Quality and “buying it for life”

I’m going to deal with the issue of cost here as a separate, wordy section. I’ve had more than a few conversations about Billingham and other camera bag brands on the more expensive side of the scale and have never felt like I’ve been able to fully express myself.

If you’re on the shelf about spending around £240/US$310, I don’t blame you. I was when I spend pretty much the same on my first “proper” camera bag a few years back. Here’s my perspective: if you’re going to make a sizeable investment in anything, do your best to buy it for life.

The idea of buying something for life was drummed into me from an early age. My parents worked hard and wherever possible, didn’t like squandering money on fleeting whims or “cheap” and we certainly weren’t swimming in money. As a family, we saved for most big purchases like kitchen appliances, sofa sets, white goods and the like in order to buy the (objectively) best that we could. Our home was not a haven for the world’s top brands but what was there was bought to last. And it worked for the most part.

Instant gratification was more my thing growing up and it took me a while to understand the “Buy It For Life” mindset. Now I do, I’m all in. If you haven’t come across this idea before, think of it as “hiring” products for specific tasks with longevity in mind. A pair of shoes, a belt, a sofa, bike, camera, whatever.

Case in point: I’ve been using my daily earphones — a pair of Shure SE535 IEMs — for just over eight years now. I went through three or four different models before landing on them and at £310 brand new, they felt like an extortionately expensive and extravagant purchase. They still kind of do but I still use them daily and they’ve travelled the world with me. My most conservative estimate puts them at around 12,000 hours in, not including flights, where I use them for noise isolation and audio equally.

My per-day cost to use them since 2012 works out to a little over 10p (GBP) or about ¢13 (USD). I imagine I’ll still be using them for at least the next few years and I know that even though they’re WAY out of warranty, the company behind them offers top-notch service and support – I’ve taken advantage of it once or twice over the years.

Talking about those earphones is a rather self-indulgent was to simply say that in the context of this article, when you buy a Billingham — especially your first — you’re buying into that “buy it for life” mentality. This bag will last you a few decades if you don’t kick it around the street. It’s an investment that will serve you for a significant amount of time and hold its resale value. For context, the Billingham fStop 1.4 I purchased five years ago works out (today) to a cost of around 13p (GBP) or ¢17 (USD) per day and the Hadley Pro 2020 I’ve reviewed here, which is altogether more bag for your buck, works out to be about the same if you were to use it from new for the same amount of time.

I’m not making some kind of impassioned plea for you to buy this or another Billingham product. I don’t earn any money from Billingham, I just don’t like replacing stuff. I also totally understand that it’s easy to look at money already spent through rose-tinted glasses.

I guess this is part of a larger conversation about the value of things, perhaps left for another time.

Long term pros, cons and “on the fence” thoughts

Following up from my initial thoughts on the bag, here’s where I stand six months in.

Pros

  • I can personally vouch for its waterproof-ness. I, however, am not.
  • I still love the expanding front pockets.
  • Internal organisation has been improved, although I’d love to see the “creased/flexible” foam separators of the Hadley One used here.
  • Definitely very comfortable on long trips/shoots. Even filled with “lumpy” gear, the bag sits well on the lap (trains, busses, etc.)
  • It’s large enough for anything 35mm/medium format you’d need for a day or two’s shooting.
  • Great build quality, attention to detail and thoughtful of design.

Cons

  • Same as previously. As long as the gear/things you want to carry fits, there are no downsides here unless you don’t like the design of the bag or don’t have the budget on hand.

On the fence

  • I was concerned about the bag being roughly the same size as the Hadley One, with little to differentiate them. I was wrong. This is a perfect “medium-to-large” camera bag on the smaller side of large. If you’re on the fence, go find one in a brick and mortar store to see what I mean.
  • I was worried about the lack of a dedicated laptop sleeve. This turned out to be no-big-deal. On the rare occasions I’d take a laptop out to work in a coffee shop, etc., I’d grab an old 2012-ish Macbook Air. No padding, no problem.
  • The depth of the bag was a worry because I felt it a bit “tight” stowing and removing my larger SLRs. In practice, this wasn’t an issue and would be even less so if I was shooting today’s digital mirrorless gear. As is, traditional mirrorless cameras like Leicas, Olympus and Canon rangefinders are absolutely fine.

My final thoughts

I’ve covered pretty much everything I can think of that might be useful to you already – including things which are patently not

To summarise the above: There’s nothing to say you can’t use this bag to carry just a single camera and lens and nothing else but given its size, it doesn’t make sense unless you’re going shopping. If you’re looking for a decent bag to carry a camera AND other stuff, this could well fit the bill.

If you’re looking for something that will carry a couple of cameras and still leave you with a fair bit of room for film a large meter, a journal and an iPad, this is pretty much bang on – large enough to cover you without either bursting under the strain or remaining half full.

I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Billingham, just when you think the best can’t get better, it does. Now, about making a brand new fStop just for me…is Mr B free for a quick chat?

~ EM

Hadley Pro 2020 specifications

NameHadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag  
BrandBillingham

(M Billingham Holdings Ltd, UK)
External Dimensions:Excluding top handle:
W430mm (17") x D160mm (6⅜") x H240mm (9⅜")

Including top handle:
W430mm (17") x D160mm (6⅜") x H280mm (11")
Internal Dimensions (Main compartment):W340mm (13⅜) x D80mm (3⅛") x H210mm (8¼")
Capacity:6.00 litres (0.21 feet³)
Weight:1.2 kgs (2.7 lbs)
Pockets:3 in total -

Front 'dump' pockets (x2):
Dimensions: W130 to 170mm (5⅛" to 6¾") x D40 to 60mm (1½" to 2⅜") x H200mm (7⅞")
Capacity: 1 to 1.25 litres (0.03 feet³ to 0.04 feet³)

Rear zipped pocket: W320mm (12⅝") x D Nominal x H180mm (7")
Capacity: Nominal
Shoulder Sling Measurements:Length: can be adjusted between 1000mm (39⅜") to 1700mm (67"") approx.
Width: 38mm (1½").
Weight: 0.16kg (0.35 lbs)

Compatible shoulder pads: SP40 or SP15
Colour/material:OutsideInside
Khaki Canvas / Tan LeatherOlive
Khaki FibreNyte / Chocolate LeatherOlive
Sage FibreNyte / Chocolate LeatherOlive
Black Canvas / Tan LeatherOlive
Black FibreNyte / Black LeatherOlive
Burgundy Canvas / Chocolate LeatherChocolate
Included:1x Hadley Pro Removable Insert
1x Hadley Pro Divider Set of 2 x Small (flap) and 2 x Large (vertical) Dividers
1x Hadley 'Standard' Front Straps (Unstitched)
1x Drawstring Bag 'Size B'

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Out of curiosity, how heavy is the bag when loaded with your typical camera kit? I have a Small Pro – an excellent bag, but I have to be careful how much I load it. Up to about 3kg total it is fine, but above that I find that a full day of walking results in a painful shoulder, even using the optional large pad.

    Backpacks make it much easier to carry more weight, but the Billingham shoulder bags have an unbeatable combination of waterproofing and ease of access.

    • With a Hasselblad 2000FCW, Leica M2 + 90mm Tele-Elmarit, Ricoh GR1s and film/filters, etc., it’s 5kg on the shoulder. Just the Hasselblad is about the same weight at the example you provided above. The biggest difference between equal loads in both bags is that the weight feels better distributed. It’s there but you don’t feel it as much. Hope that helps!

  2. An interesting and thoughtful review.. especially for one like myself who uses a 30 yr old courier bag with a rectangle of fibreboard to square out the base and a padded insert for the gear… and wonders why anyone could possibly want more convenience and protection than that :).

    And you DID send me on several wide-ranging and fascinating sidetracks, wherein I discovered damascene titanium keychain pry bars (I mean, who knew?) and exotic new iPodic gadgets, but anyrate, there’s one tiny little trivial detail I thought I’d note: You said “about 13p or ¢17 (USD)”. Oughta be 17¢. In USD nomenclature, $71.17 is $71 and 17¢. No, of course it doesn’t make sense.

    Keep on thinking strong thoughts.

    • Thank you 🙏 The keychain hook is hands down one of the best investments I’ve ever made and yes, the website is very, very dangerous! I’ll correct the currency mistake and thank you for your comment.

  3. Good review! It seems I’ll keep using the Hadley One – the new Avea pockets are out, so I’m happy again. 🙂

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