The Billingham F-Stop range is one of those quiet little back burners that hasn’t really been appreciated as it sits in the shadow of the renowned Hadley range. But it shouldn’t, because it’s actually, I think from my initial impressions, a better bag.
Let me explain…
To the left there you will see my Billingham Hadley Pro that I had a love/hate relationship with. I loved the waterproofing, the style, the robustness, the look, but it was always, in my view, dimensionally ‘wrong’.
It was so deep that you lost your mirrorless in it and ended up with things stacked on top one another, but it was so shallow front to back that you couldn’t use it very easily for a DSLR, and certainly not one with a grip. It was trying to fit everything and ended up fitting nothing as well as it might.
I bought the Hadley Pro to replace the Hadley Small, which was actually a better overall size (not so tall, not so wide), but it has the same depth issue.
These bags are Billingham’s biggest sellers, so people do love them, and I can see why. The removable interior to create a great waterproof messenger bag is simply brilliant, although I never removed mine.
The Hadley Pro is W350mm x D120mm x H280mm, but that D is tapered so you only get 120mm/4.75″ in the centre. It weighs in at 1.01kg or 2.23lbs, has two front dump pockets and one zipped rear pocket.
I was very surprised when the Digital turned up having put on a little tubbiness around it’s middle. I was also delighted.
The Hadley Digital, which I reviewed yesterday, is W210mm x D130mm x H210mm and the internal depth measurements are most telling D100mm for the Digital compared with 80mm for the Hadley Pro. As I said, the smaller bag actually has more depth and because it’s across the whole width of the bag, that makes it far more useful. Especially for anything bigger than a very small DSLR, or bigger than an Olympus OM-D/PEN-F sized mirrorless camera system.
My almost favourite bag, possibly of all time, was really the Hadley Small, which comes in at W290mm x D120mm x H220mm, 0.70kg/1.54lbs. Although it is quite a bit less in the width, the fact it also isn’t as tall made it, for me, much better with a mirrorless kit as I wasn’t stacking so much up. The Hadley Small and the Hadley Pro are exactly the same depth at their biggest (in the middle). The difference in weight is partly down to the size and partly down to the inclusion of the reinforced top handle on the Pro, which is missing from the Small.
Now, lots of people don’t mind their bag bowing out in the middle to accommodate their camera bodies, I know this because, as I said, the Hadley range is Billinghams’ biggest seller and the Pro is the daddy of them all and Billingham’s best seller of all.
The thing was, I could never get comfortable with it. Which is what lead me to look for something that was essentially a Hadley Small, but with more front to back depth. I also wanted the ability to take an iPad with me again (Digital isn’t big enough and doesn’t have a pocket for it), plus personal items such as my phone and purse, and have all round all season protection for my gear. I carry my camera with me, everywhere, everyday. You never know when you’ll get that once in a lifetime shot.
So, meet the much ignored F-Stop. This example is the f2.8 (the f4 was evidently smaller but, quickly, discontinued, and the f1.4, which is still available, is a bit bigger).
The f2.8 dimensions are W300 x D150 x H240 (all in millimetres and external measurements). The internals are W270 x D120 x H190.
Compare that to the Hadley Small – external W290 x D120 x H220, internal W260 x D80 x H190. Internally, the f2.8 has 10mm extra width, which is neither hear nor there, but 30mm extra depth, which makes a huge difference to what bodies I can put inside and in what positions, and internally the height is exactly the same.
Compare it to the Hadley Pro – external W350 x D120 x H280, internal W340 x D80 x H230. I have less width, but I have again 30cm more depth, and I lose a bit on height, which I don’t actually need, unless I have a 70-200/2.8 to worry about. If I did want to carry the 70-200/2.8 plus more lenses I would need a bigger bag than either range anyway.
The f1.4 is even closer to the Hadley Pro – external W360 x D150 x H240, internal W310 x D120 x H190. I’d be losing a little height but I’d be gaining a whole 40mm of internal depth front to back and it goes right the way across. It’s boxy, but it’s good.
Both the Hadley Pro and the F-Stops have a rear zip compartment (not shown).
I still get quality brass fittings, although the straps can only be replaced by Billingham at their factor as they are not detachable by the user, unlike the Hadley range. I also get slightly less positions by not having the buckles, although to be honest I never changed mine.
The holes in the leather fittings are to attach 5/8″ tripod straps, which is another useful feature associated with the larger 7-series bags, which also share the same non-user replaceable straps. The Hadley range shares its fittings with the 5-series.
It comes with three inserts, the thick padded base and two dividers. One which folds over and one which isn’t quite full height and doesn’t fold.
These both velcro into place.
Personally, I didn’t get on with the dividers, and although they do the job I have whipped these out to replace them, for now, with ones borrowed from my Lowepro Whistler 350AW backpack.
I love Lowepro’s idea of making dividers also pockets. It gives you extra padded safe storage for those little things, likes cards and batteries, which move about and get damaged if left loose in the pockets.
I can move them back into the Whistler whenever I need to but they not only give me another storage space within the bag, but as they are much softer allow the Billingham to be less boxy. I can now press the Billingham more with my hip which make it nicer to carrier and more conforming to body shapes.
I don’t see why we can’t bastardise our bags with the best of each system, and they almost all come with velcro so it’s actually very easy. Ok, it might not look as cool but who is looking inside your bag as a style comment? Only you should be in it, and only your ease of use really matters.
At the moment, this is not really a review but an initial impression, as it only arrived yesterday and I have as yet only tried loading the bag with a number of configurations. The true test will come after several months of use and I will update this post with that review in due course (probably around the end of November/early December time).
Will this bag become the new favourite of all time Billingham and depose the Hadley Small? Watch this space…
It’s bloody expensive. There is no getting around the fact that this is the most expensive camera bag (or any bag) that I have ever bought. So, it had better live up to expectations and they are going to be high. But then, when you think of the value of the equipment you’re placing in it, it does make sense to have something that you actually trust to do the job.
Here is what Lowepro have to say about their creation:
Empty it weighs 3kg. This is important, because most camera rucksacks weigh in around 1.6-2.3kg. So there is something about the extra weight that instills both confidence and fear. It is very, very, well made and this instills confidence, but then you have to actually carry it, with the added weight of your actual equipment. From unpacking it the attention to detail and build quality is obvious, straight away. To be honest, I have not had a lot of faith in Lowepro camera bags, to date, as they always seemed rather soft and well, floppy, for my liking. The Whistler doesn’t. It is in a different league. I think Lowepro starting improving quality with the Protactic range but this is a big step up again.
The Whistler BP350AW and BP450AW both come with a host of straps, two of them both removable and bright orange. These can be moved to any of the suitable fixing points around the bag. This is very useful. At the moment they are acting as compression straps for the items in the big front section but they could also be used to affix any number of items to the front (or sides) of the bag.
I quite like the fact they are bright orange as it breaks up the grey, but I can understand they may not be everyones cup of tea. The good news there is of course that you can replace them with other suitable attachments or straps if you choose. The other news is that if you are using this bag for its intending backcountry use, they are not likely to be bright orange for very long…
There are Mollie style loops all over the bag to attach things to, including on the brilliant hip belt.
One side of the hip belt features a pocket (which is actually a useful size) and the other side features some Mollie attachment loops. If you don’t know what Mollie attachments are, ask someone in the Armed Forces or take a look at the Lowepro Protactic range which is covered in the stuff.
The main reason for buying this bag was having a decent all season rucksack with a PROPER HIP-BELT. It’s in capitals because I cannot emphasise this requirement enough. It was a huge deciding factor in my choice of bag, and in this bag in particular. Everyone who goes more than a couple of miles into rough terrain, with any amount of weight, will tell you the value of a decent rucksack and most especially the value a decent hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight OFF your shoulders and puts in through your hips to your legs. Your legs are the powerhouse (try seeing, next time you go to the gym, the difference between what you can push with your legs compared to your arms).
Why therefore is it that probably around 85-90% of camera rucksacks don’t have hip belts? It is beyond me. Lowepro is the sister company of Lowe Alpine – both children of Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe, and his companies, have designed outdoor and backcountry equipment for explorers/climbers/hikers/skiers/etc for decades – almost all of Lowe Alpine’s sacks, even their day sacks from around 30l, have decent hip-belts. So, why on earth do most camera bags (which regularly have a considerably greater weight, for size, in them) come without this most basic and essential feature? Sure, make them removable if you wish to meet the requirements of urban use where a waist belt might be inconvenient, but for the sake of shoulders, backs, and necks, everywhere, give us the flipping option!
Not only does the Whistler come with a decent hip belt, it also has good straps and a nice back system.
The shoulder straps have some fixed, and some elasticated, web straps for putting accessories onto, behind, through, or whatever. They are not over padded, but they are comfortable. This is something a company like LoweWhatever should get right.
They should also allow for the fact that over 50% of the population has BOOBS. Yes, over because if you think about it, you can include MOOBS in this too. Shoulder straps, and sternum straps especially, have to allow for these and they regularly don’t. This is something this model, at least for my frame (and not hard to miss boobs) have got right.
The back system has firm padding with gaps to allow air circulation, which will be beneficial in warmer climes or on that singular day of Scottish summer we usually have.
I have an ActivZone back system on my much smaller Protactic BP250AW, also from Lowepro, and which would be my go to bag for urban use. It does not have a hip belt. It has a waist strap which just makes you look fat (as it cuts into the stomach being 1/2″ thin) and take no weight off your shoulders what-so-ever.
It does do a reasonable job of keeping you cool though.
The back of the Whistler also folds in two, so you don’t have to open the whole rucksack up, if you plan the contents so that the most used items go in the top half (like your main camera body and lenses, batteries, etc). This is a matter of logical planning which will probably develop over time, according to use, and also according to the type of shoot and location you are going to.
The back piece also has three slots for memory cards and a zipped compartment. The zipped compartment doesn’t have a great volume as it would dig into the main compartment, but you could sometime fairly flat in there. I have my Xrite colour chart and grey card in mine. Please can Lowepro look at Tamrac’s memory card slots though. Tamrac put in a red ribbon or tag on theirs, which you then pop out of the pocket to show instantly which cards are used and those without it showing therefore are those which aren’t used. It’s such a simple idea, and makes a whole heap of difference in use. I am actually going to sew ribbon to mine myself, because knowing instantly which ones are empty can make the difference between missing the shot and not.
The main compartment, which comes out as a single unit by the way, has great dividers including the marvellous pouch ones that Lowepro (fairly) recently introduced. These are brilliant for batteries as they keep them slightly insulated and they also don’t fall out and end up clattering around in the main compartment. They are also great for things like stepping rings, or filter holder adapter rings, which otherwise end up lost in a pocket somewhere.
In the Whistler they are actually big enough to put something like a small Go-Pro in, if you wanted.
Here is mine loaded up. As you can see I have plenty of space for the system to grow. One thing time, and ill purchases, has taught me is that more room is better, as otherwise you’ll upgrade in a few months time and loose money on your purchase.
This is also one reason I went for the 350 over the 450 size. I don’t have that much kit, and what I have being mirrorless, it doesn’t need the depth of the 450. The other reason is simple – I am 5ft 4″. The 450 would simply be too tall, and have too long a back length. Camera bags are, largely, designed for 6ft blokes. You cannot escape this fact and any woman will tell you. When I put on the Whistler wearing summer clothes (t-shirt, jeans) and tighten the hip belt I have around 18″ of strap on each side. This is a very common problem. Manfrotto sacks are worse, with them I have a whole 2ft of unused strap and it dangles below my knees! Some (Tamrac and Crumpler I am looking at you…) require a 32″ waist minimum otherwise you can’t actually get them tight enough to be useable at all. I have a waist pack from Crumpler which proves this point superbly. I can pull it as tight as it will go, jiggle, and it will go over my hips and hit the deck. Thanks Crumpler, great design…not!
Hidden at the bottom of the camera block, and rolled up in the photo above, is the thin front cover for the removable camera block.
Useful for when the block is removed, obviously, it also acts as a second barrier in use if not rolled away and this can be interpreted two ways – it is a barrier and something else to undo, therefore a pain in the arse that slows down your access, or a benefit in bad weather.
Up to you to decide which, but I have rolled mine away, for now. Should I want to remove the camera block and use the rucksack as a straight forward backpack (which it would be very good as, but rather heavy) then I will probably use it.
I do like the orange accents, not just because its compliments whilst contrasting with the grey (being girly) but also because it is useful in bad light. This was always a selling point of Kata bags, which Manfrotto ignored when they took them over.
So, coming around to the other requirement I have for my backpacks; space to put what they lovingly call ‘personal items’. Now, in most bags this means your wallet and phone, possibly your car keys. Even camera bags designed for the ‘outdoors’ don’t expect you to want to eat or drink during the trip. This is very annoying, very impractical, and a complaint you will hear from photographers everywhere. Usually something along the lines of; “where the f*** do I put my lunch?”
For those if us expecting to be in the hills for 8-12 hours, and sometimes longer, this is actually darned important stuff. We also might want to carry spare clothes, waterproofs, spare socks, and even toilet paper, nappy bags, and a small shovel (and if you have to ask what that is for then remember I just said we were out for more than 12 hours and would be eating during that period…)
The Whistler is brilliant for this. There is a huge space for all kinds of stuff and it even has the option to be two sizes due to the expansion panel – superb idea!
In summer I actually need more room, as I will carry my jacket and possibly a fleece or thin insulating jacket. In winter I need less room but tend to carry more foodstuffs. The back of this compartment is also waterproof so you can put wet gear in it, and it has a drain hole in the bottom for the really wet stuff (or leaking water bladders). This will keep your camera safe from spills, and any excess water from your coat or waterproof cover when it stops raining and the sun comes out. I live in Scotland, I am ever the optimist.
The material itself is very robust, way more than their usual materials, and seems to be coated with a waterproof and almost rubbery top coat. This would lead me to believe the bag will perform well in wet conditions, although with zips always being the weak point, there is also a waterproof cover supplied to encase the whole bag. Of course, you can’t use that if you have anything strapped to the outside such as your tripod/skies/snowboard/climbing stuff.
This is a problem I have yet to see a way around and I am sure that Lowepro, and others, are still figuring that one out.
There are two mesh pockets, this one (as shown) in the big personal stuff section, and another in the small personal stuff section (more of that in a minute). The waterproof cover arrived in the small one but I put in it this one as it made more sense to me. Waterproof cover in the section that is drainable and waterproof from the camera section of the bag, not the section that would drip it over the camera section and everything else like my phone/keys/wallet. But that might be me.
The small personal section is actually big enough to get snacks in, as well as your personal items as listed above. It sits on the top of the bag and has two key clips (one inside the mesh pocket and one out). I didn’t photograph it but it is larger than I thought it would be.
On one side of the bag is an expanding pocket that doesn’t expand that much, and within it are two small envelope pockets. These look quite good until you realise there is no way to do them up. A little bit of velcro, like the pouch dividers have, would be great here. Otherwise, if you leave the zip open and tilt the bag, even slightly, backwards, everything in them falls out. I am using it for a notebook and pen, and the larger expanding pocket for maps. I wouldn’t put anything else in there really. It is the only flaw to the design I can see so far.
On the other side is one of the best of most stable set of loops, straps, and fastening points I have seen on a camera rucksack ever. Period. I can put two legs of my tripod in the bottom fixed loop and then use the strap at the top to hold it firmly in place. This is by far the very best tripod attachment I have had on ANY camera bag. I have a biggish tripod and this is the only time it hasn’t wobbled about. I actually returned a Manfrotto Bumblebee, which I otherwise thought was quite good, because of this instability. I don’t need help falling over on slippery ground.
I just hope it doesn’t stretch, but if it does then the extra strap at the bottom can be employed to tighten things up, and I have option of adding a third strap to the middle.
Initially, first impression, I am very impressed indeed. My bank manager probably isn’t though. I am still suffering from pangs of guilt for having spent the money.
I took it out for a first trial walk today, to see if it was as comfortable in the field (or in this case on the North East Scotland coastal cliffs), as it was walking around the house fully loaded. So far, and I didn’t go that far, I believe it is.
My trip to photograph Bow Fiddle Rock today was in cloudy, +3°C at best, and blowing a good 35mph+ North Westerly condition. I was 90ft above the sea on the cliffs, frequently on muddy and slippery ground but I felt secure, stable, and comfortable. I felt like the 3kg of bag wasn’t there, and the kit itself was more manageable than usual. Having the weight correctly balanced, and transferred to the hips, was just bliss (compared to having it pulling you backwards and weighted on your collar bones).
The tripod was essential for the long exposure, and yet it was secure and comfortable when on the pack. When I was carrying it by hand I slipped over on my arse, landed on my side, and sprained my wrist but that is probably just me anyway.
I got some great shots in spite of the difficult conditions. My kit felt cosseted and looked after, and I have no doubt I could cope with a lot worse weather without issue.
Downsides? Well, there is the price. There also isn’t a way to use the waterproof cover with anything on the attachments points, such as a tripod, but I don’t know how you would possible get around this anyway.
The orange won’t stay orange for long, or at least not as bright or without some stains.
Other than that, we will see. I intend to update this review in due course when it has some miles under its hip belt, so we will see. At the moment, I would argue it was worth the (lots of) money.
Oh, you would look a right plonker using this in town though…but then that isn’t what it is for.