Scott Bourne of PhotoFocus Reviews Ona Union Street

The Ona Union Street Messenger - Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

The Ona Union Street Messenger – Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

If you’re not familiar with Scott Bourne and PhotoFocus, it is a very useful blog to subscribe to.  Scott and his guest bloggers are almost always short, direct, to-the-point and really useful to Enthusiast Photographers of all stripes.

Today brought a familiar topic – the Ona Union Street bag, and Scott’s conclusions were familiar, too.  Check it out:

Ona Union Street Review: an alternate view

The Ona Union Street Messenger – Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

I just came across another review of the Ona Union street with a slightly different final perspective and much better photos than I managed in my writeup.

Head over to Erick Joseph’s very nice site for to get his thoughts!

Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Review – Part 2

The custom bags get this tag...

**UPDATE** I just noticed on one of my photography forums that the Snoop bags (meaning the messenger bag built around the Snoop, which is similar to this bag without all the laptop stuff) is nearly 50% off Timbuk2! So I got one – it is now my dedicated bag, while the custom bag below is my daily briefcase and travel bag. Review here.


I waited to write my review of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger until I had a few hours carrying it around. Having done that a fair bit over the last several weeks, I’m ready to give an initial review, though I’ll probably update it in a few weeks after an upcoming business trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Since this is a pretty extensive review (I’m wordy…), I’ll try to create a summary version that incorporates both parts. But for now, the full monte…

If you read my reviews of the Ona Union Street and Part 1 of this review (about the Snoop camera insert I’m using with this bag), you’ll remember that I got a custom version of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger in two colors of waxed canvas.

Full order contents - I added the shoulder pad and the velcro silencers

Before I get to the review of the bag itself, let me say a few things about Timbuk2 and the buying experience. First, the ability to customize your bag is just plain fun. I’m a conservative guy, and wound up with a conservative bag, but I spent a lot of time playing around with the custom bag process. You can choose from a wide variety of fabrics and colors for three panels of the the bag (I only tried the one I bought – there are six different custom bags). You can also choose the trim color and even what color thread is used for the logo. The fabric options range from 30 colors of the standard ballistic nylon to “Performance” options like polybond, “SuperBright” (described as “99% nylon, 1% magic”), to X-Pac, which appears to be a tough, lightweight sailcloth-like fabric similar to what is used in the Gura Gear bags (not to say it is the same). There are also premium “Specialty” fabrics that lean a little harder toward fashion than sheer function – these include denim, faux snakeskin, faux leather, a dark heather wool, the two waxed canvas options I chose and more. The Performance and Premium fabrics add an extra $15 per panel, except the Super Bright, which are $25 per panel (I guess that 1% magic is pricey!). You can mix and match any of the fabric choices on any panel. Since there are 62 different fabrics available, there are hundreds of thousands of combinations, even before we start talking about trim and logos. They occasionally rotate in new Performance and Premium options. Inside, you can choose any of 11 colors for the lining of the bag. I chose light blue to ensure high visibility for whatever was in the bag. Lastly, you can choose to add reflector tails (for higher visibility if you’re on a bike – this is a messenger bag after all) or Compression Straps which allow you to cinch the bottom of the bag when it isn’t full. Since I was getting the Large size (Lg./Med./Small are available) that would only occasionally have the Snoop insert, I added the Compression Straps.

Configured that way, the bag totaled $215. Add $59 for the Medium Snoop Insert, $3 for the “silencers” for the velcro and $20 for a premium shoulder pad and my out-the-door cost was a shade under $300. Not cheap, but where else can you get a custom-made bag? Since this one is doing double-duty as my daily laptop bag, and it looks very nice, I’m happy overall. My only ordering quibble is that I’d like to get at least the standard shoulder pad (which is $10) by default and as I mentioned in my Snoop review, more dividers should be as well. That said, all I had to do was ask and they sent me some, so kudos for customer service. A quick expansion on that point – all my interactions with them by phone and mail were just terrific. The people seem enthusiastic and are knowledgeable and helpful.

OK – so what about the bag itself? I’ll follow the same general format I commented on in the Snoop Review.

Build: Nothing at all to complain about here. The origins of this company is building bags for guys who kill bags just doing their job. The seams are very strong, and stress spots are oversewn without making the bag look too industrial. The shoulder strap is very wide, made of extremely tough nylon and all the hardware feels very beefy and strong. YKK zippers throughout.

Features and Design: As a messenger, the formula is pretty set, but Timbuk2 has managed to put in a few nice touches. The “Napoleon pocket” is a zippered horizontal pocket that can be reached without undoing the flap. Handy. The shoulder strap is adjustable, allowing you to keep some slack to remove the bag without having to wiggle out of it. In my case, I’m tall enough at 6’1″ that I’m using most of the slack.

As opposed to the Snoop insert, there are lots of pockets and places to put things. In addition to the Napoleon pocket, there are four medium-sized pockets on the front, three with zippers (one containing a lanyard for keys, etc.) and the top pocket that is open (no zippers. There are several D rings on the outside of the bag for attachments. The optional cinch straps to a nice job slimming this bag down when I don’t have the Snoop installed, though it would be nice if there was some way to secure the slack – I just wrap the extra around the bottom.

The carry handle at the top is comfortable and generally well-placed, though it is a little unbalanced when the Snoop is in the bag. It is fine for the duty it will serve. The hardware on the outside of the bag is just the right size – not too big, but not so small that I can’t undo the buckles when I have gloves on.

A view bucked and lightly burdened...

On the interior of the bag, there is a large zippered pocket with two phone-sized pockets and some smaller business-card sized slots inside. Facing inward, there are three additional phone-sized pockets – one with a flap and two open pockets lined with soft nylon, presumably for a phone. One accommodated my iPhone easily, the other left about 1/4 of it exposed. Between these two sets of pockets are notches for three pens. Then there is a huge cavity for whatever, or the Snoop when I’m using it. That is it for storage, but is pretty substantial.

The open flap allows you to see the two zippered pockets. The third un-zippered is at the top. The Napoleon pocket is behind these, accessed from the right side (in the photo).

There is a large sleeve for my ThinkPad T410s (14″ screen), with a knobby pattern for some additional protection. It should easily hold most 15″ laptops, though there is a compatibility checker on their website for most makes and models. On the other side of the laptop sleeve is another compartment for notebooks, or whatever. When I have the Snoop in the bag, this is where most of my other stuff goes. When the Snoop is slumbering elsewhere, it is empty. One small quibble I have is that this pocket isn’t sealed from the Snoop compartment, so small items can move between and get lost.

Sleeve for up to a 15" laptop

Snoop installed.

I’d also like to see the flap have a similar design I saw in the Ona bag, where there was additional fabric at the base that prevented a gap to the interior of the bag in case of rain, etc. As I mentioned in the Snoop review, they missed a chance for some really handy storage by not adding SD card pockets on the top of the Snoop and maybe a zippered mesh pocket or two on the top. Lastly, a bag this big and costing this much should come with a padded shoulder strap as standard equipment.

Optional shoulder strap in wool...

What about space? You want space? Here is a listing of what I got inside the bag:

  • Nikon D90 w/ Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 non-BIM (mounted)
  • Nikon 35mm f/1.8
  • Nikon 80-200 f/2.8
  • Nikon 18-200
  • 2 extra EN-EL 3e batteries
  • Cable release
  • 3 MF clothes & cleaning spray
  • TIffen filter case (4 filters)
  • Black Rapid RS-7
  • 3 SD Cards
  • L-wrenches for tripod & plates
  • Various caps
  • Bag-o-cables, thumb drives, Advil, etc.
  • Dual battery charger with AC and Car/Plane cables
  • Blower
  • Gitzo 2531 with RRS BH-40 (tucked in the cinch straps on the bottom)
  • FlipCam
  • Cell phone

Plus the work stuff…

  • ThinkPad T410s (14″ screen)
  • ThinkPad Tablet (10″)
  • AC/DC travel charger for ThinkPad
  • Notebook
  • 3 pens
  • presentation remote
  • Business card holder
  • USB hard drive

So there is a big checkmark next to “Space.” Was it huge? Yes. Was it workable to carry? Yes. At least I think so. I doubt I’ll travel with all of that stuff (at least very often), but it is nice to know I could. The strap was comfortable and I think I’d be able to get on a plane counting his as the second item (probably minus the tripod). I’d likely break the Snoop out once I was safely aboard.

Fully loaded, and I do mean fully...

This is the unpacked view of everything in the above photo. I had a hard time laying it all out and getting it in the picture!

As for protection, I think the design allows for a lot of protection for the laptop, as it is protected not only by the knobby neoprene sleeve but by the contents of the bag around it. The Snoop has a similar benefit, and has some interior padding as well.

Looks: No worries here. The bag looks as good as I expected. It is a bit more casual than the Ona Union Street, and I think that is OK for the versatility it offers. The waxed canvas feels more substantial than the Ona and richer than what I’ve seen on Domke and others. Net: high marks for attractiveness.

Comfort: Despite being a big bag, the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger carries well. The weight feels balanced and it is manageable even with a fully stacked Snoop whether over your shoulder or in “messenger mode” with the strap across your chest. However, you have to buy the shoulder strap. Otherwise it won’t be comfortable on your shoulder and will saw your head off if looped across your chest. Nobody around me will be fooled into thinking there isn’t something in the bag, but it doesn’t seem like it will be breaking me, either, and the design doesn’t tell the world you’re carrying photo equipment.

As for fiddly things, I can’t really find any. I can get to everything I want to without much fuss, and when I’m in full-camera mode I can fold the messenger flap completely open and still have the Snoop zipped until I need it. With the Snoop open, I can easily get in and out whatever I want, despite things looking a little cramped. The Napoleon pocket and similar touches make the handling of this bag excellent.

Conclusion: Is it the perfect bag? No. You can’t do this many things and be great at all of them. As I’ve configured it and with the amount of stuff inside it I’m using to judge, it does strain a bit. But only a bit. To ask a bag to handle that much and have it achieve it in a travel-worthy fashion is a tall order, and the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger delivers. I think it stands in a class by itself. The Snoop insert is a good idea, with some room for improvement. The quality and handling is terrific. Asked to any two tasks, it excels. Asked to do three, it handles it, and still looks great doing it.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased with this bag, and it’s a good thing – custom bags can’t be returned! 🙂

For full-size and higher-quality photos of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger, check out my set on Flickr, or just click on any of the photos above.

What do you look for in a camera bag?

This is what my custom Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger should look like...

As I’m waiting for my custom-made Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger to arrive (ETA is 12/19 – full review will come soon after :)), I’m wondering what features make up the perfect bag.  The Ona Union Street was pretty close – it held a lot, it looked great and it seemed like it would be comfortable to carry.  Unfortunately, it lacked a key element: accessibility.  A bag needs to be convenient to be effective, and even if the Ona wasn’t a fairly expensive bag ($279 isn’t Billingham money, but it isn’t AmazonBasics, either), I would have been unhappy to carry it.  I sent it back – B&H just confirmed my refund today – a free plug:  They rock.  Their customer service rocks.  I highly recommend them, and hope to spend a few hours wandering in their store sometime soon.  Anyway…

My bag needs to have the following traits:

  • Versatile – lots of pockets and places to put stuff that is easily accessible.  Travel well.
  • Spacious – hold my body and 4-5 lenses.   One lens would be replaced by a flash (when I own one and decide to carry it…).  It needs to hold my laptop and various cables, notebook, pens, etc. so I can have a single bag when I travel.
  • Protective – don’t let me break my stuff.  Please.
  • Comfortable – my equipment felt more comfortable to carry in the Ona bag vs. my current LowePro 202 AW, and actually felt lighter.  Also, don’t have fiddly designs – be simple and easy.
  • Attractive – as I mentioned in my other article, I travel in the corporate world, and I want something that has some style and design.  The pro photographers roll their eyes at this, but I’ll steal my own quote: I don’t want a bag that looks like it belongs on “That 70’s Show or “Star Trek” – I want something that looks good.  Attractive design and high function aren’t mutually exclusive. They just seem to be in the world of camera bags…

So that’s my list – what do you want in a bag?  What do you love and/or hate about the bag you have now?  Traditional, messenger or backpack?

Ona Union Street Messenger Bag Review

The Ona Union Street Messenger - Available in three great-looking colors. (from the Ona website)

In my job, I travel a lot and I’m in a corporate environment.  When I’m flying, I’m often going places where I’d like the chance to take some photographs, but I’m faced with a dilemma:  I’m the Master of Complicated Travel.  The living example of Murphy’s Law with a plane ticket.  I’ve literally chased my luggage around the world (it is a long story, and in retrospect a funny one…), so if I can avoid casting my stuff into the abyss that can be the airline baggage handling system, I try to do that.  The problem?  You can only take two bags on the plane.

That means I can’t have a briefcase, a camera bag and a carry-on piece of luggage.  I could (and have) put my camera bag in the carry-on, but that limits precious space for what is often a week or more of clothes to wear, plus I live in a non-hub city, which means my “carry-on” is often gate-checked for my first and last flights on small commuter jets.  That isn’t happening with valuable and delicate camera gear inside.

So the next option is to find a bag that combines the briefcase and the camera bag.  Honestly, I thought that was going to be a non-issue.  There are lots of people like me, right?  Apparently not.

Searching around, you find lots of bags in the backpack style, which I don’t prefer.  First, I think they don’t fit well in the corporate world.  Second, they are often overkill for what I’m looking for.  Lastly and most importantly, I just don’t find wearing a backpack comfortable.  My current bag is a semi-backpack, the Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW.  It served me well enough at Disney and in the various shoots I’ve been on, but it is just a little too cramped, especially for my 80-200 f/2.8 and it feels heavy with all the gear inside.  It wants to be worn across your chest or it isn’t comfortable.

There are tons of variations on the traditional camera bag out there, too (e.g. the Domke F-2, Billingham 335, Gura Gear line, National Geographic, ThinkTank, etc.).  The problem is many of them look like they belong on “That 70’s Show” or “Star Trek” and generally they won’t accommodate a laptop.  No joy.

After some hunting around, I found a few references to a new company called Ona.  They make very stylish bags with the promise of high functionality.  Scanning their site, the bag I’m looking for is there:  The Union Street Messenger, a very nice-looking waxed canvas bag in sophisticated colors with nice leather trim.  It holds a laptop, a camera and an array of gear and posses discrete looks that don’t scream “I’M A CAMERA BAG” that fit well in a corporate environment and don’t encourage thieves any more than absolutely necessary.  So I ordered one from B&H.

The result?  I’m blown away by nearly everything about this bag.  Except the one thing that kills it for me.  I’ll explain.

I’m able to put my D90, Nikon 80-200 f/2.8, Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 (mounted), Nikon 18-200, Nikon 35 f/1.8, a blower, a couple batteries and miscellaneous cables and bits as well as my 14″ ThinkPad, iPhone, a USB hard drive and ThinkPad tablet (10″) in the Union Street. That is a lot of gear to fit in something so small-looking!  The quality seems excellent throughout, though time will always tell. All the leather, the fabric and the stitching seem very solid and well done.  This is a beautiful piece of work.  Let’s get to some photos (apologies for the poor quality):

Ona Union Street Bag

The Ona Union Street arrives in a nice dust/storage bag

Ona Union Street Bag

A first look inside the bag

Ona Union Street Bag Loaded

Gear without body. I wound up moving the small divider in the middle up to give the 80-200 more protection and allow more room for the camera to slide in with a lens mounted (typically the Tamron 28-75).

Ona Union Street Bag Completely Loaded

Fully loaded.

Ona Union Street Bag -  Carry Handle

The carrying handle

Ona Union Street Bag - All Contents

The complete contents I could fit in the bag. Really impressive!

The Ona Union Street deals with bulk reasonably well. The buckles holding the flap to the main body of the bag are high-quality. There is no cheesy and noisy velcro.  I was kind of hoping that you’d be able to press on the outside of the buckle to release/open, but it doesn’t appear to work like that easily for me. Slightly fiddly. I’m not a fan of fiddly, but it isn’t a huge deal-breaker.

The handle at the top looks like it would be unbalanced, especially when loaded. It isn’t, at least for light movement and picking it up/putting it down.

It carries very well – I’m amazed how light it feels vs. the same gear in my Lowepro on my back.  It feels very comfortable on my shoulder, and the strap is extremely strong.

The gear carries well overall. The 80-200 has plenty of depth, though the pockets are shallow enough that the foot on that lens worried me. I pulled the shallow divider out from the “body pocket” and made a full-height space for the lens. No worries. The foot does provide some dimension to think about – I kept it turned toward the compartment with the shorter lens vs. the body compartment.

With everything inside, I did need to extend the buckles on the straps to allow closure and locking the flap.  That is what they are there for, right?  The bag didn’t look like it was bursting at the seams loaded up.  All good.

The list of gripes is short, but fatal (but probably just for me).  There should be a “pull-strap” on the buckle to help pull the buckle into the snap.  As designed, you pull on the buckle and strap itself, which is not only awkward, but likely to cause wear on the holes in the leather over time.

But the biggest issue is that the front pocket is very, very tight. Even when the main compartment isn’t loaded with gear, access to the front pocket is extremely and unnecessarily tight. This is due to the fact that the zipper at the top of the compartment goes straight across the top of the two sewn sides of the pocket.  A simple, minimal flap or gusset to allow a broadening of the opening would have been all that was necessary. But as it sits, it is tremendously fiddly.  There are spaces for a cell phone, memory cards and other stuff (I threw in a USB hard drive, the iPhone, a couple extra batteries, some cleaning supplies, etc.). Net: My issues isn’t so much with the space, but the access to it.

The front pocket - aka the Achilles heel

Ultimately, I decided to return the bag.  For $279 I’m not willing to live with a key area of a bag I use that much being that inconvenient.  I’m probably more picky about that than most people. At the end of the day, it is a gorgeous and capable bag.  With a couple tweaks, it would be a real star.

Readers:  What bags are you carrying?  What do you love or hate about them?  Any of you have the Ona bag and a story to share?

Please feel free to comment, send me ideas/questions and of course read my other posts.  Thanks!