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!

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!