ONA Union Street Bag – A Review - W.L. Norman Photography

Published December 2014 at


Okay, first things first. Full disclosure: I won this bag in the Fuji X-Forum (http://www.fujix-forum.com) Contest that ended in November 2014. And for that I thank the Forum founder Robert, the Fuji X Forum, the companies who donated merchandise for the Contest and the winners’ selection gods. A hip-hip-hooray to one and all! Second disclosure: I came within a key-click of buying this bag about 6 months ago. In the end I opted for similar functionality but at a much lower price. I purchased the Tenba Large Messenger bag ($109.95) after talking to a guy carrying one during a layover at the Denver Airport.

Also, this version of my review has been slightly edited to make some comments that would have been clear to folks on the Forum understandable here, too.  Finally, the photographs at the bottom of this review were nestled in their appropriate sections in the original presentation. Alas, I do not know how to embed them in this entry!

Everyone who owns a camera that they carry from more than the house to the car wants/needs/desires a camera bag to end all camera bags. Sadly, they don’t exist. This is not to say that great bags don’t exist or that perfect bags don’t exist. They do – just not all in one physical package. I would wager dollars to donuts that 80% of those over the age of forty (who have a camera) own at least two camera bags. Certainly this will be true for men. We just seem to acquire camera bodies, lenses, filters, light meters, tripods, gadgets – alright – stuff. I think it might be, in fact, a sex-linked characteristic fully as evolutionarily developed as facial hair and our laryngeal prominence (the so-called Adam’s Apple.) Thanks to a guy named Walter Becker [yes, the late member of Steely Dan] we have a name for our hunting and gathering phenomenon: GAS. Originally pegged Guitar Acquisition Syndrome in a 1996 article by Becker, many fields have co-opted it by substituting the word Gear for the original word Guitar. And, just as with one of the chores of the biblical Adam, the bestowal of names, once that is done a thing is well on its way to everlasting fame and the big time, i.e. the world of big dollars, big ads, celebrity-spottings and the insurance to cover it all…. But I digress.

Camera bag makers, no less than other accouterment provisioners of the modern world, have taken up the call of global fashionistas. Most owners want a gear bag to do it all and look good while doing it. We want, nay, demand, bags that will transport gear safely and in style without recourse to a chiropractor. And, for many of us, we want one that will not draw undue attention from thieves seeking to steal our precious work equipment. (Others, with eyes in the back of their head, a high rebarbative index, or, perhaps, with more disposable income, don’t seem to care and go the lux route with pliable, beautiful, rich Corinthian leather.)

Enter a company like ONA, meeting the call of our desires and needs everywhere cameras are carried. Meeting the call, in other words, of those who possess a lifestyle. (I should mention here that even my water-repellant, nylon, duraflex-clip, semi-proletarian Tenba is part of Tenba's Messenger Collection!)

When I first saw the name ONA I thought it might be an acronym. But I lived in East Africa so the word took me back to another time and place. The company’s web site explains: In Swahili [a lingua franca in East Africa], the word ona (pronounced ō'na) means, “to feel,” “to believe,” and “to experience with the eyes.” This is the essence of photography and style. With these ideas, apparently, in mind, ONA has created a series of bags that have garnered lots of attention in places that matter, e.g. The New York Times, National Geographic, Vogue, GQ, etc.

Bags, Bags and More Bags

One of the current crazes in camera bags is the category of “messenger bag”. The original DNA of these bags was the rectangular rip-stop nylon bag used by big-city bike messengers. They were made to be slung over the body from one shoulder to the opposing side near the waist. As might be expected it was a design that evolved to meet cycling delivery guys’ very specific needs. These bags were light, roomy and durable. Many companies have taken this concept and run with it. Initial refinements generally took the route of interior dividers to nest one’s camera and accompanying gear.

Recently, exteriors have received the ministrations of designers seeking to not only differentiate their products from competitors but catch the eye of those aforementioned fashionistas. The ONA line has been very successful in this work. And justly so, their bags are a paen to beauty and utility – with some very important caveats to that last attribute.

But first, as everyone knows, initial impressions are paramount. (Yeh, yeh, I know, it’s really the intellectual and utilitarian part that matters in the long run – but be honest, most of us won’t ever get that far if the looks aren’t there!)

Here is a photo of the ONA Union Street bag (taken from the company web site.)

SEE photo upper right, or at the bottom of the page, on the left.

Below is a photo of my ONA Union Street bag in what I call its Urban Day Kit configuration.

SEE photo at bottom of page, middle image.

Here are those contents laid out so you can see the items. Increasingly the MacBook Pro charger and mouse are left behind and replaced by a Samsung Note 10.1 (2014 edition), unless I need to work on an article.

SEE photo at bottom of page, on the right.

The Look

ONA bags, both the leather and waxed cloth ones, look fantastic. I think the younger generation might say, “they’re the bomb!” (Or, at least they said that last year, not sure about today’s latest and greatest accolades.) The bags possess a simplicity of line, an elegance really, that I find attractive and appealing. Part of that èlan is the leather piping running around the top rim of the opening, a rim, moreover, that is invisible to the world when the bag is closed. It’s like charity at its best – quiet and anonymous; only you know what’s been done. (The ONA logo on a leather pad is nicely tucked inside the flap, not the outside, so is unseen as well. Bravo!)

The Union Street I am using is made of water-resistant waxed cotton canvas lined with a soft padding. Waxed canvas, a Scottish invention from the days of sail, is sorta old-school. There were many early iterations but the one finally settled upon was a paraffin wax suffused into cotton. (Not paraffin in the British usage which is American kerosene.) It is the original waterproof material from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. As with many old-school objects it has been replaced, first by rubber-based materials and then with synthetics like nylon (except in upper class circles, particularly in field and sports. Though not one of the 1% ,I still wear a waxed cotton Barbour coat I’ve had for donkey’s years. I also have an Aussie duster that has saved my bacon more than once. These items never seem to wear out and, with yearly maintenance, get better looking. ONA expects the same for their bags.)

The Tool

I hasten to remind you, now, dear reader, that a camera bag is a tool. And a tool must, first and foremost, work for its intended function.

A great feature of the ONA bag is the flat, hard, padded bottom. It’s like a well-trained Labrador: when you sit it on the ground and want it to stay (upright), this puppy stays. My Tenba, as great as it is, flops over off its water-proof bottom as if soliciting a belly rub when you set it down fully loaded. The ONA padded bottom protects your gear from the wet surfaces every photographer faces now and then. And, writing of wet conditions, the closing flap has what I can only call little ears on each end. With their apparent seal I think they will keep out blowing spray and also keep small items in the bag where they belong, no matter how heavy the jostling.

The lack of a real handle for carry might be a problem for some users. ONA says that you cannot use the single-handle to actually carry the bag. It’s a “grab” handle for picking up the bag to get to the shoulder strap. That means I won’t be carrying the bag when I wear my warm (and very good-looking) cashmere sport jacket. I wear it and various napped-leather jackets much of the winter instead of an overcoat. A heavy shoulder strap sliding on cashmere or soft leather is a non-starter.

I remember reading a year ago that the shoulder strap was too short for tall-ish individuals. I have not found this to be the case and I am a long-torsoed, six foot one-inch (185.5 cm) in height. Perhaps ONA has made some adjustment here. The strap, by the by, is a quality one with a nice movable pad for the shoulder. It does not fall off my shoulder easily despite the fact that it is not ergonomically curved.

There are vertical pockets at each end of the bag under the connection points for the shoulder strap. They might hold a cell phone the size of the first 5 generations of iPhone. I don’t know. I carry the Samsung Note 4 and it can be forced into the pockets, if it is naked without a cover of any sort, but don’t expect to get it out in time to answer a phone call. I use the forward pocket for a couple of LensPens, a Micro Stream flashlight and a ballpoint pen. I haven’t figured out what to put in the rear pocket other than a lens cloth.

The bag has a full-length back pocket held closed by a magnetic snap. It will (barely) hold a magazine or a few sheets of U.S. sized stationery or work papers.

What’s Inside?

To be forthright there is not a huge amount of room in this bag outside the main compartment. There is not even a very large amount of room. ONA bills The Union Street as “Designed to hold everything you need for a day on the go -- including your camera, a 15-inch laptop, up to three lenses or small accessories and your personal items.” So, in the bag’s defence, it is not meant to be everything to everyone. You will have to choose your kit carefully if, as I tend to do, you often try to carry every possible “necessity”. If your laptop is like mine, a 15 inch Mac Pro in an iSpeck plastic cover, it will take your bag right up against the limit in terms of thickness and length after taking aboard a Fuji X-Pro1 with mounted lens, a couple other lenses, extra Fuji batteries, a small notebook, pens, LensPens, MicroStream flashlight, etc. These are all items I require for a day on the go with my camera. (See third photo from left, below)

If you are a guy who keeps his folding wallet thick with notes; papers; business cards; and (if you are one of the lucky) cold, hard cash, and, further, also keep it in your back pant’s pocket you may well be good-to-go with this bag because that wallet will eat up space if you put it in the bag. (You will also be a candidate for vertebrae misalignment – my former chiropractor calls it “life-time employment” for chiropractors.) I, on the other hand, carry a portfolio type wallet about the size of a checkbook wallet, so it and my actual checkbook wallet also need to find space in the bag. It is a tight squeeze but works.

The full-length zippered compartment across the front of the bag, hidden by the full flap, is a good idea. Lots of bags have something similar. This one is quite tight against the bag, however, and will not hold much, especially once that laptop and a few lenses and camera body are packed. A paperback book? Fugeddaboudit! In this slit of a stash space are 4 SD card slots (a nice touch), two vertical compartments for CF cards (or something) and 3 slots for pens. Alas, none of these pockets are wide enough for the thinnest, always-carry, Moleskin soft-side notebooks. And, as maddening, the pen slots will hold Bics but not anything with more body – fountain pens, for example. (And I always carry one and often do not want it in my jacket or shirt pocket.) Even a Uniball gel pen with a rubberized grip will not slide into a slot despite the website showing what looks like a Sharpie in one. Very odd. And, we haven’t even talked about the power cord for the Mac laptop! The compartment does have a leather pull attached to the quality zipper so it can be gotten to without undue fiddling. I think all the ONA pockets have been manufactured by the designer to maintain the lines of the bag from becoming misshapen lumps by the overzealous trying to cram in more, and more, and more. I am certain I hear a faint, but determined, “you vill NOT overstuff my beautiful bag!”

Worth mentioning are the Velcro-edged dividers in the camera compartment area. These stick like nothing I’ve experienced aside from out-of-doors brambles. They must be umpteenth generation hook & loop technology and will challenge your placement skills. Once in situ they look to be bomb-proof. They, and the padded liner that cradles your precious gear, will do an admirable job protecting your investment.

The closure system of the bag uses tuck-clasps, those push-button style thingies found on lots of bags. These are attached to straps that have buckle-type adjustments to cinch the bag tight no matter how little or how much you carry. If the bag is chock full you will have to use a bit of strength to fully insert the clasps until they click into place. At this fill level these straps do not, alas, extend to fully cover the tuck-clasps. It is a little like seeing a guy in what, in my youth, we called high-water pants. ONA describes the clasp metal work as “antique brass hardware” – a misnomer. What they really mean is “antiqued brass hardware”, a difference with a distinction if you are a dealer, as I am, in material over one hundred years old. (The definition of the commercial use of the word ‘antique’ is written into the laws of the State of New York where, I believe, ONA is headquartered.) Oh, always tuck the clasps when walking with the bag, not only for security but because the clasp(s) will slap noisily as you walk: click, click, click….

My bag, a Ranger Tan model, is not as dark as the company web site depicts. It is more a khaki tan. Perhaps it dried out a bit. I have dosed it with Martexin Original Wax but it did not darken appreciably. Do let the Martexin dry for a day before using the bag so the wax won’t rub off onto a shirt, jacket, car seat, the belt area of trousers, or your belt itself. This is something to keep in mind. An annual (more or less) waxing is recommended by ONA for keeping the bag water repellent and in fine nick.

Final Thoughts

I need to point out that many of my criticisms do not apply, of course, if you are a packer with a light touch using the bag as intended – a day camera bag, stuffed less than to the gills. It is when you try to use it as a general office attaché – in addition to a camera bag, that you start that downhill slide into trouble.

The Union Street ONA bag is great for small cameras, would be fantastic for Fuji X cameras with fixed lenses, is fine for Fuji X cameras with a couple lenses, and is maybe not-so-great for big Nikons and Canons if you need to carry a slew of stuff too. It really shines as bag where one can manage carrying only the camera, a couple lenses, an extra battery, SD or compact flash cards, a small flash, a checkbook and a wallet, a couple (slim) pens, and a magazine for the inevitable ‘down time’. In this situation you will be comfortable, not unduly overloaded, and will look like a million bucks. If your demands are more toward the kitchen sink end of the spectrum, think about something else. The Tenba Large Messenger, maybe, where I can also load in my iPod with small Bose earbuds (both in their leather cases), a book, a water bottle, etc. Fortunately, today we are faced with an ever-expanding selection of quality camera bags. The problem is often not one of there being none to fit our requirements but there being a confusing and ballooning array, a surfeit of choices.

With airlines getting more stringent à la the baggage game, one needs a bag to hold all the carry-on paraphernalia we all seem to travel with. I am hoping I can get away with carrying on board both the ONA Union Street bag and my F-Stop Satori EXP when I next fly with camera gear. Or, I will simply revert to the less-trendy Tenba that I know will hold all the stuff I cannot afford to lose. That next checked-bag disappearance nightmare may only be the next flight away.

The ONA Messenger Bag Line-up

(as of this writing)

The Berlin II

(designed for the Leica M-System with camera, up to 3 lenses, tablet)

12.5 x 10 x 4.5 

$389 leather only / removable top grab handle as well as shoulder strap (Note: one of the strap fastening rivets is red in a bid to that famed Leica logo.)

The Prince Street

(camera, up to 2 lenses, tablet)

12.5 x 10 x 4.5 inches

$269 waxed cloth, $389 leather

The Brixton

(camera, up to 3 lenses, 13 inch laptop)

13.5 x 10.5 x 5

$279 waxed cloth, $429 leather

The Union Street

(camera, up to 3 lenses, 15 inch laptop)

16.5 x 11 x 5

Empty weight = 3.7 pounds!

$299 waxed cloth, $489 leather.

The Astoria

(2 cameras, up to 5 lenses, 13 inch laptop)

16 x 11 x 7 inches

$359 waxed cloth only

Available cloth colors (but not in all models) are: smoke, field tan, ranger tan, dark tan, black.

Available leather colors are: dark truffle, antique cognac, vintage bourbon and one with no specific name that is to my eye dark brown.

All but The Union Street and The Berlin have two exterior pockets sitting under the front flap. The Union Street Street and The Berlin have one full-length pocket under the front flap.

Martexin wax is recommended for regular maintenance of the waxed canvas that makes up the exterior surface of the non-leather ONA bags. “While waxed canvas is a notoriously durable material that doesn’t need to be babied, occasional reproofing with Martexin Original Wax can help keep your bag looking it’s very best for years to come. This wax is made from the same manufacturer of our waxed canvas products. Reproofing is a simple process that doesn’t need to be done often—we recommend an application once a year or so, depending on use.”

All Text & Images © 2015 Wilbur Norman and Their Respective Copyright Holders. All Rights Reserved.

ONA Union Street Bag

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