Review: ONA’s Leather Union Street is a gorgeous, durable camera bag with a timeless design
posted Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 1:24 PM EST
ONA leaves nothing on the table. ‘A purveyor of fine bags and accessories’, the New York City company, founded in 2010, takes great strides to combine the best of both form and function into its products.
Whether its one of ONA’s leather camera straps or waxed canvas messenger camera bags, every product is created from the ground up with premium materials and meticulous designs, ensuring whatever it is you purchase is not only a workhorse that can take a beating, but also looks darn fine doing it.
As part of our camera bag review series, we reached out to ONA and asked if we could get our hands on a bag for a review. They kindly obliged and after a few emails, we had ONA’s new Leather Union Street messenger bag sitting at our doorstep.
This is ONA’s largest camera bag offering, both in size and price. It is our goal with our camera bag review series to review a number of bags from each company, as to provide reviews from across the companies’ price spectrum. But in the case of ONA, we were only promised one bag to review to begin with, so we chose the Leather Union Street messenger bag.
The decision to review this particular bag was done for two main reasons. First, 15” laptops tend to be the sweet-spot for many photographers; ONA’s Union Street bag is the only bag of theirs that is capable of holding a 15” laptop. We choose the leather option, as opposed to ONA’s waxed canvas Union Street, because if we were going to review the bag, we’d wanted to get our hands on the one with the most unique characteristics and material to truly test ONA’s selection of materials – it’s a lot easier to get away with imperfect waxed canvas than it is a bag constructed almost entirely out of leather.
Testing of the bag was done over the course of two weeks, one more than previous reviews, as I wanted to give some time for the leather to break in a little and really wanted to get a feel for how best to use the bag. After all, going from a hiking backpack in our last review to a more street-style messenger bag is a big switch.
To match the intended use of the Leather Union Street messenger bag, I spent a number of days walking through downtown Cincinnati with it, seeing just how well it worked as a street photography bag.
Knowing full well what bag I chose for review, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I opened the box, simply branded with ONA’s logo on both sides. But I was. After carefully cutting open the box and pulling the bag from its protective cover, I set it on my coffee table. I’m not sure why, but I just stared at it for a while. As beautiful as I figured it would be, it was even more impressive in person.
The Leather Union Street doesn’t look like a camera bag at all. It looks like the kind of bag you would expect Sherlock Holmes to be carrying around on his crime-solving endeavors; the kind of briefcase Richard Parker would keep hidden away for his son. Its walnut-toned leather combined with its brass rivets and closures gives it a timeless aesthetic that perfectly suits anyone who appreciates premium materials that will last a lifetime. The minimal branding -- only the ONA logos: one on the inside of the top flap and two above each side pocket, which are often obscured by the shoulder strap -- also aids in giving it a premium aesthetic.
The dimensions of the bag are as follows: 16”L x 11”H x 5.5”D (40.6cm x 30cm x 14cm). Empty, the bag weighs in at 4.4 lbs (2 kg), attesting to just how thick and solid the leather and construction of the bag is.
Design and Materials
Onto one of my favorite parts of every bag review; breaking down the design of the bag and the materials used to construct it.
The ONA Leather Union Street messenger bags features a fairly standard design in terms of a messenger bag. Looking at it from the front, you see a large flap going over the front of the bag, secured by two antiqued brass closures.
An interesting aspect of the closures is the way in which ONA designed them to work seamlessly in both form and function. While the brass hardware features a classic buckle design, ONA understood such a design choice would make it more difficult to quickly access your gear when walking around. Instead ONA used snap closures, hidden under the leather strap from the buckles, more quickly affording you access to the inside of the bag. The buckles aren’t only for aesthetics though; you can adjust the leather buckle depending on how much gear you have inside your bag to ensure a proper and secure fit.
On either side of the bag there are two pockets, which start a little more than halfway up the bag and extend down to the bottom stitching. On the back, there is a large pocket with a hidden magnetic closure and a double-thick handle for easy lifting of the bag.
The shoulder strap of the bag is made up of two strips of leather stitched together for a clean and continuous look. The shoulder pad is made up of the same leather, but opts for a double-stitched design to make it stronger. On the underside of the shoulder pad is a matching Cordura Nylon material that is slightly padded for comfort.
Upon opening up the bag, you’re presented with a large pocket, further sectioned off with customizable felt dividers, and a zippered pocket for storing additional accessories, including but not limited to pens, your smartphone, memory cards and so on. The interior of the main flap is covered with the same canvas material as the underside of the shoulder pad.
One of the more unique design features of the bag is the use of extra leather for baffles on either side of the main compartment. It looked slightly awkward at first, but I quickly realized the extra material here is specifically designed to fold up inside the bag when closed to prevent any dust, rain or debris from getting into the main compartment, which houses your camera and computer gear. It’s a small design choice with a big impact.
One of the defining characteristics of any ONA product is the quality of materials used. The Leather Union Street messenger bag is no exception, with its beautifully-tanned leather and antiqued brass hardware. In speaking with ONA, I was told the leather they use is sourced from a fifth generation tannery in Italy. The name of the tannery has not been shared with ONA by its vendor though, so I don’t have that information.
The leather used to make the bag is honestly much better quality than I was anticipating. It walks the fine line of being rigid enough to support most any abuse you can toss at it, but still offers the soft feel and tactile texture you would expect from softer leather.
Part of the reason the bag feels so rigid is due to the way in which it’s been built and reinforced. The bottom of the bag is made up of two separate layers of leather, which sandwiches a patented fiberboard substrate, to help the bottom of the bag hold its shape, even when it’s empty. The side pockets are also for form just as much function, offering a double layer of leather to further increase the strength of the bag’s frame.
An important part of any leather product is the stitching used to hold the pieces together. At first, I was slightly let down that the strap and other components weren’t double-stitched, but after two weeks of use, I realized there wasn’t a need for it. First, it would’ve changed the aesthetics of the bag, reducing its appeal. Second, the stitching ONA uses is more than strong enough to hold up to years and years, if not decades of use.
The antiqued hardware is another component I was fairly surprised by. The brass latches, zippers and snaps used are some of the highest quality components I’ve seen on any bag. Not only do they give the bag a premium feel, but you can rest assured they won’t be failing anytime soon.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that ONA decided to line the interior of the leather bag with a softer material for padding and protecting your gear when in transit. Like most camera bags, this padding is modular in design, assuring you can customize it to your heart’s content to fit your needs.
The padding itself is a bit thicker and more protective than that of other bags I’ve reviewed and purchased in my admittedly short photography career (5 years and counting). Naturally, the downfall of thicker padding is that it does minimize the usable internal volume slightly.
With the design and the materials covered, it’s onto the real-world observations of the bag and how it performed over the two weeks I’ve been using it.
As previously mentioned, I spent two weeks carrying this bag around, from downtown Cincinnati to the small town of Marion, Indiana as I visited family. Throughout that time, a number of wonderful and quirky attributes stuck out to me. So we end on a good note, I’ll hit up a few of the downfalls of the bag, then get to the good stuff, much of which I’ve already stated above.
One of the concerns I had with the bag was its front pocket. The pocket itself doesn’t have any inherit depth, due to the fact it’s stitched flat against the front of the bag. Granted, this leaves less room for failure in terms of baffles, it also leaves less room for you to use.
Even when empty, the front pocket is a struggle to access and with the exception of a few pens, a small Moleskine/Field Notes, a smartphone and a few memory cards, nothing else will fit in there. Even then, it’s not easy to access what’s inside. This, of course, could easily change down the road as the leather loosens up. But two weeks in, even with some attempts to speed up the process, I haven’t noticed much difference.
Similarly, the side pockets are limiting in what you can put inside of them. The pockets are extremely deep, but the opening, which is held together merely by the tension of the leather being tightly stitched to either side, makes it difficult to put objects inside. This could be viewed as a positive though, because when you do put something inside of the pocket, you can ensure it’s not going anywhere. At all. In fact, I don’t think a clever thief could snag something out of one of those pockets without you noticing.
With my complaints out of the way, it’s on to more of the positives of the bag.
One small aspect of the bag I previously mentioned was the decision to use a rigid, but soft Cordura nylon material for the inside of the front flap. At first, I figured it was merely a cost-saving measure, but a little thinking on the matter made me realize one of the reasons they likely chose to do this is to prevent the dye used in the tanning process from rubbing off on your gear. No matter how high quality the leather you choose, it’s inevitable that over time, the pigment used to dye it will rub off on anything it touches. In a standard messenger bag or brief case, this doesn’t matter so much, but when it’s lenses and cameras you’re carrying around, it’s important to know that no foreign substances might accidentally transfer to the front element of your lens or your camera’s eyepiece over time.
Another component I mentioned was the brilliant decision to make the latching mechanism two-fold. By using a quick-snap component, ONA makes it easy to open and close the bag without any effort, while the traditional buckle design lets you tighten and loosen up the flap of the bag depending on how much (or little) gear you’re carrying. In the time I spent walking around with the bag, I never once had a problem opening and closing the bag when I was quickly trying to swap out lenses or put my camera away. In fact, it didn’t take more than a day for me to start opening and closing it instinctively without looking at all.
The modular design of the internal dividers is another feature I love. Although this bag was designed with photographers in mind, you can choose to have as many or as few of the dividers as you want in the bag. Don’t need a laptop for the day? Remove the laptop divider and you’ll have more space for an extra camera body or lens. Not shooting at all for the day, but still want an attractive bag for work? Remove all of the dividers and you have yourself a traditional messenger bag with more room than you know what to do with. It’s a feature you would expect in camera bags, but in a messenger that looks as good as the Leather Union Street it really makes a difference in terms of usability in any situation, photography or otherwise. Additionally, if you need extra dividers, ONA sells them in their online store.
The last thing I have written down in my observation notes is to make mention of the handle. Almost any messenger bag you’ll find will have a handle for those times when you just need to move it across the room. Usually, the handles are one of the first components to become unstitched or break apart, as it’s putting a great deal of stress and weight on two considerably small areas of the bag. In my experience thus far, I don’t see that happening with the ONA Leather Union Street. Sure, down the road it’s likely that the handle will still start to show its weaknesses, but the folded-over design of the handle and strong stitching, which is integrated into the back structure of the bag, will hold up for far longer than anything else I’ve used.
I’ll be the first to admit that, traditionally, I’m not a fan of messenger bags. I’ve stuck to backpacks almost my entire career, even when a messenger back was likely the better option. This is due to the fact that I much prefer to have two straps across my shoulders than a single one, as I don’t feel off balance or as though my bag could tilt and send my gear tumbling onto the ground if I forget to latch it closed.
But the ONA is different. Granted, it’s very likely due to the fact that it’s far more attractive than other messenger bags I’ve carried, thus I’m more willing to put up with it, I still appreciate it more on every level than I have other messenger bags.
I’m between 6’2” and 6’3” tall and the 15” Union Street bag is perfect for me. The adjustable straps are essentially infinitely adjustable, so you can tweak the ride height just how you like it.
Whether you prefer the shoulder strap across your body or hanging down on a single side, the weight of the bag is balanced well, regardless of what gear you’re carrying and how it’s distributed inside the bag. In other messenger bags I’ve used, a 70–200mm on one side without a counterweight will leave the bag awkwardly and dangerously tilting as you’re walking around or crouching down to get that perfect shot.
The shoulder pad’s Cordura nylon backing has the perfect amount of grip on almost any fabric; it won’t twist and turn your shirt when walking and moving around like most gripped pads will.
All in all, the ONA Leather Union Street messenger bag is without a doubt the most beautiful camera bag I’ve ever laid eyes on. Functionally, it isn’t much different than what other camera-specific messenger bags offer. But if you’re someone with a buy it for life mentality, or someone who appreciates form as much as function, the Leather Union Street is without a doubt the messenger bag you’ve been waiting for.
Sure, at some level it was created for the young hipster crowd with plenty of expendable income. But if you can look past the initial appeal as a fashion statement, which I hope I have done in this review, there is far more value in its build quality and its inevitable ability to last far longer than most any other camera bag you’re going to find on the market.
That said, it’s not going to be an on-a-whim purchase. It’s an investment. At US$489, the Leather Union Street is not cheap. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a messenger bag that is going to hold up as well as the Union Street and look darn fine while doing it. As anyone who appreciates quality leather knows, it’s only going to look better with time.
If you’re not a fan of the leather, or just want to cut down the cost, ONA offers three other versions of the Union Street, all of which substitute the leather for waxed canvas -- brass hardware is still present. The waxed canvas Union Street bags come in at US$299, almost half the price of the leather version.
On smaller people, the bag will likely look a bit big and might even be a struggle to carry for extended periods of time when full of gear. So, if size is a concern, you can opt for one of ONA’s smaller bags, the Bowery, Prince Street, or Brixton, each of which come in leather and waxed canvas options.