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Gear Review: Ona Union Street, the Clark Kent of Camera Bags

By Contributing Editor Steve Casimiro, editor of Adventure Journal. See more of Casimiro's gear recommendations in our Ultimate Hiking and Camping Gear Guide >>

There are times when you don’t want to walk around in the world wearing a pack that screams, “I’m a photographer.” Times, for example, like, whenever you leave the house. Not only does a big nylon backpack tinseled with webbing make it difficult to be unobtrusive (often a key to capturing great images), it also suggests to thieves, muggers, and ne’er-do-wells that you’re holding thousands of dollars in direct-to-Ebay merchandise. The second half of that “I’m a photographer” scream? “Please rob me.”

Ona’s Union Street messenger-style camera bag, $279, is nothing if not discrete. Constructed of waxed canvas that has a buttery-but-tough feel, it looks like a traditional messenger that’s more likely to be stuffed with a breakfast bagel and the latest New Yorker than several thousand dollars worth of electronics. No, from the outside, nothing suggests Cartier-Bresson. With a padded leather bottom, brass tuck-lock closure, and the stealthy suede hand of the fabric, it’s much more Clark Kent.

Style was a very clear goal of Ona founder/designer Tracy Foster, who confesses to carrying her SLR everywhere, but loathing “a camera bag that was clunky and distracting. On occasion, to avoid looking like a tourist, I even tried stuffing my camera into a stylish non-camera bag, wrapping it in scarves or t-shirts and hoping it wouldn’t come in contact with my other stuff. Inevitably, it did. And my camera ended up with the nicks and scratches to prove it.”

Me, too. I’ve dinged the heck out of gear trying to be more subtle (as if a white guy with a shaved head is going to be mistaken for a local in, say, the souks of Marrakech), and the lesson is that just as important as the urban styling of the exterior is the capability of the interior to organize and protect your gear.

If you’re traveling light by photographer standards, the inside of the Union Street is large enough to carry a basic kit and do it with aplomb. Drop in a DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark ii with lens attached, memory cards, flash, and a second lens, as I did, and you’ll be thrilled with how easily you can access your gear, how quickly you can customized the padded dividers, how comfortably the bag carries on your shoulder, and how it sits upright on its own when you set it down. It’s the first street-oriented bag I’ve seen that effectively balances protection, stealth, and the often-overlooked ergonomic demands of pulling out a camera, shooting, and tucking it away. And if you’re going very light, as I often do, with just a body, lens, and tiny kit of essentials, the Union Street is a flawless do-anything bag. It’s a clear home run—a bag so stylish and efficient you make up trips just to carry it.

However, the burden of the enthusiast photographer is gear, and once you load the Union Street to its stated capacity it strains to comply with your requests and reveals the challenges of compromise between stealth and function. The bag is designed to hold three lenses, a body, and a laptop, and yes, it will do that. But if you have a laptop and said kit, the bag pushes forward and makes it almost impossible to access the nicely organized front pocket. Add an iPad and the Union Street really starts to sweat. Even with just a laptop and the 5D, the bulge on the top of the camera creates a kind of pregnant curve on the front of the bag.

I’m sympathetic to Foster’s design dilemma. Build the bag big enough to satisfy a pro and you’ve lost the sleek, under-the-radar steez that makes the Union Street such an object of lust. Keep it as is and your expectations of what it will carry well might trip over the reality.

The answer, I think, is twofold. One, the bag needs to be a smidge deeper. It’s currently five inches, but the Canon and a Macbook Pro together are five and a half. Perhaps an expansion bellows or additional inch will blow the svelteness, and perhaps Foster has considered it, but it’s worth a closer look.

The second solution is simpler: Force yourself to take less stuff. Back off from the stated capacity and carry one body, one lens. It takes the pressure off the camera bag and put it back where it belongs: on the photographer.