I’ve never been one to care very much about stylish camera bags. As long as I had something durable that I could organize neatly, that has been fine. I justified my position by thinking that a cheaper, more tatty looking bag was less likely to attract attention and get stolen. And hey, cheaper camera bag, more budget for film, right?
That was my position until my last wedding shoot anyway.
The groom, who I know to have impeccable taste, greeted my wife and I when we arrived. He took one look at my wife’s decade-old Kelly Moore full grain leather bag and said “Hey, nice looking camera bag!” Clearly he was impressed and it was a nice way to kick off our evening photo shoot. But then I saw his eyes scan over to my tattered and faded olive canvas Domke F-6. It has some sentimental value because it was gifted to me by photographer Joey Pasco and is pushing 20 years old. The shoulder strap is ragged and frayed along the edges, as are some corners of the bag. There are even a few holes and threadbare spots on the bottom. I could see my client’s face drop with a quick and obvious assessment as he politely swallowed his disapproval and steered the conversation elsewhere.
It’s possible that I read too much into his reaction, but it wasn’t the first time that I felt a little underdressed with the Domke, walking into a nice restaurant with a frayed and threadbare camera bag while wearing wingtips and a button-up does exactly the opposite of why I use this worn bag – it actually draws, rather than deflects attention. The Domke just isn’t consistent with my look or environment much of the time. And it doesn’t really reflect the person I want the outside world to see. But worse, I was beginning to wonder if my beloved, tried and true Domke F-6 was making me look unprofessional to clients. Could my appearance even cost me work?
Where a brassed Leica might look storied, a tattered camera bag just looks like you need a new camera bag!
Recently, I got drinks with photographer Ben Eisendrath. He was carrying an ONA Bowery Street bag and told me that he has several ONA brand camera bags, of varying sizes and styles and he really loves and endorses them. He even made an appearance on their website. What I liked about the look of Ben’s bag and the other ONA bags I’d seen is that they have a simple, rugged, masculine style about them, yet they also look refined enough to command the respect that my faded and frayed old Domkes seem unable to cull.
ONA makes some compact daily carry bags like the Bond Street and Bowery Street. But my real goal was to replace the mid-size bag that I use for paid shoots but that I can also walk around downtown with. Something that would be good for family photos, engagement sessions, concerts, or anything like that where I would be taking one or two cameras and one or two lenses with ten or twenty rolls of film. And then go out for drinks afterwards.
I decided to order ONA’s Prince Street bag in waxed olive canvas and dark truffle full grain leather. It’s very similar to the large Brixton bag but a bit smaller – something that seems to walk the line between serious shoot and daily carry. A capable but low profile street photo bag. It’s a little taller but not as wide and deep as my Domke F-6 and shares its same basic form and some of its features.
What I am liking about the ONA vs. the Domke so far is that the ONA does not stick out from my body nearly as much as the Domke did. The ONA holds a little less volume, doesn’t look, and is not as physically bulky. This is because the ONA’s dimensions favor height instead of width. The difference does make a tighter fit for my usual belongings and the bag is better suited for rangefinders and compact SLR’s as opposed to full sized SLR’s, DSLR’s or medium format SLR’s. Typically, if I’m using two cameras, one is in my hand or around my neck and needn’t be bagged anyway. So this arrangement is fine. What is in the bag also fits more snugly than other bags I use. The ONA’s slimness seems to encourage bringing only the essential items and caring for them well. I like that.
The canvas of the ONA is more heavily waxed than the Domke. Whereas the Domke is very soft and pliable, the ONA is stiff and rigid. While I used to enjoy the softness of the Domke bag, which is often touted as a selling point, this lack of “structure” causes the bag to deform and sag when loaded up and carried. Almost as if it’s got the space but not the strength. The ONA’s rigidity seems to aid carrying somehow. Though the ONA is heavier than the Domke, it feels lighter and more agile on my shoulder, more a part of my person and less a heavy extra thing to carry. I’ve noticed that I forgot that I was even wearing it a few times. I think this is because the connecting points of the shoulder strap remain at a single distance on the ONA thanks to it’s rigid shape, instead of flexing back and forth as they do on the the Domke bag whose contents always also seem to be shifting slightly. The rigidity and height-oriented shape also keep the ONA looking more stately and proper to me. Whereas a loaded up Domke can look slouchy, lazy and fat.
It must be said that with all that wax sealant in the ONA canvas, the material very easily takes on scratches and rub marks. Some may like the easily created “patina,” or aging effect while others may not. To this point though, one thing I’ve found that I don’t like about any of my Domke bags is that the dyes that they use seem to fade very unevenly and harshly with UV exposure. The marks that show on the ONA tell a story of how the bag is touched and used. The fading of the Domke just looks unkept to me. Only time will tell how the ONA canvas and leather ages but it seems designed to wear like and old pair of jeans or cowboy boots, gathering character.
Both bags feature some lined and unlined panels. The Domke is lined with a thin nylon fabric, which, on occasion has soaked through with rain. This could very well be due to my lack of attention to reapplying any kind of sealant to it, but it has happened. The lined panels of the ONA are lined with more canvas, or in the case of the main interior pocket, a soft, fuzzy material that holds its Velcro dividers as well as provides some cushion for gear and structure to the bag that the Domke doesn’t offer. There are images on the ONA website of their canvas bags being completely soaked on the outside and everything dry inside. I think the Domke could do this on its better days also but weather protection will likely last longer with the ONA. And the additional padding, while reducing space for equipment, of course, better absorbs hits and bumps than a single layer of canvas like the Domke.
While both bags are made of canvas, much of the “hardware” on the Domke is PVC plastic with some steel alloy but with the ONA, everything is solid brass. I’ve never had any issues with the plastic parts of the Domke cracking, bending or even showing any wear. In fact, only the steel hardware on the F-6 shows any wear (paint) but the plastic parts look brand new, 20 years later. The brass on the ONA, of course, looks classier but it also feels smoother in operation. It’s corny but I also like that I’ve got a bag holding brass cameras that is also fitted with brass. There is just something congruent about this.
One thing I’ve come to love about Domke is the accessory US Post Office Shoulder Pad. I primarily use it with my F1-X but wondered if I might want to use it with the ONA since the bag is technically heavier. Again, though ONA won me over. While the longest shoot that I’ve taken the ONA on so far was only about 4 hours of wearing the bag, I am very happy with its shoulder strap as well as the seemingly inferior and thin all leather shoulder pad that is built into the Prince Street bag. The Domke shoulder straps seem to be made out of a thicker canvas than the type used for the the panels of the bags. Their straps also feature several rubber threads that run the length of the strap and supposedly assist in gripping the strap onto ones shoulder without slipping. All this sounds fine but what I’ve found is that the straps have or perhaps develop some amount of elasticity to them.
What this means is that as I’m walking, the bag itself is not only flexing due to the soft nature of the canvas but the strap itself is stretching and retracting back and forth with my steps too. It’s slight but I find it annoying. And again, I didn’t realise how annoying it was until I wore the ONA. Their canvas bags are equipped with a strap that appears to be similar or perhaps even the same material as that of a car safety belt. How rad is that?! There is absolutely zero flex in this strap and feels as secure and unbreakable as a goddamn automotive quality strap. This might be my favorite practical feature of the bag. And that thin leather shoulder pad that I thought I’d be replacing, I don’t see that happening. I don’t know what it is, though the leather is a good inch thinner than the Domke accessory pad (which is made of foam rubber and of course, doesn’t look as nice), the ONA pad is very absorbent and comfortable. I do have to say that it’s somewhat difficult to slide the shoulder pad along the strap to change its position but it’s not annoyingly so.
One major criticism that I have for the ONA Prince Street is the design of the main cover flap. The interior corners have these “webs” that fold into the bag when you close the flap and straighten up when you when open the flap. These appear to be included to both help the front flap open fully to the contents of the bag while perhaps offering some weather protection, but I have my doubts about how they’re implemented. I fear that they could potentially guide water into the bag like little funnels during a heavy downpour.
At the rear corners of the main flap, three panels of fabric, the flap, the liner for the flap and the web are all stitched together at this point. I’m sure that whoever sewed the bag did as clean a job as possible given this complex intersection of fabrics, but the otherwise clean, straight stitching lines of the flap are compromised here, on a visual level.
Strangely the front flap is just not wide enough to fully cover the opening of the bag. Whereas the Domke front flap covers this to the point of almost being excessive and imprecise, the ONA is just slightly too conservative to fully enclose its contents in some cases. Depending on how the flap sits, it sometimes creates little open areas to the main compartment of the bag. No amount of wax sealant will stop water from entering a direct, open hole of course.
Likely, the webs would actually protect the contents of the bag in any light precipitation and if I were concerned about water getting in at any point, the webs can be inverted so that they stick out of the bag, ridiculous as this may look on a cosmetic level. I am also finding that there are ways that I can fold and press the top of the bag, as well as tighten the front adjusting snaps, in order to mitigate my concerns about the width of the front flap. I’ve been out in the snow and rain a couple times with the ONA and haven’t observed any instances of my concerns actually occurring. The canvas sheds water keenly and snow hasn’t stuck. It may also just be an unlikely set of obstacles for weather to make its way into the bag. I feel that the design of the front flap could use some improvement if for no other reason than to instill stronger confidence though. A design more like the ONA Sedona might be wiser for photographers expecting to use their bag in trying weather conditions.
Overall, I’m very happy with the ONA Prince Street messenger style camera bag. My wife likes it and while I’ve yet to receive any compliments from anyone else, that is kind of the point. I opted for the understated canvas version instead of a flashy all leather one precisely because I want to keep a lower key look that is still respectable. It’s debatable as to if I could have achieved the same effect by just picking up a new Domke F-6 sans holes and frayed edges. But I think the ONA is a better investment and will still look and function well in 20 years instead of requiring another replacement. Also, anyone who actually takes the time to give the ONA a second look will be likely to notice that it is indeed finely crafted. I may even pick up a couple of matching ONA dark truffle leather neckstraps for the two Leica’s that I pretty much leave in the ONA Prince Street at all times. And that brings me to the real takeaway of my review.
Whatever camera bag you choose, and whatever your reasons for choosing it, to me, the mark of a good camera bag is that it feels like something more than just another place to stow your equipment, but that it feels like the home of your equipment. And that is exactly what the ONA Prince Street bag has quickly become – a home for my favorite Leica cameras, where they are safe, easily accessed and well-presented.
Many thanks to Ben Eisendrath for the recommendation
And thank you for reading. Happy shooting.
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