As anyone over the age of 15 knows, one thing leads to another. You can quote me.
And thus to camera bags, again. I used the same camera bag for many years—a Billingham 225 that I bought when Ronald Reagan was President. I never took care of it, but it lasted amazingly well through some hard use. Still looks pretty darn good at age 28 or so.
But I had to retire it when I started having to carry my laptop. (The 225 predates laptops. So do I, but I need one now.)
I had a Tamrac bag for carrying the three whole-plate (WP) film holder holders [sic] for the view camera. I took the holders in their holders out of the Tamrac I had bought to hold them, and pressed the Tamrac into service as my camera bag for multiple trips back and forth to New York State to visit my dear S. But then, in my recent spate of equipment selling, I sold the Single Use Device (a splendid and lovely Chamonix WP view camera), and the bags for it too. The Tamrac bag is back to holding the WP holders in their holder holders.
So I needed a bag.
Mindful that buying a very good quality bag during the Reagan administration had probably saved me a whole lot of money in camera bags over the years, I did some Internet research and chose an Ona Brixton camera/laptop messenger bag, in smoke.
That's the color, smoke. It's a gray-blue.
I was excited when it arrived, but crestfallen when I opened it. I have pretty good radar for quality. With a Billingham, you might not like the style, but you can see the quality pretty easily. That is, you can see where the money goes. As I examined the $289 Ona Brixton, I kinda wondered where all the money went.
It's not like it's a bad bag. It's not. It just didn't seem like "all that." Looked kinda frumpy and forlorn. Maybe it just needs wear.
The leather work is nice, but you can get bags with leather accents for $125 and $150. And it's not like the leather was that nice. One strap was kind womply, and the prong of the buckle (that's the proper term, prong, I looked it up) was standing away from the strap and wouldn't go flat like the other one.
And should a nearly $300 bag have stitching like this, where it's most obvious, near the top of the flap?
Style the Brixton has...although I'm not entirely sold on the style. It's simple, which is nice, and elegant, which is also nice. Maybe it's also just a little froofie. (That's a technical critical term in case you're wondering. Like "womply.") A touch pretentious, is what I'm saying. But maybe that just means I myself lack the necessary panache to carry such an accessory off.
Although I did use the Billingham for many years, and it's fancier than the Brixton.
It just wasn't giving me that "all put together just right" feeling, is all, the way some expensive things do. And there are other practical compromises, too, as I'll detail in a bit.
Was the money on the inside? Nope, no money there. Ordinary materials and not a lot of them, and decidedly ordinary construction. Again, nothing bad about it; just nothing that much different from most any $60 or $80 camera bag.
So anyway, next I went to my local camera store (I have one of those) and picked up a Tenba Small Messenger bag. (The product code is 638-222.) It's a little bigger than the Brixton, mainly in thickness. The Brixton barely fits my 13" laptop; the Tenba accommodates it with a couple of inches to spare.
It comes in seven different colors, including black, burnt orange, chocolate, navy blue, platinum, and plum. I really wanted to get a funky green one—Tenba calls it "olive" but it's more like "a cross between piss yella and puke green," in the words of Bob Falfa**. But I chickened out and came home with a black one.
I should have gotten the green one for illustration purposes! The black one is more anonymous than the colored ones. Its styling is far more commonplace than the Brixton. Although it's not bad looking if you like that nylon-wallet urban-anonymity kind of style, as many people do.
The Tenba is loaded with pointless little pockets I'll never use. What are those tiny vertical pockets at lower center for, anyway, pencil stubs? If I ever put an SD card in there it'd be gone forever. Note also that the flap features about four times as much Velcro as is actually needed. Velcro is nasty stuff. For one thing, whenever you try to tug it apart, it loudly announces to everyone within earshot that you're up to something. Then you'll pull out your camera, and they'll all think "Terrorist!"
If you'll look at the top shot, you'll see that the Tenba's belt-and-suspenders method of getting the flap shut not only includes copious amounts of Velcro, but two—not one, two—of those ubiquitous plastic pinch clamps that manufacturers love and nobody else even likes.
The actual clasps on the Ona bag aren't the buckles, they're metal fixtures underneath the straps that are very easy to close and open. Smooth and clicky. Apart from the nifty leather on the Brixton, the clasps are its biggest win over the Tenba from a practical standpoint.
At the very least, I need to find some Velcro "silencing" patches to put over the ones on the Small Messenger, because Velcro is not gonna do. Must neutralize Velcro! But wait...!
Oh—turns out you can unzip the "edge" of the flap for quickly removing and replacing your main camera and lens, keeping everything else secure.
So the Ona has the nicer, easier-to-use clasps, but the Tenba doesn't actually require you to open the flap at all for routine access to the camera. I'd score this one a wash, leaning in the Tenba's favor if anything.
The interior of the Tenba makes more sense than the inside of the Ona. It's better designed. I particularly like those little "ears" you see in this picture...they support your camera while the lens fills the hole between them—putting the camera in perfect position to be handy through the zipper in the flap. This all adds up to a very nice feature.
There are a few other nice touches to the Tenba, too—for instance, it has a clasp of, yes, Velcro, to hold your laptop in place when it's stowed away. That way, the loud ripping sound will alert you that it's you who's being ripped off. And there's a nice "hidden" transparent ID tag holder inside the Tenba, too. As shown above.
Where the Ona wins is with style and appearance, assuming you like its appearance. It's a more sophisticated-looking bag. The leather accents are elegant and attractive.
Here comes the rub, though...these three comparisons basically sum up the practical aspects of these bags:
1. The handles. No question the Ona's looks nicer...it's the nicest thing about the entire bag, in fact. Beautifully made. The Tenba's is considerably uglier.
There's also no question that the Tenba handle is more comfortable to hold and carry. It's centered, it's beefier and fills your palm nicely, it breathes. I'd rather look at the Brixton's handle; I'd rather use Tenba's.
2. The shoulder strap. On the Ona it's captive, sewn on, and can't be removed short of simply cutting it off. The shoulder strap on the Tenba is easily and quickly removable.
3. The strap pad. On the Ona the strap pad is nice looking on the top side, where it's leather (see the third photo, above). On the bottom side it's poorly stitched and appears to be just a strip of the same material the bag itself is made of. Meaning...waxed canvas.
Um, waxed. As in, it slips off your shoulder with little provocation. I can't imagine that this wouldn't slip off your shoulder a dozen times while walking half a mile through an airport. I also can't see how that wouldn't be utterly maddening. It would drive me crazy.
This strikes me as a major failure for a bag with a captive shoulder strap.
The Tenba's strap pad is fugly and homely, but it's comfortable and it works much better. The material is grippy without being sticky and there's a wide swath of it. It wants to stay up on your shoulder. Not saying it would never come down, but probably not often enough to add to your stress level. (Plus, as Jim pointed out in the Featured Comments, it's long enough to wear crossed over to the opposite shoulder.)
Oh, wait, there's a number four:
4. Price. The Ona Brixton costs $289. The Tenba Small Messenger costs $105. (These links are to Amazon because B&H Photo shuts down for Shabbat observance on Friday afternoons and most of Saturday, but both bags are also available from B&H Photo.)
With value considered, the Tenba wins going away.
As far as price is concerned, I had hoped it meant that the Ona would reek of quality. Instead, I'm afraid it reeks of...markup. You're paying an awful lot for stylish looks, and yet you're getting a worse-performing bag into the bargain. One that's not even obviously well made.
If both bags cost $105 I'd probably still have to choose the Tenba. The reason is that I actually use my bag, and the better it works, the better I'll like it. The Brixton has a certain style, but the thought of a shoulder bag slipping off my shoulder 20 times as I race between flights is something even nice leather trim and fashionable looks can't make up for.
That doesn't account for one important thing, and that's if you're wild about the way the Brixton looks. If you are, it could still be worth it. I'm not wild about its looks. Or not wild enough.
Nutshell verdict: the Ona looks sophisticated...but the Tenba is sophisticated.
The Ona Brixton is going back to Amazon. My advice with the Tenba Small Messenger? Pick a color. The colored one I saw looked sportier than the black one.
Now I wonder whether the Tenba would beat a Billingham Hadley? Naw, I've got better things to do....
*By the way, all the product pictures in this post (except the green bag) were taken with the new-to-me Panasonic LX7 that I acquired for doing this sort of thing. Works pretty well, don't you think?
**Harrison Ford line from the movie American Grafitti.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Steve P.: "Mike, and I say this with all due respect...if a man happily owns a Billingham bag for the better part of three decades and then decides not to replace it with another Billingham, then that man must be some kind of ornery contrarian of the first order! Again, all due respect."
Mike replies: I couldn't find any information, on B&H or Amazon or Billingham's own site, about whether any of the various Hadleys accommodate laptops, and if so, what size. I believe from reading comments at various sites that people who use them for laptops simply slip them in between the insert and the canvas. That doesn't really do the trick for me—I'd like padding at least on the bottom, so that when I set the bag down the fragile edge of the laptop (13" MacBook Air) has a little more between it and the hard floor than one layer of canvas, or "FibreNyte," Billingham's proprietary cloth.
P.S. I'm only an ornery contrarian of the third order. [g]
Richard Tugwell: "I guess you won't be convinced but there's always the Billingham laptop slip."
Mike replies: I find Billingham's website to be quite poor. Typically for the site, they don't indicate which bags the laptop slip will fit inside! Or is it just meant as a standalone carry case?
James Moule: "I bought the much more expensive leather version of the Ona bag to carry my Sony Alpha 7 II and one or two extra lenses. In that version your comments about quality disappear. The stitching is perfect. The flap fits perfectly. The leather shoulder strap is very well made. There is even leather binding around the edges of the leather material.
"However...some people think that a camera bag should not look like a camera bag so that no one will realize there is an expensive camera inside. The leather Ona does not look like a camera bag at all. It's glamorous. Nobody would guess that there was something as cheap as a camera inside."
Frank P. (partial comment): "Frankly I'd have expected you to go for one of the new Magnum-approved Filsons. They look like the spawn of a dirty Billingham/Domke hookup under the canvas. And they say Magnum! like you finally got voted in!"
Mike replies: A bag custom designed and approved by the famously bag-obsessed Dr. David Alan Harvey, Professor of Bagology, is tempting indeed. We might have to review that one too.
MANUFACTURER'S COMMENT (from Peter Waisnor at Tenba): "Thanks for the detailed review, and as well for all the great comments in the feed about Tenba. As so many have pointed out, Tenba's focus is definitely on bags that function well, and it's nice to see when that's understood and appreciated.
"We are similarly confused when we see bags at a high price that use cheap materials because it just means that anyone who actually uses the bag will tear through it in no time. The comments about the overly-aggressive Velcro are noted and I'll pass them along to the design team."
Mike replies: I think what would work best is a cross of Velcro...vertical strips of about 1/2-inch by 2 or three inches on the bag, and horizontal strips of the same dimensions on the flap (or vice-versa). That way you'd get a 1/2-inch x 1/2-inch contact patch no matter where you placed the flap. That's enough Velcro to get the flap to stay down; then if you wanted to really secure it, you'd use the clips. It's also not so much Velcro that it would be difficult (or loud) to open the flap again.
I'd also like to review the Tenba DNA 13 (638-375), but not now, as I have travel commitments coming up.
Jim: "I bought the same Tenba in platinum (gray) about six years ago for a Nikon D300 and three lenses plus a Macbook Air. Worked fine. Moved to Oly Pens, and it now carries two bodies, four lenses, two viewfinders and accessories.
"But I liked it so much, I threw away my briefcase and use the Tenba without the liner instead. Fits a Macbook Air, iPad, paperwork, etc. The outside back pocket is perfect for travel docs. Those small pockets inside the flap are good for business cards and notepads, pens, etc. The Velcro is noisy, but holds well enough you can ignore the plastic clips.
"But the best part of this bag is the strap! It is long enough to wear crossed over to the opposite shoulder not just hanging down, so falling off is not an issue. And the pad makes it really comfy. By the way, I still have the suede leather bag I bought over 50 years ago for my Leica M2!"
Gordon Lewis: "After carefully reviewing what you plan to use the bag for, it became apparent to me that what you need is not so much a camera bag to use while you're out shooting, but rather a carry-on bag to transport your essential gear between trips to visit your significant other. [This is true. Maybe I should have specified that. —MJ] The Tenba bag you described sounds ideal for this.
"My personal solution when I'm traveling is to use a messenger bag with a padded insert for my 13" MacBook Air. The messenger bag is deep enough to accommodate my Domke F-5Xb canvas camera bag, which is what I use for day-to-day shooting. Between the two bags there are plenty of pockets for other miscellaneous items. I have a variety of inexpensive messenger bags, but all have wide, no-slip shoulder straps, which I consider a minimum requirement."
Mike replies: Interesting that you should bring that up. First, yes, you're right that what I need is a traveling bag. I don't actually carry a bag with me when I'm out shooting at all...all I have is a large baggie in my back pocket to protect the camera in case I get caught in heavy showers or rain. (That's only come to the rescue exactly once, but that one time justified the habit.)
Your bag-in-a-bag (i.e., shooting bag inside a travel bag) idea is very interesting, and it's crossed my mind too. I'm not aware of any company that markets such a thing. Surprising no one's tried it. (Unless of course they have and we just don't know about it.)
Of course, as you did, we can cobble together our own.
Richard Eldred: "ONA Bags aren't perfect, but one thing I can say about them is that the amount of abuse they can take is phenomenal. I've got a Brixton that I've been beating the living daylights out of for about five years that still refuses to give up. This thing has been thrown up and down cliffs, rained on, gone mouldy, kicked, sat on, bounced around the backs of trucks for all of its life and still won't die. I've no doubt a Billingham could take that kind of abuse but the Tenba, much like the Crumplers I've had in the past, don't inspire as much confidence. Maybe I'm talking out my arse :-) . I'm avoiding the Filson's catalogue, I don't think I could resist those Magnum collaboration bags [i.e., the Harvey, named for David Alan Harvey, and the McCurry, named for Steve McCurry. —Ed.]...."
Carl Siracusa: "This is probably a dumb question, but that's never stopped me before. Why on earth do you need to carry around laptop when you go out taking pictures?
Mike replies: I don't. I don't carry any bag with me when I'm out taking pictures, except a plastic bread bag in my pocket in case it rains and I'm caught out in it. When I fly I need a carry-on that holds a laptop, an iPad, a camera or two, the charger(s), and sometimes extra lenses. That's what I use a bag for.
Roger Bartlett: "Living in a remote part of Australia, carry-on weight is an issue on the small airlines.This is one aspect of the Tenba Messenger you did not really mention—the bag is very light and so does not handicap me with a high tare weight in the effort to keep below the seven kilogram baggage limit. This means my gear can ride in the cabin with me and not get passed to some heavy-handed baggage handler. That is why I have the Messenger and not a canvas or leather heavyweight."
William: "The Tenba Small Messenger bag is absolutely wonderful for travel. I can pack my basic X-Pro 1 or X-T1 kit, small flash and accessories with ease. I use it for mostly travel. Occasionally I pop my 13" MacBook Air with writing supplies (portfolio/pens) and papers for meetings. It's the best bag $$$ I ever spent."