It’s a good time to be in the market for a camera bag.
These days, the camera bag business is thriving, aided in no small part by the booming popularity of mirrorless systems. There’s a flavor for everyone: some of them are bulletproof, while others can carry every camera and lens ever made. Some come in flashy, vibrant colors, while others go for a more understated approach. Whatever your personal preferences, chances are somebody out there has already built a bag that is just right for you.
It wasn’t always like this, though.
Only a few years ago, the camera bag landscape was comparatively bleak. Other than your typical neoprene and nylon backpacks designed to carry a full professional DSLR system, there was little to choose from. If you looked really hard, you would eventually find a bag that was the right size for your needs, or one that didn’t look terrible. Finding one that met both criteria, however, was a daunting task. When it came to designing a camera bag style was, for the most part, an irrelevant factor.
But then things started to change.
With the rise of mirrorless technology, a different profile of consumer started to emerge. These were people for whom size, weight and yes, looks, were all just as critical as image quality and performance, and those same preferences applied to their bags, as well. Perhaps most importantly, they were willing to pay a premium for a bag that catered to their particular design sensibilities.
At this point, a few smaller manufacturers started entering the scene, designing bags that didn’t compromise on style in order to protect your gear. Of course, smaller scale operation usually translates into higher prices, but these companies made up for it by putting an emphasis on craftsmanship, materials, and quality, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. It was a whole new game, and it was here to stay.
Among several others, ONA bags is a company that perfectly embodies these new values and sensibilities. Their products are not only functional and well-designed, they’re also beautiful, and they exude quality.
Due to its average size and the convenience of its messenger-style design, the Brixton is one of ONA’s most popular products. There’s certainly much to love about this amazing bag: it has a classic, timeless look that will never go out of style, and more than enough space to carry everything you’re likely to need on a regular basis, including your laptop.
Could this actually turn out to be the perfect bag? Let’s find out.
The Brixton comes in six different styles, providing a rich mix of colors and materials to choose from. Three of them are canvas versions with accents in beautiful Italian leather: smoke, black, and field tan. There’s also a black nylon version with black leather accents. Finally, there are two full-grain Italian leather versions: dark truffle and antique cognac, as reviewed.
All of these models are similarly beautiful, but there are some notable differences between them, perhaps the most important of which is weight. Leather is a heavy material, and it definitely impacts the overall weight of the bag. As such, the nylon and canvas versions are the lighter models, coming in at 3.1 lbs. The leather models, however, are a full pound heavier at 4.1 lbs.
This is the sort of difference you can definitely feel when carrying a full bag for an extended period of time. For reference, it’s like carrying an extra professional-grade zoom lens for the same total weight. If this is a factor you’re concerned with, go with either the canvas or nylon models.
Another difference is that the nylon Brixton has a handy feature built into the back sleeve pocket. There’s a zipper in the bottom part that essentially transforms that pocket into a luggage sleeve, allowing you to slide it over the handle of a rolling suitcase for easy transportation while traveling. This is a nice feature that can make a difference if you plan on traveling a lot with the bag.
If weatherproofing is essential to you, keep in mind that the nylon and canvas versions will handle rain better than the leather ones. Despite the wax finish that offers some protection against light rain, you probably shouldn’t take the leather ones out under a heavy downpour.
Other than these differences, every Brixton bag is pretty much identical: same size, same layout, same carrying capabilities. Therefore, while the remainder of this review will focus specifically on the leather Brixton, most of what follows will apply to any of the other models as well.
Build quality, materials and craftsmanship
The leather Brixton is one of the best-made bags I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Everything about this bag screams quality: the thickness of the rich leather, the brass hardware, the details. ONA assembles these by hand, and it shows.
Its handcrafted nature also shows in the form of slight variations in the shade of the leather across different units, as well as small imperfections that make each Brixton unique. This bag wasn’t designed to look perfectly immaculate out of the box, but to gain character over time. The leather in particular develops a rich, beautiful patina, and “scars” with every little scratch. On a lesser bag, that might have ruined its looks, but the Brixton somehow becomes more beautiful and unique as these scars develop. If there’s a bag out there capable of telling the story of its owner’s life through the way it looks, this is it.
As far as durability goes, there’s nothing in the bag that would make me question the likelihood of having it around for generations. It’s that well built. Just like the quality handcrafted items of old, this is a bag built to withstand the test of time. Yes, there may be the occasional fraying in the stitching, but again, handcrafted items are not perfect, and that’s OK. Those small imperfections are proof that an actual human being put the bag together with their own hands, and they don’t take anything away from the bag’s overall impression of quality. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Of course, like every quality leather item, the Brixton will require some care and maintenance in order to stay beautiful through the decades. Just apply some leather conditioner once a year or so, keep it outside the rain, and enjoy.
Layout and capacity
The Brixton’s design is very simple and streamlined, yet customizable, lending itself to many different configurations.
The back features a nice sleeve pocket that stays closed thanks to a hidden magnet. This is great for documents, magazines, or any other flat items you may want to keep accessible at all times. You can fit a 9.7-inch iPad in there, but since there’s no padding around the sleeve other than the leather itself, I wouldn’t recommend it.
There’s also a handle on the back, although its off-center placement means the entire bag will lean forward as you pick it up, making it a bit uncomfortable to carry the Brixton like this for any extended period of time. That’s not a big deal, though, because this handle was clearly designed as a convenient way to occasionally grab and reposition the bag, and it does that just fine.
The Brixton also features two side pockets which, while welcome, are too tight to be very practical. You can sort of soften them up a bit by trying to stretch the leather over time, but they’re still not what I would call convenient. They’re also completely exposed to the rain but more importantly, they’re a super easy target for pickpockets, so I wouldn’t put anything particularly valuable in there — like, say, your phone.
When closed, the front of the bag is dominated by a flap cover that secures access to the main compartment, as well as the two front pockets. This cover is held closed by two adjustable leather straps with brass buckles, although these are more decorative than functional. Beneath them, there are hidden brass clips that provide quick and convenient access to the inner pockets.
Some people have complained that these clips are super noisy when walking around with them undone in order to keep the main compartment accessible. There certainly is some clattering if you do that, and I can see why it would be annoying for some. The alternative appears to be to just leave them clipped on at all times, and undo the buckles instead in order to release the straps silently. However, doing so can result in a lost clip because they are not firmly locked in place and have a tendency to fall off.
This is unfortunate, but if you don’t want to end up losing them, I suggest you keep the bag locked whenever you’re wearing it, even during a shoot. The only alternative I can think of is to remove the clips entirely and store them inside the bag. That way you can leave the flap open and still be sure you won’t lose the clips.
On the inner side of the flap cover there’s a nice leather patch with the ONA logo. This is the most prominent branding you’ll find in the entire bag, and it’s conveniently placed on a spot nobody will be able to see unless you specifically show it to them. I don’t like to be a walking banner when I’m on the streets, so I definitely appreciate ONA’s restraint and subtlety when it comes to branding their products.
The cover also features some nice weather flaps on the sides that help keep rain at bay. These don’t completely seal off the interior, though, so there’s still a chance some water may slip in if you’re under the rain for too long.
Moving on to the inside of the bag, there are two front pockets that are great for carrying accessories. You can easily fit a Kindle reader or an iPad mini in there, but not a 9.7-inch iPad. These pockets aren’t padded and don’t have any specific dividers inside, so if you’re looking for a bag with dedicated pen holders, this certainly isn’t it.
Finally, the main compartment is nicely padded, and spacious enough to handle most cameras, including high-end DSLR bodies. That said, be aware that full-sized Pro DSLRs like the Nikon D5 won’t fit inside with a lens attached. You can still carry the body without a lens, though.
Unlike some other camera bags out there, though, the Brixton does not feature a removable camera insert. Instead, the interior of the compartment can be customized with the padded velcro dividers that are supplied with the bag. If you intend on using it as a regular, non-camera bag, you can, but it’s not as easy or convenient as just pulling an insert out. Hopefully ONA will update the bag at some point, or at least offer an insert as an option.
The main compartment is big enough to house a Full Frame camera body with a lens attached and up to three or four additional lenses or accessories. Obviously, the smaller your system of choice, the more items you’ll be able to fit in the bag, especially if you don’t mind stacking them. There’s also a larger padded divider that can be used to create a pocket for a laptop or tablet device. The Brixton can officially hold laptops up to 13 inches in size, but the current 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro will also fit. The same thing goes for the iPad Pro.
As it is, the Brixton’s design offers enough space and organizational features to carry a lot of gear, all while remaining simple and clean. However, should you need more help to organize your items, you can purchase additional dividers on ONA’s website.
Safety and discretion
Camera bags need to keep your gear safe, and sometimes that has more to do with the way a bag looks than how it physically protects your gear. In that regard, the leather Brixton is a bit of a mixed bag.
On one hand, the Brixton doesn’t look like a camera bag, which is good. The ONA branding is so subtle that it may as well not be there, and the classic briefcase look of the bag goes a long way towards ensuring no one knows you’re carrying expensive camera gear inside.
On the other hand, however, the Brixton is so beautiful that it is not a discreet bag, and that can be a problem sometimes. Lots of people know that beautiful leather bags tend to be pretty expensive, so there’s a chance the Brixton may attract some unwanted attention.
That said, if you’re in a major metropolitan area where violent theft is relatively rare, you probably have little to worry about. This bag isn’t particularly vulnerable to pickpockets, provided you don’t keep any valuable items in the side pockets when walking around. Of course, you should still remain vigilant, as with any bag. If you intend to go to more dangerous places though, I’d advise you to pick up something a little more inconspicuous, like a black backpack.
I’ll just come out and say it: this is the most beautiful bag I’ve ever owned. I love messenger bags, and I love leather goods, so it’s hardly a surprise that I’ve been looking for the perfect leather bag — not just camera bag, mind you — for many years.
While it still falls short of perfection, the Brixton’s design is as close to my ideal bag as I’ve ever come across.
This is an extremely elegant everyday bag that manages to strike a very difficult balance: it looks great without being overly flashy. There’s nothing superfluous about it, no exterior branding or cruft to spoil the simple look of the bag, and I love that.
The antique cognac color is also remarkably versatile: it looks just as good with everyday clothes as it does in more formal settings. Whether you’re just hanging out with friends or shooting a wedding, this bag will never look out of place.
Of course, sports and action shooting, where lightness and weatherproofing are essential, are not the Brixton’s strong suit. If your needs are along those lines, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
Last but not least, the Brixton is one of the very few bags I wouldn’t mind wearing with a suit, and that’s saying a lot. If you’re style-conscious at all, you can hardly do better than this.
Comfort: Form vs Function
This is where things start getting trickier. A bag is only as good as it is comfortable, and there are several important aspects here where the Brixton fails to meet my expectations.
The first one of those is the length of the shoulder strap: it’s just too long. At 5’7″, I’m admittedly not a tall person, but the length of the strap is at the very limit of what I consider usable. I should be able to comfortably wear the bag without having to slide the shoulder pad so far back that it stops supporting the weight altogether. If you’re any shorter than me, this will probably be an issue for you. For me this is particularly annoying whenever I ride a bicycle, as in those cases I like to keep the bag tightly wrapped around my body for safety reasons, which causes the pad-less portion of the strap to bite into my shoulder even more.
Even if the strap is the right length for you, there’s the matter of how comfortable the bag itself is. The leather Brixton is reasonably comfortable to wear with light to moderate loads — a camera and two lenses, no laptop — but it gets surprisingly heavy and unwieldy as you fill it with gear. This is partly due to the thickness of the leather itself — which makes the bag stiffer than if it was made out of canvas — but mostly due to the weight of the overall package.
Despite the moderate amount of padding on the shoulder pad, there’s just no way around the fact that this is a heavy bag, which can be a problem if you intend to carry it for long stretches. Keep in mind that you’ll be adding over 4 lbs of weight on top of whatever gear you put inside. Unless you’re in exceptional physical shape, carrying too much stuff in this bag could very well end up hurting your shoulder and/or lower back in the long run. This probably has more to do with the Brixton’s size and form factor — both of which encourage you to carry more gear — than the weight of the bag itself, though.
In practice, these issues help define what the Brixton is and isn’t. Without a doubt, this bag is one of the best and most stylish ways to transport your camera gear for a shoot, but it does fall short as a travel or walkaround bag. That’s too bad, because I’d love nothing more than to be able to keep the Brixton with me at all times and have it be my constant companion. Unfortunately, it’s just too heavy for that kind of usage. It’s disappointing but once you make your peace with it, you’ll be able to enjoy the Brixton to its full potential.
I also would’t recommend keeping the bag on you while shooting events if at all possible, because its stiffness and bulky size will make it quite uncomfortable on your shoulder, causing you to get tired a lot sooner. If you can, find a secure spot to leave the bag and come back to it whenever you need to change lenses. And if there’s no safe place for it, at least be sure to take it off every half-hour or so in order to let your shoulder and back rest for a few minutes. It’s a pain, yes — pun intended — but it’s important in order to reduce the risk of injury.
Ultimately, I view the leather Brixton as a conflicted form factor: the main reason to get a big bag is to be able to put lots of stuff in it, but here we have a bag that, through no fault of its own, is only comfortable to carry with lighter loads. Something has to give.
If you want a bag that can stay on you for hours at a time but don’t want to give up the glorious leather, the obvious solution would be to go with a smaller Brixton. Luckily, ONA makes just the thing: the leather Prince Street, which is every bit as awesome as the Brixton while remaining compact enough for weight not to be an issue. If your carrying needs can be met by it, it’s definitely a winner. You can read the Tools & Toys review of that bag here.
However, if you need to carry a 13-inch laptop, an iPad Pro or something of similar size, the Prince Street won’t cut it. And if you need to carry more gear than the Prince Street can accommodate, you’re out of luck, too. That leaves the nylon or canvas versions of the Brixton. I haven’t personally tried any of them, but hopefully the full pound you shed by going with those will be enough to alleviate the weight problem to some extent. And if that’s still not enough for you, then your best bet will be to go with a backpack instead.
The leather Brixton currently retails for $439, and that price isn’t likely to go down at any point in the foreseeable future. If anything, the historic trend points to it going up, as the cost of acquiring the source materials rises with demand.
For many people, spending that kind of money on a camera bag will never make sense, and that’s OK. If you’re just getting started into photography, for example, you’ll probably be much better off spending that money on lenses or photography lessons than buying a fancy camera bag. At the end of the day, it’s what’s inside the bag that counts.
And of course, if you like everything about the leather Brixton but still can’t afford to pay that much, you can save quite a bit of money by picking up one of the nylon or canvas models instead. As of this review’s publication, the canvas models are retailing for $289, while the nylon version is the most affordable one at $279. If you have a constrained budget, these may be a much better value.
If you’re a working professional, however, chances are you already own several thousand dollar’s worth of gear. You may also need to maintain a certain image when you’re shooting for clients. These are cases where investing in a high-quality, good-looking bag makes all the sense in the world. Yes, there are many excellent bags out there that can be had for a fraction of what the leather Brixton costs, but none of those manage to strike the same balance of quality, durability, looks, and carrying capacity. None. If all of those features are equally important to you, you needn’t look any further.
The leather Brixton is an expensive bag, no doubt, but like with most quality items, you do get what you pay for.
Room for improvement
The leather Brixton is a great product, but it is not without fault. Here are some things I feel ONA could do to improve it even further:
Bring the weight down. I’ve already mentioned this, but I’ll say it again: in order for it to be apt as a walkaround bag, the Brixton needs to be lighter. I don’t know how much wiggle room ONA has to bring the weight down, but every ounce matters. Personally, I’d be more than happy to sacrifice some of that awesome full-grain leather in order to get a bag I can actually have on me for more than an hour before my back starts hurting. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Provide more adjustment room for the shoulder strap. The included shoulder strap is too long, which is great news for tall people, but not so much for your average person. I’m not saying ONA should just make the strap shorter, but the current strap has only one adjustment slider on one end. Simply adding a second slider on the other end would provide sufficient adjustment room for people of all heights.
Include a removable insert. If I were a betting man, I’d say most people considering this bag will want it to double as a regular messenger bag — and why wouldn’t they. With that in mind, removable inserts are a much more convenient way to switch from camera bag mode to regular bag mode, and it’s too bad ONA didn’t take that into account when designing the Brixton.
Include the luggage sleeve of the nylon version. This handy feature is exclusive to the nylon Brixton, but it would be great if ONA implemented it on the canvas and leather versions as well.
Use more secure clips. This has been a non-issue for me, but if the clips had a tighter fit, the risk of losing them would be lower, and those who like to keep the flap open while carrying the bag would certainly appreciate it. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but probably worth looking into.
Bring the price down. No matter how you look at it, $439 is a lot of money to spend on a bag, even one as gorgeous as this one. I understand that making high-quality leather bags by hand is a labor-intensive process, and that’s expensive. I respect that, which is why I bought it myself. That being said, if ONA can figure out a way to bring the cost to or below $400, the leather Brixton would be a much better value.
It may seem like I’ve been overly harsh on this bag, but it’s only because the bar I had set for it was so ridiculously high that no bag could ever hope to meet it. As they say, perfection isn’t easy to come by.
At the end of the day, however, the leather Brixton is a fantastic-looking, incredibly well-made bag whose versatility is only hindered by its excessive weight. Funnily enough, it’s precisely the use of premium materials like full-grain leather that ultimately hurts the bag’s case. Had ONA decided to go with a lighter type of leather, the bag would have been more versatile, albeit at the cost of some durability. That’s an extremely difficult tradeoff to make — some would say impossible — and it goes to show just how hard it is to design a truly great bag.
There’s no such thing as the perfect bag, but much to ONA’s credit, they’ve gotten closer to it with the leather Brixton than any other bag I’ve ever seen. That’s definitely worthy of praise in my book.