Posts in Category: Review

Tilt Shift

Yes – I finally got one! It is the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L ultra wide angle lens. Here are some technical specifications and unboxing photos:

  • Focal Length: 17mm
  • Diagonal Angle of View: 104º
  • Lenses / Groups: 18/12
  • Shift Range: ±12mm
  • Tilt Range: ±6,5°
  • Aperture Range: f/4.0-22
  • Rounded Aperture
  • Manual Focus Only
  • Internal Focusing

After evaluating the pros and cons of investing in such a specialized piece of equipment, I decided to take the step and see how it can improve my architectural and urban photography. What kept me from acquiring the Canon TS-E 17mm for a long time was obviously the price – Amazon currently sells this lens for USD 2.100. However, a tilt shift lens offers some really unique features that I would like to mention:

  • Probably the most interesting feature is that a Tilt Shift lens can help avoid parallel lines to converge on an image
  • The lens provides an incredibly high resolution and sharpness even in the corners due to the large image circle
  • An asperical lens reduces image distortions
  • Four ultra-low dispersion lens elements reduce chromatic aberrations in the corners
  • Sub-wavelength structure coatings minimize ghosting and flare
  • Independent Tilt and Shift Sliders
  • The entire lens can rotate ±90° to switch between landscape format and upright format
  • Locking screws prevent accidental shifts and tilts
  • L-Series – the lens is extremely well made and durable due to metal structure and weather sealing
  • Includes Canon LP1219 soft lens case

With these features, the Canon TS-E 17mm is predestined for architectural and real estate photography. When holding the lens in my hands for the first time, I wasn’t expecting so much weight – but this is totally fine as it will be set up on a tripod 90% of the time. Due to the L-qualification, the build quality is top of the line. I am fascinated by the precision how every moving part slides when moving the tilt or shift units. There is even a protective rubber-like surface between the tilt and shift parts that prevents dust or spray water from entering the gaps – although I am not planning to use it in the rain. The focus ring has a convenient size and rotates very smoothly. Manual Focus is certainly something to get used to, but it still works pretty good when keeping the shutter button on the camera half-pressed while focusing and waiting for the camera to indicate an in-focus situation with a short beeping sound. Altogether, I am looking forward to taking it on my next journey!!

OnePlus 3T Review

Hi there!

About two months ago, I have upgraded my smartphone to the OnePlus 3T. OnePlus is a relatively new player in the smartphone industry. While their first launch of the OnePlus One in 2014 is not long ago, the company has quickly gained popularity through it’s simple strategy to offer high-end smartphones at mid-range prices. Therefore, the current price for the 64 GB version of the new OnePlus 3T is around USD 440. As I have already tested it quite a bit, I think it’s now time for a short review. Let’s first take a look at the specifications and some unboxing photos while sharing my preliminary impressions below.

Unboxing the OnePlus 3T

Basic Parameters

Weightrd. 160g
MaterialAnodized Aluminum
ColorGunmetal
Operating SystemOxygenOS based on Android
CPUQualcomm® Snapdragon™ 821
Quad Core, Kryo™: 2x 2.35 GHz, 2x 1.6 GHz
GPUAdreno™ 530
RAM6GB LPDDR4
Storage 64GB / 128GB UFS 2.0
SensorsFingerprint sensor, Hall sensor, Accelerometor, Gyroscope, Proximity sensor, Ambient light sensor and Electronic Compass
PortsUSB 2.0, Type-C / Dual nano-SIM slot / 3.5 mm audio jack
Battery3,400 mAh (non-removable), Dash Charge (5V, 4A)
ButtonsHardware keys and on-screen navigation support
OtherAlert Slider, Custom icon packs, Gesture Control,
(Display On + Display Off), OnePlus Shelf, Vibration motor, RGB LED notification light

Connectivity

Network 4G LTE (Cat.6)
Wi-FiWi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
BluetoothBluetooth® 4.2
NFCNFC Enabled
PositioningGPS, GLONASS, BeiDou

Audio

SpeakersBottom-facing speaker
MicrophonesDual-microphone with noise cancellation
FeaturesOnePlus Music
TechnologyDirac HD Sound®

Display

Size5.5 inch
Resolution1080p Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) / 401 ppi
Bezel0.755 mm
Cover GlassCorning® Gorilla® Glass 4
TypeOptic AMOLED
Aspect Ratio16 : 9
FeaturesNight Mode Display, Light / Dark Theme, Accent Colors

Rear Camera

SensorSony IMX 298 Sensor, 16 MP, 1.12 µm
OISYes
EISYes
AutofocusPDAF
Aperturef/2.0
Video4K resolution video at 30fps
Slow Motion720p video at 120fps
RAW Image supportYes
Lens CoverSapphire crystal lens cover
FeaturesAuto-HDR, Dynamic Denoise, Manual Control, HQ

Front Camera

SensorSamsung 3P8SP Sensor, 16 MP, 1.0 µm
EISYes
AutofocusFixed Focus
Aperturef/2.0
Video1080p video at 30fps
Auto selfieSmile Capture

If there is one thing that can describe the Oneplus 3T – it is speed! Even though I’ve got used to the phone for two months now, I am still impressed by the reactivity and performance. Until today I have not seen any other phone with faster fingerprint-detection to unlock the phone. Another noteworthy feature is the large battery in combination with the DASH speed charger system. The battery keeps the phone powered for almost two days and the DASH system recharges it within one hour.

Software-wise, the OnePlus 3T runs the latest version of Android 7, and receives frequent updates. The apps launch very rapidly and I haven’t observed any software crashes or irregularities since I got the device.

The camera app can either be launched via the home screen icon or by simply dragging the camera symbol on the lock screen. For anybody interested in all camera app features and it’s performance, there is a very comprehensive camera review on dpreview.com. For the purpose of this review, I will summarize the camera quality by showing some photos that I have recently taken with the rear camera of the OnePlus 3T:

As far as the build quality is concerned, the aluminum case feels very solid and has smoothly rounded edges. The transition between the case and the screen is precisely made with no large gap. On the side, there are push buttons and a slider, all of which appear to be pretty robust. (I need to emphasize on the button quality because on my previous smartphone it was a failure of the physical power on/off button that rendered the old device unusable. Although the outer material of the smartphone doesn’t give an indication of the actual electronic switch unit that is used on the inside, but the button feels different from the other smartphone when pressed so I hope this one won’t degrade over time). It is a rather large device, but it still feels very safe to hold it one-handed. So far, I am extremely happy with my choice and can recommend it even to demanding users in good conscience.

The Ultimate Camera System – The New PHASE ONE XF 100MP Camera

XF-IQ3-100MPFor those who like what they see but don’t know what they are looking at, the image above shows the new Phase One XF 100 medium format digital camera system.

Medium format cameras are especially appreciated by professionals for a couple of reasons. These types of camera systems offer a high flexibility that allows a photographer to configure the camera to the requirements of the job. They consist of a camera body that accomodates the reflex mirror, the phase detection sensor, a ground glass, and a focal plane shutter. However, differently than other digital single lens reflex cameras, medium format digital cameras typically have large openings on the top of the body and on the back side. The upper opening allows the connection of different viewfinder options such as eye-level viewfinders or waist-level viewfinders. With a waist level viewfinder, a photographer can hold the camera in front of his waist or leave it standing on a table and look down on the viewfinder like on a final print. Although technically being a relict from the old days of photography, some photographers claim that waist-level viewfinders can be favourable during portrait photography as the subject might feel less targeted because the photographer is not directly looking at them. It also changes the perspective at which the subject is shot which makes photo models appear taller.

The opening on the back side is designed to connect exchangeable digital backs. These are independent modules that contain the image sensor on the connecting side, an LCD display on the rear side, and plenty of powerful image processing electronics inside. The ability to change the image sensor is certainly a unique feature of medium format camera systems. Medium format digital backs offer a variety of sensor types and formats, from square to rectangular shaped sensors. The dimensions of medium format image sensors vary from 54mm x 40mm to 67mm x 56mm – this is an active sensor area over four times larger than the area of a 24mm x 36mm full frame sensor. These huge image sensors offer some rather substantial advantages. They typically consist of larger pixels that offer an outstanding dynamic range. Still, even with the increased pixel size, medium format sensors also provide
resolutions higher than those of regular DSLR cameras. The majority of medium format cameras provide resolutions of 40 – 60 megapixels. These high resolutions are especially important for the production of large, detailed prints like posters or advertising spaces.

Medium format digital cameras are designed to conform the most demanding requirements of professional photographers, and they come with a price tag far greater than many can afford. Therefore, these systems are typically used for highly specialized purposes such as aerial photography, night sky and astro photography, photo archiving, scientific documentations (insects, other), but also product and fashion photography. Professionals worldwide swear by the realiability and high quality delivered by these powerful systems.

The Phase One XF 100MP Camera System

In January 2016, Phase One released their new XF 100MP which was the first camera release of the year. Their new camera system uses a Sony CMOS sensor that creates images with a resolution of 100 megapixels and the sensitivity (ISO) can be chosen between 50 and 12.800. The sensor records images with 16 bit color depth, and the dynamic range of the system covers a total of 15 stops! With a sensor unit of that quality, the lenses must be able to keep up with the resolution. Therefore, Phase One equips their system with ultra sharp prime lenses of Schneider Kreuznach with leaf shutters and fast autofocus.

Technical Specifications

Image Sensor

Resolution101 Megapixel
Long Exposure Up to 60 minutes
A/D Conversion16 bit Opticolor
Dynamic Range 15 stops
Sensitivity (ISO)50 - 12800
Crop Factor1.0
Sensor SypeCMOS
Sensor Size (mm)53.7 x 40.4
Active Pixels11608 x 8708
Pixel Size (micron)4.6 x 4.6

Focus & Autofocus (Honeybee Autofocus Platform / HAP)

Autofocus SensorHAP-1 1MP CMOS Sensor
Autofocus ProcessorHAP-1 Processor with Floating Point Architecture
Autofocus Assist lightHAP-1 Precision White light
Hyperfocal Point Focusingyes
Upgradeable Autofocus configurations & Patternsyes
Autofocus ModesSpot, Average, Hyperfocal
Interchangeable Focusing ScreensMatte (default), Split, Center Prism

Capture and Light Metering

Capture Drive Modes Single / Contiunous / Low vibration / Exposure bracketing 2-7 frames
Toggle Mirror-Upyes
Capture from Liveviewyes
TTL Light MeteringAverage, Spot and Auto
HAP-1 Light Meteringused with waist level finder (Spot)
Focus Confirmation90° Prism: yes / Waist level Finder: on top screen
Viewfinder black-out time150ms (FPS), 400ms (LS)
AE Lockyes
Exposure compensation+/- 5 EV

For more information on technical specifications, check out the Visual Guide of the XF 100MP on the Phase One official website.

Phase One was so incredibly generous to lend me their new XF 100MP system over the weekend (16./17.04.2016) allowing me to create test photos and to share my impressions with you. The gallery below shows the camera system, the lenses included and further components.

First Impressions

Phase One delivered the camera along with three lenses and additional equipment in a heavy black suitcase. The first impression was really stunning. After opening the suitcase I was surprised by the rock-solid build quality (all black aluminum), and the weight of the camera. (As per the specifications, the camera body with the 90° prism viewfinder and the IQ3 100 digital back as well as two batteries weights around 2,1kg. The Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8 lens adds roughly 500g to the system.)

On closer inspection, almost every camera part is made of aircraft grade aluminum and feels virtually indestructable. Even smaller elements like the four control buttons of the digital back and the flash card compartment lid are made of aluminum. All surfaces are completely black, and only some buttons are kept in their original metal-appearance. Surprisingly, the black aluminum is not very susceptible to fingerprints – they simply disappear after a few seconds. The Phase One XF has a very puristic design and extremely clean appearance. The connection systems that keep lenses, viewfinders and digital backs attached to the body feel very safe and are totally easy to use. All Schneider Kreuznach lenses are made of solid metal, too. Their focus rings have a toothed surface and provide very good grip. The price for the new Phase One XF 100MP system with a lens is around USD 49.000,00. The image below illustrates the entire scope of delivery.

XF_in_the_box_web

The camera itself consists of two main units. The camera body has its own power supply and a touch screen controlled XF menu. The digital back also has an individual power supply and an IQ menu, controlled by four customizable buttons and touch screen. I suspect the XF menu to be the quick menu only, although it offers a wide range of shooting modes, including high dynamic range, time lapse, and other useful features like a seismograph and a level. Conversely, the IQ menu is actually the main control option because of its large LCD screen, the photo review function with histogram options and tons of fine tuning settings. Of course, both menus are permanently synchronized so when an option is selected on the IQ menu, it instantly adjusts the same setting in the XF menu, and vice versa. Although it sounds complicated to use, I found both menus so intuitive that I didn’t even have to open the user guide a single time. The following galleries clarify the purpose of each individual menu.

The XF Menu

The IQ Menu

Testing

Finally I took the camera to a couple of locations in Munich where I tried to find out about its capabilities, and probably about its limits. I attached the Schneider Kreuznach 35mm LS f3.5 wide angle lens to the camera and went to BMW World and the Pinakothek of Modern Art. I have particularly tried to capture scenes with difficult light situations such as dim interiors with bright spotlights and windows. A few other shots include a snake that I captured with the 80mm lens and the 120mm macro lens. Please note that the gallery contains JPG files that do not include the full dynamic range. Unfortunately, the lossless TIFF files could not be loaded into the gallery.

One aspect is interesting to mention. The Phase One XF relies on one single autofocus point in the center of the screen. This might sound like a disadvantage compared to other DSLR cameras that often have more than 60 AF points. With only one AF point, one might miss the flexibility to focus on a subject off-center to achieve a more interesting photo composition. However, with a resolution of 100 megapixels, there is virtually no need to focus on different positions as the final image can be cropped until the desired composition is achieved. Therefore, a photographer can really concentrate on shooting and must not think about composition.

While I thought it would be easy to focus on the center, with the aperture wide open I sometimes found it challenging to direct the focus point exactly on the spot I wanted. The autofocus system is so precise that the autofocus point needs to be perfectly in the right spot. With the autofocus point just slightly shifting from the eye to the eyelash, it will be the eyelashes that stand out and the eye softly blurred. When I shot the snake, it took practice until I got the eyes in focus. If there is something in focus, however, there is no discussion that sharpness and clarity is beyond comparison.

On another note, I would like to mention the speed at which the Schneider Kreuznach 80mm LS f/2.8 lens focused. This lens is so reactive and fast that for small focus movements, I couldn’t even see the focus ring move but simply “jump” from one focus distance to another. When keeping the shutter button half-pressed, the lens starts to hunt the subject with incredible speed and accuracy. I am used to fast focusing by my Canon EOS 7D, but I was deeply impressed by the Phase One / Schneider Kreuznach focusing speed.

Finally, the power sharing was a feature I really loved. As described above, both camera units have their own power supply, but in fact they are sharing power if one unit runs out of battery. This can happen if the IQ menu is heavily used for picture reviewing and adjusting settings more on the IQ digital back. As soon as the battery inside the digital back is discharged, the XF unit provides power to itself and the digital back. Of course, this also happens vice versa.

Verdict

From my personal view, medium format cameras are an interesting combination of scientific precision tools and photography. They represent the constant pursuit for technical perfection in optoelectronics and a philosophy of creativity. I have seen for myself that they are very specialized and certainly not suitable for every photographic application, but for countless other purposes they are unsurpassed in image quality. The Phase One XF 100MP is the best camera I have ever seen and that I have ever had in my hands. The resolution of 100 megapixels is impossible to describe, and I was even more impressed by the huge dynamic range it is capable of perceiving. Also, the high speed and precision of the Phase One Honeybee Autofocus Platform was totally new to me. Concluding I would like to thank Phase One for this great opportunity!

Rogue Flash Gels – Universal Lighting Filters

When shooting Interiors, there is always the question of whether to use HDR photography with automatic post-processing or to make multiple shots with the assistance of a speedlight flash and process the resulting images manually.

While HDR is an easy way to achieve uniformly bright scenes, it is also this effect what makes some HDR pictures look unnatural. With a remote flash, an emphasis can be set very selectively in areas that should be highlighted or that suffer from low ambient light. The processing of these manual shots involves some extra time, but the results are often more appealing than those from automatic processing.

However, speedlights typically emit light of a cold temperature that is close to daylight (around 5,600K) as it contains a lot of blue wavelengths. For this reason, artificially added light often doesn’t match the color temperature of light available at the scene. In almost every residential house, the lighting is composed of several tungsten lights that emit some warmer color temperatures. Understandably, adding cold light to this scene would look inconsistent with the overall lighting.

As a solution for this problem, there are color correction filters – called color gels – that can be placed in front of the speedlight flash. Color gels are available in various colors to create all kinds of effects, but for interior photography, mainly one color is relevant – Orange. CTO – color temperature orange – flash gels are used to make the speedlight consistent with lamps of tungsten light. In other words – daylight from the flash combined with a CTO creates warmer light.

Color gels come in different densities. There are full, half and quarter CTOs that can be used depending on the color temperature available. While a full CTO converts the speedlight’s color temperature to full tungsten light (6,500K to 3,200K), a half CTO roughly converts it to something like a flourescent light color (6,500K to 3,800K) and so forth. Naturally, the stronger the color change is, the more blue wavelengths are filtered out, reducing the remaining light intensity accordingly. For instance, a full CTO blocks around half of the light (1 stop), and half a stop is blocked by a half CTO.

To improve my results for interior photography, I did some research to find a good set of flash gels. I found that the Rogue Flash Gels by ExpoImaging had a good number of CTO gels in their “Universal Lighting Filters” set and consistently received good ratings on Amazon and expert review websites. ExpoImaging was so generous and sent me a set of the Universal Lighting Filters for testing.

The Rogue Color Correction Kit includes a total of 18 gels in three sets of six gels.

  • 3x 1/2 CTB (3,200K to 4,300K) – f/stop loss = 1/2
  • 3x Full CTO (6,500K to 3,200K) – f/stop loss = 1
  • 3x 1/2 CTO (6,500K to 3,800K) – f/stop loss = 1/2
  • 3x 1/4 CTO (6,500K to 4,600K) – f/stop loss = 1/2
  • 3x Plus Green – f/stop loss = 1/2
  • 3x Full White Diffusion – f/stop loss = 1

The set also includes a cardboard disc with some useful instructions.

To balance your flash to the dominant ambient light source in your scene:

  • Use CTO gels to color balance flash to incandescent, tungsten, or halogen ambient light sources.

1. For 3,200K ambient light use Full CTO
2. For 3,800K ambient light use 1/2 CTO
3. For 4,600K ambient light use 1/4 CTO

  • Use Plus Green gels in combination with CTO gels to color balance flash to fluorescent ambient light sources.

1. For 3,600K fluorescent tubes use Plus Green + 1/2 CTO
2. For 4,300K fluorescent tubes use Plus Green + 1/4 CTO
3. For 5,700K fluorescent tubes use Plus Green

  • Use CTB gels to color balance flash to shade, or blue sky ambient light sources.

Finally, every gel is placed next to a thin white separator sheet that helps finding the right color. I found it nice that all filters, the separator sheets and the cardboard disc had already been packed into the small fabric purse, and therefore doesn’t require any preparation. Also, it is particularly useful that the relevant characteristics of each gel (type, f/stop loss) are printed on a side flap of each gel.

The gels are applied to the speedlight flash by one of the rubber rings provided with the kit. The rings fit tightly on the flash and hold the gels firmly in place. I like the concept how the gels are applied to the flash because they cover all of the flash aperture so that no uncorrected light can leak out. A further, notable advantage is that each set of color correction gels are provided in triplicate, so it won’t matter too much in case that one gets damaged or lost. Thumbs up!

Testing the new Sirui N-1204X Carbon Tripod and Sirui K-10X Head

Over the years, the tripod became one of my favourite pieces of photo equipment. I got used to take it with me for travelling and other occasions and it has always paid for itself. Sadly, my tripod I have used until now has been worn out. Admittedly, being a cheap tripod for around USD 100, it has done a good job for many years. However, the black coating flakes off on some areas and the clamp mechanism that holds the legs in their extended position can’t always securely hold the legs so they randomly slide in. While the first point is only an optical defect, the second flaw is a true concern for the safety of my camera. For these reasons, I decided to go for a professional tripod.

There are hundreds of tripods available and depending on individual requirements and personal preferences, one should at least take the following considerations into account:

Tripod Weight
The weight of a tripod can have various implications on its performance. While a heavy tripod offers greater stability and can typically carry heavier cameras (see load capacity), they are less suitable for taking them to travel. Conversely, a lightweight tripod is ideal for travel, however it will be more suscepible to wind and other vibrations, and can affect sharpness of the images. Therefore, it can be recommended to weight it down with ballast (small bag filled with stones and attached to the center column), although the weight of a DSLR should usually suffice to achieve high stability.

Material
The materials that a tripod is made of will affect its weight, stability and durability. For modern materials, it is typical that reduced weight and improved characteristics will in turn increase production cost significantly. For the legs and center column, the three primary materials used for tripods are aluminum, basalt and carbon fibre. Still, independently from the primary materials, other components on a tripod are usually made of aluminum, magnesium, other metals and composites. Especially the connecting parts are made of different materials than the telescopic legs.

  • Aluminum offers a reasonable balance between weight, stability and cost. Professional aluminum tripods are considered to provide the best stability of the three materials, though they will also be the heaviest.
  • Basalt is a reasonably priced alternative to carbon fiber. It is a very lightweight material, around 20% lighter than aluminum but still heavier than carbon fiber. The leg walls can be relatively thin, but still it is a very stable material with high impact resistance and good vibration absorption. It is more expensive than aluminum but still cheaper than carbon fiber.
  • Carbon Fiber (also known as graphite fiber, carbon graphite oder CF-tripod) is considered the top-of-the-range material in tripod construction. It offers high tensile strength and tear resistance, high rigidity, high chemical resistance, high temperature tolerance, high vibration damping, which means a vibration will quickly abate, low thermal expansion coefficient, which means that it doesn’t shrink or warp in the cold or hot, very low weight, and looks precious and stylish. Looking at these characteristics, it becomes obvious that carbon fibre is also much more expensive than aluminum or basalt. In addition, tripod manufacturers tend to use other high-quality materials for their carbon fiber tripods, which increases production cost some more.

Tripod Height
A tripod is normally designed with telescopic legs so that it can be expanded to various heights. The most interesting specifications of a tripod are the maximum tripod height and the minimum height. For tall photographers, it is recommendable to use a tripod that covers a camera height of at least 1,60m. On the other hand, macro photographers might be interested in the minimum height at which the camera can be set to the ground. Therefore, some tripods allow to mount the camera upside down to the lower end of the center column so that it can be brought to the ground very closely.

Folded Height
The folded height of a tripod refers to its size when the legs have been fully retracted and is an indicator of whether a tripod is suitable for easy transportation. Tripods that can reach a small folded height have an increased number of leg sections than standard ones. Most tripod legs have three sections, though some have as many as six.

Tripod Head
A tripod head is a fastening device that holds the camera on the tripod and secures the angle of the camera. A tripod head may be inseparably connected to the tripod, or may be sold separately. There are two main types of tripod heads. Pan and Tilt heads allow to adjust the dimensional axes separately. This can be useful if one axis position should be held in position while the camera should only be rotated, this can be done without misplacing the other setting. A ball head allows for adjustment of multiple axes at once. This is ideal if many different adjustments have to be made to the camera without operating separate axis levers. In addition, ball heads usually have an own rotation axis.

Load Capacity
The load capacity is an important piece of information on whether the tripod is suitable to hold larger DSLR cameras and lenses. The force applied by the camera weight does not only act on the tripod head, but also the leg fixation mechanism.

Leg Fixation Mechanism
The quality and effectiveness of the leg fixation mechanisms, so it is If the mechanisms seem to be made of a low-quality plastic, chances are good that they will not hold up over long periods of time.

Price
As always, the price is directly related to quality and durability. It should be considered that inexpensive tripods may be well suitable for the intended purposes, but might lack some of the properties explained before. On the other side, professional tripods are likely to become a long lasting companion. Still, it is recommended to read or view product reviews on the internet to ensure that even the more expensive tripods are reasonably priced.

Review Sirui N-1204X and Sirui K-10X

Thinking about my requirements, it was clear that I need a tripod that is compact, lightweight, extendible to a fairly high camera height and that has a durable leg adjustment mechanism. My other aluminum tripod has a weight of 2,0 kg. Having made some long walks on city trips, I can tell that this weight should not be underestimated.

After quite some comparisons on the internet, I purchased the Sirui N-1204X carbon fiber tripod for around USD 460 (EUR 406) and Sirui K-10X ball head for USD 146 (EUR 129) last week. I created some unboxing snapshots to share the first impressions.

At the first glance, the Sirui N-1204X is consistently well manufactured and feels very luxurious to the touch. The legs swing very firmly which gives a feeling of security. To position the tripod, the legs have to be turned to the opposite side at an angle of roughly 160 degrees. While turning the leg, the locking clamp snaps in with a pleasant noise whenever a calibrated position has been reached. All parts are joined together so well that no part feels loose. Especially the leg clamps feel surprisingly safe – they appear to be a lot more durable than the ones on my previous tripod.

The tripod itself has a weight of 1,12 kilograms which is incredibly lightweight. However, the ball head adds 0,35 kilograms to this, so the total weight of the Sirui tripod and head is 1,47 kg which is great in my opinion. The ball head feels very solid and holds my 7D with 17-55mm lens firmly in place. I am looking forward to working with these new pieces of equipment!

Setting up my Network Attached Storage

Here is an introduction of a new gadget I have acquired last week. It is a Network Attached Storage by Western Digital called My Cloud EX2. In addition, this post outlines my general thoughts on data storage requirements for home networks. There is a slight possibility that the following comments are off-topic for a photography website, but taking into account that a photographer should not leave his images unprotected from loss, here is a presentation of different solutions.

Data Storage Optimizations

In the early years of personal computers, data storage has always been directly integrated in the computer case. For a very long time, this has been sufficient to store both operating system files and other data. In recent years however, increasing amounts of data demanded more efficient options. I have been using external hard disc drives for a long time to store large quantities of data such as my music collection. An outsourcing of large data collections can increase both the performance of a PC and data security for the following reasons:

1. Performance: A personal multimedia collection can easily require several terabytes of storage capacity while a computer operating system typically requires 16-20 gigabytes (Win 7). Given that most files in a multimedia collection are not used very often – such as a music album that is played just once in a while – the space consumed by a multimedia collection is only rarely accessed. By contrast, the files of an operating system are loaded every single time the computer starts up. Therefore, keeping a multimedia collection on the same drive like the operating system is inefficient because it combines a large portion of disc space that is rarely needed with a much smaller portion that is permanently needed. So far, this is of no great concern. However, the computer does not store consolidated and continuous packages of file categories, but saves these files distributed over the entire storage. This dispersion of files – called fragmentation – even affects files that relate to the same application or belong together for other reasons. With the computer fragmenting files all over the physical storage, response time is reduced because file fragments are intersected with large fragments of other files. As soon as a file shall be read, the read head of a hard disc drive must find all fragments which noticeably slows down the response time. It is understandable that this effect is further increased if the files regularly opened are fragmented among rarely used files 100-1000 times larger than the core applicatons.

2. Data Security: Another consideration is that a computer does not only keep multimedia files and operating system files, but also important documents, passwords, emails, and other work files that must not be lost. Unfortunately, there is a permanent risk of data loss and there are multiple factors to be addressed. According to Kroll Ontrack, the worlds largest data recovery firm, around 26% of all data is lost because of user errors such as unwanted file deletions. But also hard disc drive failure can occur because of material degradation or impact. Drive failure related to degradation is more likely for a drive permanently in operation than for an external drive only occasionally in use. Last but not least, loss of data can occur due to software corruption or virus attacks.

Storage efficiency and data security should be good reasons to check your storage system. To increase the performance of a computer, it is advisable to use solid state drives (SSD) as the internal storage. These devices are incredibly fast in both reading and writing. Solid State Drives do also fragment files but as they operate without moving parts, their response time is not noticeably affected by fragmentation. The downside of SSDs is that they are usually quite expensive and do not feature as much storage space as HDDs. For that reason, the internal storage should only contain the operating system and associated files (Windows, Updates, etc.), applications (Office, etc.) and other files that can benefit from quick loading times. Largescale data such as a multimedia collection should be stored on an external hard disc drive.

To increase the data security, it is strongly recommended to create backups of all files that should not be lost. Any directory of files the user finds important should be copied to another individual (!) hard disc drive. A backup can be done manually in certain intervals, but can also be done automatically by a special setup called RAID (redundant array of idependent drives). RAID requires at least two individual drives (mostly HDDs for space reasons) and will distribute file duplicates in a way that everything can be restored in case that a single drive fails. The easiest RAID system will simply store identical data on each disc (RAID 1 Level). It would go beyond the scope of this post to explain all levels of RAID, but it is interesting to search the internet for more technical articles on the RAID technology. In addition, data security can further be increased by turning the external drives off when not in use. This is to minimize the risk of user errors and virus attacks.

Network Access

Another current trend of modern homes is to have multiple and mobile devices to be used for different purposes. Some devices might primarily be used for office work (stationary workstations, notebooks) while others are designed for entertainment (HTPC, TVs, tablet computers, game consoles). With a selected computer storing the central multimedia collection, a home network can be established to grant other devices access to media files. However, these files can only be accessed with the storage computer turned on. In case that the storage computer is turned off, it can be activated by an incoming network signal (Wake On LAN), but is then only running to provide other devices access to the multimedia collection which is inefficient again because the other hardware components are also running, consuming power and making noise. A far more effective solution of this problem is a Network Attached Storage which is basically a mini-computer that is connected to the WLAN network router of the home network. The entire device is optimized for fast and efficient data access, data security and silent operation.

Therefore, I have decided to replace my various external HDD drives for a Network Attached Storage Device. After a week of internet research, I found that the Western Digital My Cloud EX2 would be ideal for my requirements. This device offers 2 bays for hard disc drives, an included RAID-controller and a network connection. I finally purchased the Western Digital NAS for around USD 420 – 2 hard disc drives with 2 terabytes each included. Here are some pictures I took during unpacking the NAS.

The Western Digital MyCloud EX2 comes in a dark gray case and shows a precise build quality. The clean design includes three blue LED indicators at the front, one to display the standby/on status and two to indicate the activities of the single drives. The drives included are Western Digital Red models that are specially designed for operation in storage servers. With their relatively low rotational speed of 5.400 rpm, noise is almost imperceptible. The Cloud comes with a switching power supply, a network cable and an instruction manual. The network cable is connected to the NAS on the back of the device, just like the power supply.

As I am not a professional when it comes to network settings and remote access devices, I have actually expected the setup to be challenging. In fact, the Western Digital My Cloud EX2 was surprisingly easy to set up. It took me not longer than a minute to connect it with my WLAN network router. With the power connected, the Western Digital Cloud automatically started up and dialed into my home network. On my network computers, the new storage instantly appeared in the network folder and was ready to go. Nevertheless, I have installed the recommended software package to use the entire scope of functions (status display, RAID controller and others).

The Western Digital Cloud offers several storage concepts: RAID level 0 splits documents into stripes and stores them on both drives in an alternating order. This increases read and write speed, but results in a loss of all data if one drive should ever fail. Data can also be stored without RAID, but I prefer to use RAID level 1, a redundancy concept where all content from one drive is simply mirrored to the other drive.

If storage extension is desired, there are two USB 3.0 connectors on the back of the NAS to connect additional drives. The Western Digital My Cloud EX 2 is an independent computer device with a 1,2 GHz processor included and 1/2 gigabyte memory. It features Wake-On-LAN and media streaming to any compatible device. So far, I am totally happy with My Cloud EX2!