Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Camera Bag Review - Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L vs Case Logic SLRC-206

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So I’ve been using the Case Logic SLRC-206 ever since the beginning of my photography life back in 2012. It was a very much recommended bag back in the days with a good quality build. Also the price was very decent for such a camera bag. I’ve got a set of Think Tank Pro Speed Belt system with the respective accessory bags. And I quickly found out that system wasn’t ideal for travel. So my go to bag is still the case logic. The bag was with me, went through some long trip to west side of US (part of route 66) and some trips to China. But during a recent trip to climb the Mt. Huashan in China, I found the bag is quite short on a few features for the active sports type. The one biggest problem with the case logic is the lacking of an integrated water compartment. So I did some research and found this Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L bag. Hopefully it can address most of the problems I had with the case logic bag. The bag comes with two colors of choice, a glacier blue and bright orange. For some reason, the orange one is sold at $100 only, and the blue one is sold at $150. I went with the blue one since I don’t like the flashy orange color. This puts the bag at 2x the price of the case logic. There are quite a few sellers selling this bag from China with price under $100 though (for both blue and orange), not sure about the authenticity…
So far I’ve only taken the bag for one photo shoot on the Lunar Eclipse the past month. The bag seems OK for fulfilling my needs, I decided to keep it. So here is a review including a comparison with the case logic SLRC-206.
Initial impression about this bag is that the build quality including the paddings, the zipper smoothness is not as good as the cheaper case logic.
The main features of the Lowepro is the integrated water compartment on the left side while a dedicated tripod suspension system on the right side. And the unique back opening when you can flip the bag (with the waist strap on) and retrieving your gears from the main compartment without putting the bag on the ground. In practice, I like the back opening a lot. It made switching lens a breeze while all gears are available to you right in front of you without ever putting the bag down. This is the biggest reason why I decided to keep the bag.
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As for the water compartment, I tried to put in a 2L water bag, it was a super tight fit. So the manufacturer recommended 1.5L is about the right size. 1.5L should be about right for most situations.
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I haven’t tried the tripod mount yet, as my current tripod is too long when folded and too heavy. I DO plan to replace the tripod with a much more compact and low weight carbon fiber build in the near future. Some people also point out the weight imbalance if only one side is mounted (eg. just the water compartment or just the tripod side, or when you fully consumed all water). I think that’s a valid concern, I just don’t have the opportunity to put it to test.
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The Lowepro is smaller than the case logic. There are three sizes for this particular line, and this model 20L is already the largest…
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Wish they could make it slightly larger, especially on the width and depth.
Here is what the inside looks like when all my gears are packed:
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Note if I had the 24-70 attached and left the 70-200 on the side, it would look something like from Lowepro’s web:
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This would be a problem for the tripod side. The tripod seems best positioned is it’s sit straight against the side of the bag. The contoured shape from the overstuffed picture makes the tripod seem impossible to fit in.
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But mine looks nowhere near that full. After all, I don’t pack a lot of stuff into my bag. Also it’s possible to configure the bag into just two columns:
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The depth of the main compartment feels just one inch too short. I can only fit in a Canon 430 II flash in. I have to remove the Sto-fen modifier. While the case logic will happily fit it.
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I also like the bright orange dividers from case logic. It’s easier to see in the dark. The case logic has overall thicker sides as well, which adds some protection to the gear. The padding in Lowepro seems just not as so great when compared to case logic…
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One of the feature of the Lowepro is that you can take the main compartment out entirely, it includes a cover you can put on to the compartment. I don’t find this feature to be that practical.
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The bottom part of the bag includes a rain cover and it’s fairly easy to deploy to cover the entire bag.
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The rain cover is a tight fit though, if you have a tripod, then it won’t fit… I’ll try to see if I can stick in my own rain cover in there as there seems to be ample space. The soft bottom is really appreciated if you are using that flip feature a lot since that’s the spot will go against your “private part”.
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I do miss the hard EVA waterproof base from the case logic though. I guess the lowepro was meant to be on your back most of the time, especially on the beach.
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The padding on the strap is thicker from the case logic. But it tends to slip from my shoulder from time to time. Not a problem from Lowepro though. It stays on my shoulder just fine. So I’m quite happy with that.
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The case logic does not have any additional straps to help the bag to stay on. While the Lowepro provide not only the waist strap, but also the chest strap. The length of the straps are fully adjustable to fit most body shapes. So the Lowepro is a clear winner here. The ventilation design is about the same between the two. With the waist straps for the Lowepro, it does feel somewhat bulkier, although it’s actually a smaller bag than the case logic.
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The only downside about these waist straps is the lack of better pockets. There is only a meshed open top pocket on each side. I wish at least one side has a fully closed, well padded pocket with zipper for better protection. This way I can safely store some batteries and SD cards for quick access. I might just DIY a pocket at some point.
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Moving on to the front compartment. There is a slot for small laptop/tablet. I can fit in my 11.6 in laptop in there. (so it should fit an XPS 13 with infinite display) But again, the padding is really lacking here…
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There is another slot across, but the pocket is way to deep, it makes retrieving things really hard. I’m not gonna use that slot at all. I do like the two part design from the case logic in this case. The front of the backpack has two cross slots. One side is smaller while the other side is larger. I’m currently putting some filters in the bigger slot. However, with the waist strap on, it’s impossible to reach any of the compartments other than the main one. So it’s a bit of a nuance. But I can’t find a better place to store my filters…
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Overall, I think the case logic is a better bag with very good quality. But the lacking of water compartment and a built-in raincover, plus the slippery strap are the three aspects I dislike the most.            
The Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L has some quirks. It’s designed mainly for active sports type and people who doesn’t have a lot of gears. The back opening compartment is a very good idea and seems working out very well for me. But still it’s far from perfect. The ideal bag would be a bag that’s designed based on the case logic as it’s a good quality bag: flipping the main compartment of the case logic, adding waist flaps to have the flip functionality while having that spacious room for much more gears. The right side compartment needs to be way larger to be able to hold a 1.5L water bag. Improve the left side tripod system. Removing the small front bag, exchange for a flap that can cover the EVA base while flip the bag to provide a soft smooth area. Here is a very rough draft of what I have in mind when putting the best of the two bags together:
scatch perfect bag

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Laser Printers Comparisons - Brother MFC-L2700DW vs HP2200D vs HP1018 vs Pantum P2502W

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So since I’m going back to school, I have more stuff to print. I’m not ready to going completely digital yet, I prefer most of the stuff to be printed for reading. Digital versions made it easy for searching based on keywords, but when actual reading, marking notes, or cross referencing etc, I still found paper to be much better. Anyways, the aging HP2200D while worked OK (except for some occasional paper jamming) for light printing over the past 3 or so years, it can’t satisfy my needs any more. I’m looking for a better AIO laser with auto duplex function. Of course the printing cost has to be reasonable. So I settled on a brother MFC-L2700DW during the recent Staples sales. Cost me about $80 after tax.
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It’s the lowest model in brother’s L27xx line (2700, 2720, 2740). These are the smallest MFC’s in their line up. This one is the slowest in terms ppm. The 2720 and 2740 has a 2.7’' touch screen display, while this 2700 has a 2 line LCD with no backlights. I actually prefer the physical buttons, but no backlights make it hard to operate under low light for scanning. (Brohter’s software is not the best, so I prefer using the machine). The highest model 2740 features a dual scanning component in ADF that can scan both sides in one pass. I rarely need to scan any documents both sides, so I can live with that. Scanning speed is on par with the EPSON Artisan 725. The 2740 also has some fancy network apps. But everything you can achieve with their mobile app.
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It features a 150 page tray, which is a little bit small, but more than enough. But the output tray is so narrow and can’t accommodate to more than a few paper is a bit let down. Of course there’s a second tray that you can pull out at the back. But my space is limited I don’t want to use that option.
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The brother uses a new cartridge TN-630/660. There are already third party compatible cartridges out there selling for under $25 for TN-660, the high yield one which is rated for 2600 pages at 5% ISO coverage. So the printing cost is pretty reasonable. Of course for brother, you need to consider the drum cost down the road, but I believe by the time I would need to replace that, I’m graduating from the school. The machine already came with a starter toner just like all other printers. So far I’m not happy with the printing quality though. The printing is a bit blurry and light compare to my HP2200D and a few other printers I’ll talk about later. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the drum. There is no third party drum yet.
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Well, actually the HP2200D comes with a duplex module installed already, and added network card as well. The duplex option never worked well for not even large job, say anything over 5 pages, it would jam. I had attempted to fix it up with changing all rollers, but only end up with no marginal improvement. The only fix is to use heavier paper. But I have too many free copy paper from Staples over the years… The rollers end up being sunk cost. But it’s not bad to finally motivate me to open up the printer to see what’s inside.
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Well, it’s mostly mechanical rollers, linkages inside, nothing fancy for a printer that’s more than 10 years old.
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Before the brother, I actually also have a HP1018, and then bought a Pantum P2502W not long before. The HP1018 is a pretty neat little printer except there’s no network option. The open air paper tray makes it easier for manual double sided printer despite no auto duplex. But the no network function is absolutely a deal breaker nowadays. I tried the printer share function from the LENOVO NAS, but it couldn’t work reliably.
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The Pantum P2502W was just an impulse buy during the Christmas. It’s an exclusive item from Newegg. I’ve never heard of this brand before. It turned out to be a Chinese company. And $30 seems like a cheap enough to try it at the time. It’s very similar design of the HP1018 plus the network(WIFI only) function. First time activating the WIFI is a bit strange, has to use a USB cable attached to PC to do that. But once WIFI is activated, adding the printer to other PCs is a breeze, windows 7 can even pull off the driver automatically. (The pantum website was very unreliable and slow). The printing speed and quality is very decent, certainly matches the HP performance.
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The down side is there’s no third party toner available. The replacement PB-210 toner is only available Newegg for much more than what this printer cost… I’ve read on some Chinese website that you can add powder by yourself, but I just couldn’t figure out exactly which powder are compatible.
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So I’m settled on the brother for now. I’m reasonably happy with the overall performance. Just not so satisfied with the printing quality, not sure if it’s the included starter toner/drum issue. I might try some third party once the drum became available…        

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2014 Year End Photography Equipment Purchases - Canon EF40mm f2.8 STM / Sirui Ballhead / Kirk L Bracket

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I guess this would be my first photography related post on my blog. I got into photography about 3 years ago by getting a Canon 60D, then quickly moved to a Canon 5D Mark III 2 years from now. At this stage, I would say I’m pretty comfortable about getting correct exposures with natural lighting using manual mode. Composition wise, I still need much more practices. But for flashes, I’m still struggling understanding the mechanisms. I mean I have some understandings about the flash triangle for exposure and inverse square law, etc, but I just can’t seem to make good use of them. I need more time studying in this area, that’s my 2015 photography resolution. Anyways, here are some of the stuff I bought at year end:
1. Canon EF40mm f2.8 STM
2. Sirui Ballhead K-30X
3. Kirk L Bracket for 5D Mark III
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It’s my first time buying a refurbished Canon lens. I only had three lenses before getting this one anyway… It’s a pancake lens with STM - stepping motor. I’ve always wanted to get this one instead of the nifty fifty. This looks like the perfect combo for the SL1 - my backup camera. I was able to get it for $100 after missing it a few times.
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It’s a very compact lens, plastic construction made it weightless. This is my first prime lens BTW.
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The macro focusing distance is 0.3m, slightly shorter distance to the 24-105mm that I’m using originally. I can get pretty close to the subject if I have the need.
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The 2.8 aperture, being 1 stop faster than the 24-105mm f/4, is good for the low light situation, more bekoh as well. Although might not as faster than the nifty fifty, still good enough for me. I might get a sigma ART prime lens some time down the road, since that’s receiving all raging reviews these days. I’ll play on this one first to practice composition skills.
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The size and the weight on the SL1+40mm could compete with SONY a7+28-70mm kit. I generally like the Canon for simple operation and familiar interface. The SONY a7 was just an impulse buy for a good deal at the time. Although SONY a7 has way more functions and has a full frame censor. I’m still not feeling comfortable to spend more money for the SONY ecosystem, FE 55mm f/1.8 seems the only (prime) lens that I’m interested in, but I could get a sigma ART 50mm f/1.4 for less than that, why bother… Also SONY is way too fast in refreshing their cameras every year, a7II is already out with in camera stabilization… The most disappointing thing about a7 is the battery though, it eats battery like no others, three batteries could barely keep it alive for a full day of shooting…
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Now moving on to the ball head. I’ve got a Vanguard 263AT tripod, which came with this SBH-100 ball head. The tripod pretty much was ruined during the 14 day trip I had in 2014. The first thing I’m doing here is to replace the head. After reading around, I’m vouching for Chinese manufacturers again here, got the Sirui K-30X, which is the middle size of the line. I’m still looking for the carbon fiber legs. But haven’t decided which one to get yet. I can’t even decide if I want a more portable one (5 sections) or a more sturdy one (4 sections). There are just way too many choices out there… And I don’t want to spend $600 for just the legs…
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Now the Sirui ball head seems like pretty good quality compared to the SBH-100.
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The ball head seems a lot more fluid. I hope it could last me long enough.
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The ball head is Arca-Swiss compatible, which is the essential function when I chose it. Intentionally or unintentionally, almost all the mounting plates I got so far are Arca-Swiss compatible. I can finally use these plates. All three of my cameras, and a 70-200 f2.8L get an Arca-Swiss compatible plate attached now.
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I also like the screw has a D ring for easier attach and removal. You get the options to further tighten down with a coin or a allen key.
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Now to complete this whole Arca-Swiss setup, I finally shell out some money on the L bracket. After comparing with RRS, Kirk, and ProMediaGear, I settled on the Kirk.
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It’s a very niche item that cost $150 for just one piece of metal. I could probably make one if I still had the access to the machine workshop, provided if I can get the measurements right.
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My old setup was attaching a Nikon hand strap to 5D Mark III, which the included plate has a 1/4in screw hole that I can attach yet another mounting plate. The setup was very prone to get twisted in the opposite direction and became loose. Worst of all, they all have the slot where you need a coin or the included tool to get attach again. So the L bracket fits the 5D Mark III only should solve this problem. Also by moving everything to Arca-Swiss, I can get rid of the second plate.
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So this is what it looks like after moving the Nikon hand strap to the L bracket. Everything worked out great. The strap is not in the way of the battery door. I really liked the hand strap BTW as I absolutely hates neck straps. The genuine one sells for $90 and is hard to find. But ebay sells a Korean made on for around $22, which I wholeheartedly recommends. The mounting plate included is also a Arca-Swiss compatible one, which I moved to the a7.
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The L bracket fits like a glove to the camera body so no more came loose. Again by buying such an expensive L bracket that only fits specific model, it is definitely a big commitment to the camera. I don’t expect to upgrade the 5D Mark III in the near future.
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The only drawback I can immediately see is that the side (when camera is in vertical position), is completely hollow to allow access to the ports. There doesn’t seem to be anything to latch against the stop pin on the ball head. It could be an issue when mounting in vertical, you gotta be extra careful, otherwise you are risk dropping the camera…
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Well, I said I hate neck strap, I do use it from time to time. I got in on the kickstarter project for Peak Design’s slide. That was my first and last kickstarter backing though. The product turns out had a design flaw. Although the company was being transparent enough about the flaw and provide ways to verify and solve the problem, it was still too much trouble to save 10% for being a beta tester. Mine turned out to be safe after I did their testing so I don’t have to do anything, but still I would rather buy products which just works out the door at a higher price.
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