Iceland Adventure Day 0

Planning for this Grand Adventure began more than 6 months ago.

Back then, we were throwing around ideas on our next big holiday. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Greenland) often came up during our almost weekly discussions over dinner meet ups. At that point of time, we weren’t very keen due to the costs involved, but after exploring other viable options and seeing them as neither attractive nor interesting, it started to become clear that we might eventually end up there for our next adventure. One of the main reasons why we chose that region of the world was the chance to see the Northern Lights. We all agreed that seeing the Northern Lights has always been in our bucket list. Sweden, Norway, and Finland were prime candidates to see such a magical event. We also decided to do a road trip in one of those countries, renting a car and just driving from town to town, soaking in the beautiful sights and natural wonders that these nordic countries had to offer. But to drive during winter can be a little bit of a challenge in those countries. Short daylight hours in the northernmost part of those countries weren’t ideal for a road trip. Plummeting freezing temperatures were another issue. And simply chasing Northern Lights alone at the expense of everything else would not make our trip enjoyable in the long run. Furthermore, these countries are huge. It is simply too vast of a distance to cover thoroughly by car, especially when travelling a circuitous route to end up where you began.

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Signalling all those concerns, Iceland quickly fell into our sight. And so, in the subsequent weeks, we began researching more about Iceland and what it had to offer. The more we researched, the more we were satisfied that Iceland might meet our holiday “objectives”. And those objectives were to see the Northern Lights, go on a road trip during winter, and experience the Nordic climate during our stay without much logistical challenges. The primary goal however, was to experience something out of this world. To come back with memories worth sharing, and cherishing it for years to come.

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Going on a road trip means renting a car, planning our route and staying at guesthouses, hotels, or farmstays at different parts of country. We decided to make our lives a little simpler. We approached Nordic Visitor, a very reputable tour agency to help us plan our adventure based on what we want to do and where we want to go. We chose a simple 10-day self-drive tour package with some customisations on our own. In the package, they would provide the rented car, help us book all the accommodations, issue a printed itinerary, a comprehensive travel map, an emergency phone, a 24-hour hotline and even include personal pickup and drop-off at the airport and our first accommodation. Everything would be arranged for us in the most professional way. What really drew us to Nordic Visitor was the ability to truly customise the itinerary to fit us. We planned to travel around Iceland for 13 days and do a couple of outdoor activities. Nordic visitor was generous enough to modify the original itinerary to suit us and they did it all without fuss, adding a couple of days stay here and there during our stay, helping us book our glacier and ice-cave tours with the outdoor tour companies well in advance. Everything was sorted through email and they were professional and prompt in their responses to any queries we had prior to committing to the tour.

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And soon we realise it was just a month before our grand adventure would begin. Four weeks became three. Three became two. Packing lists were created, insurances bought, flights finalised, camera gear checked and ready to shoot. Passports ready. All of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, in the midst of all the preparation and the anticipation, it was time for us to go.

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One week worth of uploads.

So how long does it took for me to upload almost 500GB of photos to Amazon Cloud Drive? Almost 8 days, non-stop. My Macbook Air was literally switched on, 24/7 for an entire week, so that I could get every single 65,000 or so photos totalling close to half a terabyte uploaded to the cloud. It was not fun at all, especially when the Amazon Cloud has no native sync support. It simply offered a desktop app, where you simply drag and drop files to the app and it will upload to the cloud. The good thing is that I consolidated all my photos in a single giant folder, consisting of even more folders to organise my photos. So I simply drag that huge ass folder to the upload application and it soon started uploading to the cloud.

Speeds vary, but personally it was generally fast, and I did not encounter connection problems to the cloud servers at all during the upload process. There weren’t any issues of missing files, double uploads, repeated files, or anything like that. The file structure was maintained perfectly, and as the progress bar inched it way to the finish line, the Cloud Drive slowly fills up and the chart tells you how many photos, files and videos you have in the cloud. I am taking advantage of the first 3 month trial period, uploading  a massive number of files in such a short time. I shudder at the thought of downloading every single one of them, should my current hard drive fail and I am forced to get a new one and repopulate my new drive. I wonder how fast it would be over the long term download process.

In the end, while the uploading is a huge hassle and extremely inefficient, it is relatively economical in simply paying 60 bucks year for unlimited cloud storage. I am still mulling whether cloud backup or raid redundancy is the best solution for me, given my needs. While having both is good, as it provides not only local backup, but offshore backup as well, in truth, I don’t really have the luxury of doing that. In the end, I have to choose and weigh my option carefully. The local backup solution required a pretty heavy investment in getting a DAS, or NAS with all the hard drives needed to populate it and creating proper redundancy. The cloud backup solution requires you to upload any new files regularly, keeping to a schedule so that in an even when the drive fails, you will encounter minimal file loss.

I will continue to use the free trial and see how it all pans out in the future. I really do hope that Amazon have plans to add new features to the cloud drive, and perhaps one day, rival that of Dropbox in terms of functionality and ease of use. I still find dropbox to  be the gold standard in cloud storage in terms of functionality.

Backup Conundrum

I have been reading a lot about NAS, DAS, cloud backup, cloud storage, RAID options and many many more. But still, I have yet to come up with the most cost effective solution and efficient solution to back up and archive my photos. First, there is always the traditional route of backing up my photos from an external hard drive and making periodic transfer every now and then. I am using a 2.5 inch portable hard drive as my main photo depository. Eventually that hard drive is going to be full and I would need a more future proof solution. The closest option based on my needs would be to invest in a NAS. But NAS requires an ethernet connection to the router that would then allow NAS access to a home network. I have tried the transfer speeds of files from the NAS to the network and onto my computer, and I am not liking the transfer speeds. I need something faster. Then there is DAS, or Direct Attached Storage, like the Drobo, WD My Book Duo, or Thunderbolt Duo. But those things costs a bomb! I don’t really want to invest so much money upfront just to backup my photos and eventually have a future proof solution to my storage needs. It’s just too expensive for my taste.

Recently, I have begun experimenting with cloud storage and backup solution. I tried crash plan and initially I liked it. It’s those set-it-once-forget-about-it kind of system. Unlimited storage space, (for a fee of course) but it allows you to periodically make backups to the cloud. While it may seem the most cost effective solution, backing up hundreds of gigabytes of data is going to take a tremendous amount of time! By my reckoning, based on the Crashplan’s estimates, it would take me more than 20 days of non-stop uploads to fully back up my entire photos collection. While it is cheap, its not efficient. Amazon Cloud Drive seems to upload photos slightly faster than Crashplan, but still doesn’t solve the slow transfer speeds. So what now? Do I really have to invest in a NAS or DAS?

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Toying with Direct Attached Storage

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For the past week, I have been trying to educate myself to the world of NAS, or Network Attached Storage. I was reading articles on the web, watching Youtube tutorials, unboxing, reviews, you name it just to get up to speed to what NAS is all about. It took me a while to grasp the concept of NAS, as the choices, features and functions are bountiful. And I only realized recently, that my WD My Cloud, somehow resembles a NAS, in a very rudimentary way. And after reading more about it, the WD My Cloud, actually functions just like a NAS, but a very stripped down version, useful for someone who is not as technically inclined in delving further into the world of NAS. It is a simple plug and play device and contains a single 4TB hard drive, where you simply dump all your media files for all in the household to share.

The reason why I started looking up at NAS, was because I was trying to find a practical solution in not only storing my previous photos taken during my numerous photography sessions, but also solutions to provide adequate backup should some hardware fail unexpectedly in a distant future. Those photos that I have are very precious to me, and while I have a Smugmug account that allows you to upload unlimited number of photos, I did not subscribe to their more, premium option of uploading RAW files as well. So while I can upload all my JPEGs to Smugmug with an incredible amount of organizational latitude, I am still limited by the fact that RAW is off limits when it comes to cloud backup (Smugmug functions somewhat this way, with an added bonus of giving you the tools to created compelling websites to showcase your best photography works, all under a single subscription model.) And so, I started toying with the idea of doing a simple backup or redundancy at a local level, like setting up a Raid 1 storage for example.

Photography as a hobby, takes up a lot of digital space, and so it became natural that NAS was under my radar. However, the more I understood what NAS is all about, the more I feel that it is an unnecessary step and possibly an ill fitting direction in choosing how to safely store my photos. What I really needed at the end of the day, was not to share my photos of anyone within the NAS network, or access those photos offsite, but rather just to provide a simple storage and redundancy solution to safely protect -at a local level- all my precious photos.

DAS, or less commonly known as Direct Attached Storage, are simple hard drives connected directly to your PC. It may or may not be connected to a bigger part of the network, but it provided the simplest solution based on my needs. Products like WD My Cloud Duo, features 2 hard drives in which you can install and upgrade in the future and provide Raid 1 settings, meaning one of the drive is served as a redundant drive, mirroring the other one. That is what I need, providing redundancy should one fail. Are they other options available? The Drobos 4-Bay USB3.0 or Drobos 5D, 5-Bay with Thunderbolt connection are some other options that I have found online that suit my needs. The Drobos 5D is prohibitively expensive in my opinion, due to its thunderbolt connectivity which gives you blazing fast speeds in reading and writing data to the hard drive. Drobos 4-Bay is the next best fit. But such DAS regardless of brand, do come at a cost, with some significant investments in good, high capacity hard drives, in order to take advantage of the Raid capabilities and provide adequate redundancy to protect my photos.

My next big IT purchase might just be getting a good DAS to store and protect my photos from hardware failure. I may not need it now, since currently I don’t need that much space that 4-bay DAS can offer. I still have ample of space for my photos in my 2.5 inch 2TB portable hard drive. In other words, I still have time to look around and maybe consider DIYing such things, and make it a weekend project to create my own DAS. Who knows, it could be interesting and all I need is a reliable DAS, without the need of fancy branding or extra features that I may ultimately not use.

Finally bought a new Olympus lens

And it is none other than the famous Olympus M. Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens. It’s huge, but lighter than I expected. Still, I had trouble fitting that lens in addition to my camera body with the 12-40mm f2.8 PRO lens attached to it in the camera bag. It’s only feasible if I remove some extra stuff that I would rarely use, like the flash attachment, blower and some other cleaning toolkit. I would have to offload all these to another smaller pouch if I need them.

The lens was the most expensive item in the camera system I have ever bought in my entire life. Costing almost SGD2000, I took a long while to decide if I should get it. But the damage is done. I have gotten the lens. I suffered a little bit of buyers remorse right upon purchase, but all that disappeared when I discovered how well the lens performed when taking portrait photos. And sure enough, a couple of my friends wanted to have their portraits taken. And it couldn’t come at a better time than when I recently purchased that lens.

Bokeh is creamy, and the lens is incredibly sharp. Seriously, now that I own two pro lenses, those lenses would be the only lens that I would own. No more. It performs as good, if not better than some prime lenses out there. And when you have a lens that is expensive and performs this well, there is no reason to get prime lenses despite what other photographers would say. And having a focal range of 12mm, all the way to 150mm, I have great coverage to cover everything from landscape, architecture, portrait, to wildlife. Heck, the 40-150mm can even take semi-macro shots too. The lens is that good.

Bulk wise, it is huge for a micro four-thirds system, but I don’t think I would have too much difficult lugging it around in addition to my camera body all in one bag. I would just have to be extra careful in carrying it out, especially while I am traveling overseas. I also need to be smart in knowing when I would need to change to get better a longer focal range and reach depending on the situation.

I wish I have more opportunities to take more portraits in the future, because having that lens is really fun, especially when taking portraits. And did I mention you look badass when you attach that humungous lens to your petite camera body?

Smugmug for photographers

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Ever since I bought my new camera, the Olympus OM-D EM5 Mark II, I have been using Flickr and WordPress to first, store the images, and then showcase some of my very best images through WordPress. It worked well for a while. Flickr is free with 1TB of space to store your photos. That is more than enough for most users, including me, since I don’t upload all my photos taken, but instead, only the ones that I want to showcase through WordPress.

But I realize that it doesn’t really integrate well, especially when you need to showcase lots of photos on one blog post, it can get quite manual, getting the links to the photos from Flickr, and then arranging them properly so that it displays well.

Recently I stumbled upon Smugmug, a place where you can store and share your photos at the same time. As an added bonus, in the last couple of years, they have completely revamped the look and how you share those photos. They now have many beautiful templates to choose from based on how you want to present your works, at the same time, having complete control on how it looks.

It’s not free. As a Power user, one of many tiers of subscriptions based on your needs, I pay USD 60 a year for various features that are useful for me. That includes the ability to choose the templates I want to present my images, and allow full customization. Also, with a paid subscription, I can upload an unlimited number of photos I want, organized to my needs. This full control and full flexibility is what I personally feel, that the cost is worth the subscription.

I registered for an account and got a 14-day trial. I was initially quite overwhelmed at the sheer level customization you are allowed to do based on the templates designed by the people of Smugmug. But within the hour, I had the basics of a working website in order and already it looks more or less presentable. As smugmug is a web service catered to photographers for novices and professionals, naturally, the templates designed by Smugmug, are designed in a away to put your photos at the forefront in any website designed by the tools provided for users. And those templates are remarkably gorgeous. And having a more gorgeous website does not come with the added complexity. That’s the beauty of Smugmug in my opinion. It comes with a powerful and intuitive tool to design the website you want. You can see the changes in real time, you can make sweeping changes to the overall layout of the website, but also give you granular control of each and minute detail in every photo gallery you created in showcasing your works. That, in my opinion was what sold me the very instant I realized that I have the control to design it my own way.

Another aspect that comes as part of a sweet deal is that Smugmug is also a place where you can store all your photos, not just the edited or enhanced ones, but your entire folio in an easy to create Folders and Galleries. Just like how you would organize your entire photo collection into folders based on either date, subject or location, you can do all that in Smugmug just like how you do it in when you back up your photos on your own personal hard drives. Because Smugmug give you unlimited storage space, you can use it as a cloud service to back up your entire photo collection. This is particularly useful is some catastrophe were to happen to your own physical hard drives where your photos are stored. And if you do need to download the entire collection again, you can download the entire folder at one go, not just individual photos. Thus, having a systematic way to organize your photos is possible in Smugmug and the tools provided by them to do so, is easy and works remarkably well.

I would highly recommend Smugmug to any photographers out there who are either starting photography as a hobby, or a current enthusiast or a professional to try it out and see how you can integrate Smugmug in your workflow.

Do visit my Smugmug page as well.

Renewed vigor

The new Olympus OM-D EM5 Mark II camera that I recently purchased has given me a renewed sense of vigor in going out there and taking loads of pictures. It reminded me of the time when I got my first DSLR, the Canon 550D back when I was in NTU. I was so eager to try out new techniques, and shoot photographs in new places.

Recently, I have come up with a list of places that I would like to visit in and around Singapore, some of which I have never visited despite being a Singaporean. That list is growing and I can’t wait. The only thing lacking right now is a good tripod. With a tripod, my photo taking repetoir would increase dramatically. I would be able to do night shots, time lapse, sunrise, sunset and nature photography with the tripod. I recently bought it online and I am looking forward to receiving it. Once I have the tripod, my photography toolkit would meet the basic requirements to take a wide range of landscape, street and nature shots. The tripod is pricey, coming at more than SGD200. But according to wire cutter, it is touted as the best travel tripod you can bring around easily. Sturdy, yet compact to carry it around anywhere you go. It is perfect for backpacking, hiking, trekking without the added burden of carrying a heavy metallic tripod. There are better ones out there that provide superior stability and functionality. But the tripod that I bought from Mefoto, hits the sweet spot of providing stability, yet at the same time, not costing too much and being light enough to carry it around anywhere with you. I hope when it arrives, it would meet or exceed my expectations. I did not have a chance to look at the physical thing, since I don’t see any stores in Singapore selling that particular brand and model. So I am relying on reviews, customer testimonials, and blind faith buying a SGD200 tripod.

It should arrive in a few days and I am looking forward to posting wonderful shots using the tripod itself.