Olympus PEN-F
Reviews

What camera do I use these days?

Back in 2018, as I was researching new cameras with a view to buying new camera gear, I wrote a detailed article and also made a video guide:

I thought it’d be interesting to share with you what I’ve done since then. What camera and lenses did I buy and why? Don’t worry, I won’t keep you in suspense. My gear page is a clear list of what I’m using these days. I thought I’d also take you into my photo catalog, so you can see exactly what cameras and lenses I’ve been using.

A tally of the photos taken with various cameras

That partial list of cameras you see above is only part of the picture. There are over 92 cameras and scanners listed in my catalog, but that screenshot is important because you can see that most of the action is happening with Olympus cameras: there’s the E-3, E-330, E-500, E-510, E-P1, E-P2, E-P3, E-P5, and the E-PL1.

When we look at lists of the cameras used in each of the years since 2018, the picture becomes even clearer.

Cameras used in 2018
Cameras used in 2019
Cameras used in 2020

When you look at 2020, you’ll see a new camera: an Olympus PEN-F. I bought it this year, less than a month ago, and it is now my main camera. Not that it should come as a surprise, because you can clearly see that PEN cameras have been my main cameras during these past couple of years.

Olympus PEN-F
Olympus PEN-F

My new secondary camera is the Olympus E-3, a flagship camera launched in 2007. That’s right, it’s a 13-year old camera, but it’s so good! It’s designed so well, and it feels so comfortable to hold and use. The images are wonderful as well: clear, sharp, colorful. It’s also splashproof and dustproof. I couldn’t ask for more.

Olympus EVOLT E-3
Olympus EVOLT E-3

I used to worry about megapixels, but not anymore. I have no complaints about the 10 megapixel images from the E-3, and the 20 megapixel images from the PEN-F are a wonderful luxury. When I need a lot of resolution, I can always stick my PEN-F on a tripod, put it in High Res mode and get 80 megapixel images!

If you’re still worrying about resolution, please realize that 10 megapixel images are more than plenty for A4 prints (that’s roughly 8×10 prints). Even 8 megapixel images print just fine on A4 sheets, which is more than the size you’d need for a book of photographs. As for online uses, even a 2 megapixel image will do great. You don’t need a lot of megapixels! The extra resolution is nice, but it complicates storage and processing needs and it’s simply too much for most uses.

Back in 2018, when I wrote my article, I may have concluded that the best full-frame camera was the Sony A7RIII, but I also concluded in the video guide, that the best camera for me is the camera that fits my needs best. And when I sat down to think about the cameras I’d enjoyed using and taking with me (that’s the important part, the willingness to carry the camera along so I can take photos with it), I had to conclude that I enjoyed using Olympus cameras, and that I really liked the PEN line of cameras.

Using the PEN E-P2 back in 2010 was a photographic revelation. It was a new way of taking photos for me. It was such a joy to hold that camera, to frame an image in the viewfinder and to press the shutter button. The images were so good for such a tiny camera. To this day I regret not switching over right there and then, but I was so invested in Canon gear at the time.

Olympus PEN E-P2
Olympus PEN E-P2

So the natural thing for me to do, once I admitted this to myself, was to begin purchasing PEN cameras and MFT lenses. I had a couple of concerns as detailed below, so I proceeded slowly:

One way I love using my cameras is to shoot wide-open, to get proper separation between my subject and the background, and this was a concern as I began purchasing Micro Four Thirds gear: would I be able to get a shallow depth of field from cameras known for their high depth of field? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes, and it was the 45mm f1.8 lens that made me go “wow”.

Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens
Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens

Here is one sample photograph.

Olympus PEN E-P5 | 45mm | f1.8 | 1/4000 sec | ISO 200

Another way I love using my cameras is in low light, particularly at dusk. With previous Olympus cameras that I’d reviewed, I knew I couldn’t go above ISO 800. I wanted to see if things improved with the newer PEN cameras. When I reviewed the PEN E-P2 in 2010, I went to ISO 1600 and 3200 and the results were usable, but not ideal. I also knew I hadn’t really tested the E-P2 fairly, because the widest lens I’d used on it was f3.5 at its max (it was the kit 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens), while for my other cameras, I had f1.4 lenses which obviously helped them gather much more light and perform much better in low light. Also, what had improved a lot over the years was the ability of software like Lightroom and Olympus Workspace (formerly known as Olympus Viewer) to apply good noise reduction to high-ISO images.

Incidentally, even with the aid of f1.4 lenses, I was thoroughly disappointed with the high-ISO performance of my Canon 7D over the years, to the point where I took to reusing my old Canon 5D in low light, so I wouldn’t end up muttering curses under my breath when I developed the images.

So once I bought the E-P2 in 2018, I took photos with it in low light once again, this time with proper wide-open lenses like the 17mm f/1.8 and the 45mm f/1.8 and I was thoroughly surprised at how well the camera performed. Here are a couple of samples.

Olympus PEN E-P2 | 45mm | f1.8 | 1/8 sec | ISO 1600
Olympus PEN E-P2 | 17mm | f1.8 | 1/40 sec | ISO 1600

These were developed in Adobe Lightroom, but I will say this: Olympus Workspace is much, much better at reducing noise in high-ISO images from Olympus cameras than Lightroom. If you’re disappointed with how your final images look after you put them through Lightroom, put those same images through Olympus Workspace and you’ll be surprised at the results. I know I was! Granted, it is slower to work with and it doesn’t offer all of the file management, presets and collections options that make it so convenient to use Lightroom, but it has no competition when it comes to getting the best image quality from your developed photos.

Seeing how well the E-P2 performed with proper lenses, I went ahead and purchased the E-P3 and the E-P5. I was also lucky to find an E-P1 in very good condition, so I bought that as well.

Olympus PEN E-P3
Olympus PEN E-P3
Olympus PEN E-P5
Olympus PEN E-P5
Olympus PEN E-P1
Olympus PEN E-P1

As I used them, I saw that things got better with each model, from the E-P1 to the E-P2, from E-P2 to the E-P3, and from the E-P3 to the E-P5, in terms of high-ISO noise management and many other things, to the point where photos taken in dim indoor lighting turn out like this:

Olympus PEN E-P5 | 45mm | f1.8 | 1/80 sec | ISO 1600

I have absolutely no complaints about images like these, so naturally my concerns about the performance of Olympus cameras in low light went up in smoke, so to speak.

Once these two concerns — shallow depth of field and low light performance — were nullified, I could truly begin to use my PEN cameras as my primary cameras, and I began purchasing more lenses. I now have nine MFT lenses and two converters (macro and ultra-wide), covering a focal range of 9-300mm (equivalent to 18-600mm in 35mm format), so my needs are pretty well met. More importantly, I’ve proven to myself that I can use PEN cameras professionally, and that I can use Olympus cameras full-time for my photographic needs, which is what I’ve done since 2018.

I have had a soft spot for Olympus cameras for some time. My first proper digital camera was the Olympus C3000Z, which I used from 2004-2007.

Olympus Camedia C3000Z
Olympus Camedia C3000Z

The C770UZ was next, and I used it from 2005-2010.

Olympus Camedia C770UZ
Olympus Camedia C770UZ

I then got the PEN E-PL1, which I used from 2012-2018 as my primary travel camera and as my backup camera at home. I got it from Costco as a kit with the 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses, and loved taking it along on trips, because it was so tiny and light and with those two lenses, I was covering a focal range of 14-150mm (equivalent to 28-300mm in 35mm terms).

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Olympus PEN E-PL1

From 2018 onward, I’ve used my various PEN cameras as my primary cameras, with my PEN E-P5 racking up the most shots at over 65K. Now of course the PEN-F is my primary camera and I’m very happy. When I sit at my desk, I keep it there in front of me and I admire its design as I work on my various projects. I love it!

Olympus PEN-F | 300mm | f7.1 | 1/500 sec | ISO 250

So there you have it! I hope this was helpful in some way. Thanks for reading!

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Olympus E-330 DSLR
Reviews

My Olympus E-330 DSLR

Wait, didn’t I just post about my E-3? Yes, I did. This is about a different camera that I bought recently, the E-330, which was part of the same EVOLT series of digital cameras — which was itself part of the Four Thirds System (the precursor of the Micro Four Thirds System). The E-330 was launched at the start of 2006, so it pre-dates the E-3 by almost two years. I found this one in almost new condition with a really low shutter count (only around 2000 exposures) and the 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens, at a really good price. I’d wanted to at least see the E-330 up close and use it ever since I reviewed the E-500, but I couldn’t get a hold of it back then. Fast forward to fourteen years later and now I have it.

The E-330 is such an interesting camera. It was the first interchangeable-lens-type AF digital SLR in the world to offer full-time subject framing via a rear-mounted LCD monitor. That’s right — the ubiquitous tilt-screen or articulating screen that’s a normal feature of mirrorless cameras nowadays was first offered on the Olympus E-330. Also a first was Live View, or what you might now call a live through-the-lens (TTL) display of your subject, so you could either use the viewfinder or the screen. I know you’re used to this kind of thing now, but back in 2006, this was amazing new technology.

There were two modes for Live View. In Mode A, you’d close a flap over the viewfinder and the camera would then focus on the subject matter by itself when you pressed the shutter button, and in Mode B, you could focus manually using the live display and a 10x macro view that allowed you to dial in the focus perfectly.

Mode A
Mode B

The E-330 also featured another Olympus innovation, SSWF (a dust reduction system) that had been introduced in 2003 with the E1 and then perfected with the E-500 and E-300. Having used the E1, E-500 and the E-510 and E-410 back in 2007, I can tell you this dust reduction system worked flawlessly. I never had to remove dust spots from the photos taken with Olympus cameras, while I was always forced to remove them from photos taken with other cameras. Also, this camera had dual card slots (CF and xD) and keep in mind this was not a top of the line DSLR, which is where you’d typically find this feature. Also, (bonus!) it uses the same batteries (BLM-1) as my E-3.

Another interesting feature of the E-330 was (and still is) MF (Manual Focus) Bracketing. This was in addition to WB, AE and FL Bracketing. MF Bracketing would let you select from options for 5-frame or 7-frame series with 1-step or 2-step focus shifting, and the camera would then take that series of frames, automatically moving the focus point bit by bit. This would allow you to do focus stacking in post production, or simply to select the frame that you felt had the best focus point. Nowadays Olympus cameras such as the OM-D series will not only do MF Bracketing, but also do in-camera focus stacking, combining those frames into a single image with better overall focus. This is great for macro photography, where the focus (or the depth of field) can get quite thin, to the point where it’s impossible to get the whole subject (insect, flower) in focus without focus stacking. This next image is an example of this feature.

Notice how the shutter button, front control dial, the name of the camera and the brand inscribed on the pentaprism are all in focus. This could not have been achieved without MF Bracketing and a focus stack in post-processing.

The E-330 also has a pleasing and different design. Even though it’s a DSLR with an optical prism, it has no prism bump on top. It was just so different from other DSLRs of the time. It was this cute little camera with rounded edges and this unusual top. It’s a wonderful thing to behold and to hold in your hand. Yes, it has its limitations, but it’s so well-made and for its time, it worked brilliantly well. I also love that it has a remote control receiver that works with a universal Olympus remote (the RM-1), which allows me to control the camera wirelessly even in Bulb mode. I really enjoyed using it during the last week or so that I’ve had it, and I’ll look forward to using it again and again in the future.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the photos in the gallery enclosed here, they were taken with the E-330.

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Reviews

My Olympus E-3 DSLR

I bought an Olympus E-3 a couple of days ago. Its full name is the EVOLT E-3, and it was Olympus’ flagship DSLR back in 2007. It was announced on October 17, 2007 and it became available on November 23 of that same year. I realize it’s now 2020, thirteen years later, but I found it online in really good condition, with a low shutter count (only 8000 or so exposures) and at a good price. Other than a small crack in the lower left-hand corner of the LCD, this camera is in great shape and it’s a real joy to use.

I was present at the camera’s launch party in NYC on October 16, 2007. You can see my write-up of the event, with photos and video, in this post. I would have loved to purchase the camera at the time, but I was invested in Canon gear at the time. The E-3 was a great camera for its time, quite ahead of the competition in many ways. The supersonic dust reduction function that’s so common on all of the interchangeable-lens cameras nowadays was then only present on Olympus cameras, because they came up with it. The swiveling LCD, also ubiquitous nowadays, was a novelty only present on this camera and on an older model, the EVOLT E-330 DSLR. The in-body image stabilization, a big selling point on so many expensive cameras nowadays, was yet another feature that Olympus invented and was only present on their latest cameras such as their new flagship and other models launched that year. The E-3 was a dustproof and splashproof camera, and at least two of the lenses also launched with it, the Zuiko 12-60mm SWD f2.8-4 and the Zuiko 50-200mm SWD f2.8-3.5, were also dustproof and splashproof. This was incredible at the time. All these features and capabilities seem normal now, but they were extraordinary back then.

Here is a gallery of photographs of the camera. Please forgive the dust specks. These are real world photographs of equipment that’s actively in use. It’s not a photo shoot. I didn’t airbrush it. I didn’t clean all its nooks and crannies. I simply placed it on a piece of furniture and took these photos.

One of the big concerns with Olympus cameras at that time (around 2007) was their performance in low light (at high ISO settings). Typically there was quite a bit of noise at 800 ISO and above, but not so on the E-3, where low-light performance was much better than that of less expensive cameras such as the E-510, which had been launched earlier that year. The E-3 was a flagship camera after all. As a matter of fact, when I look at low-light photos taken with the E-3 now, they’re just as good as the “gold standard” of the day, the Canon 5D, and this is remarkable given that the E-3 could only gather half the light with its Four Thirds sensor size. Since 2007, the noise reduction capabilities of software such as Lightroom have also improved by leaps and bounds, to the point where high-noise photos from the past can look quite good when developed within the software. I admit that I also like a bit of noise. Sometimes I like a lot of noise (up to a point). It adds character to an image. Granularity, that organic quality of film that’s missing from crisp, clean and clear digital images taken at 100-200 ISO, tends to make a photograph more endearing.

When I began to use the camera in earnest, I looked for the mode dial out of habit. There wasn’t one where I’d typically find it. Believe it or not, I hadn’t noticed this at the camera’s launch event and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t noticed it in press photos of the camera either. Now I began to panic a bit. Where was the damned thing? Did it break off? After all, this was a second-hand camera. Where was it?!

It wasn’t to be found, because there isn’t one. I had to look up the user manual on the Olympus Japan website in order to find out that indeed, it didn’t break off and there isn’t one. You switch the mode by pressing the Mode button on the left-hand top side of the camera and by rotating the dial on the back of the camera. Once you do it, it becomes second-nature and you begin to wonder why other cameras have to have specific mode dials. After all, how often do you switch the mode? Really, how often? My cameras typically stay on Aperture priority virtually all of the time. I switch to Shutter priority when I have to capture high-speed images or when I want to force motion blur, but that’s seldom, and when I do night photography, I stick it in Manual mode, but really, the camera stays in Aperture mode most of the time.

I thought I’d do something now that I couldn’t do at the time of the E-3’s launch, which is to sit the camera side by side with my 5D and see how the two stack up. Which one’s taller? Which one’s wider? How do the grips compare? How do the various buttons compare? I was surprised to find out that the E-3 is just a bit taller than the 5D, and that the 5D is quite a bit wider, about 2 cm wider. You don’t feel this until you take the cameras in your hand. The E-3 sits a little better in the hand while you can feel the 5D’s center of gravity pulling it to the left a bit. I also like the E-3’s many buttons, which make it easier to get to certain features that are otherwise buried in the menus. And that’s another thing: the E-3 is packed with features compared to the 5D. The 5D’s design is simple and curved, while the E-3’s is angled, full of corners and turns and also some curves — like this lovely curve on the left hand side, near the lens release button.

The E-3 may have a more complicated design, but I like it. I liked this camera from the get-go, and I’m glad I could buy it now, almost thirteen years after it was made.

Having just compared the looks of two of the leading cameras of their day, I will also say this: comparing the features of various cameras in an effort to see which one’s better is useless. Yes, I mean that! It’s useless because in the end, what really matters are these two things:

  • Do you like that camera? If yes, buy it.
  • Can you take the photos that you want to take with that camera? If yes, buy it.

Worrying about this and that feature and why it is or it isn’t present on a particular model is a waste of time. Watching camera comparisons and reading reviews ad nauseam is useless. You need to know what you want from a camera, come up with a list of “finalists”, and then you need to go and hold those cameras in your hand and see how they fit you, see how easily you can access the functions that matter to you. Get the one that you like best. That’s it. I know this is a bit of a rant, and it’s as much addressed to me as it is to you, because in spite of knowing these things, I still tend to obsess over some features sometimes.

I got the E-3 with the 40-150mm f3.5-4.5 lens, which was at the time a premium version of the regular (kit) 40-150mm lens, whose aperture range was f4-5.6. This is a wonderful lens. And now that I have a Four Thirds camera, I will likely get other Four Thirds lenses, such as a wide zoom, a large aperture prime, perhaps a macro, a 35-100mm f2.0 SWD zoom, I’ll see…

I’ve been taking quite a few photos with the E-3 since I bought it, and I’ve been carrying everywhere with me. As I say elsewhere on this site and on other sites, I always have a camera with me. I seldom rely on my phone to take photos that I care about, simply because taking photos with a mobile phone is a constant disappointment to me when it comes to the quality of the images. In order to get proper keepsakes, you need a real camera, and the E-3 is a real camera. It’s a flagship camera and it feels like a flagship; it’s solidly made and it has withstood the test of time beautifully. Everything still works on it: all the buttons, all the switches, all the features — and the images I get with it are wonderful. I also love the mechanical sound of the shutter on it. The shutter sound is after all the most prominent sort of feedback one gets from the camera when they use it, and I want my cameras to sound good to my ears. The E-3 definitely sounds good. I’m so glad I had the chance to buy this camera after all these years!

I’ll leave you with a few of the images I’ve taken with it. Enjoy!

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Reviews

Does Netflix know what it wants to be?

I contacted Netflix support a couple of days ago in order to give them my feedback regarding their choice of programming. I’d become disappointed with what they offered and I found myself wasting lots of time browsing their selections endlessly, only to give up and watch something else on some other streaming service. Furthermore, I thought their shows had become either too niche or too unappealing. In particular, I was disappointed with what I thought were “filler” movies and shows from Eastern countries. I have no interest in Bollywood or Turkish or Arab titles. I’ve tried watching them but I don’t like them, yet Netflix keeps showing them to me, plus a bunch of other shows from other countries.

Sure, they’re expanding into those countries and they’re buying up some of their content in order to appeal to those audiences, but why am I, a Westerner with Western entertainment values, being bombarded with Eastern shows that I don’t want to watch? I am Romanian by birth, and yet I don’t even watch Romanian shows. I can’t. I find the language harsh. I find the shows’ aesthetics harsh. I find the way they look at life unentertaining. When I watch “entertainment“, I want to be entertained. I find the Eastern languages even harsher to my ear, sorry. I fell in love with English a long time ago, I find it to be a beautiful language, and I want to watch movies and shows made in English, for Western sensibilities. I know that statement is bound to disappoint some people, but I also think you’ll agree that what I watch — what I do with my free time really — should be completely up to me.

It didn’t matter that I continually avoided Netflix’s recommendations and gave downvotes to shows I didn’t like in the hope that they’d stop showing them to me. Netflix kept continually pestering me with choices that were unappealing to me. So at some point, I had to admit the possibility that it wasn’t their recommendation algorithm, but their lack of quality content, that filled up my screen with thumbnails of weird, unappealing shows. I wanted to be able to opt out of everything but movies and shows made by English-speaking countries, for English-speaking countries. I told Netflix Support that and asked them to forward my feedback to the content programming team.

Here’s the interesting part: even before I got done typing all my comments into the chat box, the tech recommended that I cancel my subscription. I don’t know if that’s now become standard practice at Netflix, to tell customers that have been loyal to the service since they were mailing DVDs to essentially “f**k off”, but I thought I’d raise the issue here on my website. And just to be clear, cancelling my subscription was the obvious choice to me as well, but I was trying to offer constructive criticism, not to pull the plug.

The question I ask in my post’s headline implies that we look at Netflix’s history. They started with red vending machines that offered a limited but interesting selection of movies old and new. I used those machines and loved them. Then they offered DVDs by mail (that was another innovative thing) where they widened their selection considerably to include even some hard-to-find classics. I used that service and loved it. Then they switched to streaming, where they once again offered up a narrow but good selection of the market; certainly less of a selection than they offered with DVDs, but a good selection nonetheless, compelling enough to make me spend my money on it. I used that service from the get-go and loved it. I have to give them credit here, they predicted the future when they started offering their streaming service. But then they felt they had to expand in all sorts of ways, to grow their subscribership aggressively and to buy up all kinds of shows and movies so they could wow their new, fickle public. I remember their ads running constantly for years on end on many websites. If I remember correctly, they used the affiliate model for a while and offered payouts to those who would help them get customers. As recently as this year, their ads ran constantly on YouTube, to the point of making me swear and cuss.

Instead of being patient, instead of growing their customer base slowly but surely, winning them over with good content, instead of being a place where you could get some of the most interesting movies ever made, they wanted to be the place where you got to see most of the interesting movies and TV shows made today. Never mind the fact that no one in the history of TV channels has been able to do that, and not for a lack of trying.

Damn the classics, they also said, and they cut all of them out of their offering. At one point they had less than 20 classic titles listed on their site, none of them going back earlier than the 1970s.

But being modern, fresh, up-to-date can be an expensive endeavor. Licensing rights for the most popular movies and shows of today can run pretty steep. So even though it looked like they were on their way to doing that for a while, they had to change tack. They thought they might be the place for tons of TV shows, with less movies. But here’s the thing: people still want to see movies. So they continued including movies, but they bought lower quality ones — the ones that were cheaper to license plus a few A-list movies every now and then to headline their portfolio. They also started producing their own shows and movies. When I say producing, I mean producing, not making. There’s a difference between having a proper studio where you’ve got high standards in production values that apply to every aspect of a production, and sticking your logo at the beginning of a title. Also for clarity’s sake, let me say that great visuals do not equal a great title. You can film in 4K, light and color grade perfectly, but if the subject, script, casting, direction, acting and editing isn’t also top notch, that title’s going to suck. And now, as they’ve expanded their membership plans to most countries, they’re trying to be everything to everyone, and that means buying up shows and movies made in foreign countries to boost up their offering, and pushing those shows on everyone. Yuck!

At some point, the Netflix execs should sit down and think about what they want to be. I don’t think they’ve done enough of that kind of thinking. They’ve just been chanting “more, more, more of everything!” at the subscribers, at the studios and at the investors, and that can only go on for so long… Netflix has to realize it can’t keep throwing money at the problem that is their lack of vision. That’s unsustainable and irresponsible. They can’t be everything to everyone, because that role is filled by YouTube, and you can’t replace YouTube unless you get everyone to give you their content for free, and that comes with its own list of problems. Google can tell you all about that. They know very well the headaches they’ve had with YouTube.

At some point, Netflix has to decide what it wants to be. HBO knows it very well. TCM Streaming, God bless them, know their market so well (incidentally, I love movies made in the 30s and 40s). Hulu knows what it wants to be. Amazon Streaming knows damn well the role it fills with its service; you don’t see them splurging on everything out there — actually, you don’t see Amazon splurging on anything. And you’d better believe Disney knows what they’re going to do with their streaming service. Disney always knows what it wants to be.

Netflix… it’s trying this and that and the other thing, and then going to a bunch more stores and trying on those things as well… It’s buying up good shows, then cancelling them instead of giving them time to develop an audience. It’s buying up the streaming rights to great movies, but only for a little bit of time, so you end up adding a movie to your list but it disappears before you get the chance to watch it. It’s producing shows that are bizarre, or they’ve got trite scripts, or soap opera production values, or bad acting… there are all sorts of problems that put you off when you spend a few minutes watching them.

So what people end up doing on Netflix these days is exactly what they were doing on their TVs before Netflix existed: browsing the channels, wondering what to watch out of the sea of useless, boring programming available. And that means we’ve come full circle, and since there’s no real differentiator between Netflix and regular TV, there’s no point for its existence, certainly not at the rate that it’s burning through its cash.

What do you want to be, Netflix? Because loyal customers like me aren’t going to hang around forever. We might just do the thrifty thing and cancel our subscriptions for 8-10 months of the year, then watch to see what movies and shows you’re buying up, and switch it on for a month at a time, binge watch, then switch it off again. You may not care if only a few people do it, but you’re going to feel it in your bottom line after a while. Or we might just cancel our subscriptions altogether and use another service. It is after all what your support techs are advising people to do. Let’s see how that sort of thing works out for you.

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Reviews

Data loss on the Drobo 5D

I bought a Drobo 5D on the 29th of December, 2012, after experiencing catastrophic data loss with the 1st Gen and 2nd Gen Drobo. During multiple phone conversations with Data Robotics’ CEO at the time, Tom Buiocchi, he convinced me that they were much better-engineered than previous-generation Drobos and they had built-in batteries and circuits that would automatically shut them down safely in case of power loss. I was also told the new firmware running inside them would be checking the data constantly to guard against file corruption or data loss. All of these were problems that I’d experienced with my existing Drobos, so even though I was exhausted after my ordeal and so weary of storage technology, I went ahead and purchased the new model and also agreed not to publish an account of what the Drobos had done to my data at the time. I want to make it clear that I paid for my Drobos, so I didn’t feel that I owed him anything, but I did want their company to do well, because back then they were new and deserved a second chance. Now though, there is no excuse for the multiple times their Drobos have lost my precious data. They’ve been around for 13 years and they’ve had plenty of time to make their technology stable.

What’s probably kept them on the market is the willingness of paying customers like me to take a chance on the uniqueness of their proprietary RAID: as far as I know, they are (unfortunately) the only RAID array that lets you store a large amount of data on a single volume that grows automatically as you add drives and also protects (except when it doesn’t) against hard drive failures.

However, after five years of using my Drobo 5D on a daily basis, I can tell you without any doubt that the Drobo 5D does not keep your data safe. Look elsewhere for safe data storage devices. I certainly cannot trust it with my data anymore, so I’ve elected to publish my account of data loss from 2012, as well as an account of my present data loss. Caveat emptor, lest you also lose your data. I’ve also had multiple problems with my two Drobo 5Ns. Because of these problems, some of which have led to significant data loss and to significant time and effort expended in order to restore my data from on-site and off-site backups, I cannot place my trust the new Drobo models that are available, either: I’m talking about the 5D3, 5N2 and the 8D. I see no reason at all to spend more money on more empty promises from Data Robotics.

I can’t say exactly what happened with my Drobo 5D. Drobo Support could not or did not choose to tell me, even though I sent them multiple diagnostic logs from the Drobo and I asked them to tell me what happened. My best guess is that the 5D kept “healing” a 6TB WD drive with bad sectors instead of asking me to replace it. Then a different drive from the array failed. Once the Drobo told me to replace that drive, I did. But during the process of rebuilding the data set, the Drobo 5D decided it didn’t like the 6TB WD drive it had been healing, and chose to tell me that I needed to replace it now. When I did, it would tell me I shouldn’t have taken it out and I should put it back in. I’d put it back in, and then it’d go through its internal processes, only to find out that it wouldn’t like that drive again, but it didn’t stop there. It’d reboot. At first this reboot cycle would take 10-15 minutes, allowing me to copy some data off it, but then it began doing it every 5 minutes. Since it takes a good 3-4 minutes to boot up, this meant I’d have only 1-2 minutes to copy data off before it’d reboot again. This was not workable. After opening a case with Drobo Support, they told me to put it in Read Only mode. You press Ctrl+Opt+Shift+R while you’re in Drobo Dashboard and this reboots it in that mode, which means it’s not going to try and rebuild any data internally, it’s simply going to present the volume to you as it is. This also turned sour quickly, because after allowing me to copy a small amount of data for a few hours, it began that same 5-minute reboot cycle. So I had no way of getting the data off the damned thing unless I mounted it through Disk Warrior and used the Preview app built into that software, which meant having to put up with USB 1.1 transfer speeds. More on the reduced transfer speeds below.

My take on the situation is that it’s a failure in Drobo’s firmware design. It should have asked me to replace the 6TB WD drive instead of working around its bad sectors. Because it didn’t ask me to replace it in time, it then failed when rebuilding its data set after the second drive went bad. That’s not two drives going bad at the same time, that’s a drive going bad and a few weeks later another drive going bad. The Drobo had plenty of time to fix the ongoing situation if its internals had been programmed correctly, but it didn’t, because of inadequate firmware running the device. That’s bad technology at work, causing me repeated data losses.

The 6TB WD drive had 9 bad sectors, but the Drobo 5D kept insisting on healing it until it was too late.

Here’s another example of Drobo’s crappy firmware: for the past three years, I have had to force my iMac not to go to sleep, because every single time I’d wake it up, the Drobo 5D would refuse to mount, forcing me to reboot the iMac and/or the Drobo and also disconnect/connect the Thunderbolt cable from my iMac in order to get the computer to see it. Data Robotics tried to fix this horribly annoying problem (which can also cause data loss) through multiple firmware fixes, but I can safely tell you that they still haven’t fixed it. Before I stopped using my Drobo 5D, I was on Drobo Dashboard 3.3.0 and Drobo 5D firmware 4.1.2, while my iMac is on MacOS Mojave 10.14.2, and this problem still very much occurred. Well, it definitely occurred before my 5D crapped itself. Oh, how I’d like to be back to those simpler times when all I had to deal with was keeping my iMac from going to sleep! But no, now I have to deal with massive data loss, once again. For the goddamned umpteenth time, Drobo!

Except I didn’t cause the disconnect, Drobo’s crappy firmware would cause it to happen, over and over and over…

What do you think would happen after enough improper disconnects? That’s right, volume corruption!

Look at the difference in size between the two directories. The first is a backup, the second is supposed to be the working directory. That’s the Drobo 5D, actively losing your data…
Only 54,890 missing photographs? Thanks, Data Robotics! (This was in 2017.)

Here’s more proof of data loss from 2017. Those yellow triangles are indications of missing video clips.
Here’s proof of more data loss from 2015, when even Disk Warrior couldn’t get my data back.

Data Robotics marketing speak tells you of super-fast transfer speeds and protection against data loss when you buy their devices. The things you most need to remember are that you will experience data loss (that’s a given) and you won’t be recovering your data at super-fast transfer speeds such as USB 3.0/USB-C or Thunderbolt 1/2/3. You will instead be forced to use Disk Warrior’s Preview application (if you’re on a Mac) and you will be recovering your data at USB 1.1 speeds. That’s right, take a moment to think about that! In order to recover data from my Drobo 5D, I have to use Disk Warrior (a Mac app known for its ability to recover failed volumes), because it won’t mount any other way. It certainly doesn’t mount through the Finder or through Disk Utility.

“Work” is the Drobo 5D volume that refuses to mount

The size of my Drobo volume is about 12 TB. Thank God some of it was backed up locally with Resilio Sync and some of it I recovered from online backups with Backblaze, so I only needed to recover part of my data from the Drobo 5D itself, but for a single 3 TB Final Cut Pro library, it took roughly 300 hours to transfer it to another drive! 300 HOURS! It might be somewhat tolerable (in some masochistic sort of way) if I knew the damned thing would stay on for all that time, allowing me to copy the data in one go, but you never know when it’s going to restart. It can go at any time.

I’ve posted illustrative screenshots below. Feel free to do the math yourselves as well. Also think about how much worse this problem gets when your Drobo volume is much, much bigger. The Drobo 5D and 5D3 can go to 64 TB, while the Drobo 8D can go to 128 TB. Do you really want to be stuck copying 50-60 TB of data at USB 1.1 speeds? How about 100 TB of data? Think about that before you click on the Buy button and get one of those shiny black boxes.

The hard truth is that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Having all your important data on a single volume, which is what the Drobo lets you do, is a dumb idea. If that volume goes, all your data goes along with it, and it can take MONTHS to recover it from backups.

After more than 12 hours…
Transfer speeds vary between 100 kB/s – 4 MB/s but mostly stay around 100 kB-200 kB/s
Two days for 350 GB… Great…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 with a data recovery firm every few years, when a Drobo unit decides to fail and lose my data. But that’s what Drobo Support advises you to do from the very beginning. They advise against trying to recover the data yourselves, even while working with them, and instead try to convince you to send your Drobo into a drive recovery firm. For a device that’s supposed to protect your data and a company that brags about “protecting what matters”, that’s disgusting. How exactly are they protecting your data when their devices fail miserably every few years? I guess “protecting what matters” really means “protecting their bottom line” by ensuring suckers keep buying their product.

Do you want to know what happens when I try to open a ticket on the Drobo Support website? This:

For months now, all I get is this grey page with a rotating status ball when I visit Drobo Support

If a company can’t even fix its support page so that it loads up for its customers, that’s cause for worry. I tried explaining the issue to them, I even sent them screenshots, but the techs I spoke with seemed unable to comprehend why the website wouldn’t load. My guess is they’ve got a geofence that stops visits from Romanian IP addresses.

When it comes to their marketing people, I cannot describe them as anything but a bunch of slime buckets. Twice now they’ve ignored me in dire situations when I reached out to them for help, hoping they would redirect my messages internally and get someone to pay proper attention to my case. Back in 2012, back when my two DAS Drobo units lost over 30,000 files, they began ignoring me after I told them what had happened. Now, in 2018, they pretended to help, just so it looked good at first glance on social media, but they didn’t follow through on their promise and ignored me afterward. See my comments on their tweet here. I also wrote a message to some guy who calls himself the Drobo CTO but gives no real name, asking him to have a look at my case, but he ignored me. If it’s a fictitious account then it’s understandable, but if it isn’t, then he’s a turd as well for ignoring a legitimate and polite request for help from a customer.

I also reached out to Data Robotics’ current CEO, Mihir Shah, to ask for his help, and after an initial reply that said, “I am looking into this case for you. We will get back to you. Thanks.” — his line went dead. I am left to conclude that he’s of the same breed as his marketing people, who did the same thing when I reached out to them.

You might be asking yourselves why I chose to reach out to these people when I had already opened a case with Drobo Support? Because I felt the technician handling my case wasn’t doing a good job. This case wasn’t a freebie, I paid for it, and I wanted to get real help, not bullshit. Here are a few examples of the kind of “support” I received:

  • He told me to clone a drive using Data Rescue (a Mac app). This was supposed to fix the situation, but it didn’t, because he told me to clone the wrong drive. That’s right, he had me waste an entire day cloning the wrong drive, before I pointed it out and he came back with sheepish excuses, asking me to clone another.
  • He let me buy two new 8 TB hard drives in order to go through the data recovery process, without saying a damned thing, before another tech stepped in to tell me I should have bought a 6 TB hard drive instead, because the cloning process needed for my scenario requires a drive of the exact same size as the 6 TB WD drive that the Drobo 5D refused to use anymore. Why couldn’t he tell me that from the start? Besides, isn’t the whole point of BeyondRAID, which is Drobo’s proprietary technology, to let people use drives of varying sizes? There goes that advantage when you need it…
  • Having worked in IT for a long time, and having worked my way up from the help desk, I could tell the technician didn’t give a crap about the case. It was clear to me that he wasn’t interested in helping me or solving the case, he was simply posting daily case updates of 1-2 sentences with incomplete and unclear replies to my questions on how to proceed and dragging the case on, probably hoping I’d give up.

This time around, I’m faring better when it comes to data recovery than I fared in 2012. Unfortunately, I don’t have a full local backup of my data, even though the Resilio Sync software was supposed to mirror it from my Drobo 5D to my Drobo 5N. I do have a full online backup with Backblaze, but getting back about 12 TB of data through online downloads will prove to be a cumbersome and slow affair. They only let you download up to 500 GB at a time, which means that if I want to download all of it, I’d have to create at least 24 restore jobs on their servers, each of which would generate a ZIP file that would need to be downloaded and then unzipped locally. I could also choose their HDD recovery option which ships your data to you on 3.5TB drives, but I’d need 4 of them, which means it would cost $189*4 or $756. It would probably work out to something like $850-1,000 for me in the end, because I would incur a high shipping cost from the US to Romania and I would also be responsible for customs fees. Theoretically, Backblaze offers a money back guarantee if the drives are returned within 30 days, but I doubt I could return them in that time span, given they’d have to make it to Romania and back. They’re supposed to be working on a European data center and it might open this year, and while that’s going to be nice in the future, it’s not going to work for my situation at this time. No, the much more workable solution would have been for me to have a full local backup of the files on the Drobo 5D. But thanks to Data Robotics, that option got shot down and I didn’t even find out until it was too late…

You see, the Resilio Sync software was set to mirror my data from the Drobo 5D to a Drobo 5N. On my gigabit network, that would have worked just fine. The app was running on my iMac and it was also running on the 5N through the DroboApps platform. The software had a few months to do a proper job syncing my data between the two devices and it indicated to me that it had done it. Unfortunately, after my Drobo crashed, I found out that it hadn’t. The reasons offered by Resilio Support were the following:

  • The Drobo 5N’s processor wasn’t powerful enough
  • The Drobo 5N’s RAM wasn’t enough
  • The Drobo 5N ended up using swap memory and somehow it messed up the sync logs, which caused it to think it had finished the sync when it hadn’t

If I’m to take them at their word, the Drobo 5N is too underpowered to handle Resilio Sync. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of blame to be assigned to the Resilio Sync software as well. After all, it should have kept track of the data sync accurately. What good are they if they can’t perform at their main advertised task?

If I am to look at what Drobo is saying about the successor to the 5N, the 5N2, namely that it “provides up to 2x performance boost with an upgraded processor and port bonding option”, that would certainly mean the 1st gen 5N is underpowered. Finally, who do you think recommended Resilio Sync to me? It was none other than Data Robotics, whom I called to ask for details on DroboDR, their own data sync application. They said it was too barebones of an app for my needs and suggested I look into Resilio Sync, which was much more robust and full-featured. Thanks once again to my trust in the Drobo, my backup plans got sabotaged, forcing me to waste weeks of my time recovering data from a failed Drobo volume.

But enough about the Drobo 5N, I’ll have a separate post where I’ll talk about how that device has also lost all of my data recently… Back to the Drobo 5D.

To recap, the Drobo 5D lost my data in 2015, 2017 and 2018. That’s three separate, significant, data loss events, the last of which wasted more than a month of time till I was back on my feet.

I am back on my feet now. It’s the 26th of January 2019 and I finally got the last of my data recovered. I’ve been down, unable to do my work, since the beginning of December 2018. I can’t even remember what day it was the Drobo 5D failed. It’s a blur now.

I ended up buying a third new hard drive, specifically a 6TB hard drive, to match the size of the drive that the Drobo didn’t want to use any more, and I cloned that drive, which turned out to have 5 clusters of bad sectors, onto the new drive, using Data Rescue software for the Mac. I had to use its “segment” cloning mode, which attempts to get around the bad sectors, and this meant the cloning operation took more than 120 hours!

A screenshot taken after 117 hours…

Around hour 122, my iMac crashed and I had to reboot it, so I don’t know if the cloning operation was completed or not. My screen went black and stayed that way. It could be that the cloning ended and then my iMac crashed, or simply that my iMac had had enough of staying up to work through a lengthy cloning process and went poof. I don’t know, and I wasn’t about to start cloning the damn drive again. I took my Drobo 5D out of Read-Only Mode, stuck the cloned drive into the Drobo 5D and booted it up, expecting some data loss. Besides, even if the cloning operation had completed successfully, I’d have still lost some data. If you look above, you’ll see that there were 298,2 MB of bad, unrecovered data. That wasn’t from one portion of the drive, that was from five different portions, because there were five significant slow-downs in the cloning process.

The 5D booted up and started its data protection protocol

Once it booted up, I started copying my data off it, not knowing how long it might stay on. For all I knew, it could go into a vicious reboot cycle at any moment. I’d already recovered all I could from Backblaze and from my local backups, and I needed about 6-7 TB of data from the 5D before I was back up to normal… “normal” being a loose term given how unreliable the Drobo is and how much data I’d already lost.

Sure enough, data loss soon reared its ugly head. Thanks, Drobo, you bunch of slime buckets!

One of the damaged FCPX libraries with lots of missing video clips

So far, two FCPX libraries containing the videos I’d made in 2017 and 2018, are damaged. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get those videos back.

I consoled myself with the idea that at least I was able to recover most of my data at Thunderbolt speeds, not at USB 1.1 speeds, so that saved me about 2-3 more weeks of painful waiting.

All of my data is now off the Drobo 5D, and I don’t plan on using it again. I’ve put it in a storage closet. I’m done with it, and I recommend you also stop using your Drobos, if you are using one, because it’s only a matter of time before they will lose your data. In my opinion, they offer no more protection than using individual drives. They just cost more, force you to buy more hard drives and they make more noise. My office is so much quieter now that the Drobo 5D is gone. I’m using individual drives which I plan on cloning locally. I will continue to use Backblaze for cloud backups, and I may also do some periodic local backups to a NAS of some sort. I have found out during these past few months that I also cannot rely on the Drobo 5N NAS to store my data, because one of my Drobo 5N units has just lost all of the data I’d entrusted to it. I am now in the process of recovering that… It’s non-stop torture, time and data loss with a Drobo!

I have been a Drobo customer since December 2007, when I bought my first Drobo. I was also among the first Drobo “Evangelists”, as they called their enthusiastic customers back then. It’s now January 2019, and I am done with Drobo. I was a loyal customer for 12 years and I stuck with them through an incredibly disheartening amount of data loss, problematic units and buggy firmware. That’s enough of that. Caveat emptor. Drobo no more.

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A follow-up to my review of Google’s Backup and Sync

I reviewed Google’s Backup and Sync service back in December. There were several issues with the service that I outlined in there, such as the app backing up files that it was not supposed to back up, the service counting files toward the quota even though it was supposed to compress them and allow unlimited free storage, etc. I thought I’d do a follow-up because, as you may have guessed already, there are more issues I want to point out and also a few pieces of advice that might help you in your use of the app.

One issue that occurs over and over is that the app crashes. It gives an error message popup and says it needs to quit. Which is somewhat okay, but when you start it back up, it does a re-check of all the files it’s supposed to back up, and that is an energy-hungry process. You can see it at the top of the active apps in Activity Monitor (on the Mac), eating up all the processor cycles as it iterates through its list of files. And even when it does its regular backup in the background, it’s still climbing toward the top of the active apps. To be fair, Flickr’s own Uploadr is also an energy-hungry app. Neither of the apps allow you to make them use less energy (to work slower, etc.), so they churn away at your computer’s resources even though they’re supposed to work quietly in the background.

Another issue that still occurs is that the app backs up files that it’s not supposed to back up. I have it set to back up only photos and videos and yet it backs up a lot of files with strange extensions that end up counting toward my storage quota on Google Drive. Have a look at the screenshots taken from my settings for the app below.

I had it set on backing up RAW files too, but it wasn’t backing up anything but CR2 (Canon RAW files) and DNG (Adobe RAW files, or digital negatives). And it had problems backing those up as well, because when the size of a DNG file was over a certain limit (it’s somewhere around 50 MB I think), it backed it up but it didn’t compress it, so it counted toward the storage quota.

It wasn’t compressing ORF (Olympus Raw files) while backing them up, so they counted toward my quota. Since I shoot only with Olympus gear these days, that was no good to me. So what I did is I chose not to let it back up any RAW files and I set my camera to shoot in ORF + JPG format. I work with the ORF files in Lightroom and the unedited JPG files get backed up with the app.

Here’s a list of files whose extensions it might be helpful for you to add to its settings, so the app won’t put them on your Google Drive. Of course, as mentioned above, the app backs up all sorts of files it’s not set to back up. It’s like it ignores the settings and just does what it wants, so ymmv.

  • cmap
  • data
  • db
  • db-wal
  • graphdb
  • graphdb-shm
  • graphdb-wal
  • heic
  • heif
  • ithmb
  • lij
  • lisj
  • orf
  • plist
  • psd
  • skindex
  • tif
  • tmp
  • xmp
  • zip

You may have noticed HEIF and HEIC in the list above. Those are the new image and video standards used by Apple because they offer much higher quality and compression than JPG and H.264. And even though it’s not logical that Google wouldn’t know or want to compress them and back them up properly, they don’t. The app will simply copy them to Google Drive, uncompressed, and they’ll count toward your quota. So all of you who have iPhones and iPads and use the Backup and Sync app or the Google Photos app, you are currently backing up the photos taken with your devices on Google Drive, but they count toward your storage quota even if you don’t want them to. Keep in mind that this may be a temporary thing and Google may choose to rectify this issue in the coming months.

The storage options on Google Drive are another issue I want to talk about. I had to upgrade my storage to 1 TB because of all these issues. At one point, I had over 400GB of unexplained files taking up space in there and I had to upgrade to the 1 TB plan, which costs $10/month. Now I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off. It’s one thing if I choose to upgrade my storage plan because I want to do it, and it’s another thing altogether to be forcibly upsold because the Backup and Sync app might be used as a funnel to generate gullible leads for Google Drive’s storage plans. Notice I said “might be”; I have no proof of this. It could be that the app is just full of bugs and not well-maintained.

So I did two things: one was to downgrade my storage plan to the minimum of 100 GB at $2/month, and the second was to start looking through my Google Drive in order to see what files were taking up space. I found them but let me tell you, getting rid of them is like pulling teeth. It’s like Google doesn’t want you to get rid of them, so they keep on taking space there and you keep on paying. It’s not right. Let me show you: first you go to Google Drive, and at the bottom of the sidebar on the left, you’ll see how much space you’ve got. My storage quota is under control now, but this is my second day of working on this. Can you believe it? Google has made me waste almost two work days in order to correct a problem that it created.

If you click right on the space used, in my case the 76.6 GB, it’ll take you to a page where it begins to list all of the files that are taking up space on your Google Drive, in descending order based on file size. Here’s where it might be confusing for some: the files that are compressed and don’t count toward your quote are listed with a file size of 0 bytes. This is not an error, those files aren’t really 0 bytes, but they’ve been compressed and as far as your quota is concerned, they’re okay. The files that do count toward your quota will be listed at the top. That’s how I found out that Google doesn’t compress PSD files or TIF files or large DNG files. I had images that were over 100 MB in size, some close to 1 GB in size, that it wasn’t compressing, so I had to delete those. If you want to bring down your storage requirements on Google Drive, you’ll have to do the same. Here’s a screenshot of the page I’m talking about, but keep in mind that I’ve already done the work, so I have no more uncompressed files taking up space. Whatever’s left, it’s in the Trash.

So this part is like pulling teeth. Even though I was using Google’s own browser, Google Chrome, and working on Google’s own service, Google Drive, it was excruciatingly slow to list the files I needed to delete. The page would only pull something like 50 files to display, and if you wanted to see more, you had to scroll down and wait for it to pull up more… and then the browser would almost freeze and give you a warning to let you know the page was eating up too many resources… ugh… what a nasty thing to do to your customers, Google!

Have a look at the resources Chrome was eating up during this whole thing:

This “fun activity” took up most of my two days. Not only did it work like this when I needed to identify the files that I needed to delete, but once they were in the Trash, that page also worked the same way. In the web browser, it would only pull up about 50 files or so for me to delete at once. Even though the “Empty Trash” option was supposed to clear the Trash of all of the files in it, it would only delete the 50 or so files that it pulled up. Sure, you can scroll down, wait for it to pull up 50 more files, scroll down again, etc. until Chrome gives you a warning that the page isn’t working properly anymore, then you can empty the trash, deleting a few hundred files, then go again and again and again. I tell you, I suspect that Google is doing this on purpose so you don’t clean up your Drive and are forced to upgrade your storage plan…

I looked this thing up, and some people had more luck emptying the trash by using the mobile app (for iOS or Android). I tried it on my iPhone and it hung, then crashed. I tried it on my iPad and it would hang, the little Googley kaleidoscope wheel going on and on for hours, and then it would either crash or keep on twirling. I left my iPad with the app open all night after issuing the Empty Trash command and when I came back to it in the morning, it was still twirling away and the files hadn’t been deleted.

So now it’s back to the browser interface for me until I clean up all the files. See the screenshot below with the twirly blue thing in the middle? That’s me waiting on Google to list those files in the Trash… By the way, I bought a 2 TB storage plan on Apple’s iCloud to back up my phones, tablets and computers, and I can share that plan with my family. It costs the same as Google’s 1 TB plan: $10/month.

Will I keep using the Backup and Sync app? Yes, at least for now. The promise of unlimited storage of all my compressed images is a tempting thing. I realize there’s a loss in resolution and quality but God forbid something happen to my files and my backups, at least I have them stored somewhere else and I can recover them; they might not be their former selves, but I’ll have something.

Just FYI, I back up locally and remotely. For local backups I use Mac Backup Guru and for the remote backups I use Backblaze, which I love and recommend. Their app is amazing: blazing fast, low energy footprint, works quietly in the background and has backed up terabytes of data in a matter of 1-2 weeks for me. And as for my hardware, I still use Drobos and I love and recommend them as well. I’ve been using them since 2007 and while I’ve had some issues, I still think they’re the best and most economical expandable redundant storage on the market. I use a Drobo 5D next to my iMac and two Drobo 5N units on the network.

I hope this was helpful to you!

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My Olympus PEN E-P3

I purchased this PEN E-P3 just a few days ago, to add it to my collection of Olympus PEN cameras. As I mentioned in my previous post, I now have all the PEN models except the PEN-F.

I love PEN cameras because they are the smallest full-featured cameras out there. Yes, there are smaller cameras, but they have smaller sensors. And there are small cameras with bigger sensors, but they’re not as small as these cameras, and you have to deal with big, heavy lenses. The PEN cameras are just perfect. The sensor is big enough to allow for great resolution without squeezing pixels too close together and small enough to allow for small, lightweight lenses.

PENs are almost as full-featured as the bigger OM-D cameras (which I also love and which have their own charm, purpose and amazing capabilities), but the PENs are small and light and easy to carry, so they’re perfect for traveling light or for an all-day photo shoot in the studio, when you have to move around and hold the camera at all sorts of angles in order to get that perfect photo. That was and is the Olympus MFT promise: small, lightweight gear and superb image quality. This is why my PEN E-P5 has become my main camera, by the way. I love using it in my studio and I use it everywhere else as well. This is also why I wanted to collect all of the PEN models. I wanted to see their evolution firsthand, from the standard-setting E-P1 to the E-P5 and the PEN-F.

I bought my E-P3 second-hand and there were some scratches to the underside of the camera. I also discovered after the purchase that the IBIS wasn’t working. I talked with the seller about it and it wasn’t malice. The fellow was a beginner and didn’t even know how to adjust the IBIS, much less that it wasn’t working. I guess at some point, the mechanism either broke or got stuck, so I packed it up yesterday and sent it in to one of the Olympus Service Centers in Eastern Europe to have it fixed. I look forward to getting it back in full working order and using from time to time, as I also use my other PEN cameras. They’re not just collectibles to me. They’re also working cameras and it’s important to me that each and every one of them is fully operational.

Before I sent this camera in for service, I mounted the 25mm f1.8 lens on it, plus my newly-arrived MCON-P02 Macro Converter (which I definitely recommend) and went into our garden to take photographs. I wanted to see how the E-P3 had improved upon the E-P2 in image quality. And it definitely has! The color gradation is better and so are the details. It has the same resolution as the E-P2 (12.2 megapixels) but the images are better and there’s less noise.

I do wish I had adopted the PEN system earlier, back in 2010 when I reviewed the E-P2. I think I’d have been pretty happy working with PEN cameras all these years and maybe also getting an OM-D camera. While I can’t change the past, I am working with Olympus gear now and I am very happy with it.

Enjoy the photographs!

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Reviews

My Olympus PEN E-P1

Several days ago, I purchased a PEN E-P1. I’ve been thinking about a number of years of collecting all the digital PEN cameras that Olympus has made. I’m not referring to the PL (Pen Lite) or PM (Pen Mini) camera lines, which were launched alongside the regular PEN cameras in an effort to provide lower-cost alternatives for consumers with lower budgets. I’ve wanted to own all of the regular, full-featured PEN cameras, of which there are five models: E-P1, E-P2, E-P3, E-P5 and PEN-F. So when did my love of PEN cameras start? It was when I reviewed the PEN E-P2 back in 2010. I loved that camera and I wanted to have it right there and then, but I was heavily invested in Canon gear at the time. Fast forward to 2018. When I bought the E-P1, I already had the E-P2 and the E-P5 (I also have the first PL model, the E-PL1). Since then, I’ve also purchased the E-P3, so now the only camera left to get for my collection is the PEN-F.

The E-P1 is an important camera. Launched on June 16, 2009, it was the first digital PEN. Fifty years before it came the original PEN, in 1959. Both cameras were revolutionary in their design and their compact size. What Olympus managed to do with the digital PEN was amazing: they managed to give us the features and quality that only came with larger, heavier cameras, in a tiny and light camera body that could be carried in a pocket or a purse. In its time, the E-P1 was the lightest, smallest and most capable camera on the market. It may not have been the best at everything, but it offered image quality that was higher than or comparable to much larger and more expensive cameras with larger sensors. Even today, almost nine years later, when the E-P1 is coupled with a great lens, such as the M.Zuiko 25mm f1.8, it can produce truly beautiful photographs that match quite well the quality of images made with cameras that have full-frame sensors. You’ll see this in the gallery below, which contains photos I’ve taken in our garden with the E-P1 and the 25mm f1.8.

I am fortunate and happy that I was able to build my PEN collection, and that I get to work every day with such great cameras. The PEN E-P5 is my primary camera now, both in the studio and outdoors. I love it. Enjoy the photographs!

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A review of the Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery software

Having lost photos and videos in the past, I am fairly cautious about my media these days. I keep local and remote backups and I use hardware that writes my data redundantly onto sets of drives, so that I don’t lose anything if one of the drives goes down. I have also purchased data recovery software, just in case something goes bad: I own both Disk Warrior and Data Rescue.

When someone from Stellar Phoenix contacted me to see if I’d be interested in looking at their Photo Recovery software, I agreed. I wanted to see how it compared with what I have. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know they gave me a license key for their paid version of the software.

I put it to a test right away, on what I deemed the hardest task for data recovery software: seeing if it could get anything at all from one of the drives I pulled out of one of my Drobo units.

As you may (or may not) know, Data Robotics, the company that makes the Drobo, uses their own, proprietary version of RAID called BeyondRAID. While this is fine for the Drobo and simple to use for Drobo owners, it also means that data recovery software typically can’t get anything off a drive from a Drobo drive set. Indeed, after several hours of checking, Stellar Phoenix’s software couldn’t find any recoverable files on the drive. I expected as much, because I know specialized, professional-grade software is needed for this, but I gave it a shot because who knows, someday we may be able to buy affordable software that can do this.

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The Seagate 8TB drive is the one I pulled out of the Drobo

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What the software found is data gibberish; there were no MP3 or GIF files on that drive

Now onto the bread and butter of this software: recovering photos and videos from SD cards. I made things harder for it again, because I wanted to see what I’d get. I put a single SD card through several write/format cycles by using it in one of my cameras. I took photos until I filled a portion of the card, downloaded them to my computer, put the card back in the camera, formatted it and repeated the cycle. After I did this, I put the software to work on the card.

Before I tell you what happened, I need to be clear about something: because no camera that I know of and no SD card that I know of has any hard and fast rules about where (more precisely what sector) to write new data after you’ve formatted the card, the camera may very well write the bits for new photos/videos right over the bits of the photos/videos you’ve just taken before formatting the card. This makes the recovery of those specific photos that have been written over virtually impossible. What I’m trying to tell you is that what I did results in a file recovery crapshoot: you don’t know what you’re going to get until you run the software on the card.

When I did run it, it took about 40 minutes to check the card and it found 578 RAW files, 579 JPG files and 10 MOV files. Since I write RAW+JPG to the card (I have my camera set to record each photo in both RAW and JPG format simultaneously), I knew those files should be the same images, and they were.

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The software found photos and videos from several sessions and dates

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As you can see from the dates, they ranged from March 11 to February 13

I then told the software to save the media onto an external drive, so I could check what it found.

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It took about 30-40 minutes to recover the data

When I checked the files, I saw that it recovered two sets of JPG files: each one contained 579 files, but one of the sets began its file names with “T1-…”; they were the thumbnails of the images. All of the JPG files were readable on my Mac. It was a different story with the RAW files. It recovered three sets of RAW files, each containing 578 files. The first set was readable by my Mac. The second set, marked with “T1-…” wasn’t readable at all and the file sizes were tiny, around 10KB in size; they were the thumbnails of the RAW files. The third set, marked with “T2-…” was readable, but the file sizes were around 1MB a piece; they were the mRAW files written automatically by the camera, at a resolution of 3200×2400 pixels. A typical RAW file from the camera I used for my testing ranges in size from 12-14MB and its resolution is 4032×3024 pixels. It’s kind of neat that the mRAW (or sRAW) files were recovered as well.

Now I took 3,328 photos with that camera from February 13th – March 11th. It recovered 578 photos, so that’s a 17% recovery rate. Granted, I made it very hard for it by writing to the card in several cycles and reformatting after each cycle. When I only look at the last set of photos recorded to the card, before the last reformat, I see that I took 523 photos on March 10th and 3 photos on March 11th. The software recovered 525 photos on March 10th (so there’s some doubling up of images somewhere) and 2 photos on March 11th. However, don’t forget about the JPG files, which contained the missing image. So that’s a 100% recovery rate.

In all fairness, there is free software out there that can do basic recovery of images from SD cards and other media, so the quality of a piece of software of this nature is determined by how much media it recovers when the free stuff doesn’t work. I believe I made things hard enough for it,and it still recovered quite a bit of data. That’s a good thing.

Let’s not forget about the video files. Those were written to the card with another camera and they ranged in dates from November 3-6, 2017. I’m surprised it recovered any at all. It gave me 10 video files, out of which 5 were readable, so that’s a 50% recovery rate.

Just for kicks, I decided to run Data Rescue on the SD card as well. It also found 579 JPG files and 578 RAW files. All were readable by my Mac. It also found 10 video files, but none were readable. However, I have Data Rescue 3, which is quite a bit old. Data Rescue 5 is now out, but I haven’t upgraded yet. It’s possible this new version might have found some more files.

Price-wise, Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery comes in three flavors: $49 for the standard version (this is the one I got), $59 for the professional version (it repairs corrupt JPG files) and $99 for the premium version (it repairs corrupt video files in addition to the rest).

The one thing I didn’t like is that the Buy button didn’t go away from the software even after I entered the license key they gave me. As for the rest, it’s fine. I think it crashed once during testing and it didn’t happen while actually recovering data. The design is intuitive and at $49, this is software you should definitely have around in case something bad happens to your photos or videos. It may not recover all of what you lost, but whatever you get back, it’s much better than nothing, which is what you will definitely get if you don’t have it. It’s also a good idea to have multiple brands of this kind of software if you can afford them, because you never know which one will help you more until you try them all. And believe me, when you’re desperate to get your data back, you’ll try almost anything…

Remember, back up your data and have at least one brand of data recovery software in your virtual toolbelt. Stay safe!

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My two new Olympus lenses

I’ve recently purchased two new lenses for my Olympus cameras and I like them very much. Not only are they mignon, but they’re wonderfully sharp, they focus quickly and they offer me something I didn’t think I could get from MFT (Micro Four Thirds) lenses and cameras: bokeh and handheld photography in low light.

Yes, I’ve only just gotten the memo: you can get wonderful bokeh from MFT lenses. Having worked with MFT lenses whose maximum aperture was f/3.5 in the past and present and knowing that MFT sensors had a greater depth of field than larger sensors, I’d become accustomed to not being able to get the kind of bokeh I could get from my other cameras like my Canon 5D. I also didn’t think I could push my aging PEN cameras to take bright, handheld photos in low light. But these new lenses have changed my mind completely!

I love the kind of bokeh I can get from them. Depending on the distance between my subject and the background and the kind of background used, the bokeh is either wonderfully feathered or downright creamy, as you’ll see in the photographs I’ve posted here.

What lenses am I talking about? They’re the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm 1:1.8 and the M.Zuiko Digital 45mm 1:1.8.

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm 1:1.8 and M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.

There are also Pro versions of these lenses available from Olympus, for all the typical, 35mm equivalent focal lengths, and those lenses open up to f/1.2, so it stands to good reason that the bokeh they make is even better. If I were to take my lenses for example, the equivalent Pro versions for them are the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f1.2 and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.2. Since both of my current Olympus cameras are PEN cameras and I wanted to test the waters first, I bought the f/1.8 lenses, because (1) they’re less expensive, (2) they’re lighter and (3) they’re smaller (amazingly small, actually). However, were I to have a bigger camera such as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, I would likely get the Pro lenses. They would be a much better fit for a camera that has a native resolution of 20 megapixels and can produce 50 megapixel images in high-res shot mode.

The 17mm f/1.8 lens has a beautiful metal body and is simply lovely to look at. It also has something that Olympus calls “fast focus switch”; I also remember seeing the term “manual clutch focus” somewhere to describe it. The focus ring slides down to reveal a manual focusing scale and it also puts the lens in full manual focus mode. This is different from the manual focus mode you can set in camera, which is more of a focus-by-wire on Olympus cameras. I can explain this in more depth in another post if you’re interested, but for now, I just want to point out the neat feature of this jewel of a lens.

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens

In typical usage, the focus is electronic and set by the camera

Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm 1:1.8 Lens

When you slide the focus ring down, it reveals the manual focusing scale, with markings in both meters and feet, and it puts the lens in manual mode

It’s time for me to show you some photographs, so you can see the bokeh for yourselves. First, let me show you a few images of the lenses themselves, which I took today with a two-flash setup, right on my desk.

Now let me show you images taken with the 17mm f/1.8 lens. When you see my face in these photos, please don’t think I love taking selfies. It’s just that I’m a readily available subject when I need to test something out.

Finally, here are a selection of photographs taken with the 45mm f/1.8 lens. The bokeh is more pronounced here because of the longer focal length, and it is a truly wonderful thing!

I am so glad I bought these lenses. They have opened up a whole new world for my Olympus cameras. Btw, I took the photographs of the lenses with my PEN E-P2 using the M.Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f/3.5-6.3 lens.

Olympus PEN E-P2 Mirrorless Camera

Olympus PEN E-P2 Mirrorless Camera

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens

I invite you to visit my profile on the MyOlympus website, where I have posted many more photographs taken with my Olympus cameras over the years.

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