Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack

With some new gear comes a need to store it all safely away. Previously I wrote about my Lowepro 200AW and how uncomfortable it was for me, as well as being too small for the amount of stuff I've accumulated in the early stage of this obsession, er...I mean hobby. The Lowepro is long gone, having fetched a decent price on Ebay. Since then I've only had the Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home (6MDH) for day trips. That bag has been perfect for its purpose so far and I definitely call it a keeper. For long trips and flights, I needed something to carry everything from home to my destination, while also bringing the 6MDH for walking around once I got there. As usual, I researched the crap out of everything, looking at all the backpacks out there in my desired price range. I read reviews, discussion boards, and read reviews again. Among the brands I looked at were Tamrac, Tenba, Crumpler, and even Lowepro again (a different one of course!). There may have been others but it's all a blur now. I finally decided that the Tamrac model 5586 in the Expedition 6x series had everything to meet my needs right now and allow a bit of extra room for future stuff.
I just received the 5586 a little over a week ago and I can't help smiling and feeling impressed every time I look at it. The build quality is outstanding. Let's start on the outside and work our way in:
Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack
On the outside are two "wing accessory" pockets for memory cards, batteries, chargers and any other small knick-knacks you want to put in there. I can stuff a lot of compact flash cards in there and they even have a management system with red flaps to let you know which memory cards are empty and which are full. The lower pocket is meant to hold part of a tripod's feet while two straps in the middle hold the tripod secure. There's another strap on the top that wraps around the upper part of the tripod for even more support. My Slik Sprint Pro tripod with Flashpoint F-1 ballhead fits nicely here. You can't see it in the photo above, but there's a padded laptop compartment right behind all those front pockets and it is sized for a 14.1" screen. I don't plan on taking my laptop with me, so I stuff this pocket with my Cokin Z-Pro filter holder, a pouch holding some 4"x5" graduated neutral density filters, a B+W 77mm MRC UV filter, and a B+W 77mm Kaesemann circular polarizing filter.

Moving on to the inside:
Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack
The Tamrac 5586 is capable of holding two DSLR bodies with medium-sized lenses mounted and six additional lenses in the main interior compartment. I suppose you could get one DSLR body with a long telephoto zoom along with another body sans lens too. I don't know that I'll carry all these lenses on a long trip, but it's nice to know I can fit them all in. Everything is well padded and well supported. On the inside of the front flap are two large transparent pockets that I use for my remote switches, USB cord, miscellaneous filters, adapters rings, and my Whibal card too.
The shoulder straps seem very sturdy and feel comfortable, even with 21 lbs of camera gear hanging off my back. A sternum strap provides even more adjustment and support to the shoulder straps, and a waist strap rounds out the great support package. I'm probably not in shape to carry this pack a long distance, but that's not Tamrac's fault. I'll get back into the exercise routine right after the holidays, I promise!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder

I researched a few filter holders in my quest to come up with a decent landscape photography kit that wasn’t too ridiculously expensive. It pretty much came down to the Cokin P and Z-Pro holders, as well as the Lee foundation kit. The Lee seemed very nice but the price with a wide-angle adapter was pushing my budget a bit too much. The Cokin P holder was the cheapest option but I really wanted to avoid any potential vignetting with an ultra-wide angle lens like my new Canon EF-S 10-22mm. I ended up purchasing the Cokin Z-Pro as a combo from with some Hitech graduated neutral density (GND) filters. The combo kit comes with the Z-Pro holder, an adapter ring (you order by size to match your lens filter threads) and one Hitech GND filter of choice. I also added two more GND filters to my order so I have a few selections for different conditions. Below you can see the filter holder adapter ring mounted to a lens (77mm filter size):
Cokin Z-Pro 77mm Adapter

The filter holder slides over this adapter and is held on the top and bottom by little plastic push pins. These little pins are a major design flaw which I will get into later. Below you can see the holder mounted on the adapter:
Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder

And here is a side view showing all three filter slots mounted:
Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder

What I like about the Z-Pro is that it is configurable for 1, 2, or 3 filter slots. The construction is plastic, but seems pretty durable and very lightweight. In the default configuration with three filter slots, I noticed part of the third filter slot becoming slightly visible in the frame at 10mm. I removed the third slot and did not see any vignetting at all. Since I will most likely only use one filter until I get more experience, I removed the second filter slot and then ran into a serious design problem with this filter holder. Those two little pins on the lower part of the filter holder stick out and prevent a filter in the first slot from being pushed down. You need to be able to move the filter up and down to adjust for the horizon. Here you can see a filter mounted in the first slot, and only about a quarter of the shaded portion can cover the lens due to the pins:
Cokin Z-Pro Reversed with filter

While the pins are removable, they are necessary to keep the holder in place on the adapter ring. Eliminating them was not an option. After examining the pins I realized that they could be modified to sit flush and still hold in place. Below you can see my modified pin sitting in front of the unmodified pin. I simply cut off the end so I am left with the groove running the entire length of the pin:
Cokin Z-Pro Pin Modification

This allows the pin to be pushed flush either way, and still has enough friction to stay put. I rapped the filter holder on a table a few times and the pins didn’t budge. Here you can see the filter holder again, but with the lower two pins sitting flush:
Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder (modified)

And here you can see the GND filter mounted in the first slot.
Cokin Z-Pro Filter Holder (modified)

As you might notice above, I reinstalled the second filter slot since it does not get in the way at wide angles and I might get some solid neutral density filters in the future to use along with the GND’s. For the price I am pretty happy with what I got, even with the design flaw. The Lee filter holder has a much better design and better construction. Maybe one day I will upgrade, but for now, and for someone just starting out in landscape photography, the Cokin Z-Pro should suit my needs just fine. Now I just need to get out and take some photos!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tasty China - Marietta

Tasty China - Marietta
Last weekend we were over in Marietta for a fabric warehouse sale, and it just happened to be right down the road from Tasty China. We've heard a lot about this restaurant on Atlanta Cuisine, often touted as the best Chinese food in the Atlanta area. However, our first impression does not agree with that statement at all.
The inside of the Tasty China is nothing fancy and pretty typical of the strip-mall Chinese restaurant.
Tasty China - Marietta
Service is no-nonsense and the main hostess will impatiently help you with your order. The menu is pretty long and you'll see many items crossed out and a few prices changed. We stayed away from the American menu and stuck with the traditional Chinese dishes.
First up was the Hot & Numbing Beef Rolls.
Tasty China - Marietta
These were not what we expected at all. It looked more like Mexican food but we were pleasantly surprised by the flavor. Not too hot, but there was the numbing flavor of Sichuan peppercorns that I love so much. These are easy for leftovers too - you can just take them out of the fridge and eat immediately. A bit messy, but I would order these again for sure.
Then we had to try their Dry Fried Eggplant:
Tasty China - Marietta
This was always well-recommended on Atlanta Cuisine and it did not disappoint. It reminded me of thick-cut sweet potato fries. Crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside - these would be even better with beer. These do not turn out so well when reheated, so try to eat them all at the restaurant.
Next, we tried the Steamed Chicken in Spicy Oil:
Tasty China - Marietta
This is also called kou-shui-ji (mouth watering chicken). The color of the oil was much more red than my photo shows. It looked very spicy but the flavor was actually pretty mild and light. The chicken was incredibly tender and the pieces buried deep in the oil are the most flavorful.
Then we had a dish called something like Fish with Pickles:
Tasty China - Marietta
I am not sure what this dish is supposed to be but it was rather bland, with an occasional punch from a scattered peppercorn here and there. Not spicy, not sour, not really anything. This is not something we would ever order again.
We hoped that things would look up with the Twice Cooked Pork:
Tasty China - Marietta
Wow - talk about a salt overload! This could have been good, but it was too salty to be edible by our tastes. Some will claim they do not use MSG, but my body was giving me the signs of an MSG reaction for most of the day after eating here. This dish needed a lot of bulking up with vegetables at home to reduce the saltiness and make the leftovers last a little longer.
Finally we tried the Home Style Tofu with Pork:
Tasty China - Marietta
Again, here was a dish that could have been very good but was made too salty to eat by most human standards. We were also disappointed that the chef did not make the extra effort to use silky tofu. They used regular firm tofu, which is the easy way out for this dish, but lacks the texture that you would expect. We added lots of cabbage, water, and some black vinegar to make a decent stew from this dish.
Overall this was not what we would call the best Chinese food we have had in this area. Much closer to us we have Sichuan House and China Master which I would put above Tasty China any day. We did get a lot of food for our money at Tasty China, but it's a waste if the food is not even edible. Maybe people think all Chinese food should be this salty? I disagree and do not have the same issues with many other restaurants I have tried. If we happen to be in the area again, we might give them a second try. I give Tasty China a "C" for their food, and a "B+" for their prices. But it would take many more visits to form a better opinion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Looking for a camera "day bag"

After carrying my Lowepro SlingShot 200AW bag around for just a few hours in downtown Atlanta one day, it became obvious that this was not the right bag for me. The Lowepro is a nice bag and seems to be built very well, but the design puts the weight in an awkward position and resulted in a lot of neck and back pain within the first hour of wearing it. I even took out most of my gear, just bringing my Canon 30D, three lenses, a spare battery and some filters. Fully loaded, there's no way I am carrying this around.
Lowepro Slingshot
It was probably more a case of my equipment outgrowing my bag much more quickly than I thought. I decided that I would need a larger backpack to carry everything when flying or taking a road trip, plus a smaller bag for short day trips and walking around town. The backpack can wait a little longer so I went on the hunt for a comfortable, good-looking camera bag that could hold my 30D plus a couple of extra lenses. After looking for days and days I made a decision to get the Domke F-2 bag in the cool olive-drab color. I loved the military look and the F-2 seemed to get nothing but good reviews. But the day after I placed the order I discovered the Crumpler line of bags. These looked too good to pass up, so I ordered one to compare, knowing that Amazon would accept a return for the bag I didn't want.
First to arrive was the Domke F-2:
Domke F-2 outside
This bag fits the requirement of cool looking, and will easily hold my 30D and 4 extra lenses with lots of room in the pockets for other stuff. The inside has a 4-hole padded divider that can move anywhere in the bag from side to side.
Domke F-2 inside
The first problem I have with this bag is the two metal hooks that secure the top flap. They are kind of hard to open and close with one hand and a little sharp on the bottom. The flap has some Velcro to hold it as well, so I suppose you could leave the hooks unfastened when walking around. The other problem I have with this bag is the way the divider makes the interior space a bit awkward for putting my camera in. You really only have the choice of putting the camera in the end not taken up by the divider.
Domke F-2 inside with camera
It just didn't feel right trying to get my camera in and out when pushed all the way to one side. I was afraid of hitting the metal hardware that holds the strap too. I would prefer to have two separate dividers so that the camera could sit in the middle. The only other issue I have with the Domke F-2 is that it is just a little too big for what I need. I like that it's made in the USA and I am sure it would be a great long-lasting bag, but once I received the Crumpler, my decision became pretty easy.
Crumpler outside
I opted for the Six Million Dollar Home model after reading reviews and discussion boards. It seemed to be about the right size I was looking for, and it was. The exterior color scheme is great but I am not 100% crazy about the interior green. But I can live with it.
Crumpler inside
What I love about this bag is that I can put my 30D right in the middle and still have plenty of space on either side for two larger lenses or 4 smaller lenses. With my longest lens, the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro, the bag has plenty of depth. It could probably handle a larger, longer lens too.
Crumpler inside with camera
I like the single quick-release latch on the front flap. It only takes one hand to get this bag open. The strap seems strong and comes with a matching pad that wraps around the strap wherever you want it. The build quality seems very good and a little stiffer than the Domke. I feel a bit more secure carrying around the Crumpler.
So the Domke is headed back to Amazon and my barely-used Lowepro SlingShot will be up for sale soon. Now to pick out a backpack!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

China Master, a.k.a. Lin's in Duluth

After a trip down to Stone Mountain last Saturday for the Yellow Daisy Festival, we stopped on the way home (well, sort of on the way) for some Sichuan cuisine at the new home of China Master in Duluth. The sign in English still says Lin's but in Chinese the name "Chuan Ba Wang" signifies that this is indeed the China Master restaurant. We had never been to the old China Master further down Peachtree Parkway but we had always heard good things about it. Just when we wanted to finally go there many months ago, they shut their doors and closed shop. Last month the chef opened back up at the Lin's location off State Bridge and Medlock Bridge roads. What makes this location really interesting is the close proximity to Sichuan House, which is located right across State Bridge Road. Two Sichuan restaurants so close - which one to choose? This was definitely a test of sorts.
First up was "wu geng chang wang" which was also one of our first dishes at Sichuan House.
China Master
If you are not a big fan of intestines this dish might change your mind. The intestines were prepared perfectly and so was every other component of this wonderful dish. Of course, you would expect perfection from the chef who invented it a few decades ago in Taiwan. Chef Liu (not to be confused with Chef Liu's restaurant) came up with this dish a long time ago in Taiwan. He took an existing beef dish and replaced the beef with intestines and pork blood. The combination of all the flavors is wonderful.
Next up was their hot spicy beef, also commonly called hot boiled beef:
China Master
There are two items on the menu called "hot spicy beef" in English but they are not much different. One uses chili powder, and one uses actual chili peppers. We opted for the latter. The addition of cilantro is a typical Taiwanese touch. The broth is much more flavorful than Sichuan House, and without the starch that SH uses in their version.
Our third dish was braised tofu:
China Master
This dish is fairly simple but yet so savory. The gravy is rich with flavor and the silky tofu melts as you bite through the denser, fried outer layer. Wish they had more of a "house tofu" type dish like Cafe 101 but maybe it's called something else. There's quite a few tofu dishes and, just like the beef, there are two with the same name.
Our final dish was deep-fried chicken wraps:
China Master
This is a crunchy treat that would go great with some cold beer. The sauce it is served with is a very old-school Taiwanese style miso-based cold sauce. It's a great combo and something we have rarely seen outside of Taiwan.

Overall the food was great, so good you didn't notice the so-so decor and somewhat dingy ceiling. SH has the decor advantage but so far I am making Lin's my preferred choice for Sichuan food in this area (like we have a lot of choices!). Price-wise it's about the same, maybe a buck or two cheaper per dish.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The basement work continues...

Eventually I'll get done with this darn project! It's getting very close now - just down to lots of little details. The major work is done.
I finally got the boards sanded and stained that serve as a sort of shelf for the three arches in my wife's sewing room. Here's a pic of one of the arches:

Here's a closeup of the shelf:

The basement is fully powered up now that the subpanel has been connected to the main service panel. My Cutler-Hammer panel has plenty of room for expansion:

The home theater still has some details to get done before the big-screen TV moves down. Our oak entertainment center was sanded, primed and painted to match the rest of the trim. I am going to frame up some fabric speaker grills to hide the speakers and subwoofers in the cabinets.

This pic is looking back the other way in the home theater. My computer is set up in the corner on the left and you can also see that we finally painted the ugly door.

My wife's sewing room is really looking good now. Lots of Ikea cabinets for all her fabric.

Looking the other way down the sewing room. The doors in the back lead to my workshop. The workshop is a mess right now so no pics of that until I have some time to clean up & organize.

I sanded and stained some birch plywood to make a large cutting table & work surface that sits on top of a pair of Ikea HEMNES 8-drawer dressers:

My wife did a great job sanding and painting her sewing table. It used to be wood colored but now fits in much better with the same paint color as the trim:

The French doors that will divide the home theater from the sewing room still need painted and hung on the sliding rail system. The rail guides are in place and some trim work needs done around the floor after the doors are in place.

Our Crate and Barrel sofa has been on order for almost 2 weeks with 8-10 more weeks to go. We really can't wait to get it so our basement will feel totally complete. Until then we'll use one of our existing sofa pieces. That's all for now.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More basement progress

This weekend we continued to take care of the finish work as we get very close to the end of this long, long project. While I installed the baseboard and quarter-round trim, my wife assembled a bunch of Ikea cabinets for her sewing room.
Here are some of the cabinets going together in the sewing room. The two dressers in the middle will have a large tabletop placed over the top for a large working surface.

Here's a pic of the home theater with all but a couple of small pieces of trim installed. Also shown is a large 8x10 shag rug we purchased online from

A closer shot of the rug next to the wall. We really love the color and soft feel of this rug. Definitely a bargain for the price we paid.

An even closer shot of the shag rug:

I also wired up the subpanel and started ripping out drywall under the main service panel in the garage. Next weekend I'll connect the main panel to the subpanel to finish up the electrical work. I already installed a 2-pole 40A feeder in the main service panel. The French doors I mentioned in an earlier post still need painted, as does the ugly door that leads outside. With the holiday weekend coming up augmented by a vacation day, we have a long 4-day weekend to hopefully finish up the basement and begin moving in.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Astro Motion Technologies takes off

A while back in this thread I talked about the work that Tom at Astro Motion Technologies did on my EQ6 mount. Since then many people have asked me when this modification would be available to the public. Today I just happened to check Andy's Shot Glass to see if there was anything new and I was happy to see an article about AMT and an ordering page. Looks like they finally got it going and I am glad to have been a part of the beta testing of this process. I can attest to the improvement in my mount's performance. You can see my test data in the FAQ section of the article. If you are interested in getting this work done on your mount, head over to the following link:

Now if I can ever get my basement finished I'll get back to astrophotography.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Floor progress - Day 2

It was painful, and we moved a little slow today, but we managed to complete the rest of the laminate floor installation in the basement. Even though the home theater is a little smaller than the room we did yesterday we still took about the same amount of time. It's a great feeling to have this done, even with the pain we are feeling right now after two days of this stuff.
Here's the view as you come down to the bottom of the stairs from the 1st floor:

Looking from one room into the next:

Another view of the back of the room:

The cats seem hesitant to explore this new world, except for Cho-Cho:

Base molding and quarter-round will be installed in the next week or so to finish off the rooms. Next weekend we'll head down to Ikea to pick up some cabinets for the sewing room and a computer table for me. Our current entertainment center, which is oak, will be refinished to better match the room. And the stairs need sanded and stained/painted. Hopefully over Labor Day weekend we will be "moving in" to this new space.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Floor progress - Day 1

Today we installed the laminate flooring in my wife's sewing & crafts room - the largest room in the basement. It was over 6 hours of hard work and we are hurting a bit tonight while we sit and watch the Olympics.
Here is what is looked like this morning with the FloorMuffler padding down:

The flooring sits ready in the home theater:

After a couple of hours of work, we are making pretty good progress:

Finally, the room is done:

A closer shot of the finished floor:

Tomorrow we'll tackle the home theater, which is only slightly smaller. Hopefully we will make better progress if we are not slowed too much by sore muscles and painful joints.