IT, Photography, Travel

Belgian Credit Cards. A deep review for frequent travelers

February 2nd, 2013 Posted in Money, Travel | No Comments »

When you travel abroad, you need a credit card. A Belgian Maestro debit card won’t be very useful in most countries. So, The credit card. What do people look for when picking a credit card? I reckon the most important thing you’ll look for is the annual fee and the credit limit. Some might not even compare prices and just take the card from the bank with their debit account. After all, a credit card is a credit card? You’d think the difference between them is little to none-existent, but you’d be wrong. The difference between 2 visa cards can be huge. Pick the wrong one as a traveller and you might end up paying € 300-400 more in hidden costs and fees.

The problem?

Using a credit card in shops is always free*. So in that respect all cards are indeed the same. So what’s the problem? Withdrawing money from an ATM and paying in different currencies often have (hidden) fees
*unless you use a prepaid card like Mobile Vikings where you pay 3% just to top it up

The Conversion Fee

When you use your credit card abroad and pay in a non-euro currency, the statement will convert the foreign currency into Euro using a certain rate. This rate (the conversion rate) is defined by The European Central Bank and is fluctuating all the time. If you’d use your card 5 times in 1 day, you might see 5 different rates on your statement. What you probably don’t know is that banks are charging you a certain percentage for converting foreign currencies into Euro, called the conversion fee. This fee doesn’t show up in the statement. The conversion rate shown there will simply be lowered for Visa and Mastercards. Only American Express shows the real conversion rate and separates its fees. Belfius for example has a 1% fee on all its cards. That’s the lowest of the big banks. ING, Recordbank and Keytrade have 1,4%. BPN Paribas has a 1,6% rate. American Express cards have a 2,5% rate. The mobile Vikings prepaid Mastercard has a whopping 5,75% rate.  You don’t want to be paying a 5,75% extra on everything you buy, right?

The conversion fee only applies for non-euro payments. In some airport shops they might convert the foreign amount to Euro before you pay. That is often an even worse idea. The rates are usually between 3% and 7%. The merchant is earning the extra percentage. Paying in the local currency is always cheaper. Always make sure they charge you in the local currency.

Withdrawing money from an ATM

Withdrawing money from an ATM abroad is something I personally do regularly. It’s the best way to get some local banknotes. The exchange offices in airports are usually huge rip-offs. The fee you pay for withdrawing money can, again, be very different between cards. Examples! Belfius: A fee of € 5,00 + 1% conversion fee. Record bank: 3,5% fee for withdrawing + 1,4% conversion fee makes a whopping ≈4,9%. Amex can top that easily. 3,5% fee for withdrawing and 2,5% conversion fee makes ≈6%. Withdrawing an equivalent of €  100,00 makes you about € 106,00 lighter.

Conclusion

Surprised by the rates? They are usually very deep down in Terms of Service and Agreements. The rates are defined by the banks themselves. Only AMEX picks its own rates, and those are the same for all AMEX card in Belgium. VISA and Mastercard rates are chosen by the banks who hand them out. Within a bank, the rates for both these cards will be the same. A Visa classic from Belfius will have the same rates and fees as a Belfius Mastercard platinum. The only bank not applying this is Citibank.

When you are a frequent traveller and are spending lots of money in non-euro currencies you can see the annual fee is the least of your problems. Picking the wrong card can set you back € 300-400 annually. So is there a right card? Yes there is!

How are calculations made

It is important to note you can not simply add the conversion fee and the withdrawal fee together. It is a bit more complicated. I’ll explain this with an example. Let’s say I withdraw MYR 400 from an ATM with my American Express card.

  • First the foreign sum is converted to Euro following the official European Central Bank rate (MYR 400,00 /4 = € 100,00)
  • Then the conversion fee is applied (€ 100,00*102,5% = € 102,50)
  • On top of that the withdrawal fee is applied (€ 102,50*103,5% = € 106,09)
  • Finally a fixed sum (if any) is added for the transaction (this is € 0.00 for American Express)

The actual fee for withdrawing foreign money with American Express is about 6.09%

Some popular cards compared

I have compared some of the most popular credit cards in a real life example. For the comparison I am using the following numbers:

  • Withdrawal of € 500 in an Euro country (but not Belgium)
  • Money withdrawn from ATM (non Euro): equivalent of € 3000 in 6 withdrawals.
  • Money spent with card (non Euro): equivalent of € 4000

I don’t care about your Euro payments on the card, because those will be free for any card.

Card Action Fee Total fee
Belfius Mastercard RedMMI-Card-red-video_tcm_11-8029 Withdraw 500eur € 5,00 € 5,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur € 5,00 + 1% € 60,00
Spend equiv 4000eur 1% € 40,00
Sum     € 105,00
Record bank Visa Classicrecord Withdraw 500eur 1%. Min € 2,48 € 5,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur 3,5% fee + 1,4% conv rate € 148,47
Spend equiv 4000eur 1,4% conv rate € 56,00
Sum     € 209,47
Brussels Airlinex AMEXamex Withdraw 500eur 3,5% min € 5,00 € 17,50
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur 3,5% fee + 2,5% conv rate € 182,63
Spend equiv 4000eur 2,5% conv rate € 100,00
Sum     300,12
Mobile Vikings Prepaid Mastercardmob Withdraw 500eur € 3,00 + 3% € 18,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur € 3,00 + 5,75% € 192,98
Spend equiv 4000eur 5,75% € 233,30
Sum     € 444,28
BNP Visa Classicbnp Withdraw 500eur 1% min € 5,00 € 5,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur € 4,00 + 1,6% € 72,00
Spend equiv 4000eur 1,6% € 64,00
Sum     € 141,00
ING Visa Classicing Withdraw 500eur € 4,96 + 1% € 9,96
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur € 4,96 + 2,4% € 102,18
Spend equiv 4000eur 1,4% € 56,00
Sum     € 168,14
Keytrade Visa Classickeytrade Withdraw 500eur 1% min € 2,50 € 5,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur €5,00 + 3,4% € 132,84
Spend equiv 4000eur 1,4% € 56,00
Sum     € 193,84
Citi Belgacom Club World Mastercard review by OpenJawciti Withdraw 500eur 2,5% min € 5,00 max € 15,00 € 12,50
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur 2,5% min € 5,00 max € 15,00 + 2,29% conv rate € 145,42
Spend equiv 4000eur 2,29% € 91,60
Sum     € 249,52
BKCP Visa Classicbkcp Withdraw 500eur € 0 € 0,00
Withdraw 6x equiv 500eur € 5,00 € 30,00
Spend equiv 4000eur 0% € 0,00
Sum     € 30,00

The best card?!

Clearly the BKCP Visa Classic card is the winner! This card is quite simply stunning compared to all other available cards. Withdrawing money from within the Euro-zone is absolutely free. This is basically a free cash loan! Withdrawing money from anywhere else in the world sets you back €5,00. On every non-euro payment there is a 0% conversion fee. This is the only card in Belgium with a 0% conversion fee!

The card has to be linked to a BKCP bank account. An account with a VISA classic card will set you back € 57,84 per year. You can also opt for Visa Gold. That’s €20,00 extra per year. This might seem like a lot of money, but in most banks an account is not free.

Runner up, and best of the big banks is Belfius. An account and Belfius Red card will set you back about €50,00 a year. Spending that same amount on a Belfius Mastercard Red will set you back € 105,00 compared to € 30,00 with BKCP

The Record Bank Visa Classic shows that free isn’t always as free as you’d think. A debit account and Visa Classic at Record Bank is completely free. But spending the amount on that Visa would cost you € 209,47!

Real travellers might already have the Brussels Airlines American Express card. Great to collect miles for Brussels airlines! Not so great outside of the Euro zone. The card would have cost you € 300,12 in fees!

So back to the BKCP card. The bank might not ring a bell to most but they do have privately run offices all over Belgium. They are slightly apprehensive on handing out Visa cards. The card is not something they advertise with, although it has awesome value. I had to request the T&C by mail! The office I opened an account at requested to see my last 3 payslips for requesting a Visa (Since I got no history there). The monthly limit is € 1250 by default but I have requested to up that permanently to € 1500. That wasn’t a problem. I’m going to apply for the Visa Gold in a few months’ time because of the higher limit (€ 3750) and better insurance.

Dutch speaking people can check the rates of their credit card at Spaargids.be

A great website for currency conversion is XE.com. They also have a great conversion app for all devices.

DIY Canon AC-Adapter

November 30th, 2011 Posted in Photography | 28 Comments »


I’m a big fan of time-lapse projects. But there always are 2 limitations. Memory Card space and Battery life. The memory card space is easy to overcome. Connect your DSLR with laptop/pc/mac and store the images there, or buy a bigger memory card. 16GB can go a long way with medium-sized JPG’s. Battery life is the main problem in my eyes. Using a Battery grip, 2 Canon batteries only go for about 6-10h. Setting the review-time to 0s can save a load of battery power, but it still doesn’t extend the battery life long enough.
I have tried putting 6 Eneloop AA batteries in the grip. This babies kept the camera running for about 25hours. A serious improvement, and great for mobile time-lapses.

I wanted to be able to plug my camera in a power outlet, so it could virtually run forever. Canon has such an AC-Adapter. The ACK-DC20. But at a price of £76 I had no intention of buying it. In stead, I built one myself with things I had in my ‘storage’ and spent less than 2euro. From scratch you’d be able to build this for about 15-20eur.

You will need:

  • A 12V AC-DC adapter with an output power of 1 Ampere (1000mA)
  • An old Canon battery
  • Some soldering equipment
  • A piece of PCB
  • wires
  • An LM7808
  • Two 10 uF 16V Capacitors
  • A female adapter-plug

This ‘tutorial’ will guide you building the AC-Adapter for a Canon 400D, but since all canon’s have the same 7.4V batteries this will work with any other Canon DSLR and probably any other brand of DSLR.

Step 1: The battery

The first thing you have to do is open up an old Canon battery. I had a few old ones laying around which couldn’t keep a decent charge. Cut the battery open along the lines. Be careful that you don’t cut too deep into the battery inside. start with the corners and gently cut deeper till it opens.
You’ll have something like this:

Take the batteries out and cut them from the separator. Keep the separator containing the metal plates. We’ll need that upon assembly.

Step 2: The scheme

The soldering is fairly straightforward. I am using an LM7808 Voltage regulator. This chip keeps a constant DC voltage between 7.9 and 8.1V. This is perfect for the camera as it can take up to 8.1V as you can see in the Image. The green circle highlights the cable-gutter on the camera.

This voltage regulator costs less than 1 Euro and can power up to 2Amps, The camera doesn’t use more than 1Amp so it doesn’t need any cooling.

Pin layout of the LM7808:

The schematics:

As you can see it’s fairly straightforward. The 12V gets connected to the IN pin. 1 capacitor is placed between the IN and GND for ripple-deduction which might come from the adapter. Another capacitor is placed between the OUT and GND for a stable voltage. This is not mandatory but I did it anyway.

Step 3: The soldering

1: Solder the female adapter-plug onto a piece of wire. This can be a short or long wire, as you please. The female plug you see on the right.

2: Take a small piece of PCB which will fit inside the battery shell and solder the LM7808 voltage regulator onto it so it can lay flat.

3: solder the capacitors (optional but recommended) following the scheme. These capacitors are polarised. the short leg needs to be connected to the GND, the longer leg to the +12V and +8V for the next one. Don’t get this the wrong way or they will explode and/or catch fire!

4: Finally solder 2 short wires onto the PCB to connect the output (+8V) and Ground (GND) to the battery separator and solder the long wires to the IN line of the LM7808 and the ground wire to the GND pin. In an adapter, the +12V usually comes from the middle pin. the outer ring is usually the ground. Be sure to check this. Below you can see my print layout. The separator will be in the middle, so place the components on the outsides.

5: Check if it’s working properly. Check the input and output voltages. Make sure you have no short-circuits.

6: Fit everything inside the small battery case

7: Cut a small hole in the battery box’s side top for the cable to come out. Look where the cable gutter in your DSLR is and make it fit.

8: Glue to box close.

9: All done!

Step 4: The adapter

As I said the adapter should have an output current of 1000mA or more. A 12V adapter is recommended, but it can be anything from 11V up to 20V (although 12V is the best choice here). You probably have one of those babies laying around the house. Using a higher voltage adapter will make the LM7808 become warm or hot when under full load. I’ve tested full load (continuous shooting in Medium JPG for 1 minute) and the battery case had come skin-warm but far from hot!

The result

As you see the cable fits perfectly in the camera and the battery grip. Both options work perfectly. The lid closes on both without any problems.

All in all this is a fairly straight-forward build which costs you about 2EUR if you don’t have to buy a 12V Adapter.

Let me know what you think or have any questions :)

Wide Angle is Cool… (Part 2)

September 29th, 2009 Posted in Photography | 1 Comment »

… if you use it correctly. In my previous blogpost I promised to tell you what wide angle lenses are good for. As you might remember I have the sigma 10-20mm lens.

So the first genre of photos where wide angle can be ‘cool’ is pretty well known: Portraits!

_MG_4939
Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

These portraits are of course not the ones you will make of a CEO. But among friends these are pretty awesome. Animal portraits work also well.

Sheep 10mm
Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

Lets be honest. You wont be making this kind portraits all the time. The next use of wide angle is one which is more common for me. Churches. Churches are usually high and long, which makes it very difficult to get them in 1 frame. I love 10mm for the great FOV it gives me.

_MG_6636
Sigma 10-20mm @ 10mm

This amazing church could have never given this result without wide angle. The great thing about 10mm is the FOV gets wider, so the church looks much longer. Gives a great perspective.

Another example:

_MG_2591
Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

Warning! When making pictures of churches inside (and this actually counts for all buildings) you have to pay attention that you are exactly in the middle. If you aren’t in the middle of the building, the ‘distortion’ (because of the wide angle) will be not even. If you look at the image above, the benches are straight, the ceiling is straight, and the side walls are leaning to the front. Because this picture was made in the center, the distortion is even between both sides. If you will make the same picture not from the center, the distortion will become uneven and your shot will be pretty worthless.

Wide angle works very nice for buildings.but you should be very careful for distortion. The great thing about wide angle is the fact that you do not need to be far away to get the whole building in the frame.

_MG_7425
Sigma 10-20mm @ 12mm
_MG_7135
Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

This last image is a perfect example of ‘frame the whole building from up close’. There were still constructions going on, and there was a 2m high fence around it. I was standing by the fence, keeping the cam above it. I was standing about 10m from the building.

My last use for wide angle is… Panorama shots! *Wait!? In your last blog post you were telling they were not good for panorama!?!?* Yes. I did say that. And it still is true. But a wide angle is awesome in 1 kind of panorama. In my last blogpost I told you get way to much sky in wide angle shots. So when the sky IS the item you want to photograph, wide angle is an awesome solution!

_MG_2061
Sigma 10-20mm @ 10mm
IMG_1045
Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

Sunsets in city or beach are great in wide angle. I especially love the natural vignetting you get on wide angle. the sun lights the sky most where it went down, so because of the wide angle you get this vignette effect.

Let me know if you know some more great uses for wide angle which I did not cover. Personally I think I’ve got them all. I hope this was an interesting read.

Drops

September 18th, 2009 Posted in Photography | No Comments »

A few weeks ago I had some fun experimenting with water and a strobism setup. And I finally found the time to upload them.

Drops

Drops

The above shots were made with a flash (+ 1/2 CTB filter) right under the glass bowl and a flash next to the bowl (+ 1/4 CTB filter) to light the background.

Drops

In the end I removed the color filters and did some experiments with colored drops.

Setup:
Drops Setup

Click on the image to view the setup with explanation.

View the complete 19 image large set on flickr

All the images that I made are without any post-processing. Just raw from the camera.

Wide Angle is Cool…

August 31st, 2009 Posted in Photography | 2 Comments »

… must be what a lot of photographers think. I thought the exact same thing. And I still believe that. But my idea of its purpose has changed. Mind you I am talking about wide angle lenses. Fish eye lenses are not in this group. (Yeah OK, they are wide, but I am talking about undistorted wide angles)

About 6 months ago I bought myself the Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6. As a beginning photographer I wanted to have the whole range covered. from 10mm till 300mm. The Sigma 10-20 is an EF-S lens, so it works only on Canon Crop bodies. If we make the calculations for full frame that would be an 16-32 lens.

Anyway. I bought that lens with the idea that 10mm (16mm on FF) will be great for Panorama Shots. Well, think again. 10mm ain’t great for panorama shots. Don’t get me wrong here. I like this lens. It’s a great lens. And 10mm is great in some occasions. But not at all for a panorama. I could write 1 million words why it ain’t good for panorama shots. But instead I’ll show you some shots which I made with some extra words of explanation.

Panorama Kaunas: 20mmPanorama of Kaunas. Shot with the Sigma 10-20mm @20mm

There you have it. This panorama shot was made on the roof of a church. It is not an artistic shot. I didn’t do any post-processing. But it gives a clear idea of how the view was. In the center of the image you can see the White Dome.

Panorama Kaunas: 12mmPanorama of Kaunas. Shot with the Sigma 10-20mm @12mm

The same panorama shot @ 12mm. Lets be honest. this looks horrible. The part of sky in the image increased, which is not a problem. But you can see a lot more of the buildings which are really up close. That is the problem. A wide angle lens gives you a very wide view horizontally (that is what we want) but also vertically. And we don’t need that. This implies that all buildings seem to be very far away. Can you still spot the White dome in the center? If you can you will see that all detail in the panorama is lost. Yeah, OK, you can see the buildings which are up close quite good. But everything which is a little bit further (and in a panoramic view, that will be the case in pretty much all of the occasions) lost complete detail.

The next example:

Vilnius Panorama 20mmPanorama of Vilnius. Shot with the Sigma 10-20mm @20mm
Vilnius Panorama 10mmPanorama of Vilnius. Shot with the Sigma 10-20mm @10mm

Pretty much the same story. Only here it is a lot worse. Again these shots did not have any post processing. Comparing both shots, the percentage of sky has been doubled. The amount of grass is a little bit less, because i didn’t want that my feet would be visible in the frame. The view over the city has doubled in width. But all detail is lost in the 10mm shot. I see a lot of grass and sky, a few tower buildings and that’s it.

Vilnius Panorama CroppedPanorama of Vilnius. Shot with the Sigma 10-20mm @10mm and cropped

The only way to make this image ‘OK’ is by cropping it. I roughly cropped 70% away! Now it looks OK, but not great because the detail in the image is lost. This is a low-res panoramic shot. My Canon has a 10MP sensor. Cropping 70% away leaves me a 3MP panoramic shot. In my opinion panoramic shots should be with a decent resolution. And there is only 1 way to do that. Make a series of pictures on a tripod, preferably with a lens of about 50mm, and stitch it in Photoshop.

Conclusion: Do not buy a wide-angle lens for panoramic shots. Unless you are satisfied with low-res quick and easy panoramic shots, Use Photoshop and a series of shots to make a nice panorama. Panoramic shots below 17mm look too wide, and lose a lot of detail. Most kit lenses have a range of 18-50mm. 17-18mm works just fine for panoramas. If you want wider. Photoshop is the way to go.

In my next blog post I will talk about the better uses of a wide angle lens.

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