The View Up Here

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Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

Job Satisfaction

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/09/2016

One of the questions I’ve asked myself over the years is whether I would be proud to tell my kids what I do for a living.

Much of the time the answer has been yes. When I worked for Academic Computing at the University of Texas I spent close to a year working in the Student Health Center. We took care of the servers that maintained medical records, handled customer satisfaction surveys, and made sure the desktop and handheld computers of the doctors, nurses, and administrators all worked. We helped them help the student body of UT stay healthy. Feel good about it? You bet!

Some of the time the answer has been a resounding no. The last year I was with IBM my job was to spy on my co-workers. I was the weenie who read all the logs from all of our servers and flagged “security risks”. During that time we never had an actual outside attack, and I think we had fewer than ten internal “ethical hacks”, all of which we caught. But I lost count of how many times my co-workers had a typo or tried to do something as root out of innocent ignorance. I had to report them all. Not one was a malicious act, and yet my job was to ding them for it anyway. Feel good about it? You gotta be kidding me…

Working at CFHT is solidly in the yes category. I’ve had downer days. Heck, I’ve had downer months, if not years. But at the root of it all we’re in the business of exploring the universe to better understand how the whole thing works. When people ask what I do for a living I tell them that my job description basically amounts to doing whatever is required so we can collect science-grade photons at night. Sometimes this means designing and building new instruments; sometimes it means sweeping the floors. When things get floor-sweepy it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all of the things we do here contribute to our understanding of the universe.

Yesterday I brought in my camera bag and lighting gear so I could photograph a set of filters for customs paperwork. We’re shipping the filters to France to be scanned on a better spectrophotometer than the one we have here. Customs had a set of requirements for the photographs, so I was taking my time to make sure I got everything right. Toward the tail end one of our resident astronomers came in to see what I was doing. I explained about customs, about their need for documentation and serial numbers, etc. Not exactly sweeping floors, but documentation photography is pretty mundane stuff.

He listened patiently, then said, “You understand the importance of what you’re doing?”

“What do you mean?” I asked as I moved the last of the filters from the lighting scoop, back to its packing crate.

“Right now the tightest constraint on the cosmological constant is the SNLS survey, made with these filters. The scans they’re planning to do will further refine our understanding of the cosmological constant.” He pointed to the filter I was holding, the r’ filter. “That filter is key.”


Yeah. Even the act of photographing these filters so the customs agents can identify them and their serial numbers was helping to contribute to our understanding of the universe. No “Eureka!” moment. No lone genius. Just a lot of people doing a lot of seemingly mundane tasks, all of which is further refining our knowledge of how the universe works.

Today I’m processing the pictures, putting together documentation packets for customs, and packing the filters lovingly in their cases for shipment to France. Am I proud to tell my kids what I’m doing for a living?

You bet your ass.


Posted in Astronomy | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Friggin’ Cable Releases

Posted by Tom Benedict on 24/03/2015

A year or so ago I bought a remote cable release for my camera. I wanted something that would do time lapse, long exposures, delayed exposures, you name it. Turns out there are scads of these things out there. They all seem to use the same basic electronics. The difference mostly lay in the packaging and form factor. So I picked one, used it, and got a lot of good use out of it.

In my post about batteries I mentioned that I managed to kill my cable release by letting the alkaline batteries I’d put in it go stale. And leaky. And corrosive. And… >deep breath< Whew! Let the past be the past.

Wireless Timer Release

Anyway, while shopping for a new one I saw that Yongnuo had a wireless version for not too much money. I picked one up off of Ebay, tested it, verified that it worked, and… promptly had it fail when I took it out in the field. It would focus on a half-press, but wouldn’t trip the shutter on a full-press. The weird thing is the display said “Release”, so I knew the switch was good. But it wouldn’t actually do anything.

The wireless release comes as two components: a handheld transmitter with a display, button pad, shutter button, etc., and a receiver that you stick on the camera. The receiver doubles as a cable release, complete with a shutter button of its own. When I tested it it worked perfectly! So I wasn’t entirely dead in the water. Just mostly.

The Yongnuo MC-36R also allows for a cable to be used instead of the wireless connection. Today I made a cable using some spare 1/8″ stereo headphone plugs and some spare wire I’d salvaged from a dead sensor at work. I built the cable, plugged it in, and… had the same exact behavior! Half-press would focus the camera, but the full-press did nothing!

Digital devices are usually pretty self-contained. Except for witnessing the battery-driven demise of electronics, there’s typically very little you can do to salvage something that has stopped working. But this was sounding a lot less like a logic fault in some chip and a lot more like a failed connection. So I opened the unit up.

The MC-36R has two circuit boards inside. One houses the LCD, buttons, and processor. The other houses the 2.4GHz transmitter, the channel-selecting DIP switch bank, and the 1/8″ stereo jack for the optional cable. I expected the connection between the two to be some sort of three-wire UART. Instead I found Vcc, Gnd, 1, and 2, and the #2 wire had popped out of the connector. ??! Each state of the switch had its own discrete wire! I shoved the wire back in and everything worked perfectly!

When I put the thing back together I saw what the underlying problem was. There’s almost no room inside the thing. The connector for the 2.4GHz board bumps up against the big honking half/full press switch for the shutter. So if one of the wires is even slightly out of place when the unit is assembled it’ll get pulled out of the connector. In my case the #2 wire was the one who lost. A little care during re-assembly and I avoided the problem.

I have to wonder how many of these things fail during QC testing. I wonder how many more are eventually returned when they quit working. In the event mine dies again I can replace the connector with a new one. It’s a 4-conductor micro-JST. I have a bag of them. Meanwhile I’m back up and running. And now I have a cable I can use, too.

– Tom

Posted in Electronics, Engineering, Photography | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bend a Little and Have Fun

Posted by Tom Benedict on 14/03/2015

Years ago I joined a group called Utata – a group of photographers, writers, and like-minded folks who enjoy lively discussion and creating and promoting art. Utata has several ongoing projects as well as two big annual projects. At the time I joined I was almost exclusively doing aerial photography from a kite, so I found myself unable – or to be truthful, unwilling – to participate in many of the projects. One in particular, the Iron Photographer, routinely kicked my butt.

The Iron Photographer project is modeled along the same lines as Iron Chef: All of the participants are given the same three elements to work with – two compositional and one artistic or calling for a specific technique – and are asked to create new, original works. On the face of it it’s a welcome challenge for any photographer. But if you’re limiting yourself to creating only aerial landscapes it’s less of a challenge and more of an impossibility. Take, for example Iron Photographer 211. The elements were: 1 – a bowl; 2 – something broken; 3 – photographed simply. You can make an aerial photograph that would qualify, but it would be a mighty tall order. I quickly became frustrated and stopped participating.

The lesson I didn’t learn back then was this: bend a little. The whole idea of Iron Photographer is to knock people out of their comfort zone and get them to put their thinking caps on. I staunchly refused and missed out on a lot of opportunities to have fun with a camera.

After a three year dry-ish spell I’m finally starting to get back into photography. This time not all of it is aerial. I figured I’d give Iron Photographer another try. I started with IP 212. The elements are: 1 – the photographer’s hand resting on a flat surface; 2 – an object resting in the palm of the hand; 3 – holga-fied. The only element I needed clarification on was that third one. The idea is to make it look as if the photograph came out of a Holga camera. I don’t own one, so I downloaded Holgarizer – a Photoshop action that would produce a similar result.

The Iron Photographer projects make you think. Yeah, I could’ve done a set of photos of my hand on a table with various objects in it. But where’s the fun in that? Better to ask why my hand is lying on a flat surface. Which flat surface is it lying on? What is sitting in my palm? And who chose to make the photograph? Of course for the requirements of the project it must be the owner of the hand. But from the standpoint of the narrative all of these are open-ended questions.

The first idea that sprang to mind felt cliché even before I made the photograph, but I made it anyway.

As Found

It’s not a happy picture. I wanted it to look like a crime scene: a dingy floor, the weak greenish glow of fluorescent lights, a pallid cast to the skin, and stark shadows outlining someone’s final act. In fact I’d just scrubbed the floor clean so I wouldn’t contaminate my prescription medication. The lighting was all provided by daylight-balanced strobes. And I’m actually pretty tan at the moment. But who’s keeping tabs? The only really stressful moment came when I started to clean up and realized I’d misplaced one of my pills. As tiny as these things are, they’d be lethal to my cats. I spent the time to track down every single one.

Then, of course, I saw that another participant in IP212 had come up with the same idea. Darn!

That’s when I started to wonder: Did the owner of the hand have to be the one who put the object in it? When I figured out the answer was “no” the idea for the next photograph came to mind. I opened the door to my daughter’s room and said, “Wanna be a totalitarian? Grab your boots!”

Of all of the events that mark the passing from childhood to adulthood, one my daughter celebrated with no small amount of gusto was the successful completion of her last high school PE class. She proudly announced that her only reason for wearing tennis shoes to school was null and void, and that she wanted combat boots. She and Rydra picked out a pair that would make any real princess proud.

“Ok,” I told her. “I’m gonna lie down on the ground outside, and you’re going to stand on me.”

Stunned silence. “What?!”

Even I had to admit she had a point. But once I described the photo to her she got into the swing of things.

The Regime

It took a while to work out the balance of the lights. Then it took a while to work out the best angle for my arm. Then it took a while for us to work out how she had to stand so it looked like she was bringing all her weight to bear on me without actually crushing my hand under her heel. In the end she wound up with one boot on and one boot off, standing en pointe on one sock-covered foot while squishing my hand with her booted heel. Early on she was tripping the shutter, but the contortions she was having to go through were more painful than what she was doing to my hand. We switched to a self-timer for the final few frames.

Though the Iron Photographer project lets you tag up to six photos for submission, you’re only really supposed to post one to the discussion forum. I chose this one. This becomes important later.

I had a couple of other ideas I wanted to try, but by this time I realized my first two photos were real downers. Despite the smiles and the laughter and the fun my daughter and I had making The Regime, I knew that no one looking at it would feel anywhere near as upbeat as we did. So I set morbid aside and went after something different.

The challenge called for something to be in the palm of the hand. It didn’t say that it had to be a physical object, just that something had to be there. I thought it would be neat to put something less tangible than a physical object in my hand. “I know!” I thought, “Light!”

I went through a couple of iterations on this one: I could have a beam of light coming out of my hand. (I might still try that one at some point, but not as part of this IP.) I could make the palm of my hand glow. The idea I finally settled on was to have an object in my hand influence light rather than generate it: a prism.

Years ago I worked in a lab that etched diffraction gratings into silicon using MEMS techniques. It was kind of a one man show, so I was responsible for the photolithography, the anisotropic etching setup, maintaining the safety and materials in the lab, characterizing the gratings we were making, etc. I also photographed the bejeebers out of everything we did on color transparency film. To see how much power went into each order of the gratings we were making we aimed lasers at them and measured the power in each of the return beams. It was an important step in characterizing the gratings. But it made for an even better photograph.

Each photograph was done as a single long-exposure frame. I’d turn off all the lights in the room, open the shutter, “paint” out the beams using a business card or some other flat white object (my hand stood in a couple of times), then turn on the lights for the prescribed amount of time and close the shutter. As painstaking as it sounds, once you got into a routine it went pretty quickly.

I used the same technique with the prism.

Can We Get There By Laser Light?

Even having used the technique, it took awhile to work out the details for this photo. Initially I illuminated the prism from the side. But the human palm isn’t all that flat. The prism kept rolling toward my fingers, directing the outgoing beam into the table or some other part of my hand. And painting a beam that’s going toward the camera is tough if you’re using a business card. The camera’s looking at the back side of the card! Eventually I figured out I should place the laser under the camera, and aim it back toward my hand. This gave me a way to see how well aligned the prism was to the beam: put the reflected light back into the laser’s aperture. It also made painting the foreground beam a lot easier since the camera could see the illuminated side of the card.

The difficulty was the outgoing beam. No matter what I did, the prism moved around in time with my heartbeat. You can see it as tiny wiggles in the painted beam. I could’ve Photoshopped that out, but where’s the fun in that?

Since that’s my own hand there on the table, I really didn’t have the option of turning on the room lights at the requisite time. Instead I set up a single strobe and a shoot-through umbrella up and to camera right. I kept the wireless transmitter handy on the table. Once I’d painted the beam I triggered the strobe and closed the shutter. It worked like a charm.

For my last IP212 photo I wanted to make something of a visual pun. The two compositional elements were a hand resting on a flat surface and an object resting in the hand. What if the object in the hand was a flat surface? In keeping with the whole optics theme I considered using a mirror, but honestly that’s kind of a boring photo. Besides, I’d already touched on the optics side of what I do for a living. I wanted to touch on the mechanical side, too. What if the flat object in the hand was being made into a flat object? Milling machine!

Hand Work

Before getting into the hows and whys of this I need to point out that I take shop safety very seriously. At no point did I do anything that put my hand or my tooling at risk. The only way to pull that off was to do this as two separate frames – one with the spindle moving and one with it stopped – and combine them.

I milled five of the six sides of this block using the 1″ cutter shown chucked in the mill. I milled the last side halfway, then stopped. Lighting was pretty straightforward: an umbrella in front and to the right, and a stofen bounced off the white wall behind the mill to provide speculars on the block and vise. I brought the spindle down until it was pressing the block into my hand, and made the first exposure. I wanted some motion blur out of the cutter, so I made a second exposure using ambient light, rotating the spindle by hand from above. Once I’d balanced the light between the two in Lightroom, I brought both frames into Photoshop for layering.

While going through the lighting for this a number of other photographs came to mind that didn’t fit into the IP212 requirements, but that nonetheless would make for pleasing photographs of machine work in progress. And that, to me, is the real benefit of taking on Utata projects like the Iron Photographer: The final result isn’t the photographs made for the project. It’s the ideas that the process of thinking through those photographs leaves you with. That’s what I missed out when I joined Utata years ago. I don’t plan on missing out on it again.

To my utter delight, Greg, the moderator who sets up the Iron Photographer challenges, favorited The Regime and wrote a really thoughtful comment on it. This is the first time one of the Utata moderators commented on one of my photos. Even more delightful, Debra Broughton wrote a short piece about it for the front page of the Utata web site and wrote a comment of her own. I admit I banged my forehead on my desk a little at my obtuseness for taking this long to jump into Utata projects with both feet. But thanks to Greg and Debra I did it with a smile.

– Tom

Posted in Machining, Photography | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Batteries for Photography

Posted by Tom Benedict on 14/03/2015

I’ve been told by more than one photographer over the years that for gear that uses AA or AAA batteries, alkalines are best. “Put a fresh set in at the beginning of the day and you’re good to go.” I swear if I hear this from one more person, I’m going to throw up.

I… Hate… Alkalines…

Alkaline batteries have an inherent shelf life. When they reach the end of that shelf life they like to do violent, nasty things. If they’re still installed in a piece of equipment when that time comes, it’s usually the piece of equipment that pays the ultimate price. I’ll give you three examples:

About a year ago I needed to use a light meter. (Yeah, an honest to goodness light meter!) We have a really nice Minolta meter at work, so I borrowed it. I got to where I was planning to do the photography only to find out it didn’t work. So I opened up the battery tray. UGH! You guessed it: battery innards were everywhere. I took it home, pulled it apart, and found that the acid hadn’t attacked the electronics, but it had gotten inside the wires from the battery tray, and had eaten down inside the insulation. I cleaned it out, bead blasted the battery terminals, and soldered in new battery wires. The meter was back in business, but my frustration with alkalines only grew.

Back in December I used the Canon 5D at work to photograph the damage to some of the optics in one of our instruments. (Our current working suspicion is that battery acid played a role in the damage to the optics. Hmmmm!) I grabbed the ring flash that’s stored in the case with the 5D only to find it wouldn’t power up. No problem, I thought, I’ll replace the batteries! I opened the battery compartment to find battery goo had oozed all over the place. I cleaned it out as best I could, but didn’t even bother to take it apart. I gave up on the idea of using the ring flash and used my own Speedlites instead.

A couple of weeks ago I went down to the beach to do some long duration sunset photos. I pulled out my timer release, tried to set it up to do some five minute exposures, but couldn’t get half the buttons on the thing to work. I set the timer release aside until I could take a better look at it and did what I could with 30 second exposures, but none of the frames I exposed really looked right. Earlier today I opened it up only to find the batteries had blown their goo all over the inside, and had eaten the ground plane out of the circuit board, taking half the buttons along with it. I chucked it in the can and ordered another one.

So what’s a photographer to use if not alkalines? My favorite so far are nickel metal hydrides – NiMH. They’re rechargeable, they’re durable, they hold charge well, and when they finally die they die quietly. They don’t take stuff with them the way alkalines do. When I get home after a day out with my cameras, I pop out all the batteries, stick them in chargers, and load my pictures onto the computer. By the time I’m done editing, the batteries are done charging. Back in they go, ready for the next day. In all the years I’ve been using NiMH batteries, I’ve never seen one destroy a piece of equipment. Not once.

When my new timer release shows up I’m replacing whatever batteries that come with it with a nice pair of Eneloop NiMH batteries. No more alkalines in my camera bag! EVER!

– Tom

Posted in Photography | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Life with an Amputee Cat

Posted by Tom Benedict on 17/02/2015

Ember Sleeping - Close-Up

Several years ago one of my cats, Ember, lost a leg to a car. It was a long, drawn-out process during which we and his vet tried to save his leg and give him back the life he had before the accident. In the end Ember persuaded us all that he’d be better off without it. Rydra and I took him in, and his vet performed the amputation. His road to recovery was lightning fast compared to the hell we’d already put him through. Within days he was running, jumping, meowing…

Ember Sleeping - Low Angle View

And sleeping… just like a cat.

The weekend before the amputation Rydra had me scouring the web for stories from people whose cats had also had legs amputated. We both knew what we had to do, but she wanted me to be comfortable with the decision. I found some Youtube videos and a couple of forum posts, but not much more than that. Now I’m doing my part so that other pet owners who find themselves in the situation I was in will have a little more information to draw from.

Ember’s case is complicated because the accident caused nerve damage and damage to his urinary tract as well as the shattered femur. His bladder and urethra were both ruptured. His vet was able to stitch his bladder closed, but she couldn’t reach his urethra, buried down inside his pelvis. Instead she inserted a catheter and used it as a mandrel over which he could rebuild his urethra on his own. When she removed the catheter a week later we all breathed a huge sigh of relief that the operation had worked. If his urethra hadn’t healed, he would’ve died.

The combination of the injury to his urinary tract and the nerve damage he suffered has some longer-term implications. He refuses to drink water, so we have him on a special diet of wet food that provides the water he needs. The nerve damage makes it hard for him to have bowel movements, so that, combined with his tendency to under-consume water is a recipe for constipation – a life-threatening situation if not treated. His vet prescribed him a laxative and a combination laxative and stool-softener, which we give to him twice a day. Even with the diet and the medication he sometimes needs enemas to reset the works, so to speak, and get him moving again. (No, no pictures to share for that particular operation!)

Setting those complications aside, life as a three-legged cat isn’t bad. Walking is awkward, but he manages. It hasn’t slowed down his ability to run, though, which makes sense if you look at a cat’s running gait: their back legs move as one. He can’t jump as high as he used to, and climbing trees is out of the question. But otherwise he gets around just as well as he did before the accident.

Ember Cleaning His Leg

The biggest impact has been with grooming. Cats scratch their head, neck, and shoulders using their back legs. He can still reach all those spots on the left side of his body, but not on the right. Within a couple of days of the amputation we’d worked out a kind of sign language so he can tell us he needs help: he arches his head and pops his leg nub as if he’s scratching. That’s the sign for one of us to reach out and lend a hand.

Ember - Surrogate Right Leg

These scratching sessions are distinctly different from normal petting, which he still enjoys thoroughly. He wants fingernails, and he wants them kicking as if he was scratching himself. He’s pretty good about giving us directions for where to scratch, how hard, etc. The only thing he likes better than a good scratching is the cat brush. At the urging of his vet we got a “slicker” brush we use to brush him all over every day or so. Just as he does when he asks us to scratch him with our fingers, he directs the brush sessions to hit all the spots he can’t normally reach. He’s a good teacher, and I’m a well-trained surrogate rear leg.

We’ve been careful not to take that too far, though. It’s one thing to be a surrogate leg so he can scratch places he can’t reach on his own. It’s another for us to carry him around and help him with tasks he’s perfectly capable of doing himself. We’ll pick him up to groom him or to pet him, but we always let him get down on his own or place him back where he was when we picked him up. He doesn’t rely on us for getting around.

All of our cats are indoor/outdoor animals, and all of them hunt. Ember is no exception, and is still just as avid a hunter as he was before he lost his leg. From the reading I did before taking Ember in for the amputation, I gathered that weight gain and lethargy are major concerns for amputee cats. Maybe it’s because he likes getting around on his own. Maybe it’s because he’s still such an active hunter. I can’t say for sure, but this hasn’t been a problem for him so far.

One surprising change is that he’s far more comfortable around cameras now. The first time I pointed a lens at Ember he freaked and ran as if a one-eyed monster was chasing him. (Which, in a way, one was.) I did photography at various stages of his treatment, so I guess he just got used to having a lens pointed at him. These days he’s completely laid-back about the whole thing, and even has patience for lighting.

Lighting Setup

As much as the pictures in this article might indicate that Ember is a complete slacker, I should probably point out that they’re all from one photo session that came after a full night of running around carousing outside. Eventually he had enough of me and my camera, and sent us packing.

Ember - Done

– Tom

Posted in Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Still Sick

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/01/2015

The day after I posted Sick Lizzid I went back to work to put our wide field imager back together. (While I was out sick it had yet another failure. Grrr!) We got a lot done, but working in the cold at altitude is a recipe for relapse. I was out sick again yesterday and today.

So I spent my lucid reading time going through The Strobist. I finished Lighting 101 and started on Lighting 102. The second course goes into a lot more detail than the first, and includes student exercises (yaaay!) I had a little more energy this morning, so I went though the first several. These are more to familiarize the photographer with how light behaves than anything else, so I won’t post any of the pictures I made. I do, however, urge everyone going through the L101 and L102 classes to do every exercise. As pedantic as some of them may seem, nothing beats time in the saddle when it comes to learning a thing.

One of the things I like about The Strobist is that it’s very nonlinear in nature. Lessons do follow one another, but if something is relevant to the discussion there’s a link you can follow. Lighting 102 2.2 – Specular Discussion had a link to an article called Stainless Steel and Cookies, which in turn had a link to an article called Pretty, Shiny Things that discussed a technique called double diffusion. I’ve used this at work to get a relatively flat diffuse source. The flat field source I made for characterizing the linearity of our infrared wide field imager used double diffusion to minimize roll-off at the edge of the field.

The exercise for L102 2.2 was to play with specular reflections. I took a cue from the Pretty, Shiny Things article, in which the author was photographing wheat beers. I’m fresh out of decent beer, and too sick to drink anything, anyway. So I grabbed a bottle of Grand Marnier out of the cabinet and started playing.

Grand Marnier

I tried bare flash (eeks!), a shoot-through umbrella (better), and this, a double-diffused setup using the same umbrella with a Fotodiox shoot-through diffuser between the umbrella and the bottle. I didn’t think to try it without the umbrella until I’d already taken the setup apart, but by then I’d sapped what energy I had, and had to quit.

I’m really enjoying going through the lessons and exercises on The Strobist. It sounds weird, considering I’ve spent close to twenty years doing landscape photography. But I’m getting a real kick out of learning new ways to control light.

– Tom

Posted in Lighting, Photography, Strobist | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Even More Cowbell

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/01/2015

I still haven’t used my new strobe gear to do portraiture. Which is kind of odd, now that I think about it, because that was one of the things I had in mind when I got it. I put some of this down to portraiture being a relatively new form of photography for me, so I’m not as driven to jump in. And some of it has to do with my only having one light and no reflectors. It’s tough to do good portraiture without at least a bounce card. (I know, I know… A bounce card is no more complicated than a piece of posterboard. I’ll get to that in a second.)

The real reason? NO ONE wants to be a subject, much less hold a piece of posterboard I tell them is actually a bounce card. (See? I told you I’d get to it!)

But that didn’t stop me from hoarding all the gift cards my family gave me for Christmas and using them to get  a second strobe, light stand, and umbrella. And it sure didn’t stop me from adding a 42″ reflector and flash diffuser to my cart while I was at it. As I placed the order I told Rydra that she and our little minions were now fair game. Oh yeah, baby! The portraits will roll! (Unfortunately, all of them know where I sleep, and know how to pull the batteries out of camera gear. So maybe this won’t work out as well as I’d hoped.)

Meanwhile I’ve been enjoying my single flash a great deal. No portraits, but I’ve been using it at work a ton. Most recently I’ve been using it while we’ve been investigating an issue on a much larger camera than anything I carry in my bag.

Megacam on CFHT

This is Megacam. When it was built it was the largest digital camera in the world. It’s a 320 megapixel focal plane fitted to a wide field corrector that’s optimized for use on our telescope. (And yeah, it came with Linux drivers.)

My real involvement with Megacam started as it was being integrated for use on the sky. Shortly after it saw first light, people figured out that it needed something that wasn’t part of the original design: a light baffle. That was my first large-scale project at the observatory: design and build a baffle for Megacam. The big black can on the bottom that looks like a silencer is what I came up with. It’s about 2m high and about 1.2m wide. To date it’s the largest lens hood I’ve designed and built. Tucked up above it is the wide field corrector assembly: four lenses and one image stabilizer (heck yes it includes image stabilization!) And it’s there that the story begins.

A few months ago one of our astronomers alerted us to what looked like a steady degradation in instrument performance. We investigated and found that the bottom-most lens in the corrector was dirty. One of the guys at work tried valiantly to clean it, but even his best efforts left the lens looking… ooky. To make a long story short, we took everything apart, looked at it through a microscope, and figured out what was going wrong. To our dismay we found that the optical coating on the lens was literally falling apart.

I wind up doing a lot of the documentation photography at work. Any time something goes wrong that we need a record of, I’m asked to pull out my camera and get busy. As part of the investigation of this lens I had the opportunity to do ambient light photography, dark-field photography, and (you guessed it) flash photography.

I needed a set of reflected light photos of the outer edge of the lens, but the room lights were killing me. So I turned them all off and pointed my flash at the ceiling to use as a giant white card. It worked great.

MC WFC L1 Acids

It’s not perfect. You can see the light fixtures in the reflection of the ceiling. But we’re not trying to do image analysis with these. The point was simply to record the state of the coating at several points around the edge of the lens. I couldn’t have pulled it off in the time I had available without my strobe.

I’m sure my second flash head will find its way into the photography I do at work. But what I’m really excited about is finally finally jumping into portraiture.

– Tom

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The Lunar Eclipse that Wasn’t

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/12/2010

I had plans to photograph the lunar eclipse.  Ooooh, did I ever have plans!

This all started when a friend of mine mentioned that he needed a single image that said: “Time Lapse”.  This is no small feat since most time lapse work results in a video, not a still image.  Once he explained the use he had in mind, though, the video idea went out the window.  It really did need to be a still.  We tossed some ideas around, and finally I remembered a project I worked long and hard on, but never really made headway with.

Back when I was doing a lot more 4×5 photography than I am now, I was given a box of things that came from various sources inside the family.  One was a camera of my great grandfather’s, a “pocket” Kodak camera that pre-dated the Great Depression.  It took a roll film I couldn’t find any more, and it had what looked like a lens built along the tessar design (symmetric doublets on either side of an aperture stop) set in a wonderful old shutter.  It was dirty, gunky, and not looking so great, but I knew it was a diamond in the rough.  I couldn’t wait to remove it from the original camera and mount it in a 4×5 lens board.

At the time I worked in a chemistry lab that was making optics.  I was also learning machining at the time, so I was up to my elbows in tools and optical cleaning equipment.  I disassembled the lens (not a huge trick with a large format lens) and disassembled and cleaned the shutter.  Keep in mind this shutter dated from the 191x era.  I wouldn’t do this with a modern shutter, which looks a lot like a Swiss watch once you get the cover off.  This shutter had “Big Parts”, a term coined by a friend of mine the first time he popped the hood on a 1960’s era Mustang and compared it to his 2000’s era Mustang.  Yep, dem be bigparts!

Cleaning took almost no time, and once everything was back together I discovered the real joy with this lens and shutter: the cable release also cocked the shutter.  So once it was installed on the camera, you could make exposure after exposure on a single sheet of film without touching the camera.  This means diddly squat if you’re doing straight photography, but it’s seriously cool if you’re doing multiple exposures.

I mentioned I was working in a chemistry lab making optics.  We were making diffraction gratings, and part of my job was to document our work to the best of my ability.  Imagine you’re seeing me making wikkid sounding snickering noises and rubbing my hands together, because that’s exactly what I did when I learned this was a job function.  “To the best of my ability” meant, to me, “You get to have a truckload of fun photographing what you do, and get paid for it.”  Oh yeah!

One question we were trying to answer was how much light was diffracted into each order of the grating.  We came up with a pretty good setup for measuring this, though the setup built by the guy they hired after I left was far better.  But for fun, I aimed a HeNe laser at one of our gratings and photographed the light diffracting off of it using multiple exposures.  Here’s the sequence:

  1. Do a normal “lights on” exposure of the setup.
  2. Turn off the lights, open the shutter.
  3. “Paint” the incoming beam with an index card, your finger, a piece of paper, whatever.  Keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  4. Then “Paint” the outgoing beams coming off the grating with that same index card, finger, etc.  Again, keep a consistent pace as you do this.
  5. Close the shutter, and turn on the lights.

What you get are these beautiful light beams floating in space, casting all the right reflections, and looking entirely like a movie special effect.  It also did a great job of showing that we got most of our light in one order (we had the grating arranged in littrow for all tests) and that the other orders had very little light in them.

The lens and shutter worked like a champ!

That’s when I got the idea of photographing a sunrise.

My idea was to do something similar to the laser beam trick, but use the shutter to capture the sun at various times during the sunrise.  I figured five minute intervals would be about right.  The only difference from the camera’s perspective is that the sun is a lot brighter than our laser beam, so I had to dump a lot of light.  I couldn’t afford the neutral density filter I needed, so I used two sheets of Kodak TMX film, overexposed and developed, placed in front of the lens.  If I remember right, this dumped the sunlight down enough that I could use something approaching a normal exposure without burning a hole in my film.

Unfortunately it never happened.  I tried diligently for several months, but every sunrise session ended in disaster.  I even drove out into the country, but things still seemed to go wrong.  The idea works.  I’ve seen other people do it.  But I never managed it.

Still, nothing says time lapse like a dozen suns rising from the horizon in a single frame.  And doing this with a digital camera and Photoshop would be even easier than doing it with a single sheet of film.  I tested the idea out at the beach, and even though my focus was off and the images were fuzzy, I processed them anyway and proved to myself it would work.  I got ready for the eclipse.

The morning of the eclipse I pulled up the GOES10 satellite feed to see what the weather in the Pacific was like.  Lo and behold, there was this continent-sized tropical storm bearing down on us like a freight train.  I felt like one of the agonized character drawings from Hyperbole and a Half!  I could feel my hair poking up and my eyes bugging out.  GAAAH!  “I could drive somewhere!” I thought.  So I started checking web cams all over the island, including those at the summit of Mauna Kea.  Hey, how cool would that be!  Photographing a lunar eclipse from the summit!  Nope, they were opaque, too, and the summit had snow warnings.  As the clock rolled forward, despair began to set in.

After dinner, we took the kids out to the driveway to look at the completely overcast sky.  We were all wailing to some degree at this point since the kids had been looking forward to it as much as I had, albeit for different reasons.  Sadly, my wife and I put the kids to bed and moped a little.  Eventually she went out to look, just in case.  I stumbled out after her.

Sometimes life has a way of slamming the door in your face, locking it, throwing the deadbolt, and sucker-punching you through the mail slot.  Earlier in the week I’d bruised my ankle putting my son’s bicycle away.  As I stepped out of the house this searing pain shot up my leg as I rammed my bruised ankle into the scooter he’d parked in front of the door.  I stumbled past that and stepped on the pile of… of… THINGS! the kids had left on the porch.  I careened away from the pile and whacked into a board they’d been using as a bike ramp.  I reached down with a trembling hand, trying to decide whether to put the board off to the side or just throw it in a fit of rage.  That’s when my glasses fell off.  In the dark.  At that point I knew if I moved I’d squish them.

I finally shuffled over to the house, found a book light, and used it to find my glasses.  Somehow they’d folded themselves neatly and were sitting on the ground lenses up.  Go figure.  I used the light to clear off the porch enough to navigate, and walked over to join my wife.

The only ray of light at the end of this story is that she didn’t turn to me and say, “The most wonderful hole opened up in the clouds, and ohMIGOD you should’ve SEEN it!”  That would’ve sent me over the edge.  Nope, she just shook her head and sighed.

We watched the dim light of the moon slowly fade behind the clouds as it went into eclipse, then walked back into the house to read a little before going to bed.

Ah well…  There’s always sunrise.

– Tom

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Photography – Keywords and Tagging

Posted by Tom Benedict on 03/12/2010

There are two aspects of photography I really don’t have a good handle on.  The first is very subjective:  I have a hard time knowing what will be interesting and what won’t.  I belive I’ve posted on this before.  What I like is rarely what other people like.  The long and the short is that I’m a very bad judge of what people want, what sells, and what an agency like Getty is looking for.  Thank goodness for Flickr!  There’s a group set up for people who have sold through Getty to post the images they have sold.  I spent some time looking through it, and learned a lot.  There’s a look and feel to a stock image that has less to do with subject matter and style, and more to do with composition.  For the most part this is good news since a good number of my photographs are composed in a way that would work.  But it also explains why some of my pictures really aren’t of any interest.  In short, it would be hard to use them for anything but a poster.  Lesson learned.  The next time I get out with a camera, I’m going to play more with composition and see what I come home with.

The other is less subjective:  Keywords and tagging.  It was eye-opening to see how Getty tagged my photos, and to look through the Flickr group of selling images and see how they were tagged both on Flickr and on Getty.  I took notes, shuffled things around, tried to categorize as much as possible.  Then I had my epiphany:  Keywords follow the same rules as journalism 101:  The Six W’s:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • How (Yes, I’m aware this is not a W word.)
  • Why

Keywords really need to answer all of these.  This is how I broke it down:

Who:  Include all information on the people in the photograph

  • “People” / “No People”
  • Children / Adults
  • Single Person
  • Man / Woman
  • Boy / Girl
  • Occupation: Doctor / Machinist / Artist / Engineer / Teacher / Executive / Custodian / Cowboy / etc.
  • Name (if a recognizable celebrity)

What:  Include all compositional elements.  This is a sample from some shoreline seascapes:

  • Landscape / Seascape / Nature / etc.
  • Sky (if visible)
  • Blue Sky / Cloudy / Clouds / Weather
  • Ocean / Sea / Water / Calm Water / Choppy Water
  • Beach / Coast / Coastline / Shore / Shoreline / Water’s Edge / Bay / Inlet / Sound / etc.
  • Land / Hills / Mountains / Volcanoes / Valley
  • Rock / Sand
  • Grass / Forest / Trees / Grass / Plains / etc.
  • Animals / One Animal / Animals in the Wild / Animals in Captivity / etc.
  • Lighthouse / Hotel / House / Cabin / Tent / etc.
  • Transportation: Boat / Car / Train / Bus / Airplane
  • Activities: Swimming / Hiking / Running / Relaxing / etc.
  • Colors: Blue / Green / Brown / White / Red / etc. (This is more important than I ever gave it credit for)

When: If this is an event that is tied to a particular time (e.g. tearing down the Berlin wall) mention it.  But also mention these

  • Sunrise / Sunset / Daylight
  • Dawn / Dusk
  • Morning / Evening
  • Day

Where: Give as thorough a description of the location as possible

  • Location Name
  • City / County / State / Country / etc.
  • Outdoors / Indoors

How: Technical aspects of the shoot or the image

  • Orientation: Horizontal / Vertical / Square / Panorama (2:1 or greater)
  • Point of View: Aerial / Directly Above / High Angle / Low Angle / Distant / Close / Macro
  • Methodology: KAP (in my case) though I don’t think this will necessarily drive viewers to your picture.
  • Color Image / BW Image / Black and White Image
  • Vivid / Muted
  • Photography (as opposed to some other digital medium)

Why: These are descriptive words you can use to describe a scene and convince the viewer why they should invest emotional value to it

  • Vacation / Holiday
  • Travel / Travel Destination
  • Tranquil
  • Idyllic
  • Beauty in Nature

Keep in mind that the entire reason for keywords is so that your pictures show up in more searches, and drive more viewers to look at them.  They have to be relevant.  For example, don’t tag an image with “airplane” if it’s a picture of a flower.  But they should cover as many aspects as possible that people might search for.  For example, that flower image should be tagged with “flower” as well as the common name of the flower, the latin name of the flower, the primary colors in the flower, its season, and a whole host of descriptive words: “colorful”, “vivid”, “cheerful”, etc.

So where does this leave me?  I now have a plan for how to tag all my future images and sets that I upload to Flickr.  But what to do with the 1000+ images I already have on the site?  That’s a tough call.  Retroactively going through a Flickr stream to add keyword tags is exhausting.  Practically anything you can do to speed it up runs the risk of being inaccurate (airplane = flower? no).  I do think I’ll go back through and try to tag the ones I think lend themselves to stock photography.  But that brings me back to the first point I learned: I really don’t have a good handle on what people want.  Not yet, anyway.

I’m learning…

– Tom

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Nokia N8 PUSH

Posted by Tom Benedict on 24/11/2010

Some months ago Nokia put out a call for proposals for how to use a KAP rig based around a pair of N8 phones.  At the time I’d been doing some KAP with a photographer in Kona with the goal of photographing whales in the ocean.  So I had whales at the front of my mind.  It wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with an idea that involved doing KAP of whales.  I sent the idea in, but didn’t really expect to move forward with it.

Turns out I was wrong.  My idea was selected, and not long ago I was contacted by the N8 PUSH team to let me know.

??!  !!!  COOL!

There were some questions to answer and some details to be worked out, but everything came out ok and in the end I was given the timeline and was told to expect a package in the mail.  There’s no curbside delivery where I live, so I’ve been swinging by the post office to check out my PO box ever since.  Nothing yet, but it’s getting clooose!

The package should contain two Nokia N8 cameras, each sporting a 12MP camera with a fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lens, along with a KAP rig designed specifically for the N8, and a kite.  The two phones come loaded with the N8 KAP application, which allows the KAP rig to be controlled from the phone on the ground, and for the aerial phone to stream its video signal to the ground phone.  All in all a seriously cool setup!  I was a little skeptical of the camera at first, but hearing the Zeiss name and seeing a video clip of the camera focusing (yes, it actually focuses) went a long way toward laying those concerns to rest.  What finally did my concerns in was seeing a set of KAP images made by Ricardo Ferreira with the N8 phone.  The image quality was better than most point and shoot cameras, and worlds better than any phone camera I’d ever seen.  (For anyone who’s not familiar with KAP and with the KAP-Nokia connection in particular, Ricardo is an excellent KAPer, and developed the first Nokia KAP rig, based around the N900 phones.)

Operationally, this will be a significant change from the way I’m used to working in the field.  I don’t have a video downlink on my current rig.  The N8 rig does.  I can do movies with my current rig, but I tend not to.  In any case 640×480 is as good as I can get with my current camera.  The N8 does 720p HD video. Right now I don’t have any way to get GPS information for where my camera is in space.  Yeah, I can add a GPS photo tracker to my rig, and probably will in the not so distant future.  But the N8 phone has GPS built in, of course.  I just hope the EXIF headers on the files include the GPS information.  Even the rig itself is different.  I’m used to plugging in cables, screwing down cameras, attaching safety lanyards, and the like.  To use the N8 rig, you snap the phone into the rig and you’re done.  From what I’ve gathered, the aerial phone controls the rig via a Bluetooth connection.  No wires, no screws, no nothing.  And no legs!  The rig has no legs.  But the way it’s shaped, it really doesn’t need them.

So in addition to the PUSH project itself, I’m interested in seeing how the N8 rig behaves in the field.  I’m planning to give it a thorough shake-down and post a review here and on the KAP forums.  Luckily, there’s still some time before the whales come through the Hawaiian Islands.  So I’ve been picking out some likely flying spots where I can put it through its paces and see what it’s got under the hood.  High on the list are Kiholo Bay and Puako.  I’d love to give it a try at the summit of Mauna Kea, but cell phone signals really do mess with the radio telescopes up there.  So it’s a no-no.  Waipio Valley and Pololu Valley are also high on the list since they offer some of the more challenging wind conditions for doing KAP on the Big Island.  (Besides, on the drive back from Pololu there’s a fantastic deli in Hawi called Lighthouse Delicatessen.  Can’t beat a KAP session that ends with a great lunch!)

By the end of the land-based sessions, I should have a better feel for how the rig handles, I’ll have some seat time with it on a couple of different kites, and I’ll be ready to trust myself to launch it off the back of a boat.

Now all we need is whales!

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Photography | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »