A hole in future history

Blognosticator Head

I took over 400 CDs and DVDs to the shredding company this week.

This was a collection of old System disks, software that won’t run anymore, and 828,000 photos in an archive that I once thought to be impregnable. Optical discs were the safest, most reasonable, non-volatile, non-moving storage medium in the history of civilization. What could possibly go wrong?

(I wrote about this in an earlier blog where I described the NAS server that I built, and the process of moving all of the data on my optical discs to that storage device.)

What went wrong was light. Regular white light, and some ultraviolet light that crept in, and perhaps a little bit of infrared light.

My discs were stored in clear plastic boxes on shelves in my office. I have a database of their contents, so I can find almost anything in a matter of minutes. Each disc was given a name, which was then recorded into the database, and all the contents cataloged. This worked great.

Until one day when I couldn’t read one of the discs. Its writable surface was damaged by exposure to light. It was optically erased. There might have been some data left on the disc, but the important part – the index – was erased, and short of giving the disc to the NSA, there was no way to get the information off of the disc. I was distraught.

In the end I found back-ups of most of the files on that disc, and I managed to stumble along with those files. But the finished documents were forever lost to light exposure.

In a moderate panic, I rushed to convert all of that precious data to an archive on a set of spinning hard drives, where the data exist to this day. It’s a RAID 5 array, so it’s reasonably safe. But there is only one copy of that array, and without it, I would be in big trouble. In the end I lost about five percent of my stored files to light exposure. Those irredeemable discs went into the shredder this week along with those I could read. I no longer need to store these slowly decaying plastic discs.

My NAS has worked wonderfully now for several years. Mostly I ignore it, and I use it to make archival copies of important files. It’s not a back-up, it’s an archive.

The issue at hand is whether anything can be stored forever using any technology currently available to humankind. All hard drives fail, or they become technically obsolete and need to be replaced. A friend once told me that there are two kinds of hard drives: those that have failed, and those that will fail. What can we do?

I have thought about building a “disk” array of SSD drives. Samsung makes 4TB SSD drives that are stunningly fast, and they have the physical size and the same connectors as hard drives have. They have no moving parts, they work much faster than hard drives. They are also expensive; to put four of them into a RAID array would cost about $6,000 for the drives alone.

samsung-4tb-sssd-2

This small package packs a punch! Four terabytes of storage with no moving parts. I would love to get four of these and build an array, but I can’t afford that. I’ll have to stick with moving drives for the short term. Image from Amazon.com.

The problem with SSD drives, as I learned earlier this year, is that when they fail, they fail absolutely. There is no way to retrieve any data from an SSD drive that has failed. They hit bottom and they stop. End of story.

I have a MacBook Air lap-top computer. It came with 256 GB of SSD storage. I outran that storage after about two years, and had the local MacSuperstore install a 400+ GB SSD drive inside as a replacement. The SSD upgrade was manufactured by OWC, a supplier of such things (I have their 1TB SSD upgrade in my Mac Pro). That upgrade lasted over a year, but then it failed. Fortunately, OWC’s warranty covered the cost of replacement, and I was back to work shortly after the problem showed up. The problem was that its contents were lost.

Fortunately I had no data on that MacBook Air, only System and application software. So replacing the SSD was not a crisis. I lost nothing that I couldn’t replace. My personal policy is that I only use that computer for teaching and working while traveling. No documents are ever stored on the machine. Instead, I put them on a portable SSD drive (which is equally vulnerable to failure but more portable).

I sync the external SSD drive almost every day with my desktop computer, so even if it fails, everything on that drive is a copy of something stored elsewhere.

In some future era, historians will probably wonder what happened to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There will be printed books and printed photographs, but there will be no record of much of anything that occurred in the first 50 years of the computer age.

I saw an ad the other day for a 1TB SSD card for cameras. That’s an excellent example of the extraordinary capabilities of SSD storage, and it is roughly the same technology that is packed into those Samsung SSD drives I want. It seems reasonable that storage companies like Western Digital will, quite soon, move away from spinning hard drives and convert all of us over to solid-state drives.

And as they do that, the technology will improve in integrity and safety, and we will eventually have some sort of storage device that will be indestructible, like CDs and DVDs once were.

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Phinal phase of the Bishop Peak Portrait Project

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My summer is coming to an end, and I am engaged in the phinal phase of the Bishop Peak Portrait Project (BPPP), the making of the final display panels.

On my previous large-scale photography projects, I have had the luxury to turning over the printing to a commercial provides, and the putting-up part to my friends Rob and Doug Brewster, who are geniuses at attaching my photos to the walls of the buildings at Cal Poly where they are on permanent display.

This time I am doing more of the work myself. I took responsibility for machining the large aluminum panels that will be mounted on the wall for the BPPP. I have now completed the cutting of the sheets, and I think that I would have jobbed it out to a more competent provider had I known then what I know now. But that is not possible, as the work is nearly done, and I have spent almost 50 hours standing by my CNC router over the past month preparing the shallow mortises that will hold the individual aluminum photos of each day of the BPPP.

Print

This is an illustration of how I am machining the mortises. I start by cutting the outermost, final mortise using a 0.25 inch diameter end mill. I cut this mortise slightly deep to reduce burrs along the edges of the cut. Then I follow with the inner mortise, cut with a faster and larger 0.5 inch end mill. I finish by countersinking and drilling the holes which will eventually support the panels in the Baker building at Cal Poly.

I am cutting a material called Alupanel, which is made in China for a British company. Alupanel is gorgeous material. It’s a laminate made of two sheets of aluminum (each about 0.012 in. thick) with a thick layer of polyethylene plastic in the middle. The surfaces of the aluminum are available in various colors, painted, or in brushed aluminum. I purchased the gloss black material in the 0.25 inch thickness for this project. It’s strong enough to be used effectively for my project, and it allows for machining, leaving a considerable amount of the plastic layer behind to hold the flat-head screws that hold the panels to the mounting material.

Print

This is the machining pattern for the month of March. There are two months on each panel. You can see the little dots representing the countersinks and holes for the support screws in each mortise. There are extra screw holes in the extreme corners of the month.

I recognize that this is normally a blog about graphic arts and photography, and that it has taken a few sharp turns this year for me to discuss electronic circuit board making, the construction of a weatherproof box for time-lapse photography, and the programming of a Raspberry Pi computer. But in the big picture, this is about a large-scale photography project, one with tentacles that start with photographing a mountain to assembling and mounting the final photos – 365 of them – in a public display. So it’s about photography.

And, CNC routing.

Alupanel, for all of its beauty, is cantankerous stuff. The three layers of the material each have their own dynamic stresses. When solid, prior to machining, Alupanel behaves like a solid aluminum panel. Once I cut a mortise (about one-third) into the Alupanel board, removing the aluminum and some of the polyethylene plastic from one side, the internal pressure of the aluminum on the other side exerts itself, and the board warps. And by saying that it warps, I mean is turns into a large aluminum skateboard ramp. The internal pressure is so great that it pulls the screws out of the spoil board I use on the CNC machine – which means that it pulls with 30 to 40 lbs. of upward pressure.

To say that this has been a problem is an understatement. If it were in a cartoon, the finished Alupanel material would have a caption bubble saying “SPROINGG!!” as it pops up from the machining table.

sproingg

Here you can see the Alupanel sheet shouting “Sproingg!!” as it warps after machining. This isn’t funny at all because the warping is very hard to control, and it can damage the laminate in the delicate strips between each of the mortises, causing it to separate.

I had (perhaps presciently) designed countersunk screw holes inside each of the 365 photo mortises to allow for the panels to be mounted on the wall later. I had no idea that these would become so important when I finished these panels. I originally thought that we would need just a few of the screw holes to attach the panels to the wall, but now I am using all of them (about 70 screws per panel) to hold the panels flat while I prepare them for the final installation. They will probably end up being used in the final installation, which is fine; I’m glad they are available because they have become so necessary.

Another issue that I have learned to manage is the issue of aluminum burrs. The cutters I use are carbide aluminum-cutting end mills. They are designed to do this. But they get clogged by aluminum chips and they get dulled by cutting. By panel six I had it all figured out. I use a new, sharp cutter at the beginning of each panel, and I leave the protective plastic sheeting in place during the cutting. This eliminates all but the rarest burrs from being left behind along the finished edges of the mortises. Those I have to remove by scraping the mortises out with a small and very sharp chisel. It’s time-consuming, but it’s necessary.

I also learned that applying a small amount of beeswax to the cutter prior to each row of mortises makes the cutting smoother, leaving fewer burrs for me to remove. Oh, I wish I had known these things when I started!

And that is the final step that I am taking now to finish the panels for installation. I go from mortise to mortise, cleaning and inspecting each one, and I have a test photo to insert into each mortise to ensure that the photos will fit when I install them later in the project. I will turn the aluminum panels over to Cal Poly in the coming days and they will be erected in the hallway of the Baker Center. Once up, I will go over with a box of aluminum photos and some very strong industrial adhesive to install the photos into the mortise. This is an on-going process which will take me from installation to completion at the end of February, 2017 when the project is complete.

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Thanks to my readers, all 200,000 of you!

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Five years ago I launched The Blognosticator on this site after it spent some time at What They Think, and several years on Graphic Arts Monthly magazine’s site. Today my readership passed 200,000.

I have posted 220 blog articles on this site, and have approved 409 comments that have been posted to the Blognosticator.

I have also received over 1,500,000 spam comments (probably more), almost all of which have been trapped by Akismet, a plug-in to WordPress that I subscribe to (thank you, Akismet!).

I have weathered some periods of Writer’s Blog, where I can’t think of anything to write, and I have had periods of tremendous output where I write a blog every day for several days in a row. Such is the nature of this form of journalism.

The most important part of this blog is you. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments. Please don’t send spam; I’m a vegetarian.

p.s. The type at the top is Ashala Light, a font I designed for my dear wife, Ashala.

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The Bishop Peak Portrait Project ecosystem

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Over the past eight months I have been documenting my year-long “portrait” project of Bishop Peak, the 1,559 foot mountain in San Luis Obispo. That project, which began in December, 2015, is well on its way, and will soon be made public in the Baker Center on the campus of Cal Poly. In a nutshell, the project entails taking photos of the mountain every day, then picking the best photo of each day and having that photo printed on aluminum material.

The printed photos are then machined to precise size, and will (soon!) be installed in a permanent display at Cal Poly. That requires six large sheets of aluminum to be machined with mortises for the photos. Once these panels are mounted, I will begin to populate the panels with the individual photos. I started the camera on March 1, and will take it down at the end of February, 2017 after I have completed the project. I take one photo every five minutes with a Canon T5 camera in a weatherproof box on the roof of Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library. I take 192 photos every day, and have accumulated over 30,000 photos in the project so far.

August 23, 2016

This is one of the photos of Bishop Peak, taken – obviously – on August 23rd. The sky is tinted by the presence of smoke from huge wildfires that are raging in our county and in the two adjacent counties. This is the file that I have printed to aluminum material, complete with the register marks, the black border and type at the bottom. Those things are added semi-automatically by my AppleScript which commands Adobe Photoshop to put the lines and type in position.

I never know which photo will be best until I look at the day’s collection, and compare it to the previous (and sometimes the next) day’s photo. I choose the images by which one is more colorful, or more simple, or – as is the case recently here – the one that has the most red sky caused by the huge wildfires that are raging in our county and the two adjacent counties of California. August will feature a whole week of yellow-red skies as a reflection of this unfortunate situation.

Many of the photos are very plain: blue sky with clear, sharp mountain. Those are emblematic of a “normal” day on which there was no weather that created an extraordinary photo. I have some with rain falling (early March), and I have several where the mountain is engulfed in fog – a very common occurrence during our summer months. I like the variety of these photos.

July 8, 2016

…and this is an example of one of the photos from a normal sunny day, July 8. It features a blue sky and clear, sharp detail in the mountain.

In June I had the first batch of aluminum prints made. These are done by a lab in Santa Barbara, California, using a dye-sublimation process. I send, using DropBox, a batch of photos to them to be printed. They print the batch, and ship them to me for machining and completion.

And, here is where the ecosystem got more complex. In December I built the box for the camera. I spent January and early February designing and building the first circuit board to run the camera. That, combined with a battery and two solar panels, were tested with the Canon camera for a few weeks to be sure that it would work in a stand-alone situation (I am not allowed to connect or attach to anything at Cal Poly; the camera must be autonomous).

On the first of March I started the camera on the roof of the building, accompanied by an escort from Cal Poly’s Facilities department (for safety reasons). Initially everything went well, but as you can read in my previous blogs, I had a few problems with the computer technology. By the end of March, things were going well. The camera was operating effectively, and the photos were coming out fine.

On the image processing end of the system, I had to develop a method for cropping and preparing the files for print. To do this, I wrote an AppleScript that controls Adobe Photoshop to crop, label, and draw register marks on the photos. I had small batches of the photos printed at three labs, and chose the Santa Barbara lab because I have a working relationship with them, and they did a nice job on the test prints. But all the labs were unable to cut the photos to a precise size, and that forced me to create an arm of my ecosystem for machining the photos to precise dimensions.

Machining the photos to size
As you may have read in previous blogs, I own a CNC router, a machine that cuts wood (and other materials) by computer control. It’s a spectacular device, and I used it to cut the parts for the camera box, the camera box mount, and even to cut the circuit board traces for the circuit boards that I developed for this project.

Vacuum Table

This is my small vacuum table with a raw aluminum print on top. The vacuum hose is inserted into the hole at the bottom to provide the suction to hold the plate in place. Then the CNC router cuts the photo to its precise size.

To cut the individual photos to precise dimensions, I built a vacuum table for the CNC machine. This table is small, only 10 inches square. I power it with a standard shop vacuum. When activated, it can hold a small sheet of aluminum in place for routing with amazing force (the atmosphere is my friend here). To cut the photos, I designed a pattern of register marks that are drawn by my AppleScript on each day’s photo. They are imaged in blue, and have a four-pixel white hole at the axis. This allows me to aim my CNC cutter precisely on the marks using the laser beam attached to the machine. When the red laser hits the blue lines of the register mark it almost disappears, but when it hits the white square at the center of the register mark, it is brilliant red, and I know that I am on-target.

Using an aluminum-cutting bit on the router, and a program that cuts the photos to the exact size I need for the installation, I cut each day’s photo, then wrap it and pack it to prevent scratching. Each photo takes about four minutes to align and cut (and I have only 365 photos to cut!).

Using a vacuum to hold small parts in place is more difficult than it would be with a larger sheet of material. This is simply a function of area. Since my rough photos are only six inches square, it takes a lot of vacuum pressure to hold them down against the several horsepower of the CNC machine’s motors pushing the cutter through the material. As a result, I cut these photos with four light passes of the cutter to ensure that they are each cut with the precision that this project demands, and they don’t go askew on the table.

A curious problem: thermal variation
One day back in May I noticed that the mountain appeared to be in a different position from one month to the next. I looked carefully at the images, comparing the mountain’s position in pixels measured from the top margin. I discovered that there was a considerable difference between images. To study this further, I converted an entire month into a time-lapse movie and watched it as a movie on my computer screen. The image of the mountain seemed move very slightly up and down from day to day. This, I determined was caused by the camera and its containment box getting warm, and cooling off during the day.

As a result of this, I modified my AppleScript to ask for the horizontal and vertical pixel position of a specific point on the mountain (I call it “the hook”). The values entered define the position of the cropping so that all of the mountain images come out in exactly the same position. This adds a small amount of time to my processing step because I have to measure “the hook” for each image (or for a batch of images) and make note of those pixel measurements to enter into a dialog presented by the AppleScript when that program is run.

The finished display: a 20-foot wide calendar
The finished photos will eventually be put into mortises on aluminum sheets in Cal Poly’s Baker Center. To make those panels I purchased sheets of a material called Alupanel. It’s 0.25 in. thick, and features two outer laminates of aluminum with a sandwich of polyethylene plastic in the center. It cuts easily, and machines nicely to make an attractive finished panel. But it takes a lot of time and patience to cut these panels, and the material is very expensive, so I am proceeding with extreme caution so I don’t wreck any of the raw panels. I have been doing that this week.

Calendar layout

This is a miniature of my accurate digital mock-up of the final display. It will be just short of 20 feet wide, and about five feet tall. It starts with March, 2016 on the upper-left, and ends with February, 2017 on the lower-right. I have inserted the actual photos into this mock-up. Notice the predominance of red-orange images in August, on the upper-right – the atmospheric effect of smoke in the sky.

Cutting wood on the CNC machine is relatively easy. Cutting aluminum is a different thing altogether. Cutting polyethylene adds another dimension to the process. Cutting the Alupanel material has allowed me to learn some valuable lessons about taking on a project like this. I work with care, taking small steps and making close observations as I go. If something goes wrong, it is a very expensive mistake – the raw material is about $150 per sheet.

CNC Router 18

The is the CNC router cutting the mortises for March and September, 2016. The mortises are just a few hundredths of an inch deep, only enough to accommodate the individual aluminum photo plates that will be inserted after these panels are mounted.

My cutting tools are designed for aluminum, but they tend to melt the polyethylene plastic between the two aluminum surfaces. Getting the right combination of speed of rotation and feed rate proves to be an interesting process, and I am getting close to mastering that.

One these panels are cut, I will have Cal Poly’s Facilities Department mount them on the wall in the Baker Center, then I will begin the process of populating the panels with the individual photos. That will be done with an industrial adhesive, each photo inserted into its mortise. I’m about half-way into the photography part of the project now, and I hope to have the work on the wall very soon, which probably means during the month of September.

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Visiting Palomar’s 200-inch telescope

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After visiting Mt. Wilson’s two observatories in September, 2014, I began a reading marathon to learn as much as I could about the big telescopes that were used to usher-in the era of astrophysics. It was at the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson that Edwin Hubble discovered that 1, we’re not at the center of our galaxy, and 2, our galaxy is just one of many in the universe. Hubble discovered over 40 galaxies in his lifetime (1889-1953); today, scientists have identified millions more.

Palomar main entrance 03

The main entrance to the Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. A beautiful Art Deco structure, it was begun with funding in 1928, and first used by Edwin Hubble on January 26, 1949.

After I read a book about the Mount Wilson (above Pasadena, California) and Mount Hamilton (near San Jose, California) telescopes, I read a terrific book called The Perfect Machine about the making of the telescope on Mt. Palomar (San Diego County, California). I decided to put that telescope on my must-see list, and last weekend my wife and I visited the huge instrument.

The big California telescopes were each, in turn, the largest in the world. They followed another telescope, the Yerkes in Wisconsin, which was also the largest in the world in its day. All of these instruments were built with money raised by a single man – George Ellery Hale. He did this by getting philanthropists and large trusts to invest in his dream to make the huge telescope so that scientists could look further, and with more detail, into the night sky. Hale, who lived from 1868 to 1938, was himself a scientist and astronomer. He was one of the founders of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. By no coincidence, the Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain telescopes are owned and operated by Caltech to this day.

George Ellery Hale bust 01

In the foyer of the building is a bronze statue of George Ellery Hale, the man responsible for the Yerkes, Mount Wilson 60-inch, Hooker 100-inch, and Palomar 200-inch telescopes. An astrophysicist, Hale was the man who made these instruments possible by raising the funds needed to build them. He was also co-founder of Caltech.

The story of the making of the mirror in the Palomar telescope takes up the lion’s share of the book The Perfect Machine. That feat was probably the most significant scientific/engineering achievement of the first half of the 20th century. Described by the author of that book, the precision of the grinding of the 200-inch mirror for the Palomar scope is so nearly-perfect that it would be similar to machining a glass surface as wide as the United States with less than three inches of flatness error in that entire expanse. But the mirror is not flat – it’s a parabolic shape that forms the primary reflector at the base of the famous instrument.

Palomar Observatory 059

This fisheye photograph was taken while we were on the guided tour of the Palomar facility. The telescope stands vertically in the center, behind the huge horseshoe structure that supports it.

The telescope is called a Schmidt design, named for another Caltech scientist Maarten Schmidt, and is based on an earlier design by 17th century French scientist, Laurent Cassegrain. The 200-inch telescope uses the mirror to focus light from the night sky onto a series of lenses, or additional mirrors in various locations inside, or outside the telescope. If observed at the top of the telescope (which was originally the way it was operated), the telescope is the equivalent of an f3.3 lens with a focal length of 660 inches or 16,764 mm. The scientists who operate the telescope prefer instead to insert a hyperbolic mirror at the top and reflect the light back down the center of the telescope to the base, increasing the focal length to 3200 inches or 81,280mm. At that focal length the aperture equivalent drops to f16. There is one additional option that can be used that reflects the light a third time to the side, resulting in a focal length of 6,000 inches or 152,400mm at the equivalent of f30. This third option, we were told, is not used.

Mirror at base of telescope 02

The 200-inch mirror is encased in the base of the telescope (identified here with a red rectangle). The mirror is removed from the telescope every two years to be cleaned and resurfaced. That is done in a vacuum chamber located in the same room.

Until recently, the 200-inch telescope used either glass photographic plates or film to make images of the night sky. As technology has allowed, the telescope has been converted to capture images with electronic sensors like those in digital cameras. Scientists, including Edwin Hubble, used to stand or sit up at the top of the telescope for hours at a time – sometimes several nights in a row – to capture a star cluster or a nebula. The nights were frightfully cold, and the job required attention to the detail of aiming the telescope continuously by following a guide star, or watching the subject through a spotting telescope while the film was exposed. One could not fall asleep during an exposure like this because it would ruin the image.

Palomar Observatory 182

This is the north end of the telescope yoke (the U-shaped ring in the foreground) with the telescope instrument standing vertically in the middle, pointed at the peak of the dome above. The Hale Telescope is the only one of the four built by Hale that can point to Polaris, near the horizon, by dropping to the bottom of the horseshoe yoke.

Size really matters in telescopes. In the late 1920s, when George Ellery Hale envisioned Palomar, the 100-inch Hooker instrument on Mount Wilson was the world’s largest. The astronomers working there, including Hubble, and occasional visitors like Albert Einstein, were very pleased with the performance of the scope. But, they wanted to look farther into the universe, and they yearned for a larger telescope. Hale went back to the donor organizations that had funded the existing telescopes and asked for funding again, successfully raising US$6,000,000 for the Palomar project. They also needed to get away from the light pollution of Los Angeles, whose population and industry were growing at an astonishing pace. The Mount Palomar location was selected from a number of candidates due to its remoteness and freedom from the light of then-distant cities. Today it fights with light pollution from Riverside, San Diego, and the colossal Los Angeles “metro area.” (I hate those terms!)

Today, the Palomar telescope is the 19th largest reflector in the world, and the 13th largest single-piece reflector telescope on Earth. The largest, Gran Telescopio Canarias (in the Canary Islands), is 409 inches in diameter, but it is not a single mirror, it is an array of smaller mirrors that make-up the primary optic on that telescope. I had the privilege of seeing one of the segments of Hale 2 (Mauna Kea, Hawai’i) being machined on an ion milling machine in Rochester back in the 1990s. Those lens segments, measuring one meter (39.37 inches), each were cast, then water-jet cut, and finished at various Kodak labs, then assembled into an array 394 inches (10 meters) in diameter on the peak of Mauna Kea. Segmented mirrors are considered superior because 1, they can be made, and 2, they can be dynamically adjusted by computer controls to compensate for atmospheric aberrations, making the “seeing” of the telescope significantly better.

Ashala photographs the dome 04

My wife photographs the dome of the Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. It is both beautiful and functional; astronomers and scientists use the telescope about 300 nights each year.

Palomar has a similar dynamic-viewing device which is often placed in the sensor cage at the Cassegrain focus of the telescope (at the bottom). That device adjusts for aberrations using optics within a camera/optic system rather than modifying the shape of the mirror.

My must-see list is now one item shorter than it was, and I am now a proud visitor to the Hale Telescope, one of the great scientific instruments of the 20th century. Caltech opens the observatory to the public daily (weather permitting) and has two tours each weekend day where visitors can walk inside the dome and visit the instrument a bit closer than through the gallery windows. For the scientists who use the telescope – it is used about 300 nights each year – it’s an unparalleled experience because 1, they don’t have to go up to the top and freeze for hours at a time (the instrument is now operated from an air-conditioned control room) and 2, they now use electronic sensors (CCDs and CMOS sensors) to make their exposures. I was told that a typical exposure now is 15 minutes or less. That’s a lot fewer minutes than the 30-hour exposures that Edwin Hubble endured in his time on the scope.

The Hale observatory’s list of accomplishments reads like a Who’s Who of stars, nebulae and gas giants (among other astrological phenomena). I recommend 1, read the book, and 2, visit the observatory if you can.

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Why shoot one photo when nine will be better?

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I started shooting panoramic photos way back in the 1970s. I used a rented film camera called a Hulcherama. That was quite an impressive camera. It shot on 220 film, which rolled through the camera as the camera turned. It had a fixed 38mm lens, making it very wide for that format. The results were gorgeous.

Mahler orchestra single shot

This is a single-shot photo taken with the Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Canon 16-35mm lens at 35mm focal length. It’s a practical photo for printed materials, but it suffers from noise and limited resolution, both of which are visible when you enlarge the image.

This is a panoramic photo of the orchestra performing Mahler at the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus.

This is approximately the same image, shot on the same camera with a lens set at 105mm focal length, and nine images to make a stitched panoramic image (see below).

When Apple first developed the QuickTime VR software, which in its first version had no user interface at all (it was driven by a command-line), they hired me to take the new software on a tour of India to introduce it to that market. It was fun, but it was difficult because I was shooting with a Nikon film camera. I shot 35mm Kodak Gold negative film. Once exposed, I had to get it processed, and once processed, I had to get it scanned so I could use it on the Macintosh. I was able to do this with the help of Apple’s local representatives in the cities I visited.

Stretched example

These are the nine exposures I made of the Festival Mozaic orchestra performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. I stitched these together using PTGUI Pro software to make a successful panoramic image.

At the time, the scans I was able to get from 35mm film were, at best, 18 MB each. This resulted in finished panoramas that were 50 to 75 MB in size. Not bad. But not that good either. It was just the best we could do at the time.

I used Apple’s software for several years until they discontinued it. Then I switched to PanoTools, by Helmut Dersch in Germany. I was, once again, without a user interface.

Several companies took his PanoTools software core and put it into commercial software products for making panoramic photos. Some were OK, none were great. I forged ahead.

My cameras and my techniques changed from film to digital fairly early. I got a Nikon D1 digital camera (7.6 Mp), then a D1x digital camera. To say that digital cameras changed my life is an exaggeration. They did, but it was a slow conversion. I needed to learn how digital worked, and the software needed to grow up at the same time. I remember when I was doing a photo assignment for Boys’ Life Magazine. They required me to submit my photos in camera Raw, which I had never done. Back then, Adobe charged an additional $99 for the Camera Raw filter software. I spent the money, then spent a few harried days trying to figure out what it meant. Why did I need to use Camera Raw? What were the benefits.

Once I figured that out, I learned that Camera Raw is a gift to the photographic community. I will never shoot in JPEG again (except on my iPhone where I have no choice). I started to use Raw (most people put it in ALL CAPS, but it’s just a word, not an acronym) for all of my photography, and I have never regretted that decision. To this day I shoot in Raw, and I have learned how to exploit the strengths of the work flow. This has also improved my panoramas by allowing me to expand the tonality of raw images before I process them into panos.

Screen shot of single-shot photo

This is an enlargement of a section of the single photo I took with my Canon 5D Mark III camera and a 35mm lens. The enlargement is approximately 3X normal.

Screen shot of pano section

…and this is an enlargement of a similar section of my nine-shot panoramic image. Both have the same ISO of 10000. The benefits of the larger image are overall detail and freedom from noise (though they actually have the same amount of noise-per-image).

Years ago I was told by a friend that he enjoyed using a new program called PTGUI. It has a weird name, but it works well, he assured me (It stands for Panorama Tools [with a] Graphical User Interface). I think the first version used the Helmut Dersch software as its core for processing images into panoramas. I bought a copy for about US$100, and started using it. I like it a lot, and I have stuck with it over the years. The latest version, 10.0.13 is spectacular, having been upgraded over the years to work better and faster – and I don’t know if the original PanoTools core is still in there. Today’s PTGUI Pro uses the GPU on your computer if it finds one, and that makes an incredible experience for the old pano-maker in me. When stitching a panorama this past week, PTGUI processed the final image in about 35 seconds. This is hundreds of times faster than it once was, and for that I am grateful.

When shooting panos I use a home-made pano mount that I put on top of a tripod. I am careful to position it correctly and to shoot as accurately as I can to get my images overlapped adequately and accurately. This makes PTGUI’s work easier, and makes stitching a panorama much more efficient. But, even if I don’t use a tripod, and just hand-hold a multi-frame panorama, PTGUI will stitch it effectively. The program has gotten so good that it almost doesn’t matter what you put in fron of it. It will find related images and stitch them into a whole.

Pano Four 004 composite

This shows three images superimposed on top of each others to demonstrate the degree of overlap that I apply when I am shooting such a panoramic image. The left image is outlined in yellow, the right-most image is outlined in blue. Notice that the two overlaps cross each other. PTGUI Pro software considers only the two images that it is processing at one time, so the overlap of the previous two images is not of concern.

Last Saturday afternoon I was photographing the Festival Mozaic Orchestra performing Mahler at the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly Campus. I thought: Why not make a panorama or two while I am here?

I have done this before with success, and it’s reasonably easy. The difficult part is getting all of the members of the orchestra in the photo without errors between frames. Even when errors occur, though, it’s easy enough to fix them in Photoshop using one of the original images and cutting and pasting a head (and instrument) back in on top of the error.

I use a tripod with the camera mounted vertically. I was shooting with a Canon 100-400 lens zoomed to 105mm. When I shoot these ad hoc panoramas I don’t have a mount that indexes for me. I simply pick something in the image, about one-third in from the right of the current frame, then mover horizontally to the right until that thing is one-third in from the left. This is far more overlap than is normal. PTGUI works best when it has at least 20 percent overlap between images. These were more like 60 percent, and that does no harm.

With PTGUI’s extraordinary speed, the stitching process takes only seconds, and the results are exceptional. This image took less than 15 seconds to process. (I remember demonstrating the original QuickTime VR software taking up to 20 minutes to do this back in 1996.)

The result is an excellent image, one with roughly three times the resolution of a single frame, and one with the benefit of a telephoto lens to enhance the images of the players in the orchestra.

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Photographing the elusive cellist… and being quiet about it!

Blognosticator Head

I’m the staff photographer for the Festival Mozaic, San Luis Obispo’s wonderful summer music festival. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and I have learned a lot about photographing musicians who often play notes much softer than the sound of the shutter of a Canon 5D Mark III (even in its “quiet” mode).

I shoot in a number of locations and under a variety of lighting circumstances from oddly misdirected overhead lights to full theatrical lighting on professional stages. It is fun and often challenging.

The most difficult of my shooting circumstances is where I am in the same room as the performers, as is often the case when I am shooting in a church or synagogue. I slip quietly back and forth at the back of the room, carrying my tripod and camera, and doing my best not to be noticed. I choose cameras that are quiet when I need them (though they are harder to use than my normal cameras) and I wait until the forte parts to snap a few photos – even with the quieter cameras.

Cameras

This is most of my camera gear for Festival Mozaic. I carry this stuff to each location where I am shooting photos of musicians.

My gear includes two Canon 5D Mark III bodies, one Canon 1dx Mark III, two Canon EOS M cameras, and one Canon T2i. Lenses range from my 8mm Canon to a rented 400mm f2.8, the Stradivarius of telephoto lenses. I use Super Clamps, Pocket Wizard triggers and some ingenuity to position cameras in remote locations. I place these before each concert in places where I might get a good angle or where I cannot stand during a performance.

On Saturday evening I used a Camranger for the first time. It was plugged into the 1dx. I set it up to be controlled by my iPhone, and I set it to record 4K video. I chose video so that the camera would not make any noise that would bother the players or the audience. The iPhone controller on the 1dx was spectacular. I could see the camera image, and I could set focus and exposure from the comfort of my seat just outside the chapel where the performance was being held.

Festival Mozaic 7-17-16 114

Here, violinist Melody Chang performs Korngold’s Sextet, opus 10, at Temple Beth David in San Luis Obispo. The lighting is not very flattering (direct overhead track lights), but the photo is sharp and it is a delightful image, usable in a future program or on the organization’s web site. This image was made with the Canon EOS M mirrorless camera and my 28-300 Canon zoom lens.

Yesterday I shot with the EOS M camera, also using its video function. While not 4K, the video is surprisingly good from this camera (as long as you use manual focus!). After the concert I selected individual frames from numerous video takes, and exported those as still photos. At about 5 MB each, the stills will work for social media with a little retouching and adjustment. I use the Camera Raw filter to make these changes.

Madeleine Kabat, cello 16

Cellist Madeleine Kabat plays cello in Mozart’s Viola Quintet, K 614. This was photographed with the Canon 400mm f2.8 lens at Cuesta College’s Performing Arts Center. I’m amused by this composition since it lets you know that there were at least two other performers on stage.

My favorite location is the Performing Arts Center at Cuesta College, the local community college. Here I can shoot, and make a little more noise than usual without bothering anyone. I am separated from the audience and the performers by a large glass wall in the lighting booth. From that vantage point I can use the big 400mm lens and make intimate portraits of the performers. The lighting is usually fantastic – sometimes too much. But with all that light, I can often shoot with faster shutter speeds to avoid the blur of hands moving bows across the strings. Sharpness is reasonably easy to capture in these circumstances.

Sylvia Milo 005

Here, Sylvia Milo performs her one-woman show The Other Mozart (about Wolfgang’s sister Maria Anna Mozart). This image was made with the 400mm Canon lens from over 50 feet in the lighting booth. It is so sharp I can count her eyelash hairs in the photo.

Sometimes I put a 2X teleconverter on that big lens, allowing me to pick a head-and-shoulders image of one of the performers. It allows me to capture exquisite detail in faces, sharp strings, and overall good images. My two 5D camera bodies allow me to shoot with relatively high ISO settings. The problems of image noise that were once a curse to my concert photography are now gone. I routinely shoot at ISO 6,400, sometimes even 10,000. The resulting photos are perfectly acceptable and they can easily be used for print with no apologies.

Sylvia Milo 021

Another image of Ms. Milo in her The Other Mozart performance. This was taken with a Canon T2i camera mounted in the catwalk above the stage. Since the T2i is an older camera with an earlier Digic chip (Canon’s proprietary digital-to-analog converter), it suffers from considerable image noise. I was shooting at ISO 6400, and Adobe Camera Raw saved the image with its digital noise reduction control. The camera was triggered by a Pocket Wizard radio trigger.

Sometimes a clever lighting designer will throw red light on the stage, which throws my cameras into a tizzy. Autofocus doesn’t work very well (or at all), and skin tones are very hard to manage in post-processing. All I can do in these circumstances is hope that the lights move back to normal soon – they usually do.

The auto-focus of the 400mm lens is so stunningly fast, and so good at acquiring the subject, that I use auto focus on every photo, with tiny adjustments of focus by hand when needed.

Eric Stephenson on cello 068

Cellist Eric Stephenson of the PROJECT trio, performs on his carbon-fiber cello in an outdoor setting in See Canyon, near Avila Beach. The lighting was diffused by an overhead umbrella (thank goodness!). Another portrait made possible by the extraordinary Canon 400mm f2.8 lens, it is razor-sharp and can easily be used in print or electronic media.

The other lens that is invaluable is the 100-400 Canon telephoto. Though not as fast at the 400, it’s a pleasantly sharp lens with good auto-focus. The zoom on that lens allows me to pick up pairs of players, or even an entire quartet without difficulty.

I use the wide zoom (16-35mm) for ambience and people photos in the lobby before the concert and during intermission. These provide good material for the organization to use on their web site and social media.

Chapel Hill mezzotint

This photo was taken at Serra Chapel in Shandon, near Paso Robles. It is essentially a map of the digital noise in an image from my Canon 5D Mark III with my 16-35mm wide zoom lens. The photo was taken well after sunset, and enhanced extensively in Adobe Photoshop. Ultimately I decided that I like the noise in the photo, so I enhanced it into its own image.

A fellow approached me in the lobby a couple of nights back. He said something like, “I can see how you get those great images! With a camera like that it must be easy.” Sure, it’s easier than it used to be, but there is still considerable skill involved. I have to plan and set-up, and most importantly – be there, in the right spots at the right moments, to take good photos of these performers.

Though I have discussed the cameras and lenses here, the most important part of this work for me is that I love the music! For me it is the ability to hear this great music, to get to know the composers better, and to get to know the performers. I feel like I’m a part of an important event by recording images of these talented people delivering wonderful music to an appreciative audience. And if they hear the occasional click of a shutter they are usually too polite to let me know.

All images copyright 2016 Brian P. Lawler. Thank you to Festival Mozaic for access to the performances and performers.

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Portable printing on a picnic table

Blognosticator Head

School is out, and I am on summer vacation! My bride and I are on a three-week journey through northern California and southern Oregon. We have stayed in two California State Parks, two National Forest camps, and two commercial RV parks. We have driven about 1,200 miles so far, and we’re about half way through our journey.

We’re carrying all the requisite technology for camping: a sleeping bag, two iPhones, two iPads, one MacBook Air, a bag of cameras and lenses, two tripods and numerous battery chargers and cables. Ah, I love roughing it!

In the morning, when we have cellular coverage, we start the day with a cup of tea and a lengthy check of Facebook. My wife reads the hometown newspaper online, and we discuss the stories that we are missing by not being home.

We are carrying two bicycles on the back of our vehicle, those providing us with some great adventures when available, and we have our hiking boots, which have served us well on this journey.

When we first bought our camper van a couple of years ago, we decided not to store it like so many people do. We keep it close, and we have promised to use it three days every month (so far we’re doing pretty well!). Many of our journeys have taken us to local campsites, some a bit further from home. We are lucky – in our county there are seven State Parks, several county parks, and a couple of National Forest campgrounds. The closest State Park is less than 20 minutes from our home.

We decided early to keep a journal of our adventures in the van (“Sparky”). We bought a blank book and started filling it in with sketches and items of interest. But it soon languished from inattention. We would pull it out of the door pocket occasionally and say something like, “We really should be keeping this up to date!” – and then we put it away again.

A couple of weeks before our current journey, I decided to do something about that journal. I am always taking photos, and I thought if only I could make small prints of some of those photos, I could bring the journal up-to-date. I researched small printers and found one that looked like it would work for this: the Canon Selphy 1200. It’s a printer capable of making 4 x 6 inch snapshots on glossy paper.

Selphy 1200

This is the body of the Canon Selphy 1200 printer. It has turned out to be an ideal portable printer for our road trip. I use it in camp, usually set up on the picnic table, to print photos of our adventure.

The Selphy runs either on household current or a battery (purchased separately). I placed my order for the Selphy, the battery, and a big box of photo paper and ribbon. It arrived a couple of days later and I began the process of making it work for me. Figuring out the software was surprisingly difficult. I do this a lot, and I was surprised at how frustrating it was for me to make a print. In retrospect, I think it was that I trying to be too conventional in my approach to configuring the software. Canon also uses odd terms to describe things: “Connection Point” is the term for a WiFi signal, for example. At first I was mystified by that, but eventually I figured it out.

Canon Selphy 1200 with tray

With the paper tray attached, the printer is ready to make 4×6 postcard-size prints. The resolution is 300 pixels per inch, and the quality is quite nice.

I can print to the Selphy with a cable from my computer (it uses a Mini-USB cable, not provided). I searched high and low for a driver on the Canon web site, and finally found a file that allowed me to print from any Macintosh. Once installed, the Selphy showed up in the Printers menu on my machine. It looks like any printer on a Mac. Settings are logical and they work well. The only quirk is that the printer must be unplugged and then plugged-in again to be recognized. Odd.

I can also print directly to the printer over WiFi from my iPhone or iPad. That’s easy once you get past the strange software set-up. The Selphy creates an ad hoc WiFi network that you connect to on the iPhone (requires a free app from the iTunes Store). Once that app is installed, you find the Selphy in the WiFi menu in Settings. It shows up immediately, then printing is easy.

After getting past the software installation frustration (I watched a couple of home-made YouTube videos by others who have figured it out), the printer is a joy to use. It’s reasonably fast, taking just over a minute to make a postcard size print. It uses dye-sublimation printing, with a ribbon and glossy photo paper. It prints with cyan, magenta and yellow dyes, then puts a clear protective coating on top of the print. The paper is drawn into the printer from a tray, then it goes in and out four times to complete a print.

Selphy printer printing

Here are three images of a print being made by the Selphy. First yellow, then magenta, then cyan – the result is a lovely color print.

The prints are beautiful. I have been cutting them out and gluing them into my travel journal, then writing captions to describe the photos. I discovered another iPhone app called Pic Stitch that allows me to combine several images on a single print. For a small journal like mine, this is a great tool because a single 4 x 6 inch print is too big for most images. That Pic Stitch app lets me print two panos on one six-inch print, for example, and that is perfect for what I like to do.

The paper and ribbon come in packs of 18 pages, 54 pages and 108 pages. I bought the big box because I knew that I would be using the printer a lot. I’m not even close to running out yet. Cost per print: about $0.35 – which is pretty inexpensive in my book!

Canon offers a battery for the Selphy for about $75. I found a compatible battery from Wasabi for about $30. This battery is equivalent and it has worked perfectly so far (ten days). Wasabi claims that it will last for at leaset 50 prints.

It looks like the Selphy and I will be working together for a long time to come. I get it out and put it on the picnic table in the late afternoon, then I gather my images and choose a few to print and mount in the journal. It’s fun and easy, and the results are very nice. The journal looks great illustrated with these lovely photos from my Selphy printer!

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My timely obsession with real-time clocks

Blognosticator Head

As a part of my Bishop Peak Portrait Project, I have built a couple of “printed” circuit boards. I made these on my CNC router, which I used to cut away the copper on a blank circuit board, leaving behind the traces for the circuit connections. On that circuit board is a Raspberry Pi computer which is programmed to control the camera.

RTC on Raspi 06

The real-time clock is mounted on the lower-left of the Raspberry Pi on the GPIO pins. Though it does not use them all, it’s connected to: 3.3V, 2 SDA, 3 SCL, 4 and GND.

On that Raspberry Pi computer I have mounted a real-time clock, also called a hardware clock. This is critically important to my project because the Raspberry Pi needs to know exactly what time it is.

Normal Raspberry Pi projects are desktop projects or robot projects, and most involve being connected to the Internet, either with a cable or with WiFi (requiring a WiFi module plugged into the USB plug on the edge of the Pi). The Linux operating system on the Raspberry knows where to get the time from the Internet, and it does it easily. But, disconnect the Internet, and the Raspberry reverts to the Beginning Of Time (which is December 31, 1999 at 4:00 p.m.).

I know that some scholars may argue that the Beginning Of Time happened much earlier, but the Linux Operating System knows!

I studied the world of keeping time on a Raspberry Pi, and I learned that I needed a Real Time Clock (RTC). Fortunately, these are available on every digital street corner, so I ordered one from Amazon, and it arrived just a day or two later. It was extremely easy to install, but a bit complicated to configure the software. I asked my friend Eric Johnson to help with that because he’s a Linux expert and he understands the methods for getting the operating system to see the clock and learn the time. This involves “blacklisting” the network time component of the operating system and telling it instead to look to the hardware clock that is installed. You must be connected to the Internet to make the changes, because in one Linux command you request the Internet time, then you write that time to the hardware clock. From that moment on, the clock knows what time it is.

The real-time clock I bought features a DS3231 chip, a device that appears to be the universal clock chip for these special devices. Most of our computers have a clock inside, one that is typically powered by a lithium-ion battery. That clock keeps track of the time and date when the power is turned off. When we restart, the clock tells the computer what time it is.

Real Time Clocks 14

This is my ample collection of real-time clocks. The red ones, though purchased from a variety of suppliers, are all the same: they all use a super-capacitor to power the 3231 chip on board. The black one is a battery-powered circuit that uses a Lihium-Ion button battery for power.

The real-time clock I found features a “super capacitor” to power the small circuit board when the power is off. The seller on Amazon touted the “super capacitor” as being better than a battery because it would last longer. The buyer feedback told a different story. The clock received a range of ratings from no stars to 2.5 stars. Several people said that the super capacitor would only last a few hours at best.

I bought it anyway, mostly because it was easy, and it appeared that it would work in my circumstances. Two to three hours of life after a power failure was OK, because my system is powered by solar panels and a motorcycle battery. I couldn’t imagine my system failing for more than a minute or two.

After we installed the clock on my Raspberry Pi, I put the camera and controller on the roof of the library at Cal Poly, and is started working. At the start I had 9 ampere-hours of battery power in the box, which I calculated would last four days with no sunlight hitting the solar panels. In San Luis Obispo four days of cloud or rain is unthinkably rare, so I assumed that that would never happen. It happened in the first five days the camera was running. The computer ran out of power and the whole thing stopped.

Battery RTC 03 Super Capacitor

This is the power side of the two different real-time clocks. The upper circuit uses a Lithium-Ion button battery, the lower photo shows the super-capacitor on the bottom of the board. You can also see the five-pin connector that connects to the GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi.

It started the next day when the sun came out, but in the break, the super capacitor had drained away, and the clock lost track of time. My system still worked, but it was 1999, and it was running on a schedule that was far from correct – shooting photos in the middle of the night, and it stopped shooting in mid-afternoon instead of 9:00 p.m. when it’s supposed to stop. I bought and installed a second battery, bringing the total available current to 19 ampere-hours, which gives the system 9 days of power with no solar recharging.

Though the camera was running well, I suspected that the real-time clock was defective so I replaced it with another of the same design. On close inspection I discovered that the super capacitor was soldered to the board, but that solder connection was “cold.” The contact was no good; an ohmmeter confirmed this diagnosis. I marked it as a bad component.

In the period between installing the original camera and circuit board I built the “printed” circuit board as a back-up. The first version was hand-wired, and it worked fine, but I needed a back-up. I tested the real-time clock that I bought, leaving it unpowered for periods of time ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. I learned that it would run out of power after just a few hours, and that was not acceptable.

I decided to order a battery-powered real-time clock. This one was also found on Amazon, but I really had to dig to get one with the battery. And, once ordered, Amazon indicated that its delivery would be several weeks later; it was coming from China, and not by air mail.

When the clock circuit arrived, I switched it for the one on my back-up circuit. It works fine, and I have tested it for periods up to one full day with no power. It comes right back up with the correct time. Since my two circuit boards are exactly the same size, I can substitute the one in the box now with the one on my desk, and get the battery-powered real-time clock into the working unit. Though it probably doesn’t make much difference, it will be nice to have a more reliable clock in the working camera box.

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This is turning out better than I had imagined!

Blognosticator Head

If you have been reading this blog for the last month you know that I am currently obsessed with a mountain in San Luis Obispo named Bishop Peak.

I am so obsessed that I am taking 71,808 photos of it over the next year.

This is public art – a collection of images that will be assembled in the Baker Center at Cal Poly. The photo collection will grow during the year, and at the end – next March – it will be complete.

I have selected just eight of the photos to present in this blog so that you can see how diverse the weather has been on my mountain of obsession:

Bishop Peak Portrait 05058 4-20-16Bishop Peak portrait 01072

The project, so far, has involved building a weatherproof camera box, designing and building a circuit to run the camera as a time-lapse device, installing this box and camera on the roof of the Kennedy Library at Cal Poly, then troubleshooting the system until all the bugs are worked out. The adventure has involved my CNC router for the box and the circuit board, studying Python for the Raspberry Pi computer, and putting all the pieces together into a working whole. I started it up on March 3, 2016, at about 9:00 a.m.

Once the camera started to produce images, I wrote an AppleScript to crop and label each selected photo (one each day). Those images can then be sent to a photo lab to be printed on aluminum sheet material. I am still awaiting the results of my first shipment.

Bishop Peak portrait 02118Bishop Peak portrait 02692 3-31-16

I’m working with the engineers now to fabricate a frame to hold the 374 images that come from the project.

My original plan was to make these photos, and then choose one each day that shows how beautiful Bishop Peak can be. What I didn’t expect was the real thing I have created here. It’s a year-long weather study! Since installing the camera, I have collected o 5,000 photos of the mountain that show everything from a moonset to driving rain to beautiful white clouds in a blue sky. The camera takes a photo every five minutes, and it is simply amazing how much can change in those five short minutes.

Bishop Peak Portrait 04011 4-13-16Bishop Peak Portrait 04179 4-14-16

I am amassing an astonishing collection of very different photos.

I know that as summer comes I will see more and more of the same: clear blue skies, mountain. Not much difference. In the meantime, though, this has been a forty-day wild ride through every type of weather (well, not every type – it never snows here). But, the photos show some wonderful extremes, and I am collecting the images on my computer for my project.

Bishop Peak Portrait 04333 4-15-16Bishop Peak portrait 01806

This last image shows the moon partly eclipsed by Bishop Peak. This occurred at 5:05 a.m. on March 22, 2016. This last week we had the moon setting as the sun was coming up, and I am excited to see the photos of that! (I’ll get the photos from the camera in about ten days).

 

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