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!

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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.


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

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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!

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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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An Exposure Expedition at Cal Poly

Walking cameraEach quarter when I teach Digital Photography at Cal Poly, I take the students out for what I call an Exposure Expedition. These expeditions are in the interest of teaching basic camera techniques, and teaching the students how to “see” images in the field.

These are images I made while out with the students. The images were all made near the O’Neal Green in the Cal Poly Rose Garden and the Cactus Garden, both of which are spectacular.

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175,000 readers!


178,265, actually.

Thank you to all of you who read the Blognosticator!

I started blogging about 11 years ago when I was hired by Graphic Arts Monthly magazine to do a weekly blog about topics in the graphic arts. That was a great assignment, one that lasted for several years.

When that magazine failed, I took about a year to rethink and regroup while I decided what to do with the Blognosticator. I wrote for a few months for, and eventually decided to move the Blognosticator to my own server and make it a private blog.

I tried in vain to find a sponsor, one that would pay me to write these words on a regular basis. That would have been great, but it didn’t work out.

Yet, I kept it up for all these years.

This is my 212th blog in the Blognosticator series (a hundred or more in the Graphic Arts Monthly series).

Keep visiting for more information on printing, publishing, solar power, time-lapse photography, everything!

I might even resort to making a few political comments in this year of the weird and crazy election for President of the United States.

Best wishes to all my readers,

Brian P. Lawler

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Time-lapse project, part III: a new circuit board

Blognosticator Head

My time-lapse camera has been running now for 25 days. It snaps a photo of Bishop Peak (elev. 1559 ft.) every five minutes. I have over 2,300 photos so far.

Bishop Peak portrait 01247

This is a sample of the photos being taken by my time-lapse camera. My plan is to assemble a montage of 374 of the best photos in a large frame mounted in the Baker Center on the Cal Poly campus.

The project has not gone perfectly. The first week we had rain and cloudy skies for five days in a row (a nearly impossible weather event here – front page news!). My solar panels didn’t get enough sunlight, and on the sixth day the Raspberry Pi computer inside the box gave out. My 9Ah battery just couldn’t hold out that long. I revived it two days later with a freshly-charged battery, and I added a third solar panel. Under normal circumstances the solar panels will generate over three times the power consumption of the camera system, so it should go for a long time (over a year) without running out of power. You can read about the project in my earlier blogs here.

Two weeks later I added a second battery so now I have a total of 19 Ah of power, which should run the camera for nine days with no sunlight. Now it’s all working fine.

The program running on the Raspi instructs the camera to start shooting at 5:00 a.m. and stop at 9:00 p.m. Linux knows about Daylight Saving time, so it automatically changed to Pacific Daylight Time on March 13th. My problem since is that the camera still thinks it’s on Standard time, so I have to make mental adjustments as I process the images. I can’t move the camera, and I can’t see the LCD viewfinder in the box, so it will just have to stay in the wrong time for the duration.

At 9:00, the Raspi goes into a sleep mode, cruising along on less power, which makes it possible to run for longer. At 5:00 a.m. it wakes up and starts its daylight cycle.

I’m shooting in Camera Raw, so each photo is full-resolution. I can make big prints of the photos as a result, and I can convert them into smaller photos if I need to.

I was in a bit of a rush when I installed the camera on the roof of the Kennedy Library, and I hadn’t satisfied myself that the program and the computer would work without failing for an entire year. I decided to build a second one as a back-up. This would be a complete circuit board and battery that I could test on my desk at home while the other one is clicking away on the roof. I ordered the parts, buying some slightly different versions that use less power. I redesigned the layout of the parts on the board, and then had the idea of making a “printed” circuit board of my system.

I ordered some copper-clad phenolic board from Amazon in a size large enough to make the circuit board. While waiting for its arrival I designed the traces for the components I would later mount on the board. I have never made a circuit board before.

Circuit board fabrication 49

This is my CNC router working its way around the traces of my “printed” circuit board. The cut-out in the foreground is to provide access to the microSD card on the Raspberry Pi (in case I need to change the program on the computer). In this photo you will see that the holes were drilled first, then the traces cut. It was slow, but it worked beautifully.

To make the traces, I used my CNC router with a small cutter. I laid-out the traces in Adobe Illustrator as positive lines with round pads for the connection points. Then, on a separate layer I prepared the holes where the components would go through the board to be soldered onto the board.

When the phenolic board arrived, I took it to the CNC machine and I made a practice run on a corner of the board. By cutting only a few thousandths of an inch deep, I was able to remove the copper from the non-conductive areas of the board, leaving the conductors behind. The CNC machine did a stellar job of cutting the traces. I had to run emery paper across the traces when it was finished to clean off some small burrs that the cutter left behind.

Finished circuit board 07

This is the bottom side of the finished circuit board after mounting the components and soldering all the connections. The large areas of copper are “ground” – but I didn’t use it for that purpose. You can see the MicroSD card in the top of the cut-away area on the lower-left. Some of my mounting hardware came dangerously close to the live traces, but not close enough to short any of the wires.

When it was finished I examined it carefully, then soldered the components to the board. It makes a very clean layout, and it’s very solid. I put the transistor, the diode and the resistor into their positions, and soldered them in place, and I mounted the Raspberry Pi and soldered its output pins to the circuit board.

This circuit is so simple that I only needed copper on the backside of the board. Had it been any more complicated I could have designed a two-sided board.

Finished circuit board 03

This is the top of the circuit board with all components and wires in place. I am very happy with the layout and the appearance of the board. And, best of all – it works! The wires leaving the board on the left connect power to the camera, the camera trigger line, and two 12VDC power inputs (upper-left). One is coming from the batteries, the other from the solar panels.

Once I had it all wired, I applied battery power and the computer started up, but the circuit didn’t work. (My friend Eric told me recently, “It’s ALWAYS the hardware.”) The software was running fine; the control circuit on the Raspberry Pi was “going high” once every five minutes. But the relay was not closing, and therefore the camera will not take a photo. I was dumbfounded. I double-checked the wiring; I triple-checked the circuit to be sure I had designed it correctly, and put the parts on the board with correct polarities. Everything checked out. But it didn’t work.

I let it sit for a week while I traveled to Memphis for the TAGA conference, then stopped in Phoenix on the way home for three days of Spring Training (and some mighty good food!). When I got home again I took out a lighted magnifying glass and followed every trace for its entire path. Up where the signal voltage from the transistor reaches the relay I found a microscopic sliver of copper shorting-out the two pads at the relay, grounding-out my transistor circuit. I scratched it off with a sharp jeweler’s screwdriver.

Then I powered-up the board again and the whole thing started working! Hurrah! Now it’s sitting on the desk to my right, clicking every five minutes as it is supposed to be.

I might substitute this board for the one in the box on the roof of the library. Or I might just let that one keep running, and keep this one available as a back-up if I need it.

The entire process has been educational and fun. I have learned a little bit of Python coding (very little), have observed my friend Eric enter the “cron” code necessary for the Linux OS in the Raspberry Pi to control my program, and I have learned how to make a simple electronic switch using an NPN transistor, a diode and a resistor. This is the stuff that makes these projects so interesting.

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An adventure in the Distiller Time Machine

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Way back in 2003 I wrote an essay for inclusion in an article in Pre magazine about using Adobe Acrobat Distiller with hot folders to get PDFs with specific settings just by dropping a source file into a watched folder in Distiller. At the time, source files were PostScript files generated by various applications as a method of going to print when one was not directly connected to a PostScript printer.

Almost no one knows about Distiller today, and there are only a few geeks like me who even remember that it exists. But, exist it does! And it still works.

Adobe keeps Distiller (almost) up-to-date. I have the latest version, one called Distiller DC (as opposed to CC?). I don’t know what the D stands for.

What is Distiller, and why on Earth do we need it? Distiller was originally the only way for a graphic artist to make a PDF from most applications. The workflow went like this: create a document in QuarkXPress, go to the Print menu, and “print” a file to PostScript. Take the resulting file and drop it on Distiller’s input window, after setting what kind of PDF one wanted, and a few minutes later a PDF would appear. Distiller is essentially a printer-in-software that makes PDF files.

[A more robust cousin of Distiller is embedded in Kodak Prinergy, Agfa Apogee, and other commercial prepress systems. It’s called the Normalizer, and its job is to pre-process PDF files (and a few other files types), making them ready for the rest of the trip through the system.]

Setting the stage for my trip down Distiller Memory Lane is a book that my students have created. It’s made up of 17 “chapters” each of which is four pages. Together, the book must be a complete work with consecutive page numbers, all printed as one publication. Using the Book function in Adobe InDesign is something I have done many times, most recently to produce ePubs. The Book feature is very efficient for ePubs because the resulting e-books are (nearly) automatically made with navigable tables of contents.

InDesign Book palette
This is an InDesign Book. This palette shows all of the contributing “chapters” from which you can choose individual InDesign documents to open and edit. Whenever you want, you can tell the Book to synchronize its components, and it will reset page numbers. The second file down has been designated as the “master” chapter, from which the book gets all of its Paragraph and Character styles, and from which it derives its Master Page items, including page number format.

The InDesign Book only works correctly when there is one master set of Paragraph and Character styles. When that is true, it’s easy to update all of the contributing “chapters” and to update the page numbers of all of the contributing documents.

For our book project I imported all the Paragraph and Character styles from all of the students’ chapters into the first chapter. I also copied all of the type fonts from all the packages produced by the students to get them all into the first chapter’s Document Fonts folder, otherwise InDesign would not have been happy with the available fonts, requiring me to load them all each time I opened the book chapters.

You can Export a PDF from InDesign Books using all the usual PDF settings that are available in InDesign. I tried this technique and got a perfectly acceptable PDF of the entire publication. But I wanted to see if my 2003 hot folder technique still works, and so I did it a second time the old fashion way.

For those in production jobs, this technique can save a tremendous amount of time because various contributors can simply drop their files into a hot folder, and a PDF will emerge out the other end. It’s the files that can be difficult to get because (in general) we don’t use PostScript anymore.

You can print from an InDesign Book, and it was by this method that I produced a PDF from my students’ work last night. It was a long journey.

InDesign Book fly-out options
This is the fly-out menu from the Adobe Book palette shown above. Notice the Export Book to PDF, and other selections. I used both the Export to PDF and the Print Book tool to make a PostScript file that I later distilled to PDF using Distiller’s hot folder tools.

My method is to “print” my book, comprised of 18 separate InDesign documents (“chapters”) to PostScript. To those born after 1999, PostScript is a page description language that was created by Adobe Systems in 1984. It was the foundation of the revolution that unseated phototypesetting and put electronic publishing into our vocabulary. PostScript is still buried inside all of Adobe’s products – it is at the core of PDF, and it is at the core of the PDF Print Engine that is the controlling software on most modern printers and prepress systems. Think of PDF as a superset of PostScript.

Once the PostScript file was created, I tried two other methods for converting it to PDF. The first was to run Acrobat Distiller, and drop the file onto the input window of that application. The problem is that Distiller doesn’t support PDFx/4. I tried importing the joboptions file for PDF-x/4 into Distiller, but that had no effect. So my choices of presets were limited to PDF print options up to x/3. That wasn’t acceptable. I need PDF-x/4.

My second approach was to use the latest version of Acrobat to create a PDF from a file, one of its many (many!) functions. After first crashing, it successfully made a PDF, but again, I couldn’t choose PDF-x/4, so that didn’t work. (I think that Acrobat actually uses Distiller or its libraries to make the PDFs that it makes.)

I fell back on the technique I described in my article back in 2003, where I created hot folders for sheet-fed offset, newsprint, and screen display PDFs.

Distiller Folders

This is similar to the layout of the Hot Folders I created back in 2003. Each folder has an In and Out folder, and each has its own joboptions file that Distiller will recognize and use for processing the files dropped in it.

A Distiller Watched Folder is a folder that sits anywhere on your computer, and inside of which there is an Adobe PDF joboptions file, and In folder, and an Out folder. I created the basic folder, then told Distiller to watch it; Distiller then makes the In and Out folders inside it. I then copied the joboptions file for PDF-x/4 from the Adobe folder in my Application Support folder in my System files. This is the same joboptions file that is used by InDesign to make a PDF directly.

Here is what that folder looks like:

Hot folder content

To distill the PostScript file into PDF-x/4, all I have to do is drag the file into the In folder inside this folder, and watch the fireworks. Actually there are no fireworks. It processes the file, then puts it, and the original file into the Out folder, and you’re finished.

By using this technique I tricked Distiller, which otherwise offers no support for X/4 PDFs, into making an X/4 PDF.

Tomorrow I will attempt to impose and print the PDF on Cal Poly’s Konica Minolta C1100 digital printer.

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