Reasons to Carry a Camera

I work at the summit of a nearly 14,000ft mountain that sits atop a pretty tropical island. That alone is good enough reason to carry a camera at all times. You never know when you will need that camera, beauty appears when you least expect it.

Dome Motor Controller
The control wiring for a Keck 1 dome VFD motor controller
There are other reasons to carry a camera in my life. I often use the camera to document my work. There is a camera, the little EOS-M, in my backpack alongside the rest of my tools. Wire cutters, screwdrivers, allen wrenches, a multimeter, all the useful tools I need every day, along with a camera, memory cards and spare batteries.

The advent of digital cameras where the cost of each photo is negligible has made this possible. This would not have been practical in the days of film. Yes, I remember those days, counting out every frame of a 36 exposure roll, deciding if the shot was worth it. In this digital age I usually have a dedicated camera along and never worry about shooting. If that camera is out of reach there is always the iPhone in my pocket.

The equipment I work on is often unique, there may be only one copy in the world. Two if we have one installed on both Keck 1 and Keck 2. The documentation can be of varying quality, some is good, some is abysmal, some is just plain wrong. Some of this gear was professionally built by engineers, some of it was built by graduate students who would never need to fix it years later.

Some of the gear is thirty years old, there may have been a paper manual in some engineer’s office… Once upon a time. That engineer no longer works at the observatory. If you are really lucky Peggy has preserved a copy in the library, that at least is well organized and fully cataloged.

Keck 2 Dome PLC
An Allen-Bradley PLC-2 that controls the Keck 2 dome and shutters
The first thing you do when you open the front panel is to take a photo or three. You will want that photo when you need to reassemble the equipment. What was the setting on that switch? Where did the red wire go? The photos are simply invaluable at keeping yourself out of real trouble.

What are the normal indicator lights displayed? The gear is not working, while it was last week. You are looking at a set of lights that may be telling you something important. Wait! I have a photo of this bit of gear from last year showing the correct lights.

One excellent feature of modern document formats is the ability to paste in a photo. Gone are the days when an engineering document was produced by a draftsman at a big table. I remember those days, the room full of big tables at my father’s engineering firm, the drawings neatly rolled or the ammonia smell of the blueprint machine. A modern document can contain more than lines and text. Need to show the layout of the controls? Just paste in a photo of the front panel. Almost all of the documents I draw include at least one photo of the bit of gear, something I wish was there when I was new and had to first find things.

A bank of relays form the safety interlock system for the telescope.
Of course you need to remember to take those photos. I have gotten in the habit of regularly photographing the equipment I work on. I have a set of directories on my hard drive, neatly arranged for system and subsystem. Into these directories go dozens of photographs. Photos of each rack, each major bit of kit for the systems I am responsible for. When installing new gear I take a lot of photos, as much to record the process as to preserve the experience. The collection of photos on my hard drive thoroughly records the observatory facility.

Another use for the photos occurs when I am trying to troubleshoot something over the phone. This occurs regularly, trouble usually happens in the night and it is a two hour drive to the summit. The night support tech becomes your hands and eyes, but unless you know what to tell him on the phone he is even more lost than you are. With a photo of the rack in front of me on the screen I can talk him through the issue. See the switch on the left? No, the second switch, the one labeled “Aux”. Switch it on and check the indicators lights. Red LED comes on? That is bad.

The camera has become as necessary a tool as a screwdriver or multimeter to me. It brings the ability to photograph the gear along with recording the experiences of life. I made carrying a camera one of my cardinal rules long ago, well before digital cameras appeared. The ubiquitous modern digital camera has become even more indispensable. A device that is both utilitarian and allows for a bit of artistic expression.

Now… Where did that red wire go?

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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