Maintaining the Archive

How do you organize your photos? The answer to that is critical. Anyone who generates a lot of images, and that is just about everyone these days needs to answer that question.

XKCD Photo Library Management
Photo Library Management from XKCD (Randall Munroe, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.)
Keeping my photo archive organized is a bit of a chore. But skip on the effort and it simply gets worse, to the point of being unusable. If you can not find the photos you need why take photos at all?

The trick is to develop a process and to use it… Religiously. I can not tell you how to do it, I can just tell you how I do it and offer a few suggestions.

There are two basic approaches, simply come up with a way to organize the images into a directory using nothing more than your operating system. The other approach is to use some form of photo organizing software to aid in the task. I do make a large assumption here, that the images are in digital format, not negatives and slides. For that you will have to look elsewhere for answers.

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Afocal Luna

With a few public outreach events this last week I had a few opportunities to hold my phone up to the eyepiece and shoot a few shots of a waxing Moon. The iPhone 5S does have a notably better camera than my old 3S. The afocal method does provide some nice snapshots of the Moon.

As usual I demonstrated the technique to our viewers, showing them how to use their phone to shoot the Moon. The result? Big smiles and happy folks, thrilled to have some great Moon photos of their own.

Afocal Luna
The Moon approaching full, afocal photograph with an iPhone 5S and a small refractor

Unintended Photos 3

I do not do experimental photography… Usually.

I have an uncle that does. He slides the saturation to eleven and publishes the results on his Facebook account. The results are… Interesting? But then it was this same uncle who is at least partly responsible for my getting started in photography when I was a teenager.

Occasionally I come up with the odd bit of happenstance. I was testing some photo processing Python code, a script intended to allow HDR processing of digitized slides. I needed a bunch of test frames so I just shot a bunch of bracketed sets at my desk and on the lanai a few feet away to create a whole directory of test material.

I did not intend any of these frames to be kept. HDR sets taken with a handheld camera? Nothing would align correctly!

A couple of them were… Interesting?

A test exposure that was interesting enough not to simply delete.


Through trial and error my friend Dean Ketelsen has worked out a perfect place and the correct dates to observe the Sun setting behind the telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory. The site is along the Mt. Lemmon Highway above Tucson, over 50 miles away from the observatories. The correct alignment occurs just a few days before and after the solstice. It has become a bit of a holiday tradition for the members of the local astronomy club to join Dean at the correct spot in an attempt to get just the right photo. This year the weather treated them well…

I have looked for a similar alignment on Mauna Kea. Unfortunately the telescopes are not highly visible from sites east and west of the summit where the Sun will rise or set behind. The full Moon might be possible, but much tougher to predict.

Life of a Photo

It took ninety minutes of sitting in the cold to get the shot. Every minute the camera took another exposure. Sitting on the summit ridge overlooking Keck, it was a very dark night with three lasers working the sky, Keck 1, Keck 2 and Subaru. The tripod was set up as close to the vehicle as I could get it to shelter the camera from the wind. Ninety minutes of shivering in the front seat of the truck, playing cribbage on my phone, and fervently hoping that the gusting wind was not shaking the camera enough to destroy the images.

The result was ninety frames on the memory card. When downloading the material I knew that my time spent in the cold at fourteen thousand feet had been worth it.

Material like this can be used a couple different ways. You can stack the images together to create a single shot equivalent to one exposure 90 minutes long. Taking single long exposures is problematic on a digital camera, a leakage signal called dark current will swamp the image. Better to take many short exposures and add them together in processing.

You can also play the images sequentially, creating a few seconds of video. In this case I assembled all ninety images as nine seconds of video when played at ten frames per second.

I found that the best single frame was assembled from only 23 of the original images. Keck 2 changed targets during the session, creating a confusion of beams over the telescopes when I added all ninety images. The 23 frame version is the definitive version that has been widely distributed. During this slice of time the Keck 2 laser was aimed at the galactic center in Sagittarius, the beam aimed right over me and the camera.

I released the photo as a PR photo for Keck, only fair as I had been on the mountain to work that night, taking the photo before driving down from the summit in a Keck vehicle. The PR folks have used the photo for a number of press releases and observatory literature including the 2011 annual report. You can even download it from the Keck website photo collection.

This particular photo can now be found on websites across the net, has been featured in the Honolulu Daily Star, West Hawai’i Today and other local papers. It has also been used for numerous professional presentations by Keck affiliated astronomers and staff.

I understand that this month it is in Hana Hou! the inflight magazine for Hawaiian Airlines. (Somebody get me a copy. Please! I am not flying anywhere in the next month.) Not the first magazine appearance, you can also find the shot in an issue of Astronomy magazine.

It can be a lot of fun seeing an image I created become something of an iconic image of the observatory.

Three Lasers
Three lasers in operation, Subaru, Keck 1 and Keck 2, 23 x 4min with a Canon 60D

Better with a Photo

Blog posts just read better when a photo is included. While a psychologist might argue, my guess is that the effect of a photo is due to our visually oriented minds. We simply like photos, the images give an immediate context for the article that is processed before we even complete reading the first sentence.

Quarter Moon
A 53% illuminated waxing Moon, afocal w/Canon G11, TV-102 & 32mm Plössl
The photo can be anywhere in the posting, to either side, across the bottom, as long as it is visible with the top of the article. It helps if the blog layout is clean, without too much visual clutter from other images or advertisements. Even worse is a background image that distracts from the primary article and images.

The extreme example are blogs that include a photo no matter the subject. One of my favorites is Photo Attorney by lawyer Carolyn Wright. This is a great blog covering the legal aspects of copyright law and the business of photography. Carolyn often includes a photo with every post. And while the post covers some legal aspect of photography the image is usually a dramatic wildlife photo taken by Carolyn. The juxtaposition is sometimes interesting, hawks or lions while talking about courts and plantiffs. There is no denying the effect of the photo, you just want to read the posting.

I make it a practice to include a photo in most postings. Even if it means reusing a photo that has been published before. After a while any blog begins to accumulate quite a collection of photographs. This provides a ready set of “stock” photos which can be used to illustrate any posting.