Monthly Archives: February 2014

Lasting Light

Lowell Observatory staff and workers work to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount for the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment.

Workers prepare to remove a 400-lb. counterweight from the mount of the historic Clark Refractor. This 120-year-old telescope is undergoing a complete refurbishment at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Photographers and astronomers share a lot in common. Arguably, the most important shared quality is their reliance on light. For the photographer, light paints the subject. It imbues a scene with certain qualities. Light can be bright and happy, dark and brooding, or any of a variety of personalities. For the astronomer, light is information. By examining the light from a celestial body, an astronomer can determine its distance, size, composition and how its moving. In the same way that light adds drama to a photographer’s composition, light – and the information it carries – allows an astronomer to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

In the 1890’s Percival Lowell established a research observatory in the sleepy railroad town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell was, in many respects, a pioneer of modern science. He built his observatory in the western United States far from his Boston home. At a time when many observatories were still being built at locations near major cities and universities, Lowell chose the site for his observatory for its remoteness and the quality of its skies. As important as light is to the astronomer, the best places from which to explore the night sky are those far from city lights where natural darkness allows the feeble glow of distant objects to be seen.

Soon after Lowell Observatory was established, its founder contacted Alvan Clark & Sons and commissioned them to build a 24-inch refracting telescope. It would be among the largest such instruments in the world and from first light in 1894 through the 1960’s, the Clark Refractor at Lowell Observatory regularly contributed to the science of astronomy. Lowell staff astronomers used the Clark to make some of the first photographic images of the planet, Mars. The Clark was used to study the motions of so-called spiral nebulae. These observations produced the first evidence of an expanding universe. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s cartographers used the Clark to make detailed maps of the lunar surface. Apollo astronaut Neill Armstrong even visited Lowell Observatory to observe the Moon through the 24-inch Clark, before making his one giant leap for all mankind.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory.

Workers prepare to lift a counterweight through the open shutter of the Clark Dome at Lowell Observatory. (Bill Ferris)

In recent decades, larger and more powerful telescopes have replaced the Clark Refractor as the principal research tools used by the Lowell science team. However, the 24-inch telescope has definitely not been put out to pasture. This historic instrument has been used almost every clear night for years to share the wonders of the universe with the general public. For several years, I had the great privilege and pleasure of working at Lowell Observatory as a tour guide and observer. The joy I experienced when operating the Clark was exceeded only by the awe felt by visitors when, for the first – and possibly only – time in their lives, they stood in that darkened dome, peered into the eyepiece and saw Mars as it can only be presented by a world-class refracting telescope.

Of course, the decades have been at work on this historic instrument. Time, use and the elements have taken a toll on the great refractor. In January 2014, Lowell Observatory staff removed the telescope from its home on Mars Hill to begin a months-long project to refurbish the Clark. When friend and Lowell Observatory Communications Manager Kevin Schindler invited me to be there for this historic happening, I immediately jumped at the chance. Although it has been years since I last observed with the Clark, memories of astounding views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are still fresh in my mind. There was no way I was going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Lowell Observatory's Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor.

Lowell Observatory’s Ralph Nye (on right in blue jacket) inspects progress toward removing one of the 400-lb. counterweights from the mount of the Clark Refractor. (Bill Ferris)

The telescope was removed from its dome in stages. The lens cell and lenses are the heart and soul of any refractor. The 120-year-old optics of the Clark were removed, first, and stored safely away from the work area. Next, several 400-lb. counterweights were removed – one at a time – from the telescope mount. Finally, the 32-foot optical tube was disassembled, with each section raised through the open dome shutter by a large crane.

I was struck by the number of people in attendance and the variety of ways they were documenting the historic undertaking. The observatory had hired a professional videographer and a pro photographer to capture the event. Additionally, several observatory staff used smart phones to make movies and photos. I was there with my D600 shooting a time lapse video. There was at least one iPad in use and a quadcopter hovering just outside the dome. While observing this hive of activity, it dawned on me that if this work had happened five years ago, there would be no quadcopter, no iPad, no DSLR’s shooting video. It is amazing how much can change in just a few years.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the return of a refurbished and fully-functional Clark telescope. That should happen in 2015. And on that day, I plan to be back on Mars Hill with my camera documenting the homecoming for this historic instrument of science and public education. That will be a grand day but the real treat will be the next clear, dark night in northern Arizona when the 24-inch Clark Refractor sees first light for the second time in her life.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | February 2014

Ode to Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom 5 allows you to manage, edit and archive your photo and image library

Adobe Lightroom 5 allows you to manage, edit and archive your photo and image library. (Screen capture courtesy Bill Ferris)

I’m exhausted and my brain is numb. Numb like your lower lip after a visit to the dentist, like your foot when it falls asleep, like, well…like I’m feeling after finishting a two-month long project to archive a photographic collection dating back more than half a century.

I don’t even have a large collection of images. Some photographers shoot hundreds of thousands of exposures a year. My image library tips the scale at a relatively small 40,883 images. Not all are photo’s I’ve taken. The oldest dates back to 1962. It’s a shot of me–probably taken by my father–sitting in a high chair wearing a big grin and Hershey’s chocolate all over my face. The most recent were taken last week when I went up to Lowell Observatory to shoot the removal of the historic Clark Refractor from its dome on Mars Hill. The 120-year-old telescope will be fully refurbished and return to service in 2015.

So, what in the name of rational thought possessed me to take on this project? Hmm, that’s a good question.

Clicking on an image folder in the Lightroom 5 Library displays previews or thumbnails of the images in that library. The panel to the left of the preview window lists the directories and sub-folders in your library. The panel to the right is where keywords are assigned.

Let me begin the answer by asking another question: of what value is a 40,000-image collection? In simplest terms, it depends on the value of those images to other people. Of course, that answer is predicated on one huge assumption: that you can easily locate an image in a timely manner. If you’ve inherited a million dollars but it’s locked in a trunk at the bottom of the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean, of what real value is that inheritance? In other words, if you can’t find anything in a 40,000-image library, of what real value are the images?

Now, in fairness, my archive wasn’t a complete disaster. All the photos were collected on my computer’s hard drive in directories labelled by the year in which the photos were taken. Each directory contained a collection of sub-folders identified by the subject matter of the photos within. For example, the 2007 directory contained folders for the family vacation to Disney World, my spring backpacking trip in Grand Canyon and so on. All the photos were there but the amount of time it would take me to track down a specific image was substantial…if I could find the image at all.

So late in 2013, I decided to get my photo archive in order.  A 40,000 image collection may not be sizable by some standards, but it was all I had.

Think of Lightroom as a photographic version of a library catalog. Most people, when looking for a specific book at a library, don’t just wander the aisles hoping to catch a glimpse of the author’s name or the book title. The smart ones head straight for the computer catalog system. They enter the title and maybe the author’s name, then click the “Search” button. This produces a list of actual books stored in the library along with their respective locations. It may take a few minutes to track down the specific aisle, shelf and section. But it’s pretty easy to find the book you seek, even in a library housing tens of thousands of volumes.

Lightroom 5 features a powerful search tool. A search for the keyword, Yosemite, displays all photos assigned that keyword. So, whether an image is tagged by location, subject, weather conditions, people shown or other factors, keywording is central to taking full advantage of Lightroom’s capabilities.

Lightroom is your photo archive’s catalog system…and so much more. To begin the archiving process, I first imported all my photos into Lightroom, There is no physical moving of images involved. Ligthroom simply built a list of 40,000+ image file names, and the directories and sub-folders in which they are stored on my computer. The Lightroom library is basically a data file identifying where images can be found. Next, I worked in Lightroom to assign keywords to each image in the archive. With 40,000 images to keyword, I figured it would be simplest to start with the oldest and work forward in time to the most recent.

The 1962 directory contains one sub-folder titled, “1962 Bill Baby.” This sub-folder contains one image. In the Lightroom keyword window, I typed my name, the word “baby,” the city and state where the photo was taken and the name of the street where we lived. A more recent folder might contain a hundred photos from a day hike at Grand Canyon. Lightroom allowed me to select a group of images that will share the same keyword, and type that word just once to apply it to all one hundred photos. Lightroom even builds a keyword collection, automatically adding each word the first time it is used. If the word is, sunset, typing the letter “s” prompts Lightroom to display all the keywords in its collection starting with that letter. To select, click on the word or keep typing until it moves to the top of the list. Then, hit “Enter.”

Keywording photos in Lightroom is relatively easy. This is one user-intuitive application. The volume of images to be keyworded will determine the sheer volume of time required to complete the task. After all the images in a sub-folder had been keyworded, I reviewed the images to identify the selects. Lightroom allows you to rate images by flagging them, assigning a color code or giving a rating of one-through-five stars to a photo, To keep things simple, I assigned a five-star rating to any image i consider to have potential commercial value.

Lightroom also includes a “Collections” tool. A Collection contains photos sharing the same trait. For example, one of the default collections is for images given a five-star rating. Any image given that rating is automatically added to the collection. And here’s the brilliance of Lightroom: it doesn’t make a duplicate copy of the original image. It simply includes the data for all five-star images in that collection. Think of it as a national park with multiple pathways leading to the same view.

Lightroom 5 comes with a full-featured suite of image editing tools. Much of what you currently do in Photoshop and other image editing aps can be done both easily and quickly in Lightroom 5.

Lightroom also features a suite of image editing tools. When you double-click on the thumbnail for an image, the image expands to fill its window. Click on the “Develop” tab to begin editing the image. There are adjustments for white balance, exposure and contrast; noise reduction; tools to correct for lens distortion; masks and healing brushes allowing specific areas within an image to be tweaked; straightening and cropping of images. These are just some of the image editing features and, oh by the way, Lightroom is non-destructive. The original RAW file remains fully preserved.

Another of the default Collections in Lightroom is for images assigned a red color. I apply red only to the best of the best. All are five-star images that have been polished in post. At present, of the 4,699 five-star images, just 46 have been colored red. Eventually, I’ll work through the full collection of five-star images and add more selects from that group to this special collection. When an image is ready to be shown to the world, Lightroom’s publishing tools that allow it to be sent directly to Facebook, Flickr and other social media sites.

I’ve only touched on a handful of the features and capabilities of Adobe Lightroom 5. It would be difficult to overstate how impressed I am by this product. As I continue to explore its capabilities, I will share the good and bad of what I find. But for the present, suffice it to say that I enthusiastically recommend Adobe Lightroom as an image management, editing and archiving tool.

Now, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | February 2014