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equipment and accessories

Making a Gemstone & Glass Prism Kaleidoscope

Like many kids born in the USSR, my sister Polina and I loved our toy kaleidoscopes we had growing up. To our surprise, they were never as popular in the U.S., although there is now a growing interest among the aficionados.

After much searching, Polina was able to get herself this artisan kaleidoscope. That thing is really tiny and the stained glass beads are fused to two wheels – meaning the patterns repeat themselves; it’s not an infinite set of combinations which could never be repeated that was part of the charm of the `scopes Polina and I had grown up with:Polina's old artisanal kaleidoscope

I got this kaleidoscope on eBay. Its shape and size are similar to the Russian ones. It is made by Corning, a high end glass manufacturer. To my surprise and dismay, it turned out to be far inferior to the Soviet toy kaleidoscopes. Instead of the silvered glass mirrors (yes, as a kid, I took my toy `scope apart – obviously) there was a folded sheet of sort-of-polished metal, and the pieces of colored glass were painted on one side (with the paint flaking off) instead of being real stained glass.Corning kaleidoscope mounted on a camera

On the internet I’ve found out that indeed, Russian and Italian kaleidoscopes are among the best. Well, I’m Russian, so I decided to make a proper kaleidoscope for my sister’s birthday.

Opulence… I haz it!

Have you ever heard of a kaleidoscope that had not mere stained glass, but actual gemstones? Neither have I, so I was going to make one.
Kaleidoscope Gemstones
Clockwise from the top, I got the following stones for the kaleidoscope:

  • Ruby, heart cut (2 sizes)
  • Amethyst, trillion cut
  • Sapphire, marquise cut (2 sizes)
  • Sapphire, baguette cut
  • Emerald, marquise cut

The main optical component is the glass prism (or three narrow mirrors arranged in the same way). I wanted to make a full-size kaleidoscope, so the prism had to be a monster size. When it arrived, I was dismayed that its two triangular faces were matte. You wouldn’t be able to see any gemstones through them.

Large glass prism
I was out of time and budget to order a different prism from China, and a crystal restoration shop wanted $120 per face to polish the two faces. Fortunately, I had polishing disks in Poconos.

The problem with hand-polishing is the surface wants to take on a rounded shape – it is actually pretty hard to keep it flat.

Fortunately, I ended up with only a little bit of roundness around the edges, well within the void size that the optical cement would be able to fill.

The optical cement I got, Dymax OP-4-20632, is able to cure in a strong sunlight, but it cures much better in a UV light. Here, I am taking advantage of the latter, emitting from the monster black light lamp Polina got for the party in Poconos:

Dymax OP-4-20632 is curing in UV light, bonding a triangular prism face to a round filter.

My idea was to bond both faces of the prism to 52mm clear photographic filters, whose metal rings perfectly fit the copper pipe I got for the main housing, thus centering the prism inside.

Here are some of the miscellaneous parts and tools used in the assembly:

Kaleidoscope Components

This is the main housing, a piece of 2″ DWV copper pipe (outer diameter 2.125”, wall thickness 0.042”):

Uncoated copper pipe housing

If you’re stuck on a deserted island and need to blacken a copper pipe, you can use hard-boiled eggs. Rub the yolks on the copper, wrap it air-tightly (you will know why), and after a while it will blacken.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work perfectly, so I had to fall back on spray paint. Oh, and cleaning the dried rotten egg yolk stuck to the outside AND inside of the copper pipe is hard.

This took five minutes. There’s a lesson in there somewhere:
Copper Casing Sprayed with Black Paint

Rebecca from The Engraving Place in Brooklyn is holding up the casing she has just finished engraving for me:
Engraver is holding up the casing she has engraved.

The casing (upper left) goes over the Prism Assembly and is capped by the capsule with the gemstones on the one end and a +2 close-up lens and step-down cover on the other.
Casing, Prism Assembly with Capsule, and Close-up Lens Cap

The close-up lens helps focusing the eyesight on the view without eyestrain.

Another view of the same components:Casing, Prism Assembly with Capsule, and Cap with MagnifierHaving previewed the kaleidoscope action, I’ve shattered an empty bottle of red wine and added a few pieces of olive-colored glass from it to the capsule to help space out and shuffle the gemstones.

Pro tip: always have a bottle of red wine on hand when making kaleidoscopes.

The larger ruby was too deep to fit in the capsule, so I decided to grind down its base somewhat, encouraged by how well my effort polishing the glass prism ends had turned out. Not so fast! It took me (and dad, whom I eventually asked to help out with this) a half day of sanding, using frightening grits of sandpaper on a belt sander, to do it! I suspected ruby would be harder than glass, but I could never imagine it would be harder this many times over. Still, managed to do it. You can make out the large red stone’s now-flat backside on this photo.

The kaleidoscope is assembled and duly entered into the database of my work:Assembled KaleidoscopeHaving reviewed the kaleidoscope action, I’ve shattered an empty bottle of white wine and added a few pieces of clear glass from it to the capsule for a more balanced and refined view.

Pro tip: always have a bottle of white wine on hand when making kaleidoscopes.

The view from the other end.Kaleidoscope Viewed From The OcularGift inscription for my sister:Gift Inscription on KaleidoscopeThe capsule is able to rotate vs. the main body of the kaleidoscope, as I’m using a rotating mechanism from a 52mm polarizing filter.

Polina’s first look through:
Polina's First Look Through

What it looks like (the view is infinite – this picture is constrained by the camera’s angle of view):

Kaleidoscope Pattern

Due to the prism having rounded corners for safe handling, you can see the three transluscent pillars raising from the view. Otherwise, thanks to the fairly high grade prism surface, it is very difficult to tell the direct view from its reflections – which is one of the metrics of a decent `scope.

Lizard seems happy with her new toy. Happy Birthday, sister!
Polina is Happy with Her Kaleidoscope

Here’s a very nice view Polina sent me:

Polina's Kaleidoscope Pattern Capture

I like the interlocking red and yellow rings and blue triangles with emerald tips. A part of the charm is, you can now spin this kaleidoscope more times than there are atoms in the observable universe, and you’ll never get the same view again.

See this kaleidoscope in action:

When you hand a big camera to a little kid

What happens when you give a seven-year-old girl a full-frame camera that weighs a kilogram?

As the wedding I was shooting was wrapping up, a restless flower girl seven years of age (we’ll call her Jess) and her friend were increasingly pestering me with questions about how I take pictures and how my cameras worked. Rather than ignoring them or asking the parents to rein them in (hopeless endeavors both, what with all the guests, lights, music, and desserts), I handed Jess my backup camera and with a straight face tasked her with taking additional pictures of everybody, together with her friend.

The camera I handed Jess (a SONY A900 full frame DSLR) was insured, but it would have been impossible to find a brand new replacement lens, a magnificent Minolta 28mm f/2.0. Still, the girls were curious and excited about this, as was I, and since neither of them has handled a DSLR before, these are the five things I’ve told them:

  1. Don’t walk when looking through the camera’s lens. Watch your step.
  2. Get close. When you think you are close enough, get a little closer still.
  3. Talk to everyone. Tell them you will take a photo of them that’s different and special.
  4. Don’t put the faces in the middle.
  5. Hold the camera steady, like this, and press the shutter button slowly.

It was quite dark, with intense colors and spotlights, so I set the camera to ISO5000, f/2.0 aperture priority, wide AF area, and wished the girls good luck. Here are a few of Jess’s photos.

7 year old girl photographs the happy couple at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

7 year old girl photographs her friend at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

Seven-year-old girl uses a full frame DSLR to capture a wedding guest eating

7 y.o. girl captures a wedding guest on a SONY DSLR-A900 full-frame DSLR

7 year old girl photographs a guest at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

7 year old girl photographs a guest at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

7 year old girl photographs a guest at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

7 year old girl takes a self-portrait at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

Following the girls around would have affected people’s reactions, likely stifling the entire thing – not to mention that the whole point initially was to get them to leave me to my work. But I’ve taken a couple of shots of Jess in action just to capture the experiment and to show her parents.

7 year old girl photographs the happy couple at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

7 year old girl photographs a guest at a wedding with a full-frame DSLR Sony A900

Needless to say, I love her pix. There are a few lessons in them that we can all heed:

  • Be simple
  • Be approachable
  • Be unexpected
  • Get your subjects to do something different, outside of their comfort zone
  • Get close

And last but not least: we are born creative, but over the courses of our lives, a lot of that creativity may slip away if we’re not defending it.

P.S. If you can afford to give your kid a good camera, do it! When I was this girl’s age, my father did give me a simple but good quality camera, although it didn’t fare very well.

Dead Battery: the Future of OEM Obstructionism

Dead Battery: 3rd party EN-EL14AA recent Nikon firmware update for their mid-range and entry-level DSLRs (D5200, D5100, D3200, D3100) appears to have eliminated these cameras’ ability to be properly powered by many 3rd party EN-EL14A rechargeable batteries manufactured to-date.

The gesture isn’t new to Nikon, or unique to it. Other premier camera manufacturers as well seemingly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to slap 3rd party makers of batteries, lenses and accessories for their systems. The camera makers’ motives are understandable: they want the users to buy from them in order to capitalize on their R&D investment. Additionally, they want to minimize support overhead arising from their equipment interfacing with 3rd party products.

There’s no doubt that 3rd party manufacturers will, in time, produce batteries compatible with the new firmware, and that many users will take the risk buying them because of the savings. In my mind there are two questions less trivial:

  1. Is OEM technological obstructionism even sustainable beyond the short-term?
  2. Is it in the camera makers’ own best interest?

1. In this day and age of highly automated, globalized manufacture, the quality gap between OEM-branded and 3rd party products has been shrinking. While OEMs still have effective legal means of defense (patent and trade dress protection) against larger players in developed markets, with every passing year it will be more of an uphill battle for OEMs to use technical means to defend their market share for accessories that are simple, not innovative, and priced with a large profit margin.

2. We photo equipment users want to save money, but at the same time we don’t want the makers of our camera systems to go out of business or to relinquish their focus on quality and innovation.  The way I look at it, however, a $40 lens cap does not prompt OEMs to kick innovation into a high gear – instead it prompts them to become complacent. What works is disruptive innovation, similar to how RED has burst onto the indie film-making gear scene and got the incumbent manufacturers like SONY and Canon to stop resting on their laurels and deliver compelling offerings of their own that would otherwise have taken a decade or more to arrive in that price range.

I believe, the future belongs to:

  • Open source hardware and software,
  • Transparent interfaces and protocols,
  • User-driven development.

Does that leave a spot under the sun for traditional brands like NIKON and SONY? I think, more so than ever – so long as brands focus on their core and essence, and let go of 20th century ways of doing business. Namely:

  • A brand at its core is nothing more than a promise of a certain user experience. Make sure the experience being delivered is building the brand rather than eroding it. No crowd sourcing project or a knock-off lens cap would threaten a brand that is doing its job.
  • Innovation and quality control. Yes 3rd party makers can come up with anything eventually, but not right away and at the level of performance and consistent quality of OEMs. The latter can thus command a fair premium by staying ahead of the game.

Today, like in any other transformative period in history, folks who embrace and lead the change are the ones who benefit the most. I certainly wish Nikon, Canon, SONY and others to be among such beneficiaries.

Would you trade your SLR for a smartphone?

For photos, would you trade your SLR for a smartphone?

According to the WSJ article by J. Osawa, declining sales of DSLRs and lenses are signaling that the market as a whole is doing just that. Conventional wisdom would suggest that while camera-phones could compete with basic compacts, surely DSLRs with their huge DSLR vs. Smartphonesensors and interchangeable lenses would be safe.

Yet market data does not lie – those sales figures are what they are. What I believe is happening is the rules of the game (of delivering cameras that the market wants) just got changed. DSLRs still win hands-down at the old game (quality, performnce, control), but that is quickly becoming only a part of what makes a good camera.

What’s the other part? Editing and connectivity. Today’s reality is, people want the best shots, with basic post-processing, to be up online right now. Instagram gets you there in 10 seconds, and if you invent something that gets you there in 5, you will kill Instagram. Smartphones’ full-time internet connectivity and their processing power that can be brought to bear in 3rd party photography apps, put together, is a game changer.

If DSLR manufacturers want to keep selling to amateurs, enthusiasts, as well as pros in many fields, they need their DSLRs’ internet and app capability to match that of the smartphones. SONY DSC-QX100 which is basically a high quality sensor and lens that communicates with a smartphone via WiFi and NFC and can clip onto it,  is the writing on the wall. WiFi-enabled memory cards or dongles, and camera-smartphone hybrids, are other vectors aiming at the same ultimate solution. Perhaps we’ll see SIM card slots next to memory slots in future DSLRs, backed by lifetime unlimited data plans.

The next few years will be very transformative for SLRs, I believe. One thing we can all count on is, good photos will still be good, among the abundance of of bad ones. We’ll just be seeing them all a lot sooner. And that, as always, will have been a sign of the times.