Category Archives: ideas

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:


Manhattanhenge, as seen from across the East River. Click to see the larger version in a slide show.

A term coined by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Manhattanhenge is a twice-yearly event when a sunset lines up with the Manhattan street grid, around 8PM on May 29/30 and July 12/13.

The idea to put Manhattanhenge in the broader space-time context (as a part of the sweeping Midtown skyline, and sandwiched between the before and after shots of same) was born out of my desire to differentiate from the common portrayal of this phenomenon, which is a closeup view of the setting sun’s disc, flanked by a pair (or more) of Manhattan buildings silhouetted by the sun’s overpowering rays.

I used a 12-24mm lens set to 12mm f/10 on a full-frame dslr. To get the building detail together with the sunset, I took a series of six bracketed exposures two f-stops apart from each other, at varying shutter speeds. These were HDR-processed into the final image.

A diagonal dash light spot directly above the Empire State Building is planet Venus. From my vantage point, Venus was in that position at 9PM. The length of the dash is the amount of the Earth’s rotation during my 30-second exposure.

You can now buy a variety of things with this image, ranging from a sleek acrylic print to a classic framed one, or even a duvet cover! In doing so, you will be supporting my photographic work.

Three Simple Ideas For Great Winter Holiday Pix

Christmas cards were like the Facebook of years past. But even now – in fact, perhaps now more than ever – people appreciate great photos. Here are three ideas for holiday pictures that are fun and go beyond the ordinary.

1. Little boys, big toys

Baby with Christmas OrnamentsWho’s cuter than cute little babies? Littler cute babies. Extra-large Christmas tree ornaments are really fun and festive and make your baby look even more precious. I got these ornaments at the Home Depot. Safety first: do not use fragile glass ornaments or those that shed glitter or have sharp edges or removable parts that aren’t secured. Clean and sanitize them before the shoot. Ornaments generally aren’t designed to be baby-safe, so, never leave the baby unattended with these ornaments, and take them away when done shooting.

2. Frolic in white

Family on a white backgroundWant all eyes to be on you? Eliminate all competing distractions. One fun way to do it is dress in white and pose on a white background. Hey, snow works great – just keep warm! White clothing will conspire to merge with your background, but there are three ways you can keep them apart:

  1. Shadows. Cast onto the plain background, shadows also lend a 3D feel to the image. That’s the approach I used for the shot above. Or you can try the shadowless look by blowing the background out to 100% pure white.
  2. Texture. Make sure the clothing and the background have different patterns to them.
  3. Color. You can make your background a subtly different shade of white from the main subject, and the eye will readily distinguish them. It’s not an urban legend that Eskimos have over 50 names for white. A very precise way to do it is by lighting the background with a different color temperature from the main subject.

3. Play with Christmas lights

Who says Christmas lights only go on a Christmas tree? A big blanket of lights can be used as both a prop and a light for some creative effects. I haven’t shot photos of my own illustrating this point; however, my colleagues Jennifer HardtJulie C Jacob (susiejulie), and Murilo Cardoso were very kind to allow me to feature their work here as great examples of this.

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Just make sure the lights and the wiring are not damaged, are safe to handle, and pets or small kids do not get tangled in them.

Happy Holidays!