Keith Robertson

Panoramic Photography

Google Maps Evolves

Pano2VR, the programme I use to publish my Panoramas and Virtual Tours on my website has recently been updated to work with Google Maps. I accidentally discovered that with the click of one button I could publish all of my previous projects straight onto Google Maps.

I'd tried this ages ago, but it wasn't easy. Low quality material was ok, but my large files weren't. The only practical way was to upload files to my iPhone's camera roll and then use Google's iPhone app to upload them to Google's servers that host all of their map stuff. I also had to geotag the file before starting otherwise Google wouldn't know where it was and reject it. Once was enough, never again!!

What was strange was I kept getting emails from Google saying my single panorama was very popular and had received over a 1000 visits…. Interesting… So my thinking started to change. Rather than thinking Google were freeloading corporate bullies wanting all of my high-quality content for free I could think of them as 'free hosting webspace' for my material. With the added advantage that the images would be still on their servers when I was long-gone….

So I'm now very interested in seeing how this develops.

Google used to have a number of affiliation programmes with loads of rules and things which were very off-putting.

Now it's very simple. Upload a panorama and it gets approved after a few days. Has to be of a certain quality, not too many logos, etc. Once you have 50 approved panoramas you become a 'Google Street View Trusted Photographer'. This was simple for me as I was able to upload a number of my previous projects with one click in the new button in Pano2VR.

I've been able to link some of my 'commercial' tours to the businesses' own Google account so it appears when searched for in Google or Google Maps. All very interesting.

Google has basically opened up their API to all and sundry. Garden Gnome who make Pano2VR are scrambling to add all sorts of bits and pieces to the system to work with what Google will let them. it's all very dynamic too. The API is changing and being added to all the time. Once the changes settle down the developers have to try and update their software.

So, exciting times ahead.



Speed Update

I've been a little busy lately updating my 2010 Mac Pro 5,1:
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 10.37.49-300x300
The original 4 core CPU running at 2.something Ghz was replaced with 12 cores of 3.46Ghz fastness:

Here is the old CPU board:


And the new one…


The chips are 2 x 3.46 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon's, actually X5690's, which Apple never got round to selling themselves. All courtesy of the good guys at Create Pro.

The Geekbench score for the computer is now around 32,000, which is in the same ball park as the latest trashcan MacPro 6,1 you can spend many £,0000's on:
Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 17.19.16-300x300
So my Mac is about as fast as it can go, helped along by the 2TB SSD all my files live on.

12 cores = 24 threads, and here they are:

24 cores

It sure is speedy running day to day stuff, but rendering my test panorama still took over 4 minutes, exactly the same time as before, no real surprise, I was expecting this as the real bottleneck was the Graphic Processor Unit, the GPU.

Now the GPU world is a bit of a minefield, especially if you've not paid any attention to it for the last oh, say 15 years…!

Basically new cards are released quite often, 2 or 3 times a year from the main manufacturers. There is a lot of jargon. The main benchmark is the Frames Per Second your card will run children's games at. You can run things like the 'Unigine Valley Benchmark' to test your system and compare it with your pals. There are referenced and un-referenced cards, water cooling, etc. The mind boggles!

I don't do games, but my rendering software, PTGui, can sure use a powerful GPU to help things along. There are two main standard technologies built into these GPU's - OpenCL and Cuda. Some cards support both, some only one. Cuda seems to be the most popular; most, if not all games use it. But pro graphical systems and pro video software tools do a bit of both. PTGui, the only programme I'm interested in, is OpenCL only.

My card of choice was to be the Nvidia Nvidia GTX 1080:


Fast as a fast thing, it's not even out yet, everyone wants one! One small issue is it's a bit of a pain using it on my Mac. It run's ok with software drivers. But, as it's not designed with Macs in mind, it won't do certain things. Biggest pain is you can't update your Mac OS once it's in the box. To do this you have to take it out, put in your old GPU, update the OS, swap the fancy new one back in. The pain could be worth it though, the improvement is speed is amazing, so I'm led to believe.

There is a work-around for this. Some really clever people at MacVidCards, can breathe some magic over any generic GPU to make it look and feel like a proper native Mac card, so that gets round the problem of OS updates. MacVidCards are US based, but lucky for us they now have an European distributor, who also sell refurbished 5,1 Mac Towers, they are - Mac Store UK

But there is a major major block to simply getting a MacVidCards GPU for me… Turn's out there's a big bug in the software chain with PTGui. Apple's own implementation of OpenCL won't play with the Nvidia drivers and PTGui. So buying the best and fastest card isn't an option - it simply won't work for now. It will probably be fixed in due course, the Nice PTGui people (thanks again Joost) are putting pressure on Apple to get their act together and address the issue, but they seem to be tied up making phones and iPads at the moment.

In the mean time I decided to try and track down the last iteration of an OpenCL GPU that would still work on my machine. It would be a few years old, probably obsolete, but would still give me a speed boost. Once the Nvidia issue is resolved I could probably sell it for what I paid for it too.

After days of research in dark and dusty corners of the interweb I decided to try and track down an AMD Radeon 7970. All my research told me it did work on a Mac, the last OpenCL one to do so out of the box, and a good copy should be fine. Trouble is, they haven't been made for a few years so getting a new one is impossible. Many apparently have been used in bit-coin mining rigs running super fast, 24/7 for months and are basically fried. MacVidCards told me horror stories of them buying a box of 50 or so and ¾ weren't working. They recommended running Unigine Valley's benchmark a couple of times on the 'UltraHD' setting. If it survives that it might be ok, for a while!!

So here it is, an AMD Radeon HD 7970 3gb:


Very shiny. If the fan blades had been white then it would have been an Apple original item, the red fan means it was originally for Pee Cee, but it's easy to 'flash' the card so it thinks it's meant to be used on a Mac. Mine was supplied by the MacFactory in Germany via EBay. Works really well. The test pano now renders in 40 seconds instead of 4 minutes, so I'm almost impressed. It's reported as being a 7970:


But on the side it's stamped 8970. Turns out this is a slightly updated, speed bumped model. So all good!

Here is the original puny ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB


I'll report back with some hard benchmark figures at some point, unless everything has melted…

SSD Update

Here is the speed test for my PowerMac with the 2TB SSD in place:

With SSD:

DiskSpeedTest 2TB HD
Quite a difference in the startup time, it's now almost instant. Rendering panoramas is a bit better, but not by a huge amount.

Up next will be updating the CPU and GPU.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 powered all day with PowerGorilla Professional Battery


Made up a cable last night so I can run my camera off a large battery. Means I can shoot panoramas all day in the wild if I want to.

Tricky to put al the bits together. No one makes the actual cable. Olympus in their wisdom went for a plug/socket on the camera that's unique to them. Very naughty really, nothing at all to do with them trying to sell you their AC power supply for £80?

Luckily the nice ExPro people will sell you an equivalent for £13 on eBay. So that the fancy camera plug taken care of.

Screenshot 2015-12-13 10.52.52

I had a few spare leads that came with my PowertTaveler PowerGorilla Pro battery so a few minutes work with scissors, solder and self-amalgamating tape I have a lead! It works too, which is nice. I made sure to check the polarity with my little voltage meter. I should now test it to see how many shots I can take with it.

I had the battery already, used most often on 2 week long sea-kayaking trips to keep some vital navigation gadgets working. PowerTraveller make lots of smaller, cheaper ones.

Note the PowerGorilla Pro has a number of outputs, normal 5v USB and a more conventional single pin socket where you can vary the voltage from 8.4v to 24v. If you're thinking of using a smaller, cheaper battery, one that only has a USB socket won't be any good as far as I can tell.


The Olympus AC-3 AC Adapter is rated at 9V DC, 3000mA. The PowerGorilla Pro puts out 5V - 24V and 21000mAh. I might get 7 hours of continuous shooting?

SSDs, Trim and Mac OSX El Capitan

I've been doing a little research into SSDs and OSX, so here is what I've discovered…

Screenshot 2015-12-10 16.57.53
me and my pals on The Shield, El Capitan, October 2003

The Chronology
Solid State Drives (SSDs) first appeared in 1976 as hugely expensive rack mounted storage for mainframe computers. 256kb cost $9700 in 1977.

Intel 'Bubble Memory' started to be offered in laptops in the early 1980's. 128kb retailed for $895.

Modern SSDs as we know today first emerged in 1995, based on the 3.5inch form factor. Mainly used as cache drives in desktop machines.

Flash SSDs went mainstream in 2006 when Samsung released a 2.5inch 32gb drive for $699.

Today, in 2015, Samsung will sell you a 2TB SSD in a 2.5inch package for your laptop or desktop computer. Available for around £500 to £600 on eBay in the UK.

Advantages of using SSDs
Users love any computer that runs off an SSD - they transform even quite average laptops into super fast performers. Boot up or startup from sleep is nearly instantaneous and most normal operations are speeded up amazingly.

Once you've got used to a computer with an SSD as its startup drive you certainly notice the difference going back to a conventional computer with physical (spinning rust) disks and its slow startup time.

For me, stitching large 80mpixel panoramas, which are too big to hold in memory, an SSD will make a huge difference in rendering times.

SSD drives, being solid state, work slightly differently to conventional spinning hard drives. Normal HD's simply mark deleted space as available to use, the drive doesn't know the space is free until it is overwritten. The internal firmware continues to do 'garbage control' on this space as if it held data, until it is overwritten.

SSDs can benefit from an additional command to tell it earlier that the space is available, so it doesn't have to do this internal, drive level, garbage collection quite so often. This is known as 'Trim'.

Without Trim, SSDs may have a tendency to slow down and appear fuller than they actually are. They should still work though.

What is Trim Support
Trim is an ATA command, sent to the SSD master controller by the operating system to tell it what data address is “invalid”, which will greatly reduce the burden of writes, while allowing SSD better pre-delete the unused data blocks in background, so that these blocks can prepare new write faster. 1

Mac OSX and Third Party SSD Trim Support
Trim has evolved over time like all computer technology. When Apple first released laptops with SSD drives they enabled Trim support in the OS as they were selling you the complete package and had tested the kit together to make sure it all worked fine.

Apple did not enable their OS to use Trim with any 3rd party SSD drives. This could be seen as sensible at the time as not all Trim enabled SSD drives worked the same way. The danger was if you used 'the wrong one' then the Apple Trim command could literally destroy your SSD and all of the data held on it.

Many users smelt a rat and believed Apple was crippling the use of 3rd party SSD drives intentionally so that users were compelled to buy the expensive Apple version.

Of course - nothing could be further from the truth Winking

Thirty party developers quickly stepped in and produced hacks to the OS to enable Trim on any 3rd party SSDs, so everyone was happy. 2

'Trouble was these hacks worked at such a low level that whenever Apple released an incremental OS update it (unintentionally of course) broke the hack, and sometimes, so people claimed, broke their SSDs and destroyed all of their data.

Clearly a bit of a mess.

El Capitan comes to the rescue
Increasingly aware of the bad reputation starting to build on this issue, Tim Cook, in mid-2015 announced that from now on, Apple will enable the Trim command natively in the next release of OSX El Capitan.

This is clearly great news. No OS level hacks are required, or third party software, just a simple one-time, one-line command in the Terminal will switch on Trim on any Mac running El Capitan or later, for ever.

How to enable Trim support in OSX El Capitan
From the terminal enter:
IMG_1281 3
: sudo trimforce enable

Apple will warn you about using 3rd party drives, it's up to you to check they will work ok with the Mac, most modern ones are ok I believe.
IMG_1282 4

I am looking forward to adding a 2TB SSD to my Mac Pro
Tower (2010 vintage) as soon as funds allow Happy

SSDs don't seem to last forever. Over time the chips do apparently wear out. For example, Samsung currently guarantee their 850 Pro range to be at 75% capacity after 10 years of use.

Some SSDs don't use Trim, these are the ones that connect to a desktop machine via the internal PCI bus, they use their own controller to manage data deletion. Trim is an ATA command only.

KR December 2015