Friday, July 26, 2019

Smart Lights Control

Hue bulbs in a floor lamp.I’ve seen a lot of people start their foray into smart home with smart bulbs only to be faced with a problem of controlling those smart bulbs in a way that would not annoy the rest of the family.

Recently a friend of mine started this journey and I’ve been going through the options that I have discovered for myself over the course of last year. So I decided to lay out a simple guide of those options along with their pros and cons.

I’ll preface this with a couple of points on the specifics of my experience and smart bulbs in general.

I’ve only dealt with Philips Hue smart bulbs, which is probably the most popular brand. The issue that people face with smart bulbs is that they must always be powered on, thus rendering a regular wall switch useless. If power is cut all the smarts are gone with it.

The first and the most obvious way to control smart bulbs is with a manufacturer’s app that one can install on the phone. However this also takes the first place for the most inconvenient way of dealing with the lights. My opinion is that some form of physical control is a must.

Blocked switch.It is also advisable that the actual physical switch is either removed or blocked in some way in order to prevent other family members or guests from cutting the power off. There are multiple ways to achieve this, but the simplest way is to buy a set of plastic switch blockers on Amazon. These can be bought for any type of switch, be it “decora” or a toggle switch.

Philips Hue motion sensor.Another simple way to control smart bulbs is with a motion sensor. Somebody walks in, the lights go on. After a set period of time of no motion the bulbs go off. I, however, prefer to have my motion sensors to be “on” only at certain times and therefore I have another type of a physical control associated with motion sensor controlled lights.

So let’s talk about actual switches that can be used with Hue in place of the original dumb switch or alongside it.

Hue Dimmer switch being used as a stand-alone remote.Philips itself makes two of these. One is a battery powered Hue Dimmer switch which is probably the most affordable option. These typically go for $25 and can be gotten for even less on sale.

This switch actually gets exposed to HomeKit, so I use it for numerous applications beside controlling the Hue bulbs themselves all throughout the house. For example I have one of these mounted in the hallway on our way to the bedroom to turn off Hue bulbs in the far living room along with kitchen island lights controlled by a smart Wemo switch.

There are three ways to mount these. One is to simply use the stickers on the provided plate and stick it to the wall in a desired place. This switch is battery powered so the placement of it is truly unrestricted. It can go anywhere.

Standard Hue Dimmer plate in place of an old dumb switch.If you’re not happy with sticker approach the plate also has screw holes. I use this approach when I actually replace a physical switch. I take out the actual power switch, connect the wires inside to the constant “on” position and screw on Hue Dimmer to cover the hole.

3D printed plate for Hue Dimmer switches.But my favorite way is to actually use a 3D printed specialty plate that leaves the original switch alone and mounts right on top of it in place of the original plate. I have a couple of these in our house. With this setup you have a fairly clean look and still have an option of accessing a hidden dumb switch.

Same plate as above with switches taken out. Switches are held in by magnets.A ton of possible configurations of these can be found on Etsy. In fact I have replaced a single toggle switch’s plate by our bathroom entrance with a plate that can mount three Hue Dimmers. We have three independently controlled lights in the bathroom and switches for those are in multiple places. Now those lights can be controlled from a single location.

Hue Tap as a stand-alone switch.The next option for a switch is Tap, which is also made by Philips. While Hue Dimmer works well on typical walls I find Tap’s round shape to have a better fit in certain other applications. This switch costs $50 and it also gets exposed to HomeKit.

It doesn’t need any kind of power at all. It uses kinetic energy from the button presses, which makes it feel slightly unusual. Some people dislike the feeling of these buttons, but I find them perfectly acceptable.

Hue Tap attached to the bed's headboard.I have one of these mounted on the headboard of our bed by my pillow. It controls our bedside table lamps along with a Hue led strip under our bed. It works in conjunction with a Hue Dimmer switch mounted in place of the original pre-Hue switch by the bedroom door.

I have four different light schemes programmed into this switch along with the main button being a toggle for a regular warm light and “off” button. This can be achieved with 3rd party HomeKit applications which allow for conditional automations. If light is “on” perform “off” function. And vise versa.

A third switch that I have used in my home is a “decora” shaped kinetic switch made by a company called RunLessWire. It fits into an opening in the wall in place of standard dumb switch. For it to work the actual wires have to be connected together in a permanent “on” configuration.

This switch will cost you $59 and it also gets exposed into HomeKit. It’s called Click.

A pair of RunLessWire Click switches.The switch itself does not use any kind of power — same principal as Tap switch mentioned above. When ordered, the switch comes with two possible options — single or double button. This particular switch is useful when you have a multiple gang box, but only want to replace one of them.

I specifically had a configuration where I wanted to control four different lights, but only had two sized opening in the wall. I replaced both of the original switches with two-buttoned versions of RunLessWire Click switches.

As with Tap, the buttons have an unusual feel to them. I find them not to be instant all the time, meaning that you have to hold the button depressed and wait for a programmed action to trigger. Kids in particular had trouble with this, but eventually got trained to hold the buttons down for a long enough period of time.

Lutron Aurora switch next to a standard Lutron Caseta smart switch.The last and a very new addition to this party is a recently release Lutron Aurora dimmer switch made specifically for Hue. This is the only switch out of the above mentioned ones that does not get exposed to HomeKit, which limits it to controlling Hue bulbs only.

A pair of Lutron Aurora switches next to Wemo smart switches.It attaches right onto a standard toggle switch, thus blocking it in permanent “on” position and takes over the Hue control functionality. It looks like an old style dimmer knob. It’s aesthetically pleasing and it provides a physical control for Hue bulbs as opposed to simply blocking the dumb switch with a piece of plastic.

Same as above, different angle.The installation takes less than five minutes. The base comes with a blade kind of a piece that cuts slightly into the toggle switch when you tighten the screw on this base. And the controller itself just snaps onto the installed base. Aurora will run you $39 a piece.

Lutron Aurora mounting base attached to a standard toggle switch.That’s it for the physical controls. A good sized array of options. And I should mention voice control as well if you have access to Siri or Alexa. But it not nearly as convenient as any of the actual physical controls.

In conclusion all of these have their strong sides and you probably should be choosing based on your application.

Custom printed plate for Hue Dimmer switches.In my opinion custom 3D printed plates for Hue Dimmers are probably the most versatile option — you’re making the least amount of modifications, you still have access to your dumb switches which are cleverly hidden and you’re not gluing anything to the wall.

Same as above, with one switch taken out.Philips Hue Dimmers themselves are very cheap and you get the full functionality of HomeKit open to them, giving you a wide array of configurations and use cases.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Family Photograph

Family photograph. Our favorite shot.Today we took up a monumental task of getting a nice family photographs of ourselves to print out for Alёna’s mom and for ourselves as a bonus. We all got dressed, I setup the lights and demonstrated to Alёna’s mom how to operate the camera.

Second favorite.The hardest part by far is to get the kids to do the right thing. When one is looking into the camera another one is yawning. When another one is looking into the camera the other one is talking or making faces. Alёna and I did our best not to screw up the photo because it was hard enough, but we still do blink.

Third. I'm seriously considering trimming my beard.All in all we took over 250 raw photos. No exaggeration. Multiple sets, multiple tries, changes of positions, light setup adjustments, candy bribes. But after several hours we did manage to produce a couple of worthy print candidates. Three best ones are above.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Photographing iPhone

iPhone 4 on pure white background.Over the last 10 year or so I’ve learned a lot about photography. There are two things that I keep doing to grow — experimenting a lot and reading the information that others have chosen to share. It would be good to contribute to this pool of knowledge that is available online.

Some of these ideas are probably very simple and there is no “secret souse” to any of this, but guides like these were helpful to me. Hopefully it will be helpful to somebody else.

For me the process of taking a photograph includes 2 phases — taking the shot itself and post-processing. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Post everything from start to finish.

Taking The Photograph

Light tent folded next to 50mm lens for size comparison.The setup itself is fairly simple. I used a light tent given to me by my wife for New Year — Interfit Pop Up Light Tent, 24″. You don’t have to buy anything and can build something simple yourself.

Light tent setup.I used a large sheet of white cardboard to server as the floor and the background for my image. This creates the seamless background, but in this type of photograph when a relatively flat object is involved it would be easy to fix in post-processing.

Nikon SB-600 and SB-800 speedlights.I placed flashes on each side of my light tent. I used Nikon SB-600 and SB-800 speedlights mounted in the stands that come with them in the box. I reversed one of them so both of their control “eyes” would be facing the camera. I aimed them at the center of each side of the light tent and set them to remote slaves. If you do not have 2 strobes you can either use regular bright lights (preferably tungsten not to get a yellow color cast as you would from regular incandescent bulbs) or put some reflector on one of the sides of the light tent.

Rocket Air. "Professional Cleaning System". Funny.I placed iPhone in the center and mounted my D700 camera on the tripod in front of the light tent. Before proceeding to take the shots I used a “device” that I have for blowing the dust off from the camera sensor to get rid of as much dust as possible. You should also use some fiber cloth to wipe all the finger prints from the phone before proceeding. The idea is to fix as much as possible before the photo is taken so you have less to do in post-processing.

Commander mode for pop-up flash on D700.Now we’re going to setup the camera. The pop-up flash is set to commander mode. It will trigger both of the flashes, but it will not contribute to the exposure itself — we don’t want any weird glares coming unfiltered directly from the flash. Both speedlights are set to TTL. We’ll leave it up to the camera to figure out how hard they should be fired.

The camera itself is set to manual mode. I used spot metering on the phone to guide my settings. The idea here is to try to blow out (overexpose) as much of the background as possible while not blowing out any of the detail on the item that you’re trying to photograph.

I set the aperture to f/10 to widen the depth of field to get the object as sharp as possible. I also set my ISO to a low value — no reason to add noise when the camera is tripod mounted and the exposure will not be very long anyhow. The value that you play with is shutter-speed. Using a dSRL makes it easy to take experimental shots and look at the end result to check for overexposure. Again, overexposure around the object is good, while on the object itself is not so much. If you can’t get all of the background to overexpose we’ll fix it in the post-processing.


Before post-processing.Our photo straight out of the camera doesn’t look so hot. The background is grayish, there is still visible dust on the phone and the whole thing is crooked.

I usually start by putting the photo through Lens Correction filter. I will fix geometric distortion, straighten it out and slightly adjust the perspective. After that is done we will crop it and remove the visible dust with Spot Healing Brush.

Step 2.At this point I grabbed a Brush and roughly painted with white color the areas around the phone not to deal with different specks of dust.

Levels adjustment layer.Now we’re going to add a Levels Adjustment Layer and overexpose all the highlights by dragging the white pointer to the left. Hold down Alt button while doing it and you will see all the areas that are getting overexposed. Now we got our pure-white background and we’re getting closer to what the final result should look like.

Curves adjustment layer.Add a Curves Adjustment Layer. We’re going to bring the shadows down slightly to make the black areas “blacker” and bump up the contrast slightly by doing so.

Saturation.At this point I pulled the highlights to the cold side slightly and bumped up the Saturation. Don’t overdo the Saturation though.

Clearing the color cast.I wasn’t happy with the yellow cast that was still visible on the bezels of the phone. I used Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to pull the color down close to black & white photo. Then I put a mask over the screen to bring the color back.

Sharpening.At this point you can hit Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E to end up with a single layer by summing up all the previous ones and apply some sharpening to the final image. I prefer to use Smart Sharpen filter. You should also try to stick to Lab mode for your sharpening step and apply sharpening on the Lightness channel.


iPhone 4. Finished photograph.There you have it. A finished product. Now the above steps are not law of the land and nothing is set in stone. That’s what I do personally. There might be better ways to reach certain objectives and you should always experiment yourself. But maybe these pointers will give you some ideas when you’re working on your own projects of one or another kind.

Let me know if I can clear something up or if you found any of this helpful. Your feedback is always appreciated.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Light Tent

Light tent setup. Two flashes aimed at the sides, triggered with D700 built in flash.I’m doing some experimenting with the light tent1 that Alёna got me for New Year and want to post some sample shots. I expected it to be a bit smaller when opened, because when closed it is no bigger than a standard mousepad. However after opening it the first time we have yet to figure out how to fold it back up.

Having a camera with a working comander flash (D70 clearly had some issues in its last days) and 2 remote flashes (Nikon SB-800 & SB-600 pair) makes taking shots of items amazingly easy. If last time I had to take literally hundreds of shots to get a decent one, the shots below I’ve gotten from 2-3 tries. These shots needed small level adjustment to blow out the whites or pull in the blacks and that was pretty much it.

Casio Pathfinder watch.
iPhone 4.
iPhone 4. Black.For reflection I’m using a marble tile which has a lot of imperfections in it. I need to replace it with a simple piece of glass.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Bulova watch photographed inside the lightbox.With all the watch excitement lately I needed to come up with a good way to share with the readers of the blog. For that you obviously need good pictures. And to take good pictures of watches you obviously need a lightbox of some kind.

Lightbox in use. Desk lamps from the left and the top, remotely controlled Nikon SB-800 flash from the right. I used a simple guide posted on Strobist to build one without spending a lot of money. Borrowed a cardboard box from work, Alёna bought some tracing paper and that’s pretty much it.

Construction process is very simple. Just cut out 3 of the sides and tape over the cuts with tracing paper.I need to replace one of the lamps with a regular bulb with a lamp with a tungsten bulb to get rid of the yellow light. And I guess a 2nd flash would do wonders too. But overall not bad of a result at all for a first try with this cheap structure.
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Friday, May 9, 2008


Candles in the night.I’ve been experimenting with flash tonight which left me with a photo above. Now I keep sitting and starting at it for no apparent reason. In my mind I keep seeing different interpretations, but they are just candles. So I figured I’ll just post it here.

As to the technique of taking this photo — there is not much too it. I have constructed a tube out of a piece of cardboard and attached it to the flash. I aimed it directly at the candles, turned the lights off and took a shot. Photoshop editing was minimal.
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