How to time-lapse Part III

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What are time-lapses?

Practical thoughts on the time-lapse technique - Part III

Time lapsing step-by-step

Lets have a more practical look on how a time-lapse comes into being by using a DSLR. In this part I will share my experiences that I had in the field far away from home.

The photo travel to the southwest of USA offered me excellent opportunities to practice the time-lapse technique. Expecting only "dead rocks" and thus little action for a real-time video I concentrated on revealing those subtle movements in the shadows and in the sky that is not visible to the naked eye.

The preproduction

At this stage I consider "what when for how long and for what purpose" I want to film, respectively to take the photographic sequence. These simple questions may help you to assemble the kit that suits optimal your needs for the intended project.

The Equipment

  • Of course you can complete your time-lapse project also by using an EVIL camera, like the micro 4/3 Panasonic GH3 or the GM1, which I also use quite often with good results. But when I go for the night sky I prefer a DSLR with a large sensor and fast lenses. As to the question what DSLR brand to choose for this purpose I didn’t had to think much over it. I have inherited a Canon 5D MKII (and than a MKIII) from my husband, who uses a Canon system for years. Also it turned out very practical to have access to his big arsenal of lenses. For this reason I won’t discuss here the pros and cons of other brands.
I didn’t had to think much what camera brand to choose. I inherited the Canon 5D MKII from y husband together with a fine arsenal of lenses. Here in the crater of the Papandayan volcano on Java, Indonesia. While taking the time-lapse we were desperately hoping that the acid vapors would not eat up our gear (yes, the camera survived).
I didn’t had to think much what camera brand to choose. I inherited the Canon 5D MKII from y husband together with a fine arsenal of lenses. Here in the crater of the Papandayan volcano on Java, Indonesia. While taking the time-lapse we were desperately hoping that the acid vapors would not eat up our gear (yes, the camera survived).
  • At night I use the ultra wide Canon lenses EF 14mm/f2.8 or EF 24mm/f1.4 and - in certain situations when I want to cover more oft he sky (in case of a northern lights show) – I take also the Canon Fisheye lens EF 15mm/f2.8.
    During daytime I wouldn’t necessarily need a fast lens. These lenses have a very narrow depth of field with open aperture. In case of a time-lapse with a change of perspective (on a slider, with a panning head or during a hyper-lapse - that is a time-lapse while the photographer is walking around with his tripod-mounted camera) this may be a disadvantage, especially if you cannot change the focus during the session.These lenses work best in difficult light conditions, like for example during a “Holy Grail” session (the transition from day to night or vice versa) or for capturing the starry night sky.
You cannot have an enough wide angle when the aurora borealis explodes over your head. Screenshot from the time-lapse “Arctic Lightscapes” (Norway)
You cannot have an enough wide angle when the aurora borealis explodes over your head. Screenshot from the time-lapse “Arctic Lightscapes” (Norway)

As a non resident of the arctic regions it was very difficult for me to hunt the northern lights. I travelled different times to the distant regions at the polar circle. It was not easy enduring the freezing temperatures and the darkness and sleeping in the tent or in the car when the harsh wind was shaking it too strong. But after a year I had the incredible luck to gather enough video material for this film project.

  • If you intend a longer series of pictures than you definitely need a better way to trigger the capture than to push the button by hand every time. Most of the cameras feature an internal function for interval capture (like Nikon, Pentax, Panasonic and even the Gopro).
    For the Canon 5D I had to look for an external solution. One possibility is an interval meter that triggers the button either by a radio signal or by cable. It works fine at day but the menu buttons are too small to hit them at night. Besides I don’t have the patience to click through the menu when the aurora borealis is just dancing over my head.
    That is why I prefer the alternative of the add-on software Magic Lantern designed for certain Canon cameras – unfortunately there is no stable version for the 5D MKIII yet. But with the 5D MKII I prepare the settings before looking at the big display of the camera and just hit the start button when the northern lights appear.
    The third possibility comes from a device called CamRanger which controls the camera by wireless signal. There is a free app for IOS devices that allows me to modify specific camera settings, including to trigger at certain intervals. Considering the easy handling of it and the offered possibilities this device is my favorite tool. I get a high-res live preview on my IPad, I can zoom in to focus precisely and set the time-lapse parameters while sitting in the warm car.
    However I encountered situations when I hadn’t enough external tools at hand. One night a fantastic aurora borealis unfolded its rays over a Norwegian fjord from west to east above our heads. One Canon 5D MKII with a 14mm lens was directed towards east and was controlled by the Magic Lantern software. The second camera, a MKIII with a 24mm lens overviewed the western horizon and captured the images by the CamRanger. But I had a gap between the perspectives of the two cameras. So I grabbed the third one, a back-up camera to cover the rest of the sky. As I didn’t had an external trigger device at hand for the third Canon I pushed the button by hand as soon as the photo was stored on the card. After one hour in the freezing north wind I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore but I had the aurora.
You cannot have enough cameras to shoot when the northern lights start the show in the Arctic sky. Screenshot from the time-lapse “Arctic Lightscapes” (Norway)
You cannot have enough cameras to shoot when the northern lights start the show in the Arctic sky. Screenshot from the time-lapse “Arctic Lightscapes” (Norway)
  • Of course this manual method is out of question when the camera is moving along a slider. A lot of slider producers jumped on the new trend for time-lapses and equipped their sliders with motorized control heads that trigger the cameras by a cable connection. By using a motorized head on a slider I can not only capture automatically pictures at given intervals but I achieve also a change in the perspective during the sequence. A lot of time-lapse photographers use the system solutions from Kessler Crane or the lower priced alternative from Dynamic Perception. But searching on the Internet you may find a huge amount of budget sliders. I use an aluminum slider by Igus with a custom-made control head designed for me by Pocketslider. However a slider, or dolly, makes sense only if you have a nice motive in the foreground. A knobbed trunk or a bizarre rock detaches itself from the background during the movement of the camera along the slider and your time-lapse gets an exquisite 3D touch.
Our first motorized slider in action on the Lofoten islands in Norway.
Our first motorized slider in action on the Lofoten islands in Norway.
  • If you don’t use a slider than it is imperative to put your camera on a tripod when taking a time-lapse. When choosing a tripod and a head you may consider the overall stability of the whole set. The camera and the attached lens have to be inert over a longer period of time even when wind is going. I would recommend a tripod with a hook attached to the center column. You can hang a load to the hook (be it a sand filled sack or your backpack) but take care that the load has contact with the ground otherwise it may swing in the wind and make everything worse. This way I can use lightweight tripods, which I can carry easier in a rough terrain. On Iceland the katabatic winds from the glaciers shook the tripod so strongly that I had to fasten the center column with a tension belt to a heavy rock in order to prevent the whole rig from flying away.
  • Although the batteries go without saying along with the operation of a camera I will write some words about this topic. If a battery dies while filming or photographing there is normally no problem to interrupt the activity and to change it with a fresh one. In case of a time-lapse you have to preserve the continuity of the shots otherwise you get a leap in the sequence. A Canon battery lasts an average of four hours at normal temperatures but its life drops easily to one or two hours at freezing temperatures. For time-lapses in the Arctic regions I use therefore a  “diy”, cold-resistant energy source made up of six LiO, high performance cells (Panasonic NCR18650B ). The camera ran at temperatures far below zero for twelve hours.
The batteries won’t last long in the harsh arctic winters (Norway).
The batteries won’t last long in the harsh arctic winters (Norway).
  • In addition to the hardware mentioned above there are also various software programs and mobile apps that make your life easier as a time-lapse photographer. For example when planning a rough route for my time-lapse trip I use not only travel guides and blogs from the Internet but also Google Earth, the maps from Navigon or Skobbler (which are accessible on my IPhone), the great weather app from Weather Map+, the Aurora Forecast or the time-lapse and photo planning app Photo Pills (this app helps you also to calculate the necessary length of the time-lapse, the intervals and the later video outcome).

 In the next blog, the fourth part of these how-to time-lapse series I will write about the on-site production and the necessary considerations.

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