Time Lapse Mission: Two Day Charity Event Tutorial
I was asked advice on shooting a time lapse of a charity event including one day of setup, and another of the event itself filled with people. I looked for one of the many blogs I had read to learn about time lapse, but none of them seem to really fit the bill completely so I figured I’d do a quick write up of the process. Since this tutorial is geared towards working photographers with DSLR cameras, I’ve included a lot of the finer points to time lapse so you can come back for more once you’ve got the basics down. There’s a lot to absorb here, so I’d recommend figuring out a way to take this tutorial with you to the shoot if you’re new.
Choose Your Shot
I see a lot of time lapses that rely on the fact that they’re time lapses. The medium itself is used as a crutch for an otherwise boring composition (incidentally, this is the same problem photo fads such as Instagram suffer from). Your unique vision, careful composition, and commitment to interesting content remain the most important aspect of image making, whether it’s time lapse or portraiture. As a rule of thumb, a single frame taken from a time lapse sequence should have the strength of composition and subject matter to merit its own viewing. I picture my shots as still photographs, professionally framed and hanging in a gallery. If the shot is not interesting enough to hold its own in my imaginary gallery, I know that I’m not done composing. Explore your subject first with still photographs, then sort through them in Lightroom and choose the one with the best composition to become your “moving photograph.” Part of this process is to pre-visualize time itself. Take yourself through the hours of the day, and picture the sun, the clouds, the people, the construction of the event, and everything else unfolding.
One other very important consideration while choosing your shot is to remember video aspect ratios. It is highly likely that your time lapse will wind up being part of a video presentation that has a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9. In many cameras you can choose this aspect ratio in the menu settings. You can also crop the image in post-production in lightroom.
Intervalometer (Timer Remote)
An intervalometer is basically a fancy name for “camera stopwatch.” It’s plugged into the camera’s shutter release port, and used to set the camera off at whatever time interval you choose. Many Nikon DSLR’s have intervalometers or “timers” built right into them. You can hack your Canon DSLR’s with upgraded software called, Magic Lantern, to include built in intervalometers (amongst many other things), and even Canon point and shoots with CHDK software, but that’s a (huge) wormhole for another post. Canon sells an official intervalometer, the TC80N3, at an incredibly inflated price of $140, but you can easily get an intervalometer for less than half the price of the TC80N3. The important thing is to get one with the right connector for the shutter release on your camera. Many Canon’s have a proprietary connector called the “N3” (40D, 50D, 7D, 5D, etc), but my 60D has a 2.5mm jack (looks like a mini headphone jack). Other brands will have different connectors. On Amazon I’ve found the most relevant results by searching “timer remote [camera model].” “Timer Remote” seems to have confusingly replaced the word “intervalometer” in many cases, but they are synonymous. I bought a Studio Hut intervalometer for my 60D at about $45, and it’s done a great job.
Once you’ve got the intervalometer you need to determine the actual interval. This is the time between shots, and it varies greatly depending on the situation. Your choice of interval can often be influenced by other factors such as the size of your memory card, and the length of the time lapse. For our purposes let’s assume from the original question about shooting the charity for one day of setup, and one day of the event, that this will be a 10 hour period on each day (only a ten hour day, yeah right, aren’t I funny?). If we take a shot every 10 seconds how many shots will we take during the 10 hour day, and how much memory will we need? Well hold your breath, and pull out your cell phone calculators (or free time lapse calculator apps, if you’re looking for brownie points).
How about we try getting everything onto a 32GB card per day instead? Before we do that, it should be noted that 10 second intervals, or even less, are very good intervals for people and clouds. You can easily get larger cards, and/or switch cards out between shots. However, when doing this you run the risk of bumping the camera, and also of missing one of the shots in the sequence if you don’t switch the card quickly enough (OMG! STRESS!). Let’s do the math in reverse:
Reduce the file size in order to take more pictures. Many cameras can take smaller size RAW files, or JPG. Personally, I absolutely will not shoot in JPG. It does not behave well in post-production when working with color correction, and if you capture a single frame that you’d like to print you’re stuck with a compressed format. It’s simply not professional. In the example above, if I reduce my resolution to “small RAW” in my camera settings, the files average about 10MB each. This would double the amount of shots I could fit onto a 32GB card to 3,200. It is likely that I would do this exact thing in this scenario, since 23 second gaps are a bit large to properly time lapse human bodies scurrying about. A person can move completely in and out of your frame in 23 seconds.
One of the biggest challenges in time lapse, after you get the technical operations down, is to keep the camera going. I recommend buying a battery grip to store extra batteries in. You can get plenty of aftermarket options very inexpensively on Amazon for this as well. If you don’t have one, but you do have an extra battery or two (or eight, in my case), I would recommend practicing quick battery changes before your actual shoot. It should become obvious very quickly that you need to mount your camera on the tripod in a manner that makes the battery compartment completely and easily accessible. When changing batteries you must be incredibly careful not to bump the tripod.
You Bumped the Tripod, Didn’t You?
It’s not the end of the world. Except that it is, and now you’ve set off the apocalypse. Perhaps you can still use parts of your time lapse, or you can live with the bump if it’s minor, or better yet look up youtube tutorials on how to stabilize your shots in Adobe Aftereffects (this is what I do). Bumping the tripod is the easiest thing in the world to do, and I still do it all the damn time despite my level of experience. The best thing you can do is put the tripod, which is hopefully a heavy one with locking legs, out of the way of crowds, friends, and yourself. Even though you’ve brought about the apocalypse with your carelessness, you can take heart in knowing that everyone who has ever done time lapse work has bumped the goddamn tripod. Okay, I’m starting to get pissed off at myself, let’s talk about something else.
Set your camera to manual, and choose your settings very carefully. One of the most difficult things with time lapse is accounting for changing light conditions. This subject will definitely require its own blog post (or two), because there are roughly 16 stops of light difference from midday to a moonless night. Going from one to the other smoothly is known as ‘The Holy Grail’ in time lapse because it’s so problematic and difficult. But in our Charity event scenario, we won’t have to deal with anything quite so dramatic. Here are the bullet points for settings:
Post-Processing In Lightroom
Lightroom is vital to most time lapse processes, and again, warrants its own blog post, but I’ll attempt to cover the basics important to time lapse photography here, and leave the rest of the program to Adobe tutorials and youtube (seriously, did you know you can learn any freakin thing on youtube?).
Import into a Video Editing Program
Choose “Import” from the file menu. Find your folder of JPGS, and click once on the first image (named “Charity Event-1001.jpg” in this case). At the bottom of the import box you should see something like “import image sequence” in both Premiere and Final Cut. By checking this box both programs will interpret the entire series of jpgs as a video clip, instead of individual images, and it will import them at whatever framerate you have your video editing project set to. You can now drag the clip to your timeline, just as you would any video clip.
There are loads, and loads more details to cover. Time lapse is really complicated, yo. If people are interested in this tutorial, I’ll keep writing others. Until then, GTS people! I’ll also be happy to address questions in the comments,