Star Struck: Night Time-Lapse Photography

How Shane Black got hooked on bringing still images to life through night time-lapse photography
Night time-lapse photography - Goblin Valley
Goblin Valley State Park, Utah. It was eerily quiet, and I was the only other human out exploring the goblins at night under a pitch-black sky. It was a little creepy. But it was a pleasant surprise to see a good amount of airglow in the sky to add to the otherworldly landscape.

While I was attempting to contact Shane Black for this interview, Emmy Award-winning producer Jon Kroll suggested that I try smoke signals or engage a carrier pigeon. Fortunately, neither were necessary to locate the (occasionally) Ohio-based photographer.

Kroll and his producing partner, Rupert Thompson, “discovered” Black as more than a million others did, coming across his breathtaking “Adventure is Calling” night time-lapse photography video. (Watch this video below.) They tracked him down in a remote area of Death Valley and hired the young photographer to create similar imagery for their Fox reality show, “American Grit.”

Whether creating time-lapse or stills, the landscape and astrophotographer and his cameras thrive in a world without artificial lights—except for the occasional flashlight and headlamp.

Outdoor Photographer: Let’s talk about your recent work for “American Grit.”

Shane Black: The producers brought me out to Washington state to shoot time-lapse for transitions between scenes. We focused on cloud movement during the day and transitions from day to night and night to day. Movie and TV companies really like time-lapse to help convey the passage of time so they can jump between scenes without having their viewers ask, “What happened to the rest of that day?”

Night time-lapse photography - Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park in South Dakota at night, as a crescent moon sets to the right of the frame.

OP: How did you shoot the time-lapses?

SB: I had three camera bodies with me the whole time with a variety of lenses to get plenty of content and a variety of shots. I also brought out a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero 6-foot time-lapse dolly for one of the cameras to slide a fraction of an inch between shots.

The durations were very dependent on the situation I was shooting. If I’m going for sunrise or sunset, I’ll usually run the camera for about an hour. Night shots take a lot more time because you need longer exposures, meaning it takes longer to take more photos. Those usually run three to six hours. If I’m doing a transitional day to night or night to day shot, that’s going to take normally four to five hours.

OP: What’s the frequency of your shots for time-lapses?

SB: That’s also situational. I try and shoot with clouds whenever I can because they help show the passage of time more than just about anything. If they’re moving pretty quickly, I usually do about three-second intervals, that way you get a really nice playback. If I’m shooting on a cloudless day and I just want to get the shadows moving and show the transition of time that way, then I’ll go with much longer intervals, maybe 10, 15 or 20 seconds. That way I’m not just getting a whole load of photos with not much change happening between them.

Night time-lapse photography - Mauna Kea
Near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. This photo turned into way more than what I thought it would be when I was shooting. It took a 23-image panorama, shot with a 24mm lens, to capture the grandness of the scene I was in. It captured zodiacal light, a moonlit layer of fog, a bright Milky Way directly over Mauna Loa, green airglow and even glow in the distance from the Kilauea Caldera.

OP: Much of your time-lapse and still photography focuses on astrophotography. What draws you to it?

SB: It’s my favorite subject to shoot. The camera with long exposures can pick up so much more of what’s out there than the naked eye. I let the camera do a 20- or 30-second exposure with my ISO up and my aperture wide open, and when the results pop up on the LCD, they’re astonishing, especially if I’m in a place that lends itself to it. Really dark, remote places away from big city lights work best.

OP: What range of ISOs are you usually working with?

SB: It depends on what the camera can handle. You can’t crank up the ISOs too high without getting some noise with entry-level DSLRs. I’m using mainly a Canon 5D Mark III and I recently got a Sony a7s because of its high ISO capabilities. When I’m shooting the Milky Way, it’s usually around 2500 ISO on the Mark III. I don’t like to go much past that, otherwise I start to see noise. With the Sony, I can shoot at ISO 6400 or 12,500 and it looks great.

High ISOs allows you to do shorter exposures, which means shorter intervals if you’re doing time-lapse so you can get slower playback. For stills, if I’m trying to get the foreground I’ll probably do two separate exposures, one for the sky and one for the foreground. The foreground will have a longer exposure with a lower ISO, so I won’t get as much noise there.

OP: What’s your post-production time-lapse workflow?

SB: Adobe Lightroom and LRTimelapse for color grading and ramping. Adobe After Effects for turning the photos into video and applying more fixes such as deflicker. I normally output the work at 24fps.

OP: Are you lighting some of the foregrounds?

SB: For some of the stills I’ve done light-painting with a flashlight or a headlamp. I’ll run to one side of the object and paint it with light to create more drama, it brings in more shadows and highlights. That’s much more interesting than dulling out the subject with frontal light.

Night time-lapse photography, Mono Lake.
Walkway at Mono Lake, California.

OP: What’s the idea behind adding a human element such as a tent or a person on occasion to a spectacular nighttime landscape?

SB: It helps to show scale, of course, but it also lets the viewer imagine that they could be there. “This is a place I could be as well.”

OP: What’s your background and how did your career evolve?

SB: I was born and raised in Central Ohio and am still here when I’m not on the road. I got into photography in 2011 while I was at Columbus State Community College. I had been playing around with my friends’ cameras and really enjoyed it so I picked one up and played with it all summer. I did some senior portraits here and there to make a little money. In Ohio, there are not many opportunities for a landscape shooter to make money. When I started photography, I didn’t have anything in particular in mind, I was just enjoying photography and seeing where it went.

I have a friend out in Los Angeles, Sheldon Neill, who kept encouraging me to try time-lapse. He’s an amazing time-lapse photographer himself. He’s one of the guys behind Project Yosemite (projectyose.com). Time-lapse was tough for me at first. At sunset, I would be taking photos this way then that way; for time-lapse you have to set it up, start it, then you can’t touch it. It wasn’t easy to let the camera sit there while all these really cool things were happening in front of me. This is in the days when I had only one camera.

OP: Starting out shooting things like senior portraits makes sense in a smaller market where you have to wear more hats. How did you start building your time-lapse “reel”?

Night time-lapse photography - Bristlecone
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, in the White Mountains just outside of Bishop, California. Lit briefly with a flashlight to show detail of these several-thousand-year-old trees under the Milky Way.

SB: I took a trip up to Oregon and Canada dedicated to strictly shooting time-lapse. I got to see some really cool stuff and even got my first awesome display of an aurora up in Canada. After that I was hooked. Seeing still photos come to life with movement through time-lapse blew my mind. I fell in love with it.

OP: Another road trip resulted in your time-lapse video “Adventure is Calling,” which went viral.

SB: Two friends and I had spent two months on the road, traveling the country, seeing the sights, and teaching some photography workshops along the way. We probably went to 20 state and national parks. As a photographer, I was in heaven. I compiled the time-lapse and put it online. National Geographic contacted me a few days after “Adventure is Calling” went up, did an interview and licensed it for month.

OP: One of the many spectacular moments in it is a tracking shot with a dead tree in the foreground.

SB: That was in Zion. With a dolly, you want to show movement as well as you can, so having a really nice object in the foreground that the camera can move by really gives a great sense of depth.

OP: Because of the rotation of the earth, it feels like we’re on a spaceship, which, after all, the earth is in a sense. When you shoot stills for both time-lapse and stand-alone images, what’s your cut off shutter speed if you want to freeze the stars?

SB: Exposure time in part depends on the focal length of the lens. I like to keep the stars as sharp as possible unless I go the other direction and want to get long star trails. If I’m shooting with a really wide angle, let’s say 14mm or 16mm, everything in the background gets pushed back further so I can do a longer exposure without seeing star trails. With something that wide, you can go 30-35 seconds. But if I put the 50mm on and bring the sky closer, I can get only about a 10-second exposure before seeing movement. I use a 24mm ƒ/1.4 a lot at ƒ/2 or ƒ/1.8, and I’m capped off around 20 seconds. I use both zoom and prime lenses.

I’m always shooting in full manual mode, so I have complete control of everything. It’s a bit tricky when you’re doing a time-lapse sunrise or sunset, or day to night or night to day, because the light’s changing really quickly. I’m keeping an eye on the exposure meter and if it’s getting too light or too dark I’ll quickly adjust the shutter. I’ll try not to adjust too much as long as the exposures don’t get too crazy. There are camera remotes that do the ramping for you, you just put in your parameters such as the beginning and ending exposures. One of them is the RamperPro, which I used out in Washington on the show.

The Sony a7S has a built in time-lapse app in the camera. You put the camera in the Av mode and fine-tune your exposure. The technology we have these days to achieve our visions is incredible.


See more of Shane Black’s photography and time-lapse work at shaneblackphoto.com.

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