Shawn Reeder, a photographer, filmmaker and musician based in the magical nexus between the majesty of the Sierras and the expansive grandeur of Yosemite, recently completed an engaging time-lapse project called "Yosemite Range of Light." At just under five minutes, the film is comprised of nearly 7,000 still images that took the self-dubbed "destination visual artist" more than two years of shooting and editing to piece together. The gorgeous project quickly went viral once posted online, bringing Reeder's website and portfolio a large degree of attention from the media, fans and peers alike.
"Time-lapse has been a wonderful evolution for me," Reeder explains about his love for this specialized art form, "and it has given me a whole new set of tools to share the power and beauty of nature. I love how it gives a sense of altered reality, a lot like slow-motion photography. They both change our perception of time, which I find fascinating. And there's no question that beautiful photography coupled with moving music elicits an emotional response far greater than just imagery or music conveys on its own. That synergy gives film a special place among artistic mediums, and the rise in a popularity and acceptance of short films via the Internet has opened up so many opportunities for people to share their work and inspire others.
"When I first started shooting time-lapse, instantly, I had a vision for a piece that showed the inter-connectedness between Yosemite and the High and Eastern Sierra—the Range of Light," he continues about the project. "Living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, here in California's Eastern Sierra, is a landscape photographer's dream. It gives me great access to Yosemite, King's Canyon, Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks. They're all within 90 minutes, not to mention the bristlecone pines and Mono Lake."
Time-lapse is a hybrid art form that combines the best of cinema, principally motion, with the benefits of high-resolution still photography. Though most sequences will last from seconds to at the most a few minutes, each scene will require hundreds of stills to piece together a fluid sequence. A time-lapse sequence of 1,000 frames will measure in at a bit above 40 seconds in total length when using a standard 24 fps frame rate for the final video. But the process is actually a lot simpler than many people think it is. Most of the processes behind stitching together the individual frames that make up a time-lapse are automatic as long as you have a tripod, a DSLR and a way to stagger your shutter-release intervals, either physically through a basic intervalometer or digitally through software. Much like video, still shooters will find that the most difficult aspects to time-lapse is learning how to successfully use motion, as well as learning the math behind converting stills to video.
To showcase the power of motion, Reeder employed a number of visual tools like pans, sweeps, tilts and zooms that he was able to achieve through the use of programmable time-lapse equipment. Because a large degree of the film was taken at night, Reeder naturally used slow shutter speeds for taking stills. Referred to as "dragging the shutter," a slower shutter speed during time-lapse will provide more natural cinematic movement when the stills are combined into a sequence later. Deciding on which shutter speed is best for your project ultimately will depend on taste. You want it to be fast enough to capture detail, but not too fast because then subjects can be too sharp with crisp details that make movement seem more like quick cuts rather than a long, extended take. Neutral-density filters will give you more control over shutter speeds when working in bright light.
Many time-lapse photographers use longer intervals between shots to save on memory card capacity, but Reeder chooses to use shorter intervals of one to three seconds between each programmed shutter release so the motion is fluid between shots. It also gives him more leverage for speeding up the film during editing by dropping frames as needed. Alternatively, if you have a final video length in mind, you can plan exactly how many shots you want and the interval needed between exposures. The formula is Interval = Total Video Length in Seconds/Frame Rate in Frames Per Second. So a 30-minute sequence (1,800 seconds) played back at a typical frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps) would require an exposure taken every 75 seconds. If you wanted your interval, in this case, to be much shorter, let's say five seconds, then a shot taken every five seconds and stitched together into a 24 fps sequence would produce an extremely long sequence at 450 minutes.
Much like landscape photography, planning ahead for location and weather is key for any large-scale project like a film or a time-lapse. Reeder kept updating his list of possible shooting locations as his skills and knowledge improved throughout the shooting process. He points out that in a few of the cases, the shot he had in mind would even require specific conditions that only happen two or three days a month. He frequently uses the iPhone apps Star Walk and Moon Seeker for planning out the night sky.
"Choosing locations takes on a whole new level of importance when shooting time-lapse as opposed to still photography," he explains. "All of a sudden, places that had been favorites of mine for years were unusable. A lot of the shooting I did for 'Yosemite Range of Light' was done at night, and this always meant only one shot per night as the sequences were usually five- to eight-hour shots. I found out early that I preferred shooting Yosemite when the moon was big enough to light the scene without being too bright to blow out the stars. These lighting conditions are only ideal for about six nights a month, so my favorite shooting windows in Yosemite were limited. I also really enjoy shooting the new moon cycle, as well, to really focus on the Milky Way. I didn't shoot during the full moon cycle much at all, just for moonbows in Yosemite Valley, which happen late spring and early summer."
When he's shooting a scene, Reeder also decides between going simple with a static shot or using motion control for a more complex composition with camera movements. Reeder says that it can take him only a few minutes to set up a static shot whereas camera movements can take him many hours to plan. When shooting motion time-lapse, it's important not only to consider what's in the frame in regard to composition, but also what will be in the frame later. Reeder did the majority of work at night, for instance, which gave him a way to work in backgrounds like the rising and setting moon, as well as the stars of the clear night sky in Yosemite.
Time-lapse is particularly susceptible to camera shake, as well. The slightest bump during a series can mean starting over from scratch. With longer lenses, even low winds or the activation of the image-stabilization within the lens can cause images to jump subtly from frame to frame. Adobe After Effects provides an image stabilization feature for addressing this issue, but it's best to avoid it at the time of capture. Though he did employ a 70-200mm zoom at times, Reeder chose to shoot most of the sequences on Canon L-series wide-angle and wide-angle zoom lenses to mitigate the potential for shake that gets more pronounced with telephotos, while also using the innate nature of a wide-angle to exaggerate foreground features as part of his compositions.
"Another consideration when shooting motion-controlled time-lapse is having an interesting foreground to show the motion," he says. "I always try to look for things that have expressive character, like an interesting bristlecone pine tree or tufa towers or a corridor of boulders. This is usually the hardest part of finding a great location to shoot—an interesting, expressive foreground against a beautiful, grand backdrop."
Reeder says that when shooting at night, lenses with a fast ƒ/2.8 aperture are absolutely essential.
Time-lapse shooting gives you a chance to show a landscape in a multidimensional way. The finished movie is, literally, a series of still images strung together at 24 fps. Shawn Reeder's "Yosemite Range Of Light" is one of the most spectacular nature time-lapse films we've seen. Reeder shot in challenging conditions—as the light was changing—and the results give us a look at Yosemite as the landscape transitions with rising and setting sun, moon and stars. Go to shawnreeder.com to see "Yosemite Range Of Light."
"Range of Light" is appropriate as a title for more reasons than one. When you have quickly moving cloud cover or rapidly changing light levels like you have during sunsets and sunrises, the overall exposure for your scene can vary wildly from shot to shot. You can work in the field to monitor changing light conditions and make manual changes to camera settings and exposure as needed; however, this means you'll be attached at the hip during the extended lengths of time that it takes to fully capture a time-lapse, which can involve many, many hours for a single series. Alternatively, you can work with a bramper, a specialty bulb-ramping intervalometer that keeps your exposures level when shooting to eliminate time-lapse "flicker" during the sequence or you can use software to ramp the exposures in post.
Instead of bramping in the field, Reeder prefers to use an Adobe plug-in called LRTimelapse to ramp exposures, reduce flicker and work with other parameters like white balance. "For instance," he explains, "when I would start with a sunset, I'm looking at maybe a 20-minute shot, but it's going to go through a range of exposures during that 20 minutes because it's right at the end of the day. So, typically, I would start my shot maybe a third to a half-stop overexposed, knowing by the end of the shot it's going to be a full stop to a stop-and-a-third underexposed. I would still keep it in manual mode for the shot, and then I can make keyframes [defining points for the beginning and end of a series] along that sequence of images; then I would edit the individual images the way that I want them. So the first shot would be overexposed, and I would bring down the exposure in processing. Then during the middle of the sequence, it gets into the sweet-spot area of exposure, and at the end I would be bringing up the exposure again. I can bring them to LRTimelapse and it automatically ramps a smooth curve of exposure with all the other images between those keyframes. So it gives you the ability to change the exposure just by processing the key RAW files, and because RAW files have such latitude, I found that I never needed to use something like a bramper that actually changes the exposure while shooting."
For less extreme ranges of exposure, Reeder processes his RAW image files in Adobe Lightroom before editing them together as clips in Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premiere. He begins in Lightroom by performing the needed image edits to the first RAW image in a new sequence. Then, still in Lightroom, he simply copies and pastes the same edit settings across the rest of the series of photos so that each image has the same relative levels for seamless transitions from still to still once he converts the series of images into a video.
Just as in filmmaking, the content is what's going to matter the most. Your choice of scene, frame rate, lens and composition will impact "the look" of your film, while editing and the soundtrack will cement the whole project together. Reeder cut a variety of outtakes from the film, choosing only the best of the best for the final piece. He also insists that burgeoning time-lapse artists experiment and develop their own processes rather than simply following his. You have to have an understanding of the technical aspects to be able to express your creativity and vision fully.
"But the 'why' is where the creativity comes in," says Reeder, "and no amount of technical 'how-to' could ever prepare someone to make the creative choices that lead to something great. It's just my opinion, but everything that makes 'Yosemite Range of Light' such a nice piece is because of the creative choices I made, which happened to be backed up by sound technical knowledge. But that technical knowledge without the creative vision and experience won't go very far in making something great."
Go to shawnreeder.com to see "Yosemite Range Of Light," as well as Shawn Reeder's still photography.