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Landscapes In Motion

Take your movie clips and time-lapse projects using these professional techniques and tools
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

This frame from “Magical New Zealand” is taken from the middle of a camera move. The slow rise of the camera contrasts beautifully with the fast-moving clouds.

Cinetics is a young company that recently had an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign for the Axis 360, which is shown here. It was available fully motorized for $795 at Kickstarter. The expected retail price is $900.

Although landscapes are fundamentally static, many nature photographers are discovering that you can use today’s sophisticated DSLR technology to create breathtaking motion projects. A few years ago, time-lapse projects began showing up on YouTube and Vimeo, and intrepid engineers popped up on forums and eBay selling intervalometers that allowed a photographer to set up a shot and program the camera to take a prescribed sequence. Major manufacturers also made remotes with intervalometer capabilities, and several DSLRs came out with the function built in, which further simplified the process of image capture and automatic time-lapse creation. Like so many aspects of photography and filmmaking, what started as a niche endeavor developed by dedicated enthusiasts in the quiet confines of little-known Internet forums quickly went mainstream.

Simultaneously, DSLRs with HD video capture functionality came on with a rush. Certainly, video cameras had been around for decades, and anyone who wanted to embark on motion projects had access to tools that could do the job. But with HD video DSLRs (HDSLRs), a couple of things changed. First, still and motion capability was in a single camera. Second, the image quality was incredibly good. Consumer-level camcorders were good, but the look of footage coming off a Canon EOS 5D Mark II was a revelation. And, third, the process of getting the motion footage into the computer for editing was relatively familiar to most photographers and it didn’t require any additional hardware. Once in the computer, there was a considerable learning curve in getting to know the editing process, but if you were interested, it was certainly something you could learn, with plenty of resources to help.

So that brings us to where we are today.

Shawn Reeder’s “Magical New Zealand” shows some incredible camera movement footage. You can see it at OPTV in the OP Daily Blog section.

At first blush, landscape photography seems like a poor fit for motion, but when you look a little deeper, you begin to sense the extraordinary opportunities for showing a landscape. How many times have you set up a camera in predawn quiet and watched patiently as the sky slowly changed, ultimately revealing the scene that you previsualized? You take the photo, then pack up and move along. What’s less obvious is how that entire exercise was really a perfect motion project. Motion capture doesn’t have to be limited to a sprinting gazelle or a surfer catching a tube. Motion capture is ideal for recording the way light changes a landscape. A multi-hour time-lapse that reduces a day of cloud formation into a few dramatic seconds of wild skies or a real-time clip of a waterfall tumbling over a cliff are examples of scenes that single still frames can’t adequately capture. But modern HDSLRs give you a much more powerful tool for telling those stories.

As you get into motion, whether it’s time-lapse or standard movie shooting, your first projects are probably going to be pretty static. You’ll be dealing with enough technology just getting the camera settings dialed in and learning how to handle focus and exposure properly. At this stage, keeping the camera anchored to a sturdy tripod is fine. You can try doing some simple pans (side to side) or tilts (up and down), but don’t go too crazy until you’re feeling comfortable with all of your camera settings and handling the files in the computer. Motion capture can be frustrating when it doesn’t go right, so take your time to increase your chances for success.

The heavy-duty Libec Swift Jib50 is incredibly capable as long as you’re not trying to carry it into the backcountry.

Once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals of motion capture, it’s time to kick things up a notch. That’s where we add motion to the motion.

If you’ve spent anytime watching the time-lapse films on OPTV (, you’ve probably noticed that the camera is seldom stationary. Unlike regular pans and tilts where the camera is pivoting from its anchor point on a tripod, the sophisticated moves you see in the work of Shawn Reeder, Tom Lowe and others isn’t a pivot; it’s an actual slide or lift. These moves are achieved with a slider or a jib.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Kessler Crane offers a huge range of sliders, jibs and controller systems. Their CineDrive system gives heavy-duty motion and time-lapse shooters an incredible amount of automated control.

Like the name implies, sliders are essentially simple rail systems that allow the camera to slide from one end to the other. They’re sometimes called slider dollies. Sliders come in a variety of lengths. If you’ve never used one, you’re likely to think that longer is better, but in reality, most landscape shooters will never need anything more than 3 to 4 feet in length to pull off a stunning effect. These smaller sliders are incredibly useful and easily transported. You can use a slider at an angle to set up a more vertical move or just keep it level for simple moves from side to side.

One key element for a slider, if you’re planning on doing any kind of time-lapse, is a motor system. Any decent slider can move the camera smoothly, but to move it at a steady pace, particularly at a speed of 3 feet per hour or slower, requires a motor system.

If you’re not planning on doing time-lapse, with a little practice you can probably do a lot of work by hand. Obviously, the key is to keep the rate of movement steady.

Jibs are primarily used for vertical camera movement although they can also do some fantastic horizontal moves. For time-lapse, pros have been making use of heavy-duty jibs for some time, but they have only recently become useful for enthusiasts, as costs of the units as well as motorized motion-control systems have come into a reasonable range. As with sliders, if you’re inexperienced, you may think you need to have a big jib with a lot of vertical rise, but that’s really not the case. Small travel jibs that disassemble into compact packages are plenty adequate.

You can see a particularly good tutorial on time-lapse by Vincent Laforet on his blog:

The real hassle with a jib isn’t the unit itself as much as the heavy counterweight you need to make the system work. Recall your elementary-school science classes about levers, and you’ll grasp the problem immediately. A jib is essentially a lever with the fulcrum point at the tripod. If you have an 8-foot jib with 2 feet on the effort side of the fulcrum point and 6 feet on the load side, and you have a 2-pound HDSLR on the end of the jib, you need about 6 pounds of counterweight. (Force of effort = Force of load x distance of load/distance of effort, or Fe = 2 lbs. x 6 ft./2 ft.)

If you’re looking at this figure and thinking, “That’s not how a lever should work; it’s supposed to make moving a heavy object easier, not harder,” you’d be right. The problem here is that you’re using the lever backward, and you can see that if you use a heavier HDSLR and lens on a longer jib arm, your counterweight starts to get pretty heavy. It’s not the sort of thing you want to carry for any kind of distance along with the rest of your photo gear. So the key with any jib system is to keep things small and lightweight.

Simulating Moves In The Computer
You can add some movement to your motion footage and time-lapse without having to invest in hardware like a slider or a jib by using software. Programs like Panolapse let you pan and zoom, among other things. The overall range of motion you can simulate is limited, but you can create some beautiful effects, and it’s this kind of effect that can really make a project stand out from the crowd.

Panolapse software simulates camera pans, tilts and zooms. The software lets you get into camera movement without having to invest in hardware.