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The spectacular wilderness in California’s Mojave Desert ignited my time-lapse addiction. I’d casually set up a camera and tripod, point it at something lovely, program an interval and meander through the desert, my robot camera clicking away. I love that simplicity, and yet a recent innovation explosion brings powerful new tools, greatly expanding the time-lapse palette. The article “Making Time-Lapse” in the October 2011 issue of OP set the foundation for doing time-lapse; now we’ll build on that and explore production tools and techniques, including motion-control, 3D, HDR, bramping and more.
The most important tool is developing your time-lapse eye, and experience is the best teacher. Observe light, shadow, motion and scale relationships, assessing light momentum and quality, shadow, clouds and stars. In short, learn to predict interactions in your frame. Respond to activity that may occur during the shot, balancing frame interval with final shot duration. I’ll share tools I credit with evolving and inspiring time-lapse for me, refining my aesthetic—maybe they will further your journey, too. Let’s accessorize!
Artemis Director’s Viewfinder
My basic kit consists of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM lens, and a Manfrotto 057 magnesium ballhead and 057 carbon-fiber tripod. I’ve also come to enjoy Lensbaby optics much more than I expected. They unlock an optical playground of in-camera effects while enabling flicker-free ƒ/22 landscapes. I’ll begin with gear to accompany this basic setup, starting with an unexpectedly powerful time-lapse multitool: my iPhone.
Helios Sun Position Calculator
Time-Lapse Calculators For Your Smartphone
I use several smartphone apps to calculate and position my camera. Time-lapse Helper is a free iPhone app that calculates the shot, balancing interval, shot duration, number of frames needed, final movie frames per second and duration. Helios Sun Position Calculator is a powerhouse of predictive tools for sun, light and shadow paths. I also use Artemis Director’s Viewfinder, which shows you how different camera and lens combinations will frame up a scene. Focalware is an almanac app that gives me sun/moon rise and set info worldwide by any date, and it shows the shadow ratio for the moon. pCAM is a comprehensive calculator for time-lapse, depth of field, field of view and more.
Schneider Optics True-Match Vari-ND
ND Filters To Control Exposure
Once the parameters of the time-lapse are calculated, I use some particular tools to control the lens aperture. I especially use neutral-density (ND) filters to reduce the exposure and push my shutter speeds below 1⁄5 sec. for smoother shots with less flicker. I often shoot wide open, which reduces visible lens dust. Variable NDs add convenience. I have a Schneider Optics True-Match Vari-ND, which maintains color fidelity and gives me from 1 to 11 stops of density. I also have Genus ND Faders, which have a 2- to 8-stop range, on a few of my favorite lenses—a Zeiss 21mm and a Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro IS USM, which I especially like.
In any time-lapse, light sources move, and occasionally unexpected light sources pop up with the potential to create lens flare. Lens shades can help, but as you do more time-lapse shooting, you’ll find a simple matte box to be a more useful solution. Some examples of manufacturers who make matte boxes for professional use are Redrock Micro and Zacuto. If you’re looking for a simpler matte box solution, look into the cinetactics Matteblox line.
Bramping And Intervalometers
You’ve probably never heard of bramping, but it’s sometimes referred to as the Holy Grail of time-lapse. It means ramping exposure over time via Bulb mode. Bramping lets you do day-to-night time-lapse while maintaining proper exposure and avoiding flicker. I use a Promote Systems remote, which has a number of other capabilities, including bramping. It can perform the functions of an intervalometer. It can do 45-shot bracketing for HDR shooting, HDR time-lapse, with refined controls, and advanced time-lapse. For HDR time-lapse, I recommend experimenting with five to seven brackets in +1 EV steps to start.
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Hähnel Giga T Pro
Another unique intervalometer is the Pclix XT. It allows me to change the interval during a shot, which I do frequently. Think of a multi-hour time-lapse where the sun finally breaks through the clouds. Changing the interval gradually from 10 to 2 seconds results in a movie that lingers on that moment. Another clever wireless remote is the DSLR.Bot, a very inexpensive remote for time-lapse, HDR time-lapse and lots more although it’s not as full-featured as pricier remotes. Lastly, the Hähnel Giga T Pro is a very compact, easy-to-use 2.4 GHz remote that a lot of time-lapse shooters like.
Cover your eyepiece to help avoid flicker.
Flicker, And How To Avoid It
Slight fluctuations in frame-to-frame exposure result in the dreaded flickering time-lapse shot. Here are some quick tips on how I avoid flicker.
Due to imprecise iris mechanisms, only a fully open aperture will guarantee flicker-free time-lapse. While ƒ/2.8 may not usually be your first choice for landscape stills, final time-lapse shots are often perfect, as video favors a slightly softer image.
Cover the eyepiece.
Petrol Bags PD510
Select a shutter speed of 1⁄5 sec. or slower. Use ND filters as needed to get a slower shutter speed.
Set the rig to Manual. Any auto settings invite the camera to make the sorts of adjustments that result in flicker.
Use a bramper. The bramper will let you alter exposure without getting flicker. It’s an incredibly useful tool for anyone interested in doing a lot of complex time-lapse shots.
Protecting Your Rig
I shoot time-lapse in all sorts of conditions, day or night. This means the camera can be subject to dramatic temperature swings, as well as humidity changes. My Camera Duck sports silver and black sides, takes no space and has interior pockets for hand-warmers, which prevents lens fogging during night shots. The Camera Duck also provides some general protection from heat, water and condensation. Another anti-fog solution is DryEye Lite from DitoGear. It has three lens warmers with user-selectable temperature controls. When I’m shooting in the rain or with the possibility of rain, I use the Petrol Bags PD510. It will handle an aqua assault, and it has room for accessories. In these conditions, I keep the lenses clean with Purosol, an environmentally friendly, solvent-free, natural lens cleaner originally developed for NASA.
Loupes And Skirts
Bright conditions overpower the camera’s LCD monitor. I rely on Live View with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D, so I use a loupe to shade the monitor and give me a good view. The Varavon ProFinder is the most flexible I’ve found, and it has a low-angle configuration that’s nice when I use the camera in an awkward position. When I’m shooting through glass—a car window or from inside a building—I use the LENSKIRT, a simple tent that suctions to a window, preventing reflections.
Adding Subtle Motion To Time-Lapse
Moving the camera can increase perception of depth, bringing more life to time-lapse shots. Drive-lapse—car-mounting via suction cup—is the simplest way to add motion, but I’ve used trains, boats and planes, too. Make sure you drag the shutter for the best, smoothest effects.
A slowly moving camera over time reveals dimensionality and adds drama. You can see this in many of the best time-lapse clips. Simple, precision motion-control systems are available from Cinevate and Kessler Crane. I use a portable three-foot Kessler CineSlider, which drives the camera along a smooth track. The Kessler ORACLE Controller sends commands to motors and controls duration, interval and speed ramping. It’s programmable so moves are recorded, stored and later played back at your desired rate, from minutes to days.
I add rotational controls to my CineSlider with the Kessler Turntable, and I use the Kessler Revolution Pan & Tilt System for full 360° multi-axis moves. In Shoot-Move-Shoot mode, the camera fires, moves an increment, then fires again, capturing sharp still images. Continuous mode creates one nonstop move, adding cinematic motion blur. The shots possible with this rig are awesome. It’s a different way of working compared to a rock-steady camera, though. Adding just one variable—the slider, for example—can negate time-lapse perception if not done right. I use the Kessler guidelines for degree of movement over time.
See Todd Sali‘s time-lapse videos and his elaboration on gear and techniques discussed in this article at his website, www.sandboxla.com.