I love time lapse photography. I’ve been doing more and more of it as I explore creative ways of taking advantage of my DSLR on client projects—beyond traditional stills and video. So in addition to things like cinemagraphs, HDR photography, and 360º VR photography, time lapse has become a skill I’ve been working hard to develop. So you can imagine I was psyched when I heard about Hyperlapse, by Instagram.
What Is It?
Time-lapse photography is effectively the opposite of slow-motion filmmaking. By shooting multiple frames of a scene at intervals and then stitching them together into a film/video, the final product presents the passage of time in a unique, artistic way. It’s not a new process – the first time-lapses were done in the 19th Century. And it’s not a fad — with advances in digital photography, digital processing, and digital video, new creative styles are possible and the process has simply gained renewed popularity. To see the work of a great, contemporary time-lapse filmmakers, I encourage you to check out Tom Lowe and the stunning 4K film he produced, “TimeScapes”.
I’ve always been interested in this technique, and I’ve done some of it myself. There are a few time-lapse sequences in the music video I shot and produced for Astra Via’s “Fast Forward”. I’ve been playing around with it more since, and I think I’m hooked. What really sparked my interest in time-lapse photography was when I learned that, sure enough, “there’s an app for that.”
How to Do It:
TriggerTrap is a free iPhone and Android app that works as a programmable shutter release for your device’s camera. If you want to use it with a DSLR, you need to buy a small dongle for $30, so that you can connect your mobile device to your camera (which is what I did.) When connected, the app works surprisingly well. There are multiple reviews of the app and how it works, so I won’t get into all that here. To make your life easier, I’ll point you to this particularly extensive review on The Phoblographer. In a nutshell, the app gives you a variety of creative triggering options — not all of them intended for time-lapse. But for time-lapse (also known as “long-exposure photography”) you can set the overall time you want to cover in a scene, the number of exposures to take within that time, and you can even ramp the speed up and down at either end of the session to create a “warp” effect.
There are a few things to keep in mind when doing time-lapse photography. First, set your focus before you begin. If you leave your camera on auto-focus, and your subjects are moving in and out of a shot, not only will the end result look weird, it will affect the time your camera takes to prepare for each exposure and confuse the app. You also want to maintain the same exposure settings. This means either put your camera in “Aperture” mode, so that the shutter speed will vary without changing the aperture of each exposure, or leave it fully manual, which is my preference.
Once you have all your shots, you can then import them onto your computer and stitch them together into a single video file. I have been using a free program called TimeLapse Assembler, which gives you several options to set your resolution, frame rate and format. Once I have my exported video file, I can then ingest that into FCPX and edit the final piece with music, ambient noise, what have you.
If you go to Vimeo and do a quick search of time-lapse videos, one thing you’ll notice about the best time-lapse filmmaking is the way perspective is adjusted, adding another level of motion on top of the passage of time. I’m talking about camera motion that adds a 3rd dimension to the viewer experience. Of course, you can invest tons of money into motorized sliders and dollies that are timed to gradually move throughout a series of exposures. I cannot recommend against this. In fact, I would love a piece of kit that could do this, and I hope to have one soon enough. Check out manufacturers like Cinevate and Kessler for more on this. Vincent Laforet has a great blog post about his own recommendations in this motorized sliders.
But if you’re like me, and you are working with only a tripod (and no, don’t try manually doing this with your hands on a slider), there are ways you can spice up your video in post. The results aren’t exactly the same, but you can definitely add dimension to your time-lapses by creating a little camera motion. In Final Cut Pro X, I’ve been playing around with this. Something as simple as the “Ken Burns effect” allows you to set start and end points so you can zoom in and out, pan left/right, etc. And thanks to FCPX’s ability to natively edit up to 4K video, you can take full advantage of a using very high resolution video in a 1080p editing space. Think about it: your camera most likely shoots stills at much higher resolution than it shoots video. So if your photos are 5,000 pixels across, you can create and edit sequences in 4K, move the camera all around as you please, and when you output your video at 1080p, there will be virtually no loss in resolution — even if you zoom in to twice the size of your frame. Here’s a short example of a time-lapse experiment I did just the other day:
Try it Out
I have a particularly renewed interest in shooting time-lapse photography, because of the potential I see for the international school market, which I am focusing on with my new brand, International School Marketing (ISM). But schools aren’t the only ones that can benefit from this technique. I now have several video productions for various clients that I look back on and think, man, I wish I had thought of this sooner! The art form of time-lapse can add a level of professionalism and creativity to an otherwise straightforward video, and now it’s affordable for everyone.
As with 360-degree VR photography and HD video, the DSLR revolution has democratized professional filmmaking. Thanks to apps like TriggerTrap, time-lapse photography is now something that everyone can afford, and professional artists can focus on advancing their skills without breaking the bank.
I can’t end this post without showing you one of the coolest time-lapse films I’ve ever seen. I particularly like it because it highlights one of my hometowns, Saigon, Vietnam. Rob Whitworth is an Asia-based photographer dividing his time between time lapse and architectural photography. This award-winning video is another example of how cool this process can be — and it’s a reminder of all the great things that can be accomplished both in-camera, and (I’m gonna go out on a limb here) in post-production:
Introduction to VR
Somewhere between still photography and video lies what I believe to be an under-appreciated and under-utilized presentation format: 360° Virtual Reality (VR) Photography. (Yes, they still call it Virtual Reality, 1992’s “Lawnmower Man” notwithstanding.) It’s a really cool way to present a 3-dimensional area visually. While it isn’t exactly motion, like video—the vantage point of the viewer never actually changes, only the viewing angle—it can provide a much more realistic and detailed spacial experience than traditional photography.
It’s not a new concept. You’ve seen VR photography before in online real estate ads and classifieds. The real estate industry recognized early on that by plunging customers into an interactive, 360-degree picture of a living space, they could not only provide more detail, but also increase customer confidence. After all, wide angle lenses, creative lighting and other tricks can make any old dining room look like a banquet hall. Allowing folks to explore every angle of a space, zooming in and out at their own will, is a much more transparent way to show a place off.
I see a lot of potential for this type of delivery when it comes to schools. Which is why I’m offering it as a “Plus Service” through my new brand, International School Marketing (ISM). For now I’m calling it the service a “Virtual Campus Tour.”
VR photography is not the simplest process in the world, and it involves 3 steps:
Step 1: Shoot the Panorama
The first thing you have to do, of course, is shoot a panorama. Basically, stay in one place and shoot the full 360 degrees of space surrounding you. Shooting a panorama is a relatively straightforward process, but there are a few things to keep in mind:
- – Although it may seem counterintuitive, you want to shoot in portrait (vertical) orientation, unlike the guy in the photo to the right, which I just stole off the Internet. By shooting in portrait, you can cover more vertical space. The horizontal area will be covered by all the multiple shots you’re taking.
- – Also, unlike the guy in the picture, use a tripod. In order to create the true 360° effect, you need to approach every angle from the same vantage point. They make special tripods for panoramic shots which keep the glass of your lens in the same place as the camera rotates around it. But for most purposes, a regular old tripod should do fine.
- – Allow for overlap. It’s recommended that you cover about 40% of the previous angle in each shot. This will make it easier for you to stitch the photos together into a seamless panorama. If you don’t allow for enough overlap, or if you provide too much, you will confuse your software and your computer will melt.
- – Keep your settings on “manual”. Once you’ve determined the proper focal length, exposure and white balance, leave your camera and lens settings alone throughout the shoot. If your camera is set to automatic, the exposure, focus and color will change with each shot depending on the subject, and the resulting photos won’t stitch together properly.
This guy does a pretty good job of saying everything I just said, except while showing how it’s done:
Step 2: Stitch it Up
Now that you have a series of photos covering the entire area you want to present, you’ll need to “stitch” them together. Adobe Photoshop has had a function for this process, called “Photomerge”, for a long time. It does a pretty good job.
However, there are other programs out there that are dedicated solely to panoramic photography and they tend to give you a little more control. Right now, I’m using software called PTGui Pro, and I’m happy with it. I won’t go into the details of stitching photos together, because the software is very intuitive, and it handles the work of alining and blending your images for you. One quirky thing I did notice about PTGui Pro: when you save a project, it names files with the extension .pts. I can imagine this becoming a headache for anyone who uses Avid Pro Tools.
Step 2: From Still to Movement
The final step is to take your panorama and turn it into an interactive motion experience. There is one very important consideration before you get to this phase: the left and right sides of your panorama must meet seamlessly in order for it to work. If you did everything properly, the stitching software should have created this alignment already.
I have been using a program called Pano2VR for this process. It’s fairly straightforward. You load your panorama into the software, enter details about the area (description, date, latitude/longitude), adjust your settings (output size, controller interface, etc.) and create your VR experience in the format of your choice. This is an important feature to have. See, the old Quicktime Pro used to create 360° VR presentations, but dropped this feature in Quicktime 10. Pano2VR can export to Quicktime still, although the rendered VR is pretty slow. Pano2VR can also export to Flash, all within a self-contained file. Of course, this isn’t going to work on any iOS device, so I don’t recommend it. Fortunately, Pano2VR can also export to HTML5, without any significant loss in image quality or render time. Below are two examples, the first one is a basic Flash VR (if you’re on an iPad or iPhone right now, all you’re seeing is a blank space.) And the second image is HTML5, with more bells and whistles—descriptors, a controller interface, zoom capability and an auto-rotate function.
Riverside Park Along Nguyen Duc Canh, Saigon, Vietnam
I’m still working on my shooting technique for this specialized type of photography, as well as full spherical panoramas which will allow viewers to pan up, down, diagonally, etc. But as you can see from just the two images above, there is already a lot of potential here. Just like stop-motion photography, HDR photography, or any other specialized form, there is a certain place for VR photography; it’s not for everyone.
On the other hand, when a client needs to present a realistic, photographic space in which visitors can completely immerse themselves—something I believe the international school community could certainly benefit from—I can’t think of a more appropriate application than this.
Great news! The latest video from Saigon South International School and Gypsy Creative Communications, are among the winners of the 2013 Global Cardboard Challenge Video Contest! I just got word of this during our holiday in Cambodia. What a great gift it was, and what an awesome way to kick off my new business: International School Marketing! I’ve put up a couple posts leading up to this, if you’d like to check out some of the backstory:
Otherwise, check out the video below:
You can learn more about Caine’s Arcade and the Global Cardboard Challenge from the links below:
I’m so proud of this video and so proud of the award. What a great way to start off the year! Here’s to hoping 2014 brings more opportunities to work with great kids and great schools. And… with a little luck and a lot of hard work, let’s win some more awards!
This is my follow-up to a previous blog post I wrote, just after starting on this project.
Caine Monroy is a little boy who lives in Los Angeles whose dad owns an auto parts store. While his dad worked, Caine developed a hobby of taking the boxes from his dad’s warehouse and creating intricate arcade-style games out of them, complete with coin slots and ticket dispensers. As it grew, Caine’s Arcade wasn’t getting a lot of traffic until a year or so ago, when a filmmaker named Nirvan Mullick came along and recognized the boy’s passion and creativity as something beautiful. One flash mob and a few million YouTube hits later, the two have used Caine’s Arcade to inspire the world to create! If you haven’t seen the Caine’s Arcade video, please take a minute and check it out now:
I spent most of Earth Week in the classrooms, on the playground, in the auditorium and all over the SSIS campus shooting interviews, B-roll, and of course, creativity in action. I covered the elementary school exclusively and Gary Johnston, a science teacher at SSIS, provided additional footage from the middle school. The elementary teachers were more than accommodating, letting me into their classrooms and letting me get my camera in close and tight on the students’ cardboard creations.
Everything was shot on my Canon HDSLR rig, except for a couple interviews and wide shots that were shot on a tricked-out Canon AVCHD camcorder rig. Lenses were a Canon 50mm f1.8 prime for hand-held interviews, a Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 zoom for shots where I needed image stabilization, a Sigma 70-300 f4 for tight telephoto shots, and a Rokinon 14mm prime for the wide angles. Almost everything was shot in 24p, unless it was to be retimed, in which case footage came in at 60fps. See more on “the film look” and frame rates here.
This entire piece was organized, cut, graded and finalized within Final Cut Pro X. After collecting and ordering all of my footage and assets, I set down to rough-cut the interviews. This is almost always my first editing step when producing micro-documentaries such as this, since these provide the narrative for the story. I interviewed a number of teachers and students and, as with every video, there was plenty of great interview material that I wish could have made it into the final cut. Heather MacMichael, a 5th Grade teacher, probably played the greatest role in putting the whole thing together, so she was common face throughout the piece. Adam Dodge provided insight as a school administrator. Tara (5th Grade) would explain the process from a student’s point of view, and Vincent and Leo were to add a little (at times comic?) relief from the frenetic pace of the whole production, adding some sound 1st Grader perspective.
Once the interviews were cut and cut and cut again, and I had some semblance of a 3-act narrative, I collected my interviews into compound clips. Then I began going through my footage to see how I could best illustrate the story. It was pretty simple, actually. First, the soundtrack is the instrumental version of “I Don’t Mind”, by Imagine Dragons. I started framing the edit with some establishing shots of the school and B-roll of the students playing soccer, on the playground, etc. to provide context. Then it was a matter of ordering and placing my clips in 3 stages: Planning, Building and Sharing. Just over half-way, I dropped in Vincent and Leo’s interviews to provide some pacing relief and a slightly different perspective (kind of like a bridge in songwriting). The whole story wrapped up with the finished arcade and the “Day of Play.”
Finally, after getting through the laborious task of editing sound (see “Lessons Learned” below) and color correction, the whole piece was output and uploaded to Vimeo. Eventually, it will show up on YouTube. And that leaves us here:
1) Sound. I love my Rode VideoMic. As you should know, you can never rely on your camera’s onboard mic for good sound, especially if you are shooting DSLR. The Rode has saved my butt many times. However, this was not a rushed, run-and-gun type of situation. Given the relative time flexibility of the teachers and students, I probably would have benefitted from less noise by using a wired, or even wireless, lav the whole time.
2) Lighting. The fluorescent ceiling lights throughout classrooms (and offices) are a pain. Especially when you’re shooting at a frame rate like 24p. You might notice the flicker effect on some of the portrait shots that these lights created. When I opened it up or decreased the shutter speed to the point where flicker was eliminated, my shots were too blown out. I think one solution would have been to use an ND filter on my 50mm lens, stopping it down so that I could open the aperture or adjust shutter speed to compensate for the lights while still achieving similar exposure and the same shallow depth of field.
I am very proud of this video. Of course, I did not create it alone. In addition to Nirvan, Caine, and all the teachers and students that made the film possible, I should say a word of thanks to Philip Bloom, a London-based filmmaker/DOP who creates short documentaries all over the world and who is a constant source of inspiration and education for me. I must have watched the school video he produced for Facebook, and read his workflow post, 10 times before going into SSIS to shoot. So thanks again, Philip!
**UPDATE: I was recently informed that the SSIS’ Caine’s Arcade video (above) was among the winners of the Global Cardboard Challenge Video Contest! So excited! Read more here…**
First, if you haven’t seen “Caine’s Arcade”, please check it out now. It’s a great story about a 9 year-old boy who had almost more creativity than he could handle, and access to a ton of cardboard boxes. So he made an arcade out of cardboard. I was personally moved by this film, partly because I used to do the same thing as a little boy (believe me, we had our share boxes in the house) and because it gives me a lot of hope for my own kids’ discovery of their creative potential.
Without saying any more, here’s “Caine’s Arcade”:
Teachers have been helping these students as much as they can; they introduced them to Caine’s story and asked them if they’d like to create something similar. But I’ve noticed that this is the kind of project that doesn’t require a whole lot of adult guidance. Sure, some of the little ones need extra help cutting through the thick cardboard, but when it comes to blueprinting these things out, they’re best left on their own. The projects vary in complexity and detail: the older kids have reproduced a lot of their favorite real-world arcade games (Whack-a-Mole, Angry Birds), the first- and second-graders built a soccer game and a “Monkey Toss”, and one of the preschool groups came up with a cardboard train that you can climb inside and go anywhere you please. What more could you want in an international school?
Tomorrow’s the big day. The students will put the whole arcade together in the elementary school auditorium. Kids from other classes will visit throughout the day to participate in the games. And don’t worry: the reason cardboard arcade games are better than store-bought, as one astute 1st grader told me today, is because when they break you can fix them as long as you have “lots and lots and lots of tape.”
I’m still going through all the footage, and I’ll be shooting the event tomorrow. Below is a teaser of this little micro-doc we’re putting together for the Imagination Foundation. Believe me, there will be plenty more to come on this one!
As promised, here are a few more shots from my early adventures in HDR photography. I am gradually getting the hang of this method and building a few little strategies here and there, both in the shooting process and post production. And I’m sure I’m developing a bad habit or two.
Anyway, click on the images for hi res…
As for the gear used, all of these shots were taken with my Canon 60D, a 14mm wide-angle lens at f22, between 200-300 ISO and bracketed at +/- 2 stops. The shots were merged and tonemapped in Photomatix Pro and HDR Expose, and finished off in Photoshop CS6.
Luckily, I was able to get out early today and get most shooting done before the rains hit. And as before, once the storm did come I was treated with a whole new lighting setup, which seems to lend itself well to this kind of photography.
I will be sure to post more as I get them, and I will share any tips and tricks I pick up along the way. Of course, feel free to leave a comment, whether or not you have experience shooting HDR or not. I am open to all the help I can get!