Cameras

Stop-Motion Snowpocalypse: Learning Time-Lapse During Nemo

Time lapse photography is easier than you think, but you'll still make some mistakes jumping in feet first.

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As the snow began to pile up during the early hours of Winter Storm Nemo (thanks for that one, Weather Channel), I realized I'd need to find something to entertain myself or I'd be three beers deep in boredom before lunchtime. Going through my usual email-Facebook-Twitter-photo forum morning ritual, I came across an interview about the new film Chasing Ice, which viscerally portrays five years of Arctic glacier shrinkage in time-lapse photography. The interview turned out to be a snooze, but the film footage piqued my curiosity.

Though I'd been an admirer of time-lapse work for many years, the principles of the practice were still a mystery to me. Pretty much the only thing I knew for sure was that some cameras have intervalometers, while others have to rely on external software or hardware to automate the process. Luckily, the camera I had on hand for review—the Pentax K-5 II—had a built-in intervalometer. Should I do this? I asked myself. Yeah, I should do this. Game on.

From inspiration to execution, it took me about 30 minutes to get set up. Snow had already begun to fall, and I wanted to catch as much of the build-up as possible on camera. After a couple false starts, I settled on a formula: one shot every 10 seconds in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, f/5.6, auto ISO, auto white balance, smallest JPEG resolution (6-megapixel) but highest quality.

Though handy, the K-5 II's time-lapse mechanism is limited to 999 shots; this meant that I had to do a little basic math to figure out how long a 999-shot burst would last. At six shots per minute, it came out to just over two hours and 45 minutes.

I set the camera up in my bedroom and positioned it to peer through a glass-paned door to the rear deck. A planter next to some wooden steps provided a good gauge of snow depth, and the the DA 21mm f/3.2 Limited lens's wide field of view gave a sense of scale to the scene.

At this point, I was feeling pretty confident. Just after noon on Friday, I double-checked my settings, navigated back to the Interval Shooting submenu, and clicked Start Shooting. Just like that, we were off to the races.

When the snow stopped falling about 24 hours later, I had learned a few lessons.

1. Research, research, research Most of the problems I encountered when assembling my time-lapse could have been avoided if I'd taken the time to properly read up on the subject before diving in. There's a lot you can learn just by doing, as I did, but it's less painful to do a little book learnin' first. In particular, give the very useful Time-Lapse Blog a look.

2. Don't use automatic white balance Other cameras might handle it better than the K-5 II did, but leaving white balance on auto produced some wacky color shifts in the changing light of dusk and dawn. Some might actually prefer it as an artistic effect, but personally, I was looking for something more realistic. 

For time lapses that don't transition from day to night (or vice versa), picking a fixed white-balance setting will produce better visual continuity. Those who plan to do a lot of day-long time-lapses might want to look into something like LRTimelapse, a plugin for Adobe Lightroom that can auto-process images to create a consistent exposure curve and normalize white balance.

3. Location is everything In retrospect, putting the camera in my bedroom was a boneheaded move. It provided a decent angle on the action and worked well during the day (when the room was empty), but at night it was a real nuisance. Though the K-5 II is among the quietest DSLRs out there, the shutter sound was loud enough that I had to wear earplugs to sleep. Worse still, turning on any lights during the evening hours created annoying reflections in the window, which were captured in my photos. 

Beyond room choice, there were other miscues. A wide angle is great (some of the best time-lapses are taken with fisheyes), but you need to use it effectively. I would have done better to use an even wider lens for a more dramatic perspective, and get my camera closer to the ground where the snow could gradually fill the frame.

4. Arm yourself with batteries and memory cards Interval shooting wears down your battery with amazing speed, and thousands of shots will chew up memory, even when you're shooting at drastically reduced resolution. There's nothing worse than missing crucial action because you forgot to charge your extra battery. (Set your alarm, too, so you don't miss an hour in the morning like I did.)

5. Don't mix framerates Figure out your shooting rate ahead of time, and don't deviate from it once you begin. I was forced to switch from shooting one shot every 10 seconds during the day to one shot every 30 seconds at night, in order to get a single 999-shot burst to last till morning. (The alternative would have been to wake up every two hours and 45 minutes to restart the sequence.) 

This change made assembling the time-lapse video file a bigger headache than it needed to be, since I had to copy every third shot from the 10-second sequence into a new folder, copy them to the folder that contained the 30-second sequence, and then find a program to mass-rename all the files into an ordered sequence that VirtualDub (my time-lapse video software of choice) could understand.

I have no doubt that future attempts will uncover further pitfalls, but this experience has given me a good idea of key areas where I need to improve. If you have any other tips for time lapse success, or any stories about your own experiences, feel free to share in the comments section below!

(Looks like I wasn't alone in my efforts last weekend. For great examples of blizzard time-lapses from places harder-hit than mine, click here.)