Last month I was hired by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to shoot a time lapse of the Temple Square Christmas lights coming on. Temple Square is a block of downtown Salt Lake City in which the Salt Lake Temple of the church stands. They wanted it shot from an angle that would best show an overview of the sit, the moment the lights come on, and as many of the lights/people as possible. I thought to myself “I can do that, shouldn’t be that hard”. The camera I shoot most all my stuff with is the Nikon D4 and it has a built in time lapse feature. I’ve used this feature enough times that I thought it would be fine for this project also. When you use the built in time lapse feature of the D4 the camera shoots at specified intervals and at the duration that you want. Just like you would do a traditional time lapse but instead of having 600 still images at the end of shooting, the camera captures those images, processes them, and outputs a single .mov file that is ready to view an send. Pretty rad hu? Works great as long as the light doesn’t change and you don’t need to adjust your exposure at all. I did have my concerns. As I thought about it more I realized that I was going to have both of those problems. Shooting from day to night, which I had never done before, and still get the Christmas lights to show up nice and bright. I then thought it shouldn’t be that much harder. I’d just need to adjust the exposure along the way and I should be golden. I didn’t realize however that this would require much more planning and effort than I anticipated. In the end it would require me to actually learn and shoot a time lapse the traditional way not using the easy way out of the built in feature of the D4.
The time came to shoot. Before shooting, I scouted out a nice spot from an adjacent building that had a 10th floor catwalk on the outside of the building that gave me a nice overview of Temple Square. We got permission to shoot it from there and the photo below shows my vantage point.
I had to be rigged up with a safety harness with my camera and tripod on the catwalk. I weighed down the tripod, lined up my shot and was feeling pretty good about things. I was a little worried about how it was going to go but I felt like it would be OK. I was set up by 4:35pm, and started the time lapse at 4:45pm in order to get the lights coming on at 5pm. I set the duration to end about 5:30pm. I figured by then it would be dark for sure. I was soon going to find out the limit of going the built in route. For the first 20 min or so the time lapse was working well, then I started to notice the exposure was going dark so I had to start manually changing the exposure in between frames which I thought would be fine. I had to do this because I was shooting in Manual Mode and the shots are taken as jpgs. Not only that, but I was having to guess what my white balance was going to be as the sun set, changing that along the way also. At 5:30pm or so the time lapse stopped and I was thinking I thought it would have been darker by now but it should be OK. As you can see I was making lots of assumptions. Not a good idea. It was extra hard also because there was no snow which made the overall exposure darker and harder to get the lights to show up. Here was the result of the first attempt.
I got back to the studio looked at it a number of times and didn’t really like it. As you can see it’s not good. It was shaky, had lots of flickering, needed post work, and wasn’t long enough to show a nice dark sky. I sent it over the client and offered to shoot it again for free so I could make it better. I realized the only way it was going to look good was to shoot it traditionally with still images put together into video in post. Problem was I’d never done this before.
I spent an entire day looking at videos and tutorials. I learned a lot and felt ready to tackle it again. This time I shot the photos raw, with aperture priority to compensate for the changing lighting conditions. I went the night before to figure out what my longest exposure was going to be, then figure out how long of a time lapse I wanted to do. It had snowed so I knew the exposure would be more even then with out snow which would also make it better then before. This time I spent 2 hours shooting it. The weather was a brisk 15 degrees. After all my preparation the results were much better. I processed the final images in Lightroom adjusting the white balance, exposure, etc then output them into Premier Pro where I put the final touches on it and exported the final version. Here was the final delivered and used by the client.
When it was all said and done. I was exited to learn from my mistakes and learn a new skill. I’m still developing my time lapse skills but I am enjoying what I learn along the way. To clarify also. I wrote this post to share what I learned. I don’t think these are the best time lapse videos ever or that I’ve mastered the task. These were shot for a specific purpose and client for which it worked well. There are still things I would like to do better moving forward. I just thought it may be helpful to see what I learned doing this so you can learn from my mistakes!
Lastly, here is another angle I shot at the same time the second time around with a D700 and a 24-70mm lens. I might actually like this one a bit better even.
10 Lessons learned:
1-Built in time lapse feature of the D4 works ok. In order to do it right you have to do it the old fashioned way, by shooting lots of raw still images and putting them together into a video in post after making the necessary adjustments.
2-You have to do a lot of prep for a good time lapse.
3-You need to figure out how long you want your time lapse to be before hand.
4-How many exposures you need to take to get 24 frames per second to get the final length of time lapse video you want.
5-How long your last exposure is going to be.
6-How much time in between intervals. You need to make sure your longest exposure is not longer than the interval you select or else it will ruin your time lapse. Don’t forget to add a couple seconds in for writing to the card.
7-You can’t make assumptions about conditions, length of time, exposure and white balance.
8-Shoot with a good tripod, lots of weight and if you can get an external intervalometer so you don’t have to touch the camera at all once you start your time lapse.
9-For a good day to night or night to day time lapse. Shoot Raw files, in aperture priority mode. Edit in Lightroom export images at 1080px at 72 dpi and compile in Premier pro.
10-Time lapse photography is quite a bit of trial and error but if you keep this stuff in mind you will at least have a nice foundation.
Best of luck with your first time lapse!