The Holy Grail of Timelapses

This week we had some pretty crazy weather over on this side of the Atlantic, with some beautiful, clear days that quickly transformed into overcast skies with rain clouds, and even snow in some parts (being in Bristol, I managed to escape that trap – I even slept with my window open!). So I took my camera out for some sunrise timelapse action. I’d done several timelapses before and they’re really not all that difficult once you get your head around them. Here’s a little cheatsheet that I once made.

Timelapse cheatsheet

There’s something so wonderful about timelapses! Ever since this type of filming became popular when blowing people’s minds in Life of Plants, it has been improved (Planet Earth), and improved (Frozen Planet: timelapse under ice and over long periods of time) and improved again (Africa: movement AND speed AND lots of shots overlapping).

Naturally, as natural history is more likely about a process happening in a short space of time, it’s mainly in this field that it has really opened up doors. But everyone has noticed the potential, and various TV shows now use it in their opening sequences (like my latest favourite – House of Cards, described in an interview here).

This was my first go at non-natural history timelapse photography:

Setting up a timelapse sequence in a controlled environment?
Simple enough – get the settings right and wait for the event to happen (it doesn’t always, as I found out trying to make a nice TL of spiders).

Over a long period of time?
Patience is required more than anything else– and making sure your camera won’t get stolen (my biggest worry!).

There are some mighty fun timelapses out there, like this breathing apple.

A series of shots going from darkness to brightly lit (supposing you are shooting into the sun on a clear day) in the space of an hour. How do you take images that are exposed equally for the dark shots as for the light shots to create a smooth transition?

This is called the ‘Holy Grail’ of timelapses.

I’ve done some research, after my original fail, and come across these suggested solutions.
Option 1. Set the camera to full ‘auto’.
This goes against everything I have learnt about timelapses, because this causes FLICKER, the bane of a timelapse shooter’s life.
dSLRs, in being digital, have ‘rough’ steps between exposure values. Therefore if the scene only requires a slight change in exposure, your camera will make a guess, but sometimes wanders back and forth a little. Speed this up over several shots and you get some slightly lighter and some slightly darker. And it looks terrible:

I gave this option a shot this morning, and as expected it didn’t work. It can sometimes, but it’s not a reliable option.
Another way you can get flicker is if you don’t use a manual lens, and your lens’ diaphragm doesn’t quite open up to the exact right amount.

Option 2. Post processing de-flickering.
There are a variety of programmes nowadays that aim to remove flicker from a timelapse. Here’s an example.

Option 3. Use a grey card.
I thought this was quite a clever suggestion: use a grey card at the bottom of your frame to then use in post processing to have an easy-to-generate white balance across your images in post-processing. However, that doesn’t solve the exposure issue.

Option 4. Bracketing (Take 3 shots each time: underexposed, overexposed and just right – kind of like goldilocks).
This would most commonly be used for HDR timelapses, which are supposed to mimic what our eye naturally see. No matter how much I try there is something unnatural about it!

Another idea would be to make 3 different timelapses at each type of exposure, stack them on top of each other in post-processing and allowing them to fade into one another.

Option 5. Day to night, or night to day?
Someone suggested somewhere that, depending on where you take your timelapse, and what other features star in your scene, you could always reverse a timelapse of a sunset to make it look like a sunrise.
Or, my own idea as I sit down to write this post, take some more time, shoot the scene just after sunrise, and then you know what your final perfect exposure is.

Option 6. Get some extra equipment.
Change your exposures as your go along. Please don’t touch your camera though, it will ruin all your hard work!
What I’m talking about is getting some sort of external light meter, and measuring what your exposure is supposed to be. Then, either by setting your shutter speed to bulb mode and changing the length of time you manually open your shutter on your intervalometer, or by changing the size of your aperture gradually by rotating the exposure ring (using an aperture drive), you can adjust the exposure so that it’s perfect for each shot as time passes.

And if it doesn’t quite work as planned, you might have at least 1 good still photo to take away with you.
Here’s a great website called timescapes on all things timelapse.

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