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Llandudno Pier

The story behind this video

This timelapse video sequence was taken overlooking the pier at Llandudno on a suprisingly warm October evening.

I'm still very much in the learning phase when it comes to timelapse video, both from a technical and artistic point of view, but I think I'm getting better!

A lot more forethought and planning went into this video than into my previous productions, and although it didn't work out quite as I'd envisioned, I'm still moderately pleased with the final result. Only moderately mind you - us photographers are never completely satisfied with our work.

I thought it might be interesting to document the steps I took to make this video, and how my decision processes have changed since I first started doing timelapse. Sort of a 'story so far' episode that I (and you) can look back on as a waypoint on my journey in this field.

So here goes - we'll start with the pre-planning phase.

1. Pre-planning

I've learnt that shooting stills for a timelapse video is not the same as shooting stills for display as a static photo! A video sequence has one extra dimension not available in a static image - time.

This means that, instead of just looking good, a timelapse video has to tell a story. In fact, the sequence needs a beginning, a middle and an end that make sense and follow each other logically to support the story that you're trying to get across.

For this video, I wanted to tell the story of how light changes from daylight to night, and how the temporary bustle of human activity is replaced as night falls by the unending motion of tide, sun, moon and stars. I didn't quite acheive those goals in as a dramtic a fashion as I would have liked, but we'll come to that later.

So, having decided on the story I wanted to tell, the next phase was to work out how to do it.

I've made day to night timelapse videos before, with varying degrees of technical and artistic merit, and having learnt from those efforts I knew roughly what would help in the telling of this particular story.

This is where local knowledge was so important, as I needed a location that had a lot of activity during the day and evening, but once darkness had fallen the human activity needed to drop away to be replaced by the natural rhythms of sea and sky. I chose Llandudno as a location that I knew well and could get to easily. I knew where I could park, get a good view of a scene that had all the elements I required, set up a tripod without causing an obstruction, get a meal, I even knew where the loos were - very important when contemplating a long stint in the cold!

So I knew a good place to go. The next part of the plan was to work out when it would be best to be there.

To work out a start and finish time for the video, knowing that I wanted to feature the transition from light to dark, obviously meant that I needed to start shooting before sunset and finish once I had captured all the tide, moon and star motion that I wanted to include.

So, the first thing I needed to know was the sunset time, so I could start shooting, say, half an hour beforehand. At this time of year (late October) the sun set at 6pm, so I knew I needed to be in place, framed up and ready to start by 5.30pm at the latest.

The next most important thing on my list was the weather. First and foremost I wanted to avoid rain (I don't like getting wet, nor does my camera). I also wanted to avoid clouds if possible, as I intended to include the stars wheeling overhead in my video. So a good look at the weather forecast was the order of the day, with the Friday evening looking the most promising in terms of clear skies.

The next thing to check on was the phase of the moon. To get good star definition it's best if the moon doesn't appear until you've finished shooting, as its bright light tends to wash out the sky. Well I was fortunate here, because on the Friday evening with the forecasted clear skies, it was also a new moon so the sky would be dark once twilight had finished.

A new moon also meant a large tidal range, which was a bonus as I wanted to include the tide movement in my video as well. A quick look at the tide tables showed me that low tide would occur shortly after sunset and then race back in through twilight and into the early stages of night.

So, Friday afternoon was mentally booked for a trip to Llandudno.

2. Doing the maths

I would say, from my brief experience with the medium, that making a successful timelapse video is 90 percent planning and preparation, and 10 percent artistic ability.

Shooting stills for a timelapse sequence can really stretch your camera in terms of power consumption and memory use, and it's certainly worth having a rough idea of how much battery and memory card capacity you're going to need before you start. It's really frustrating to reach the best part of the shoot, only to have your camera battery die or your memory cards fill up just at the crucial point. I know, because it's happened to me and I certainly learnt a lesson in terms of thinking things through before starting.

So here's how the maths panned out for this particular sequence.

First of all I decided on a final video frame rate of 25 frames per second. This gives a nice smooth look to the final video. I've tried slower frame rates but I don't like the jerky sort of movement you get at 10 or 15 frames per second. This means that for every second's worth of video I needed 25 still frames.

Next I decided on a time between exposures of 10 seconds. I chose this interval on the basis of experience of previous timelapse videos I've made which have people or vehicles included, and for which I used a much longer interval of 30 seconds. I found 30 seconds to be much too long, with poeple and cars appearing and disappearing between frames with no transition in-between. For slow moving features such as stars a 30 second interval would be more appropriate, but as I wanted moving people in this sequence I chose 10 seconds instead.

Continuing on, I then estimated that I wanted to be shooting stills from 5.30pm (half an hour before sunset) until at least 8pm (two hours after sunset), going on as long as battery power and memory card capacity would allow. This was two and a half hours of shooting which, at an exposure interval of 10 seconds, would result in at least 900 exposures (6 exposures per minute, 360 exposures per hour for 2.5 hours at least).

900 exposures strung together in a video sequence at 25 frames per second would result in a video of 36 seconds duration, which would be just about right for most normal peoples' span of attention.

So, I needed to budget enough memory and battery power for 900 exposures at least.

Thinking of memory first, at the time of shooting I possessed two 4GB memory cards, and as I normally shoot in RAW I know I can get 250 RAW exposures on each card, giving me a total of 500 exposures - Oops!

Although when it comes to shooting 'ordinary' photos I'm an absolute quality fanatic and always shoot RAW so I can post-process images to my liking, I've realised through experience that stills shot for a timelapse video sequence don't require the same level of 'tweakability' as a standard still photo would. Indeed, when I've used RAW images for video sequences in the past I've never done anything to them other than a global crop in Adobe Camera Raw followed by re-saving them as JPEGs and then importing them directly into Premiere for the video production side of things.

So for this video sequence I decided to bite the bullet and shoot in JPEG with the in-camera processing set to minimum. This then increased the shot capacity of my 4GB memory card from 250 RAW files to over 1,000 large JPEGs, giving me more than enough capacity on one card for the evening's work, with a spare card in the bag just in case.

Turning our attention next to battery power. I own two batteries for my trusty Canon 5D, and the most I've ever squeezed out of them previously was shooting stills for another timelapse sequence. On that occasion I managed just over 500 stills out of the two batteries, which doesn't sound too good seeing as I needed at least 900 exposures for this particular video sequence. However, I was quite hopeful that my batteries would last the course, as all the shots at the beginning of the shoot would have quite fast shutter speeds and thus use less battery power than the longer exposures that would come later on once the light levels had fallen. But it was quite a gamble, and one that only just paid off, as you'll see later.

So, as far as the maths went, I knew I was OK for memory card capacity but I was by no means sure that my batteries would last the course. I'll have to invest in another one for a bit of insurance for next time.

Next we'll look at the set-up I used for taking the photos thoughout the shoot.

The set-up

Starting from the bottom up, There's no way I want the camera (Canon 5D) to move at all while shooting all those stills, so of course it's bolted firmly to my Manfrotto tripod, with all clamps fully tightened and checked. I have had an instance in the past where I hadn't fully done up a head clamp and the camera had slowly sagged downwards over the course of time, giving quite a surreal effect, but not one I wanted to repeat!

The same goes for check tightening of the quick release plate to the camera base. Simple enough, but easy to forget in the excitement of the moment.

Next came the choice of lens. This can be a lot trickier than selecting a lens for a single still image, as not only do you have to compose the shot at the beginning of the sequence, but you have to be aware of where the things you want included will be at the end of the sequence as well.

For this sequence, I knew I wanted to include the tide coming in, and I also wanted to see a good number of stars wheeling through the sky at the same time. In the end, that didn't happen, but its what I was planning for, so a large space both above and below the pier was required.

This need for space meant I used my 17-40mm zoom, cranked all the way back to the short end to get as much real estate in the frame as possible. This actually gave me more coverage than I thought I would need, but this is one of the big pluses of shooting timelapse video with a DSLR. You've got so much resolution (13MP with my Canon 5D) compared with what's required for even HD video (1980x1020=2MP) that you can crop severely in post production and still have way more resolution than you can sensibly use. The video on this web page is actually 480x270 pixels, which is tiny compared to the original JPEG images at 4638x2912 pixels.

So, tripod, camera, lens and lens cap are all in place and accounted for. The scene is framed up, the horizon is levelled. Next comes the actual camera control settings.

As discussed previously, I had decided on an interval between exposures of 10 seconds for this sequence, and the only sensible way to do that over hundreds of frames is to use Canon's ridiculously priced programmable remote timer.

I'm happy to report that I got mine for free, thanks to Jessops now accepting Tesco points in lieu of real money. Way to go Jessops!.

So the timer was plugged into the camera, and the camera's controls set as follows:-

Autofocus - Off. There's no way I wanted the focus point moving arbitrarily between shots.

White balance - Daylight. I didn't want all those lovely colour changes during twilight being corrected to boring grey, so white balance stayed fixed on daylight.

Exposure mode - Aperture priority to start, manual to finish. Tricky one this, and an area I've struggled with in the past. In previous attempts at timelapse photography I've used manual control from start to finish, adjusting the exposure manually in 1/3rd stop increments every couple of minutes as the light faded. This resulted in a rather jerky, flickering effect which I didn't like. So this time I set the camera to Av, with an aperture of f8, ISO100 and exposure compensation of +2 stops to start with, and let it do its thing. This resulted in a much smoother change in light levels during the first part of the sequence, as the camera was able to make tiny adjustments to the shutter speed as necessary, rather than the larger 1/3rd stop adjustments I would have had to make with full manual exposure control.

As the light levels fell, and exposure time approached 10 seconds, I first backed off the aperature to f5.6, and later on I upped the ISO to 200 and then to 400, still in aperture priority exposure mode. Once exposure time had reached 10 seconds again (it was pretty dark by now) I switched to full manual exposure control and left the exposure time at 10 seconds, with the camera set to multiple frame shooting with the remote control locked on. I then left the camera settings alone until the end of the shoot.

Battery issues

The only technical problem I had during the shoot was battery power.

My first battery ran out of power once I started on the longer exposures, after about 600 frames, so I switched to my second battery and tucked the empty unit into my glove to warm it up and hopefully get a bit more out of it.

The second battery ran out of juice after another 300 shots or so, as these exposures were now much longer, and therefore much more demanding on power.

Anyhow, I kept swapping the batteries between camera and glove and managed to squeeze another 100 shots out before both were completely depleted, giving me just over 1,000 exposures in total.

But what to do with all those JPEGs? Post-processing comes next.


So what do you do with 1,000 odd JPEGs?

Thank goodness for Adobe, who've now made Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) able to read and manipulate JPEGs in the same way as RAW files, even in batches of 1,000 files at a time.

Obviously you can't abuse an 8 bit RGB1998 JPEG as much as a 16 bit ProPhoto RAW file, but just being able to remove dust spots from 1,000 files at once is amazing!

In the end, I used ACR on my 1,000 JPEGs to remove dust spots, sharpen, boost clarity and vibrance, and crop to a 16:9 ratio. This is a standard HD video ratio, and the crop removed part of the sky. I had hoped to record stars wheeling overhead during my sequence, but a slight haze in the night sky prevented the stars from showing on the still images I took. However, I did get Jupiter rising through the frame once night had fallen which was a bonus. But with no star action to speak of, the top part of the photos had nothing happpening in them so cropping off this part of the composition was the logical and artistic thing to do. After all, if part of an image isn't contributing anything, then it's detracting from the whole and should be got rid of.

So with 1,000 JPEGs freshly improved and cropped, what did I do next?

Well the JPEGS I had now, while they were at the right 16:9 ratio, were still way to large for video production. Adobe's PhotoShop image processor to the rescue, and all 1,000 images were re-sized to an HD video resolution of 1980x1020 pixels, ready to be made into the actual video, which is where we go next.

Producing the video

There are a multitude of video editing packages available, with varying degrees of cost and capability. I use Adobe Premiere Pro, so all the following workflow is based on that software.

Actually, producing the simple timelapse video sequence shown here doesn't stretch the technical or artisitic capabilities of me or the software very much at all, and I'm sure as I get more into this I'll be able to be more creative.

To make this sequence I simply loaded all my re-sized JPEGs into the video's timeline with a duration of one image per video frame, with the video frame rate set to 25 frames per second. This meant that my 1,000 JPEGs would make a video sequence that was 40 seconds long.

The only other thing I did was to add a copyright logo to the entire sequence, so people can find my website if I decide to put these clips on YouTube later on.

Premiere Pro lets you export your finished video in a variety of formats, and I've decided on the latest flash .f4v format for all my video clips, as they're well compressed and very easy to load into websites using the .swf workflow in Adobe Flash Professional and Dreamweaver. Of course, there are many other ways of putting video into websites, but I'm not getting into that here!


So there you have it. My complete video timelapse workflow as it currently stands as of November 2011.

I know I still have major improvements to make in both the technical and artistic side of this discipline, but I'm really enjoying the challenges and learning new stuff.

Isn't photography such a great hobby!

Video data

Filename - llandudno timelapse 02.mp4

Camera - Canon 5D

Lens - 24-105mm zoom

Location - Llandudno, North Wales

This clip - HD 720p