Capturing The “Nebraska Skies”:
Nebraska is home. It was my first, and likely will be my last.
This project is about love.
Love of teamwork.
Love of the subject.
Love of photography.
Love of exploration.
Love of freedom.
My work as a photographer has taken me to 138 countries and all 50 U.S. states. I have been making pictures in Nebraska since I was in high school, but never on a consistent professional basis. In 2014 I fixed that a bit—by managing to spend nearly four months in the state shooting daily. With the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood rapidly approaching, I’ve been wanting to do more; to explore deeper, to explain this place I love to anyone willing to spend some time with my photographs and videos. I drove at least 15,000 miles, crisscrossing the state gathering the materials that are the basis for The Nebraska Project (www.nebraskaproject.com).
Growing up in Nebraska I had a number of advantages: I am a fifth generation Nebraskan. I was born in the Badlands and members of my family continue to live there. I come from the land, which is critical to understand the state. I had, and have, a strong community of teachers—people who raised me and continue to provide total support. I have a strong network of contacts around the state. I grew up with a total absence of fear, which allows me to approach everything with a fully open heart.
The topography is rugged, powerful and diverse: That big sky. The rugged beauty of the Badlands. The fertile topography of the corn belt. The wonder that is the Sandhills. The fertile croplands of the east. From the skyline of Omaha, to the tiny town of Monowi with its one inhabitant. It’s a state of cowboys and poets, buffalo and meadowlarks. It’s the middle of nowhere, but the center of everywhere.
Crisscrossing The State To Capture “Nebraska Skies”
The Nebraska Project is a personal project done through my production company Straw Hat Visuals. Everyone in our group is working on pieces of it, but much of the heavy lifting is being done by my creative partner Laura Heald. She helped with the creative planning and has done the lion’s share of the editing. She has also shot a significant amount of the video. Dan Edwards, our colorist, was an intern during the work on this project. Christine Casey, who runs camera and does logistics, is also an intern. Amy Sandeen, Katie Morrow and Kevin Morrow helped us by doing field production—scouting, sourcing, suggesting and also providing a lot of muscle power. They are great friends who stepped up, willing to take time away from their normal lives to help. Sara Tanner has worked with Straw Hat Visuals for seven years. She handles the Web site and social media, as well as contributing to our creative concepts.
A multimedia creation, as of January 2015, The Nebraska Project includes 15 short video documentaries, 100 photos and a bunch of words that showcase the land, communities and Nebraskans. A significant touchstone for the project is the “Nebraska Skies” video, a panoply of time-lapses we recorded from all parts of the state throughout late summer and fall 2014. We shot more than 250 time-lapses to consider for use in that video alone.
To produce all this content I rely on Nikon camera bodies, especially the Nikon D810. I put five of them to constant use. I also travelled with four Nikon D4S bodies and about 25 NIKKOR lenses. The lenses I use most often are the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G, AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II and the AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR. I used more than 50 different lenses on this project; I pick the glass for the situation—it changes every time.
Beautiful 4K Time-Lapses Using The Nikon D810
The Nikon D810 has quickly become my favorite camera for most work. It’s lightweight, versatile and the files are incredible. A critical piece of gear, it’s aided me in creating the many photo stills, videos and time-lapse sequences that comprise The Nebraska Project. This camera produces amazing individual files.
In post, the time-lapse photo sequences can be rendered as beautiful 4K video. Arriving at a location, we would set-up and let our five Nikon D810 cameras record. Most shoot duration spans were between five and seven hours. Some cameras were placed on stationary tripods, some were clamped in place, and some were used on Cinevate Moco systems and often employing rails as long as 11 feet. We worked early in the morning, we worked late at night. We kept the cameras rolling through cloud cover and on into massive lightning storms.
Our nocturnal captures brought a range of variety to the piece and, as you can see, reveal some amazing scenarios conjured up by Mother Nature. For the overnight time-lapses, we worked as far from the lights of towns as possible. During those long stretches (cameras ran for up to 8 hours) the crew would rest in nearby tents. Depending on the weather conditions, we would check the cameras every hour. Most of the time Christine and Laura made sure things were working correctly, but we did rotate so that everyone had a turn at monitoring cameras. Most spectacular are the sequences of seasonal storms—but capturing the most aggressive and beautiful storms did require a few additional safety precautions and considerations.
Environmental, Creative And Technical Considerations
When setting up for time-lapse capture, among some of the things to consider are environmental concerns:
- What will weather be like over the span of capture?
- Have you prepared for different wind patterns in the region?
- Have you considered where the shadows will be? Where the main light source will travel?
Then too there are creative considerations:
- How long will duration of capture be?
- How will post-processing be done?
- Will the camera be moving during the time-lapse?
Remember that you are writing with light. Think about what you want the photograph/time-lapse to communicate. Then compose it confidently, surely, deliberately. The right exposure is the one you want. Use the light to guide the viewer around the image. When setting up, take your time. Let your mind move fast so your fingers don’t have to. And finally, plot-out your technical considerations:
- What White Balance will be used?
- What ISO will be used?
- Will ISO need to change during the course of the time-lapse?
I shoot RAW unless I am doing HDR time-lapse. You should also calculate the focus point and the depth of field.
Tips And Tricks For Time-Lapse With The Nikon D810
Work with the Nikon D810 and you have two ways to create a time-lapse. One is through the in-camera functionality. The camera directly creates a .MOV file so you have no post-process work to do on the hundreds of still frames you will acquire. This is a wonderful way to produce if you’re trying to meet a deadline. I’ve used it several times at sporting events when on a tight schedule.
For The Nebraska Project, my goal is to create both a collection of 4K time-lapse sequences, plus a large archive of landscape photographs. To meet output objectives I am using the built-in intervalometer. The Nikon D810 intervalometer allows me to set the camera to capture up to 9,999 individual frames. A single shot can be fired anywhere from one every second to one every 24 hours.
Creating your own time-lapse series? Here are five suggestions:
- Choose your focus. When shooting time-lapse the first things we do is turn off Autofocus, choose a focus spot, then tape down the focus ring. The Nikon D810 camera body focuses extremely fast—which is wonderful when you are photographing sports or wildlife—but the art of creating a time-lapse is a very manual process. You need to be sure your focus is consistent, so Manual is far better in this instance.
- Set your White Balance. Again, time-lapse is a very manual process. The .NEF files themselves allow ample room for correction of tonal fluctuation, but I always try to make post-production as easy as possible. Choose a White Balance right from the start and, when in post, you can easily make all the frames in your time-lapse match.
- While creating time-lapses for The Nebraska Project I want two things: (1) the biggest and best files available and (2) sharp individual photo frames that I can pull out of my time-lapse sequences. The .NEF from the Nikon D810 is incredibly robust and works perfectly for both individual still photos and for time-lapse use.
- Trust the ISO. One of the best parts of the Nikon series of cameras is the ability to produce at high ISOs. For the overnight time-lapse sequences this ability has been incredibly important. To capture the brilliance of the stars I only shot on nights when there was no moon (either a new moon or one that rose late or set early). Working in this very limited light is important; the moon yields ambient light which then reduces the number of stars that will show in a capture. On the downside, working in the dark also means I have a tougher challenge to getting around, setting-up, and, in generally navigating about.
During these exceedingly low light instances I shot each image file at 20 and 30 second exposures. That duration allows a lot of light to hit the sensor, but with no moon to light things I needed help from the Nikon D810 to literally see in the dark. Working at high ISO rates (up to 3200) allowed me to capture and maintain incredible quality.
- Decide how long you want your time-lapse clip to be.
There is a misconception that to produce time-lapses you will need to collect thousands of frames; you do not. For “Nebraska Skies,” we edited everything at 24 frames per second. That means every 24 frames in a time-lapse sequence equals one second of video. I always want more than I will need (to allow room for editing), but I don’t want to bog down post production managing 10,000 frame sequences. The sweet spot for me was working with anywhere from 700 to 1,000 frames for a sequence—depending on the time of day.
State Of The Nation In Nebraska
My work on The Nebraska Project is about one-third complete. The team and I will continue to grow this site as a tribute to the people of Nebraska. The goal is to spend between 100 and 120 days in the field over the next two years. It’s a labor of love, just like all of my creative work.
- Nikon D810
- Nikon D4S
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR