“I enjoy a challenge,” smiles outdoor sports and lifestyle photographer/filmmaker Lucas Gilman. Having placed his skates on the ice in Iceland when asked to carve out imagery for the Nikon D810 launch, Gilman instantly warmed when asked if he would tackle another expedition.
Gilman is a Nikon Ambassador. Among the first to trial the Nikon D810, he’s now also using one of Nikon’s latest cameras, the D750, along with his D810. We sent him packing—with two cameras, lots of lenses and a challenge: go create long exposure time-lapses.
Location, Location, Location
Gilman had experimented with long exposure capture while in Vik, Iceland, but to gather fresh footage he headed to the California Coastline. “When looking for locations the first thing I do is consider my backgrounds; I then determine motion aspects,” he begins. “From what direction will the sun come up or go down? In what direction are the stars going to move? Will there be tides coming in or going out?”
For California sessions the in-camera time-lapse mode, which caches all images and generates a finished H.264 movie file, was selected with capture at 1080/24p. “Both the Nikon D750 and D810 provide time-lapse acquisition in Full HD 1920×1080 at rates of 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p and 24p. For the project’s needs, 24p was adequate.”
A nice thing about the Nikon in-camera time-lapse mode is that H.264 is one of the most commonly used video compression formats for recording and distribution. This facilitates sharing and browsing via the Internet and mobile devices.
Timing a Time-Lapse
Selecting the 24p rate (versus 25p, 30p or higher) shortens the amount of overall production time. Gilman provides a basic explanation of how to compute capture time: “Calculate how long you want the clip to be before you start; suppose it’s 10 seconds. Typically, video is 24p (24 frames per second) so that means you will need to shoot 24 still images to make one second of video.”
For the showcased long exposure motion piece Gilman captured his clips at a variety of shutter speeds. “Suppose you’re doing longer exposures, for example a 30-second exposure. It will then take twelve minutes ((30 sec x 24 frames)/60 sec = 12)) to produce every one second of video playback. Therefore, if you want a 10-second clip, plan to capture for 120 minutes ((30 sec x 24) x 10 sec = 120).”
Continuing, “Capturing long-exposure for time-lapse capture turns into a lengthy process. I had two cameras running, the D750 and the D810. Each was angled slightly differently. While those cameras were working I kept busy shooting stills with another device, a Nikon COOLPIX camera.”
Night and Day: A Look at Aperture and Shutter Settings
For night shooting, a wide open lens is optimal so Gilman tended to reach for the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED. “Working in Aperture Priority, I generally stopped down to f/4 and f/2 in order to bring in more depth of field. When it comes to areas of focus, you can be stylistic and go very shallow or very deep. Personally I like to frame-up key elements that are about 30 feet or more away—which is generally one-fourth of the way out in my landscape scenes.” He adds that for wide and expansive glances at the heavens, or maybe even lightning, an infinity setting may best serve.
As the sun gets brighter, the shutter speed should get faster. “When it’s lighter outside I also prefer to dial in Manual exposure (as opposed to Aperture Priority) to help control what the sensor grabs.” Continuing, “I also switch to Auto ISO. Doing so helps keep my focus point constant, my exposure remains steady and my depth of field does not vary. I also do not need to interrupt the shoot flow with settings changes. I mention more about Auto ISO in the next section.”
Gilman provides a few for-instances re: amount of shutter time for some of his captures. “When in Iceland I dialed in 2-second exposure times for the waves sequence. My intent was to not only work with adequate exposure, but stylistically I was aiming for a look that smoothed the movement of the water coming onto shore. For the clip that shows surf way out on the point, I opted for a 10-second exposure. And for clips that feature a sunset, since light was still strong, it was necessary to add an ND filter on the lens to permit me to work to a longer exposure time.”
Science of Exposure
“Prior to an in-camera time-lapse function, consistent and accurate exposure metering throughout all still frames was a thorn for production,” he says. “Now, by using the Automatic Exposure mode, the camera taps an exposure-smoothing feature that evens out capture during times when lighting conditions change frame to frame—such as sunrise or sunset. This smoothing saves a ton of time in post-production.”
Another way to manipulate exposure within the Nikon D750 or D810 is to select Auto ISO mode for video. He adds, “Switching to Auto ISO meant I did not have to manually make adjustments to shutter speed or aperture to correct exposure during the capture process. I locked my shutter speed and aperture. I then set a limit range to the Auto ISO control. The camera worked in the background to vary the ISO, automatically compensating for exposure ever so slightly.”
Continuing to work the science of exposure, Gilman also incorporates filters to adjust the amount of light hitting the sensor, to color tone and enhance, and sometimes both. “I generally use a 10-stop ND filter or variable ND filter when prepping time-lapses. I like exposure spans of about 10-30 seconds per shot, so a filter lets me keep the shutter open longer. For my time-lapse pieces, that longer exposure brings an overall smoothness to the look and feel.”
During long exposures under bright conditions Gilman taps Tiffen variable ND and blender/attenuator filters. “An attenuator offers a fine degree of neutral light control when shooting with wide angle lenses. Its smooth transition assists with light control to better preserve a constant exposure range across the frame.”
To add in a bit of temperature to night and day photo series, and/or to also add dimension or sometimes pull-out details, he may incorporate a Tiffen color filter such as Skyfire 1, Twilight 1 or Sunset 1 SE.
Time-Lapse for Stringing Theory
“In-camera creation of these motion series lets you see results instantly. No longer must you spend hours at the computer in edit and retouch mode,” shares Gilman. Another perk for in-camera time-lapse includes less required storage space. And, to meet a quick-turn client deadline, a time-lapse that can be fully created in-camera will more likely be ready sooner than one that requires time in post-processing.
Gilman explains that shooting time-lapses can bring an added dimension to your photography and let you start thinking in new and even more creative ways. “Once you get the hang of this production you may want to step things up by adding motion. By this I mean placing the camera into a system that slowly moves over the span of capture time. I like the Syrp Magic Carpet short track rail plus the Syrp Genie.”
And a final thought for when you’ve amassed a selection of great time-lapses that deserve to be strung together into a story? “Think about the flow for your final piece and what scenes will fit nicely next to one another. For instance, it would be hard to place a clip produced in the middle of the day next to one shot at night; chances are it would feel forced.” An obvious time-lapse story is one that follows nature—day into night.
10 Steps ‘til Time-Lapse
- Consider your environment and pack accordingly—for yourself and your camera set-up. Will you need a waterproof cover? Or will you need an umbrella shade? How about ground cloths, blankets, snacks, etc.?
- A tripod is a must. Pick one that’s heavy and solid. Consider weighing it down with sandbags.
During capture the camera must remain absolutely still. Even your footsteps have the potential for shaking the lens.
- Frame your elements. Chose a point of view that best captures the story. Carefully consider sources and trajectories of illumination (moon, sun, reflections, car lights, etc.) that will occur during the entire span of capture, and calculate how your clip may be affected.
- Actual time-lapse footage renders a slightly cropped size (top and bottom) versus what you see through on the LCD. Preview the actual dimensions of your final time-lapse by taking a test still: simply set the camera to Video mode and enable Live View. Once in Live View, take a photo by pressing the shutter button. The captured image will be cropped to the 16:9 format.
- Precisely set your focus point. I like to focus approximately one-fourth out, or roughly 30 feet away. Next, turn off the Auto Focus on the camera and/or lens. This is very important; you do not want the camera to shift your point of focus during that long capture time.
- Take a test shot to verify points are in focus.
- Calculate the best duration of time for capture. There are lots of mobile apps that define sun, moon and tidal activity at a location.
- Turn on the Time-Lapse function in the camera.
- Set your frame rate (24p, 25p, 30p, 50p, 60p). Stringing together several clips? Keep to a consistent rate for all capture sessions. I worked in 24p for this assignment.
- Hit the shutter and start capture.
- AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
- Tiffen 77mm variable ND filter
- Tiffen 77mm blender/attenuator 1.2 – 3/4 ND grad filter
- Tiffen Skyfire 1 filter
- Tiffen Twilight 1 filter
- Tiffen Sunset 1 SE filter
- Tiffen 77mm apeX 10 stop ND filter (contains IRND and Hot Mirror)
- Really Right Stuff TVC-34L tripod with BH-55 ball head
- Really Right Stuff TQC-14 tripod with BH-30 LR ball head
- Syrp Genie (motion control)
- Syrp Magic Carpet short track rail