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This is the first part of a longer series of blog posts about timelapses. I have started planning for and taking long-run timelapses that span many weeks and months, and I want to talk about how these ideas and visions can be accomplished in a reasonably efficient workflow by an amateur photographer. I say "reasonably" because processing timelapses from RAW files and working on such long running sequences will always involve a lot of work.
Who, and why
Apart from an article on Photo Sentinel, there aren't many interesting articles or howtos available. I highly recommend reading the article if you're interested in timelapses because it showcases different techniques and links to some great videos in each category. However, it belongs to a company that sells specialised long-term timelapse equipment which does not really fit the kind of subjects I'm shooting. On Youtube and Vimeo there are only a couple of videos that portrait certain subjects in nature over the course of many months but there are some amazing and award-winning short videos and films that I will link to further down.
The most impressive executions of this sort of timelapse - and the aforementioned howto talks about it as well - are several features by the BBC such as The British Year and of course Planet Earth. The team which shot the timelapses for The British Year talk at length about planning, shooting, editing and various tips in a blog post. I highly recommend Chad's blog and all the content on his website as it is a wealth of timelapse stories, workflow tips, and kit reviews.
The obvious but most time extensive way to shoot a timelapse across multiple seasons is to take individual photos of the same subject under similar lighting conditions and from the same spot over a long, long time. Another technique is to take multiple "normal" timelapses, that is sequence of an hour or a few hours, and then blend them together such as in the Youtube video "4 Seasons 1 Tree". Unfortunately, the blending will be very obvious, and there also isn't much movement or change within the individual sequences themselves. On the other hand, there is no flickering due to abrupt changes in lighting or weather. This could be enhanced by doing some masking and selective blending to change some areas of the image before others which can also be seen in the video as the ground changes before the tree does.
The easiest way to accomplish a long running timelapse is to have a camera that can be left in a fixed spot and orientation. The photo above is actually a blend of two individual frames, one with different lighting and more leaves on the tree. It shows that blending and aligning photos on the computer can produce a very smooth result even if the original photos are totally unaligned and taken in completely different conditions. In amateur nature photography, it usually isn't an option to have an absolutely fixed camera spot because the locations are too exposed to the elements. Even in urban environments you wouldn't leave your camera or tripod anywhere except inside your own house or apartment - and then you wouldn't be able to take it somewhere else.
Therefore - unfortunately - we have to re-set up the camera and point it at the same spot every single time. This gets very complicated if movement of the camera is involved but even with a static shooting position there will be slight variations due to uneven ground, zoom lens variations (zooms are not "clicked" after all) and inaccuracies when pointing the camera at the subject. A very sturdy tripod is important but because I usually travel on foot or bike and also take my equipment on hikes into the mountains, I couldn't just go for the most sturdy one out there. So my tripod is the Manfrotto BeFree Compact Aluminum Travel Tripod which I love because it fits even into a normal day pack, yet it can extend to eye level and is reasonable rigid. However, pushing down on it will bend the legs in their joints so it is tricky to get it set up 100% exactly the same way every time.
So there will be variations in tripod position, tripod height, camera attitude and focal length. Luckily, those issues can be resolved almost completely in post-production and I will talk about methods and tools to align photos and blend them in the next blog post in this series. Apart from dedicated software and plugins for Lightroom there are also a bunch or free tools available that do a very good or even perfect job at the expense of a maybe not so polished user interface or some efficiency.
Ongoing work and ongoing articles
Something like the video "Fall" from NYC Central Park is probably the closest inspiration to what I am planning to achieve. I didn't know the video when I started my project. There is also a year-long timelapse from the Canadian Rocky Mountains which employs some really nice blending and obviously beautiful outdoor scenery.
As I shoot individual frames and sequences for my own long-run timelapse video, I will add more parts to this series talking about specific shooting tips and releasing some more snippets of the ongoing work. Towards the end I'm sure it will all become fairly editing and video post-production heavy.
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