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Documentary Shooting: Interviews

We are finally at the stage where we conduct and film the interviews for our TWALK documentary. After a few days of acquiring and testing gear and then test-driving the setup, we now have something that looks great (not perfect but better than many other documentaries I've seen) and is very mobile and easy to set up for a 1-2 person crew.

But first, here is the latest trailer for our project with a bunch of little interviews (sound bites) we took during the event:

Gear

Here is a quick rundown of the gear that I think is required to get a well-lit interview with solid, good sound:

  • 1-2 cameras that can be matched in terms of exposure and color profiles (I struggle with matching them perfectly since one is a Blackmagic and the other one a GH4 but a color chart like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport (de) helps tremendously to fixup color space and color temperature issues with one click in Davinci Rsolve)
  • A sound recorder because most camera pre-amps are really bad and don't offer enough inputs or control such as rotary dials and limiters - I use the excellent entry-level Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder (de)
  • Good microphones: it took me a while to accept that it is important to spend a good chunk of your budget on sound equipment - maybe not as much as on cameras and lenses but still enough to get at least one middle to top of the line microphone. I like to always have a backup option in case one microphone experiences cloth rustling, room echo, or simply stops working, so I usually mix a lavalier/"clip-on" mic like the Rode LAVALIER Condenser Microphone and a shotgun mic: the Sennheiser ME 64 Cardioid Condenser Capsule Head is great for indoor interviews, for outdoors think about the more directional ME66.
  • 2-3 LED lights with big enough batteries to work for at least an hour: depending on your exact kit and the conditions of the space you are conducting the interview in, you might actually need more lighting devices (see the section on the detailed setup below). All lights' color temperatures should match as closely as possible, unless you go for an extra warm fill light, or an extra cold hair light, etc. Mine are all daylight balanced (around 5500K) and have a good CRI value (95+). The entry-level smaller Apature Amaran LED lights work a treat indoors if you darken the room anyway, for more power I would look at the Aputure HR672W or Apature's more professional lineup.
  • A reflector and/or diffusion panel (or softbox): your light, in particular your key light, will always look better the softer it is, unless you are deliberately going for a harsher look. To achieve this you have to send it through a (the bigger the better!) Softbox (de) or white semi-translucent panel, or bounce it off a 5-in-1 Collapsible Multi-Disc Light Reflector (de) .
  • Enough Light Stands (de) for all those lights. Also a Microphone Boom Stand (de) for the shotgun mic.

I'm sure this sounds like a lot of gear for just one interview, and if it is not possible to buy or borrow all those things, an interview in natural light might be a better option (I'd still recommend having at least one reflector). However, for the style I was going for I needed a dark space and all those lights to make it work.

Setup

When you do the setup, make sure it's ready when the interviewee arrives. You don't want to bore them with 20 minutes of fiddling with lights and cameras. This means you need a stand-in, e.g. your interviewer, producer, grip, etc.

The first thing to do is find a good spot for the interviewee in regards to space (all the equipment you'll have to set up around them) and background. The background should be not too boring (avoid a plain wall but patterns are good) but also not distracting (no harsh light, no movement). This obviously depends on the subject of the interview and how you want to associate the interviewee with the environment. Typical examples are athletes and their trophies, scientists and their awards and books, and so on. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference and the style you are going for.

Next I will set up my key light. This is the main light that illuminates the subject. The typical rule is to have to about 45 degrees from the camera on the side of the camera the interviewer is sitting. You need a good light stand because the key light also has to be above the subjects head (again, about 25-40 degrees). Eye level can work as well but avoid a light source below eye level because it will make them like starring in a horror or zombie movie. Personally, I actually like my key light to be 90 degrees to the camera line and at about eye level. This gives the face a very strong divided look between the lit and unlit half right down the nose. I use a big diffusion panel to soften the light as much as possible. We will take care of the unlit half of the face in the next paragraph.

At the moment, the shadow line is too strong. Even with some natural light, this is what often makes cheaper productions fall short because the subject will have fairly strong shadows on their face. Our next job is to get rid of them. This is achieved with a fill light which can either simply be a reflector that bounces natural light or the key light, or an extra, smaller LED light than shines some light at eye level at the subject's face. Even at the lowest setting, it does immediately get rid of any hard shadows. The fill light should be closer to the camera to make sure what the camera sees is illuminated enough to give a pleasing and soft look. There are examples of professional interviews well done without any (noticeable) fill for effect, for example my personal favorite In the Shadow of the Moon (just google images for it plus "interview").

We've dealt with the absolutely necessary lights, now for the bonus: add a hair light behind the subject, slightly to the side of the fill light and just out of sight from the cameras. This will add a light onto one side of the hair, head, and shoulder of the subject and make them stand out more against the background. The background at this point should be as dark as possible as to be not too distracting. If it is receiving too much light spill, try to flag the lights with so-called barn doors/french flags or some cardboard. Another option is to move the subject further from the background and use the fall-off of the light's intensity to make it appear darker.

Now it is time for the subject (or "talent", i.e. interviewee) to take a seat. Set up your shotgun mic so that it points down at their chest, and either hide the lavalier mic under their clothing or position it low enough (but not below their sternum) so that it is out of the shot. I use a very tight picture that usually only shows their head and maybe the shoulders so getting the microphones out of the shots isn't very hard. Now do a sound check, get the cameras rolling, use a clapper board or do something similar (clap your hands or snip your fingers in front of the cameras) and you are ready to go for the interview. It can also be a good idea to use a color chart at this point to get a good reference with the final lighting setup.

This post has got long enough so I will talk about any workflow, interview tips and how to edit an interview in Davinci Resolve in another one. Just remember to do all your backups first thing after the interview is over!

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Challenges Adjusting Time in JPGs and RAWs

I recently found myself in a situation where I had to adjust the date and time on all my photos from overseas, JPEGs and RAWs. Lesson learned: it is much easier to remember (if you do) to change the setting on the camera when you are switching time zones.

JPEGs

It is fairly easy to change EXIF and IPTC metadata in JPEGs because pretty much all the tools support it. Apart from just writing data directly, most of the tools (and luckily there are many options) I looked at also allow for automatic and intelligent data/time adjustments, so you only have to specify the offset in minutes or hours or whatever unit you require, and it will set the date and time accordingly. In the end this means the choice of the specific program comes down to personal preference. In Linux, there are several options, both for the CLI and as a GUI.

In digikam, the time adjustment can be found in the batch processing editor. To get there, select the photos you want to adjust, then hit B. You can select the individual destinations for the adjust times and I usually go with all the EXIF tags and the digikam timestamp (IPTC wasn't set when the files came out of camera). After the adjustments have been made to the files, it is important to re-read the photos back into digikam. To do this, select the photos again, then go to the menu Item and click "Reread Metadata".

On the CLI, the job is much easier in my opinion (as is often the case). To get a console for the album you want to edit, right-click on the album in the album view (sorry, this technique can't work when you want to edit photos based on tags or other filters; in that case you have to use the GUI method described above) and select "Open in Terminal". Now we can use (if installed) several programs to fix the date/time:

- exiftool: Does not have a date/time adjust option so for JPEGs I would not use it
- exiv2: Can read and write all the tags in JPEGs (and other formats, but not all RAW formats, see below) and has a handy date/time adjust function: "exiv2 ad -a -10 *.JPG" will subtract 10 hours from the EXIF timestamps. It can also be used to rename the files according to the timestamp ("exiv2 mv") but I like to use digikam for that (it can make filenames unique automatically if necessary).
- jhead: Functionality around timestamps and renaming is similar to exiv2 so it comes down to personal taste and specific use cases: "jhead -ta-10:00 *.JPG" will subtract 10 hours.

RAWs

This is were things get a bit trickier and depending on your camera's RAW format some of the programs will not work, e.g. exiv2 supports ORF but not RW2, and the GUI alternatives (digikam or UFRaw) didn't contain any options to write arbitrary metadata. exiv2 can work on some formats as described above (which is nice because it is the shortest and simplest command) but failed to write RW2 (Panasonic). What did work was exiftool. One slight quirk is that while exiftool displays pretty field names when you print all the metadata within a file (no arugments, just "exiftool file.RW2"), it requires the arguments for time adjustment to be the technical, compressed names of all the individual fields that you want to write, so: exiftool -"ModifyDate"-=10 -"DateTimeOriginal"-=10 -"CreateDate"-=10 *.RW2

I hope someone else who is on the search for the right tool to adjust their photos' metadata will find this information useful. I'll keep it as a reference for the future because I'm sure I will forget to set my camera to the right time zone again.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Preparing for a Documentary Shoot with Blackmagic and GH4 - Part 1

The actual production time for my first proper documentary is coming up in a few weeks so I want to start writing about the pre-production process and my experiences as each shooting day happens.

Upskilling

There are so many areas you have to cover as a mostly one-man-band when making a short feature and there is always more to learn. Most of those areas also go hand in hand so even if you want to hand something off to someone else it still pays to learn the basics and get into the editor's head, or the audio guy's head, and of course the camera man's/DP's head.

Over the last year I slowly learned to use Davinci Resolve 12 to edit and color grade, and even though color grading (and editing to some extend but luckily a documentary isn't 100% creativity and some things just fall in chronological order) probably takes decades or a lifetime to master I slowly get the hang of matching shots and giving it a certain look. So while I think that there is lots to learn on an actual big project I've also got the basics to tackle a short film. Really useful tutorials I used to learn the skills are the Youtube tutorial videos of Casey Faris and Miesner Media. The official Resolve manual is very content-rich and well written. It is definitely worth a read if you're serious about using the program to produce films - at least it should be handy as a reference document.

For dealing with RAW timelapses and turning it into an edited and color graded video the recent mountain timeapse was a good exercise.

Equipment

I've slowly gathered all (most? acquiring equipment never ends) of my equipment over the last few months and am now ready to shoot a variety of scenes in different weather and lighting conditions. The cameras and how I plan to use them:

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with Metabones speedbooster and full-frame or APS-C lenses (from 11mm to 105mm, some of that with optical stabilisation): use whenever feasible because it produces the best image but it won't shoot slow motion. It is also too heavy to go running with (unless way stripped down) and therefore won't work on my Roxant stabilizer.

GH4 with speedbooster and full-frame or APS-C lenses: due to the different crop factor gives slightly different focal lengths than the BMPCC. Can shoot 4K and slow motion so will be used when those features are necessary. Is also more rugged (see my test in the rain here) and works on the stabilizer with a small MFT lens. The GH4 has decent audio input (as long as the pre-amps are turned down) so I don't necessarily need a separate audio recorder - something that is absolutely required with the BMPCC.

GoPro Hero 3: I don't like the image of the GoPros that much but it is a great little camera and can do super wide-angle shots, good slow motion, and fit in tight corners where other cameras won't go. I plan to use it for timelapses with a tiny rig (e.g. on a Gorilla pod) and to leave it outside for longer periods without having to worry about it too much.

Either one of those or a photography camera like the Olympus E-M1 will also be used to shoot timelapses without using any of the precious video equipment.

I've experimented a lot with rigs from Smallrig and will write a post at some point about the specific parts. At the moment I'm still swaying back and worth between more parts and attachments and a smaller rig so I don't want to finalise it just yet. What I can say, though, is that a minimal cage works best for small HDSLRs like the BMPCC and GH4, and Nato rails and top handles are amazing.

What's next

The next step is to shoot a daytrip in the outdoors where we prepare the course for the event. It will involve using the stabiliser and trying to record good audio while being on the move.

Until then, here again is the clip from last year's event:


Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

RAW Timelapse Workflow with Darktable and Davinci Resolve

I shot a new timelapse in the mountains, this time exclusively recording all the frames in full resolution and RAW (unlike my previous outdoor timelapse). It was recorded with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) and Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 PRO (de) lens.

Out in the field

Basic outdoor timelapse 101: all manual settings, that is ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed. White balance was obviously daylight and I kept the ISO at its minimum (200). Shutter speed should be set to something "video-like". Video and film cameras usually use something called a 180 degree shutter which essentially means that the shutter speed is 1/(2 x frame rate). So for a 24 fps video that means 1/48 or (because photo cameras usually don't offer this setting) 1/50. Anything faster than that runs the risk of making the timelapse feel jittery and too sharp. For fast movements, like people or clouds, I like to go even slower and aim for something like 1/20 - 1/40. This gives the video a more dreamy and pleasing look.

I record every frame in RAW. I like to store JPEGs as well so I can generate a quick timelapse when I get home without having to go through the RAW workflow (described below) first.

To do the actual timelapse recording, there are several option depending on your circumstances and your equipment:

  • Using the camera's in-built timelapse function: most compact solution and works well on the E-M1 except when you want faster than 1 second intervals;
  • using a remote shutter release or remote timer: works great but you have to dial in the intervals using the anti-shock functionality and it's an extra cable flapping in the wind;
  • a slider or panning head triggering the camera: whenever the E-M1 sits on the panning head (see next section), it will receive it's shutter releases from the Genie. The result: accurate intervals perfectly timed with the stops between motions of the moving parts of the timelapse setup.

For filters I often use a graduated ND filter to make the bright sky and the darker ground a bit more even. This is particularly important at sunrise and sunset because the ground will be really dark. I also have a circular polarizer that lives on my lens 95% of the time: vegetation looks more lush, colours more vibrant, and annoying reflections of leaves or glaring surfaces disappear. It can also cut through a lot of haze and mist on a more cloudy day. Time in Pixels just released an excellent article about filters for video with many visual examples.

Getting moving

I've written about my DIY slider before and it is actually undergoing some major upgrades right now to make it more usable and flexible. However, I don't usually take it very far because it is heavy and big. In order to have something that always fits in even the smallest bag, is compact and rugged (not weather-proof, though) and "just works", I got myself a Genie Mini which is actually being developed here in NZ. It's controlled from a smartphone via Bluetooth so setting it up takes a few minutes since my phone is usually off when I'm in the outdoors (no reception anyway) but it's very intuitive and flexible (watch the videos on their website). All the shots in the video at the top of the page that have some side-to-side movement are done with the Genie Mini.

RAW workflow

The out of camera JPEGs are alright but (especially for landscapes) don't look nearly as good as they could when I develop my own final images from RAW: better colours, more dynamic range, more wiggle room in the highlights (and some in the shadows). This is particularly important when photographing sunsets, sunrises, or rapidly changing lighting conditions because the exposure can be adjusted so much in post. I load all my RAWs from one scene into Darktable, then do all my adjustments on one of them (shadows, highlights, general exposure, Velvia/saturation filter, contrast, noise reduction, but no cropping - I can always do that later when editing the video). Then, I copy the settings to all the other RAWs and export everything to bitmap files with a high bit rate, such as 16-bit PNG or TIFF. In theory, one could also make fine adjustments to individual frames at this stage.

Editing

The last step is to edit the photos into a timelapse video and maybe add some music and sound effects. I mainly use Davinci Resolve for editing because it also has colour grading built in but the colours should already be fairly correct and good looking from the last step. Davinci can directly import image sequences (i.e. individual files) and display them as video clips.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Shooting on the River

A few weeks ago I was shooting photos and a short film on and next to a river while also doing grade 3 whitewater action. This is a quick summary of some gear I used and some helpful tips to keep your gear dry and in good working condition. But first, here is the finished short film about the trip:

Equipment

First and foremost, your equipment has to be stored in a safe way. This means a good water-proof (even when submerged) and to some degree crush-proof case, ideally with foam inserts to protect against shock. Pelican cases have a great reputation and I use the Pelican 1200 Case (de) because it's just the right size for a MFT camera and a decent sized lens plus some accessories. It also fits perfectly behind the seat cushion of the river bug that we are using. Pelican makes cases in a lot of different size, for memory cards, small electronic devices, cameras and up to big carry-on roller cases that themselves weigh 6-8 kgs already. I did a few rolls in the river (as you can see at the end of the video) and everything stayed perfectly dry. The main thing to watch out for is that absolutely nothing gets in between the rubber seal and the lid when closing the case. Many a camera have been lost in the past due to a bit of cloth or a camera strap preventing the seal from working correctly.

I also keep a small micro-fibre towel in the case to absorb puddles and to be able to wipe off any water on gear or your hands. As usual with any photography/video gear, there is also a small lens cloth to wipe off moisture and clean the lens. One lesson I learned - even tough nothing bad happened - is to always put small and vulnerable things like batteries and microphones into zip-lock bags. Sooner or later your camera will get a bit wet or water will drip from you or your equipment into the case so extra protection is required for things that should never ever get wet. It also keeps everything more organised and things can't fall out as easily.

Action cameras (such as my GoPro HERO3: Black Edition (de) ) are of course the main work horses of all thrill seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. I put a piece of paper towel or toilet paper inside the case to absorb moisture - that's basically all the more expensive GoPro absorption papers do. It also helps you verify if everything stayed tightly shut at the end of the day.

Main main camera was the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) but in the future it will definitely be the Panasonic LUMIX GH4 (de) with Metabones Canon EF to BMPCC Speed Booster (de) because of its slow-motion ability and better codecs and video features (unless I need a smaller foot print or the IBIS of the E-M1). I couldn't use a good microphone but I think the sound of the river is still ok and luckily there weren't many other sounds to record on location. The E-M1 and PRO lens performed flawlessly in the heavy rain which was great because for basically any other video camera I would've needed an umbrella or camera bag handy whenever I took it out of the case.

Post-processing

Because I've only used the on-camera microphone and also because a GoPro in its water-proof housing doesn't record sound very well, the major "trick" to improve the finished video was to make a good wild river soundtrack and apply it to all the tracks where it made sense, that is where there are rapids and whitewater - but I also left the GoPro sounds (they are more like clicks when hit by a wave) in on a separate track because they give it a more immediate feedback to what is happening visually. The same is true for the sound of the rain on the camera: it doesn't sound great because it's the built-in mic and it's the sound of rain hitting the camera housing but it helps with audience immersion.

Color grading has taken another big step forward in this project: I used Davinci Resolve 12 Lite and the color themes are cool/high-contrast for the bad weather scenes and a warm slightly teal/orange look for the good weather scenes. The GoPro footage was graded to fit well into the surrounding clips but it also has a more realistic and less stylised look. For the supermarket indoor shots I added glow around the highlights to give it a slightly dreamy feel because it is so different to the harsh outdoor and action shots. I will post some before and after color grading shots soon.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Long-run timelapses across multiple seasons - Part 2

In the first part of my timelapse blog series I wrote about different types and techniques for longer and really long (seasonal) timelapse movies. In this article I want to describe a few specific techniques and tools that are useful (and often mandatory) to finalize those timelapses.

But first I'll lead into this timelapse article with my new video "Mountains and Clouds 2015" that I've shot over the course of about one year in the South Island of New Zealand on various trips.

One thing I wish I had done from the start is shoot all the frames for timelapses in full resolution and as RAW files. Always keep future use of your files in mind! Unless I got lucky and the scene was really well exposed, I couldn't correct as much as when grading from RAWs and because of the better resolution the final video will also look sharper. I take bets on Twitter (@tobiaswulff) on which scene was the one shot in RAW ;) .

Batch Processing

The first step to processing timelapse RAW frames is to "develop" them from being a digital negative to a bitmap photo file. When exporting the image it is important to choose a format that will retain the full bit depth of the original RAW file: options are TIFF or 16-bit PNG. JPEGs should not be used since they only store 8-bit of color depth which will not fare well in color correction and grading later.

There is another way, though: keeping the files in their RAW format and using a video editing software that can deal with RAW footage, such as Davinci Resolve 12. For Resolve to ingest the RAW files they have to be converted to DNG. My photo management software of choice digikam has an in-built DNG converter and I believe so does Apple Aperture, Adobe Bridge and/or Lightroom. While working with a RAW video is pretty neat, because this is not a recognized format from a video camera (such as RED) the possibilities to adjust the image are limited and a proper RAW photo program such as Darktable or Lightroom is much better suited for the job. Nevertheless, you are importing 10+ bit image data into the editing/color grading software which gives much, much more room for colour and exposure adjustments.

Compile Videos

As described earlier, Resolve can ingest DNG RAW files so it is possible to do editing and color grading with the source material. For the timelapse video posted at the beginning of this article, however, I compiled each sequence into a video first, which can be done using one of the following two Linux programs: Blender or ffmpeg (CLI tool). This use of "baked" videos will make the edit smoother because the program doesn't have to deal with as much data.

ffmpeg is a command-line tool, so it is easy to batch-process or automate converting image file sequences into video files. ffmpeg supports all the usual video file formats and containers, including ProRes which is a 10 to 12-bit 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 codec and the preferred format for Resolve. However, I found that the picture didn't quite come out the way I wanted, in particular darker areas got too dark so for example stars in night time sequences (like the one at the end of my video) almost disappeared. I'm sure this can be adjusted using the codec settings but for now I have turned to Blender.

Blender is first and foremost a 3D modelling and animation program. However, in recent years it also became a more and more powerful video editor and VFX pipeline, and it can be used to turn any bitmap sequence into various video formats. Once an image sequence has been imported, it can be modified (scaled, rotated, color corrected, composited with a 3D scene, etc) using nodes as shown in this screenshot:

For exporting I chose AVI RAW since it gave the best quality and could be converted to ProRes for Resolve, again without any loss in quality. It might be possible to export directly to ProRes or to use ffmpeg under the hood but I haven't explored the export and encoder settings too deeply yet.

Long Timelapse Processing Techniques

The biggest problems with long-term timelapses in the outdoors (i.e. outside a controlled environment) are changing lighting conditions and that it's basically impossible to get the camera set up 100% exactly the same way every time: the tripod will be positioned slightly differently, a zoom lens will make the focal length setting inaccurate, pointing the camera at the same spot will still be a millimeter or two off ... Luckily, both issues can be dealt with fairly successfully in software as described below.

Stabilizing and Aligning Photos

In order to make the transition from one frame to the next as smoothly looking as possible, non-moving objects in each frame really shouldn't move or jump around. Therefore, it is necessary to either align all the photos before they are compiled into a sequence (or video), or to stabilize the final video. There are at least three very different ways to achieving this. These different approaches can differ greatly in terms of time and effort, and quality of the end result.

1) Align photos automatically using Hugin. Hugin is an HDR and panorama toolkit but it can also be used to align a sequence of photos without exposure bracketing or stitching them into a panorama. There are several algorithms to choose from when aligning photos (I usually use "Position(y, p, r)" but its results are not perfect). The algorithm will look at all the photos that are next to each other in the sequence and find common control points in the picture that it uses to align (translate, rotate and scale) them. Control points can also be manually added, removed and shifted to improve the alignment. In terms of speed this is the easiest and fastest approach. I usually roughly follow this tutorial - something you will need because it's a complex piece of software!

2) Align photos by hand in GIMP (or Photoshop): there are various plugins for those image editing programs that allow a user to specify two common control points in two pictures and the plugin will then do the alignment. The results are near-perfect but it will take a long time because you have to do it for each frame in your sequence (what's that - 60, 90, 200?). A professional suite like Adobe's probably contains automatic tools similar to Hugin as well.

3) Stabilize the final video: all professional editing and/or VFX programs such as Resolve, Hitfilm, After Effects and also Blender have built-in stabilizers. I haven't tested this method yet but because they work on a frame-by-frame basis they should be able to stabilize the footage very well. However, as described in the next step, I like to blend (or blur) my frames which will definitely make stabilizing the video more inaccurate so doing it before the video is compiled seems more robust to me.

Blending Photos

As shown in some of the examples from other photographers in the first timelapse article, we often simply blend images or videos together to make for a smoother (and longer) final product. This can either be done between sequences (say you show a locked down timelapse of autumn, then blend it into another timelapse of the same spot in winter) or between every single frame. Using the free toolkit ImageMagick, this can be done with one command:

convert frame_a.jpg frame_b.jpg -evaluate-sequence mean frame_ab.jpg

Ideally, your original source files would be organized to have odd sequence numbers (frame001, frame003, ...) and the generated blended images will fill the gaps (frame002, frame004, ...). This way you'll end up with all the frames for the timelapse video, now much smoother because even though lighting conditions and your camera setup change dramatically between each frame, there is now a frame in between that combines both conditions and makes it look much more pleasant on the eyes.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is quite a difference between the blended and the original image sequence - apart from the speed that it loops at of course since one has twice the frame-count of the other. Note that this is not a perfect alignment and also that I haven't done any RAW processing yet (these are simply out-of-camera JPEGs) so for a final product I would first process all the frames so that they are similar in exposure and saturation. Left is original (rough and unpleasant), right is blended (smoother):

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff (see links on top of the page) to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Backup strategy for photos and videos on Linux

This is a continuation of my previous Workflow article. In the workflow article I've linked to Chase Jarvis' excellent videos and blog posts about working with digital media and keeping it safe. I highly recommend to watch them if you are interested in a more in-depth look at workflow and backups.

When I started getting into photography beyond simple point-and-shoot or cellphone snapshots, I realised that leaving all my valuable photos in one location without a decent backup plan would be too risky. I've never had a hard drive suddenly die on me but I'm sure that one day it will happen - suddenly or, maybe even worse, gradually. Not that my old snapshots weren't valuable but RAW photography suddenly involved much more data and also more high-quality prints, competitions, and a growing portfolio. Of course, I had done backups to an external hard drive and this is often as far as most people take it. This prevents data loss due to a sudden one-disk failure. However, even my older photos which were taken during some of the most memorable and important periods of my life were always just backed up to that other drive in the same room. A violent power surge while it is plugged in, a fire, water damage, or theft could easily render all those important files inaccessible.

Requirements

The requirements were easy to jot down:

  • Full system protection against a one-disk failure so I don't get stopped dead in the tracks if something happens to my hardware,
  • off-site backups for the most important data so that even my house being swallowed off the surface of the earth doesn't lead to significant data loss,
  • ability to take snapshots of folders or partitions so that I can experiment with files without the risk of corrupting or losing any data (this also helps with taking backups),
  • protection against data corruption and bit flipping which does happen.

Redundancy

Multi-terrabyte hard disks are become pretty affordable and if your priced digital possessions are shot with expensive cameras, there's no good reason not to invest another $100-200 to make your data and ideally your whole system fully redundant. A RAID1 mirrors all data on the disk so if one disk suddenly fails the other one can keep running. It is recommended to use disks from different batches - or even models - so that a manufacturing issue does not propagate across both drives. RAID1 can easily be done in software by the Linux kernel and there are no complicated algorithms that could lead to issues recovering data further down the road. It is as simple as: both disk have exactly the same information stored on them.

There are also a few other benefits of RAID1. First, while write speeds are slower, read speeds are twice as fast. Once the photo or video data has been offloaded from the memory cards, editing software can take advantage of that for a quicker and more fluid workflow. Additionally, when using a file system like btrfs, any data corruption on one disk can be repaired with data from the other disk. I'll talk about this further down.

For hardware I use two Western Digital Red 4TB NAS Hard Drives (de). WD has an excellent reputation and the Red drives are designed for workstations and Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems where disks can run many hours at a time (think heavy editing or transcoding) or even 24/7. For a great big-scale reliability study of current hard drives check out this Backblaze article about the drives in their data centre - personally, I'd stay away from Seagate.

Off-site backups

All your important data must be stored securely off-site. While it is luckily quite unlikely to fall victim to a house-destroying catastrophe or serious theft it is still possible, and it is the one point were complete data loss could happen when it is expected the least. I use two identical external drives and one always lives off-site in a safe location. I swap them out every one to two weeks depending on the flow of new photos, videos and editing files.

For my big backup disks I use the more affordable Western Digital Green 3TB Hard Drives (de) which are not designed to run for long periods of time so they shouldn't be used in workstations or servers. For backups they are ideal because they are only spun up every other week and it means cheaper storage: all of my data with room to spare for at least the next half year for under $100. To attach the backup disk to my computer I use a cheap and fast Sabrent USB 3.0 to SATA External Hard Drive Docking Station, then rsync to copy new and changed data from my workstation to the disk.

Since I don't really need any of my older, smaller drives for my workstation (if I run out of space it is easier to buy new big multi-TB disks rather than reuse old sub-TB ones and assemble them into RAID0s and RAID1s), I'm also planning to copy some of my finished projects and previous years of photography to those smaller drives and to keep them in yet another off-site location as an archive. My only concern is that after a year of not spinning them up and running a btrfs scrub, data corruption might start to get noticeable.

Data integrity

The Linux file system btrfs provides multiple features that come in very handy when keeping data safe and running backups. For starters, btrfs scrub start /media/data will start a check of all my multimedia files and fix any issues found. Btrfs keeps metadata (which includes checksums) and actual data separate so if there is any damage to the real data there is a chance it can be recovered from the metadata. Furthermore, in a RAID1 system the data can be restored from the other disk which shouldn't show the same (random) data corruption.

The next great feature is snapshots: btrfs subvolume snapshot photography photography-backup creates a snapshot of all my photos and keeps changes that happen from now on separate (through a mechanism called copy-on-write). So if I accidentally delete a file in my photography/ folder I can get it back from the backup folder, yet it doesn't use up any additional space on the drive if files stay the same. This can easily be automated using cronjobs to create and rotate snapshots on a daily or weekly basis. It is also handy to create a snapshot before copying files off to an external hard disk so that I can keep working on my photos and videos while the backup is running in the background.

Other, smaller backups

I also have rsnapshot running every hour to take backups of my XMP sidecar files that get created by Darktable, my RAW photo processing application. Since Darktable automatically saves any changes made to a photograph as they happen, it is quite possible to accidentally delete the whole editing history (the RAW file itself is never modified, though, by the way). However, I have to say that this hasn't happened to me at all in almost two years of using the program. Anyway, keeping the small XMP files available for up to a month is an easy, inexpensive and great way to keep my mind at peace.

Conclusion

Just today, Caleb Pike released a video on his workflow and backup strategy as well. While fairly different due to different tools and computer expertise, the main principles and requirements stay the same and I recommend watching his take on the topic, especially if you found mine too technical or Unix centric.

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff (see links on top of the page) to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Long-run timelapses across multiple seasons - Part 1

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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.

How-to

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.

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff (see links on top of the page) to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Photo Management Workflow in Linux

Ever since I started taking RAW photographs and developing them on my computer, I put a lot of thought ("obsessing over") into how I want to organize my workflow and in particular how to structure my files.

Many photographers might start by simply dumping all their pictures into a folder for each trip or shoot, hopefully ordered by date. If your folder names do not start with YYYY-MM-DD you're going to have a hard time quickly finding and grabbing your photos with a file manager - on the other hand, photo management software can simply use the date and time in the EXIF data to sort and find digital assets. However, what can happen if you take that approach is that you lock yourself into one specific workflow with one specific application.

Apart from that, one folder sounds fine, after all, different files for different purposes have different file extensions: RAW as the original ("digital negative") that never gets modified, XMP sidecar files that store additional metadata and RAW processing steps, XCF/PSD work-in-progress editing files, and finally JPEGs. Nevertheless, I keep my JPEGs and my RAWs in different folders so that I can quickly copy all the JPEGs to an external device to show them to other people. Having to go through the export functionality of a photo management tool would complicate this process unnecessarily.

A great video to watch is Chase Jarvis' TECH blog post and video on his company's workflow, and if you've got some extra time to kill: Chase Jarvis LIVE Q&A on workflow which goes into much more useful detail (but also rambles on about less important stuff from time to time). There is a lot of solid advice from highly successful professionals in there but it can easily be applied to your personal needs by scaling it down a notch. After all, most of what they do still applies to one-man-bands and enthusiasts:

  • Use redundant hardware to prevent data loss due to technical failures
  • Backup regularly and off-site to prevent data loss due to theft or human error
  • Have a standardized workflow so that all your folders are organized consistently
  • Tag and rate to find photos once you've accumulated thousands

Requirements

Availability

I want to be able to quickly get to my photos and show them to someone or copy them to a USB flash drive without having to go through my photo management software. By having separate folders for each photo shoot sorted by date and within those separate folders for each file type ("digital negative", 'developed photos", "project files"), I can always use the CLI or a file manager to get exactly the files I want without reading their EXIF etc data.

Interoperability

Interoperability might not be very important if you know that you will always use one specific program and that you can rely on this program being available, up-to-date and meeting your needs for many years to come (we are talking potentially decades here). Personally, I wouldn't put that much trust into it, and while proprietary photography applications have a slightly better track record than something like MS Office, keep in mind that things might still change very suddenly and your favorite program might not meet your requirements anymore or work in a very different, non-backwards compatible way (like when FCPX came out).

My photo management program of choice, digikam, relies on my own file system structure of my albums, and displays them basically exactly like they are stored on disk. However, it can also browse all photos by date, tag, rating, etc. This way, I can quickly search and filter for specific criteria, or just browse my albums as they are stored in folders. For much, much more information on digikam I highly recommend the eBook digikam recipes which is easily worth the little money it costs if you're looking into using Linux for your photography workflow.

Backups

I don't want to rely solely on my photo management program to do the backups. This is another reason why I started this blog post and my workflow considerations with a sane and well organized file system structure: any backup program will be able to grab those files (all of them or a subset) and copy them somewhere else doing full, incremental and differential backups. Restoring them is also easier if the photo or photo shoot in question can be found quickly.

I will talk more about my backup strategy and how I've implemented it (including tools around rsync and btrfs) in a future blog post.

Personal Workflow

My personal directory structure which reflects most of the workflow:

  • It starts with a folder for the YEAR (e.g. 2014),
  • within each year I have a sub folder DATE_PROJECT/TRIP (e.g. 2015-09-30_Trip_Location),
  • if there are a lot of photos: DAY (full date) or other categorization (e.g. by camera, sub-project, etc)
  • Further sub folders based on workflow (see below)
  • File names are usually DATE_TIMESTAMP (with suffix _1, _2 etc if multiple photos have the same timestamp). I've also seen many people keep the camera's original file name but add date and time at the front. Personally, I don't see any point in keeping the camera's numbering scheme - it doesn't convey any useful information apart from avoiding duplicates if date/time are the same.
These are the sub folders that I use to organize the files within each shoot:
  • jpg: final JPEGs, often straight from camera and the ones developed by myself; I want all the final pictures in one folder so I can browse them easily
  • orf: my current camera's (Olympus) RAW files
  • liveworks: contains RAW files and their XMP sidecars

This covers 95% of my usual projects which are trips or events with lots of out-of-camera JPEGs and a few jewels I want to work on from RAW. These are the ones you see show up in my portfolio. I usually don't have HDR, panorama or other composite shots but if I need a place for them I would put them in a new folder in liveworks. JPEGs that get a final touch-up in GIMP also go into a new "edit" folder.

There is also a discussion to be had about whether to keep developed files or not. While it should always be possible and easy to get to any photo - if developed: from RAW plus sidecar, if edited: from GIMP's XCF- it also makes it quite difficult to quickly access the final image, or the one I uploaded to my website because I also want to publish it somewhere else, or the one I adjusted for printing. Therefore, I keep all the final images around in the "jpg" folder and name them using a flexible system of suffixes. Basically, there is no strict system as long as it is clear what the image and its intention are. It is nice to have the final image appear first in alphanumerical sorting order. Here are some examples:

  • DATE_TIMESTAMP_final_no_wm.jpg: final image (this is usually the final photo, the way I like it most, no watermark therefore not directly for publishing,
  • DATE_TIMESTAMP_final_wm.jpg: same as above but with a watermark/signature and therefore suitable for publishing,
  • DATE_TIMESTAMP_bw.jpg: a black and white version of the photo if I feel like both versions, color and monochrome, work well,
  • DATE_TIMESTAMP_Ax.jpg: image in A format for printing on A4, A3, etc,
  • DATE_TIMESTAMP_dark.jpg or _bright.jpg: different exposures from the final image if they are worth keeping, for instance if it gives the image a different atmosphere,
  • no suffix at all usually means the jpg comes straight out of the camera.

Digikam and most other photo management software can group images. When I keep all developed and processed JPEGs in one folder, I can group them under the "_final_no_wm" version so that all the different varieties won't clutter the album but I can still quickly access all versions by expanding the group.

Conclusion

It's been 1.5 years since I started doing photography with RAW files and this workflow has worked really well for me. I have hardly modified it apart from renaming a few folders. I could see myself dividing my files even more in the future, say, between outdoor trips and events, but for now the quantity of photos is perfectly manageable as described in this blog post. I might look again into digikam's import functionality and what it can do for me but it didn't convince me the first time I tried so I stuck with using the CLI to create sub directories and copying the files from the camera's SD card to their respective folders.

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.