By: Ken Sklute
September 17, 2018
This article was originally published on November 5, 2015 and has been updated to include current product information.
With all of the color, beauty and movement of the most vibrant hot air balloons in the world, how can you best share this experience with others who are not there in person?
I love the idea of seeing images in motion. As photographers in the digital age, we can select from many forms of image capture. Today, we can record stills, video and time-lapse clips regardless of whether we’re using a DSLR, point and shoot or any other method. Personally, I enjoy time-lapse as an art form.
Time-lapse is the recording of multiple still images taken over a period of time to demonstrate the compression of time. How we do this is by taking still images at specific intervals, without moving the camera. By assembling this series of images into a video clip, it appears to show the passage of time. For a unique story-telling approach, you may want to shoot a few different angles of the same event (“b-roll,” which is the term for creating more than one angle as supplemental footage to be inserted in a clip in order to keep your viewer’s interest) to create different perspectives.
Taking a good still photograph is not an easy thing to do. Taking a series of good images that become a time-lapse is even more complicated. I will share some suggestions with you about things to keep in mind when making time-lapse films.
With any digital SLR, you can produce time lapse videos by shooting individual still images, as described in this article, and create a finished video from those stills using software in your computer. And some newer Canon EOS models, such as the EOS R, EOS 5DS and 5DS R, and EOS 5D Mark IV, have a dedicated menu setting within their video menus to produce in-camera time lapse videos. This is in addition to these cameras' Interval Timer setting, which is for shooting a series of still image files.
There are a few fundamental elements that are important to the success of creating a time-lapse. Some things to consider:
Because our computer monitors and televisions are horizontal, you should consider composing only horizontal compositions for the various clips that you will be capturing.
Be sure to keep your horizon level. Take care in composing your frame. If your camera has a built in Electronic Level function, it makes this easy to do, otherwise you may use a bubble level that attaches to your camera’s hot shoe.
You can use the LiveView Function to compose your frame in 16:9 HD proportion so you can carefully include everything that you will want in your final composition.
Compose Now For Action Later
Time-lapse photographers need to consider the future when setting up a camera position. We are creating a composition that will change over time, so be conscious of what may happen to this composition. Your capture of a time-lapse film may take between 10 minutes and an hour, so find the best location where your subjects will be moving toward you or across your field of view without having to move the camera/tripod combination. If you do not take into consideration where the balloon or crown line needs to be, you may be asked to move your equipment, ending your time lapse without completing it. I often look to find an area that will provide an elevated vantage point to see everything happen.
Understanding Light Direction
Researching how the light will change during your capture is of prime importance. We discussed in an earlier lesson (“Composing Balloon Images with Light”) how you can use light to create depth and dimension. That is even more important now in creating a time-lapse because your light source, the sun, will be moving during your capture. If the sun accidentally moves into your frame, it may create overexposure, lens flare and a loss of detail and contrast. I try to keep the sun 45-90 degrees from my camera to create highlights and shadows.
How Many Frames Will It Take?
Most video capture is created at 30 FPS (frames per second). In order to create a 10 second time-lapse clip, you will need to make at least 300 images in order to produce it. Events, such as the launching of many balloons, will require many more frames to complete the capture and tell the story. There’s a lot that takes place as the balloons arrive to any field in preparation for flight. Once the pilot determines the direction that the balloon will lay out in, the crew will assemble the components of the basket and get the aircraft ready to cold inflate. This procedure will take about 15 minutes before the pilot will add the heat of the burner to stand the balloon up. I generally select a small RAW setting for my files because there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of images captured during this time period. I will process these RAW files and they will then be output to JPEGs in order to finish the process. (See the “File Processing” section below.)
The interval is the amount of time that passes between each exposure. The longer the amount of time between frames, the faster your subjects will move during playback. By using shorter timing between frames, your subjects will move slower in the film. I tend to use a two second interval between my frames for most of my hot air balloon films because balloons are generally slow moving in nature. You’ll need an Intervalometer in order to create a time-lapse film, such as the TC-80N3 Timer Remote Control. This is a remote switch with a 2.6' (80cm) cord and a self-timer, interval timer, long-exposure timer, and exposure-count setting feature. The timer can be set anywhere from 1 second to 99 hours, 59 minutes, or 59 seconds. A dial enables you to easily enter the numeric settings with your thumb and the LCD panel can also be illuminated. But many newer Canon camera models, such as the EOS 80D, 7D Mark II, EOS 5D Mark IV/5DS/5DSR and 1DX Mark II, already have built-in intervalometers.
Many of the automatic camera settings that we use to create still photos are not necessary in creating a time-lapse. I prefer to use my camera in all Manual Mode:
- Manual Exposure is used to show smooth clip without creating flicker (an effect created when your camera, in automatic mode, adjusts exposure to compensate for the changing light. This creates some frames that are lighter and darker than the previous frame.) Set your shutter speed, aperture and ISO to remain the same through your entire clip.
- Manual Focus is chosen so your focus does not change during your capture. You might consider applying a small piece of electrical tape to the focus ring in order to prevent the focus point from moving during the exposures.
- Manual White Balance selection is important so the colors do not change as the different balloons inflate or as people walk by. It is not recommended to use AWB (Auto White Balance).
- Creating time-lapse clips will consume more power than just capturing individual moments. Have spare batteries handy and change it before it runs out of power.
- Be aware of the number of frames on your digital media cards. Carry spares and change the card before you run out of frames.
- Spectators will be unaware of what you are doing and may stop in front of your camera. Ask them very nicely if they could move over or out of your frame. Do not be surprised if they refuse.
- Select a position that is not on a road where chase crews and official vehicles will need to come through.
The recipe for processing the many files that you will be creating is rather simple. I like to keep each time-lapse that I create in its own folder. I will import that folder into Adobe Lightroom and be sure that the images are kept in “Capture Time” sequence. I will crop the first image to the 16:9 proportion, if various clips will be edited together, for HD format consistency with either time-lapse or video footage. I will then make any processing modifications on that first frame for density, color temperature, burning, dodging or any of the steps that we normally do for regular still imagery. Once I have that first file exactly the way that I like it, I will sync all of the files in that folder in order to have them reflect the same corrections. I’ll now be ready to complete the process of joining the individual files into a movie. I use a plug-in called LRTimelapse.com in order to create my finished film. Another option is to bring your files together in QuickTime or any other video editing programs, such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Apple’s Final Cut Pro. These files will be assembled at 30 FPS (frames per second) for playback.
Checklist and Summary
- Be sure that your sensor is clean
- Find a stable location for your tripod
- Confirm that your camera is level
- Begin with fully charged batteries
- Use fresh digital media cards
- Position yourself away from roads or highly traveled areas
- Stay out of the way of balloons or balloon crews
- Tighten and check the camera mounted on your tripod
- Compose through Live View for 16:9 format (optional)
- JPEG or RAW files?
- Exposure mode in Manual
- White Balance set to a preset, like Sun, or color temperature in degrees Kelvin
- Focus accurately and tape down focus ring
- Review your exposure settings to avoid subject movement from a slow shutter speed
- Weigh down the tripod (optional)