Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography: Start to Finish
Illustration by John Hersey

Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography


Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography: Start to Finish

with Dustin Farrell

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Video: Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography

(MUSIC). Dustin: The thing that really attracted me to time lapse was that you can make images that are not possible with a video camera. Well it's impossible to be able to take in five exposures and turn that into one frame. A video camera can't do that. (SOUND).
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Watch the Online Video Course Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography: Start to Finish
36m 25s Appropriate for all Aug 16, 2013

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Time-lapse photography allows Dustin Farrell to capture amazing imagery that no other medium allows—and that even eludes the human eye. He can track the passage of clouds and stars, and document the tiny changes in landscapes and everyday scenes over time. Find out how he shoots his time-lapse photos and reassembles them into remarkable films in this installment of Start to Finish.

We follow Dustin into the desert of Devil's Garden in southwestern Utah, to find out how he transports and sets up the equipment required to capture his shots—from dollies and motion controllers to LED lights and camping lanterns. Back in the studio, he demonstrates how he realizes his vision with tools like Adobe Camera Raw and After Effects. Although the process may be long and unpredictable, in the end he has a final sequence that is otherworldly—rendered with real-world technology.

Dustin Farrell

Dustin Farrell's Time-Lapse Photography

(MUSIC). Dustin: The thing that really attracted me to time lapse was that you can make images that are not possible with a video camera. Well it's impossible to be able to take in five exposures and turn that into one frame. A video camera can't do that. (SOUND).

We're using the full frame, full sensor cameras. You can really get an amazing looking image that your eye just can't perceive. My name is Dustin Farrell. I am a landscape photographer, time-lapse shooter, and a director of photography. At our family business called Crew West, we do a lot of ESPN and sports and news, usually for network television. When you're a shooter, you don't get to partake any of the post work, bring any concepts or any thing like that.

So I kind of started to miss that. I started to see some night sky, Milky way things on line. And I owned a Nikon D70, that's what I first started trying to do my time lapses with. It was kind of disappointing because I had a cheap lens and the is a smaller older sensor camera I realized I need to step up my game pretty quickly if I wanted to do that stuff well. So we went and bought the Canon 5D Mark 2 and we bought a 24mm F 1.4 so it's a superfast lens.

Got out and pointed it at the sky and hit the shutter button and did the 30 second exposure. When that image popped up on the back of the screen, it was just jaw dropping and I been hooked ever since. (MUSIC). I have really grown to love the southern part of Utah (MUSIC). This particular area is called Devil's Garden. I've seen some amazing looking photos of that Metate Arch.

The goal of the Metate Arch shot was to do a nice little dolly move. And to get the milky way streaking through the arch. So I was shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III. I'll hold the camera up and just walk it. So I'm able to get a little bit of an idea of what that motion will look like. I tried to frame the shot up with the rock and the foreground and I didn't like that composition at all.

Considering that I was about three or four feet closer to the arch than I wanted to be. And decided I needed to use the fourteen millimeter lens, a really wide lens. That turned out to be really nice. To time all that stuff out, I use an app on the iPhone it's called Star Walk. And you're able to see what time the Milky Way is going to be in certain positions in the sky. Right now is a perfect time to shoot the Milky Way coming through the sky for pretty much the entire night. It's only like that in the summer months.

The dolly that I use is made by a company called Dynamic Perception. It's called the Stage Zero Dolly and it slides on this fixed aluminium rail. I happen to have an eight foot rail. It goes on top of my truck. and it's super light. It's so easy to carry. The dolly speed and motion is controlled by an MX-2 box. Just a basic little electronic box, and I'm able to program it to move however fast or slow over time.

(MUSIC). I just had to do some calculations, and figure out, okay. I've got my eight foot rail here. I need to go about this speed to do this amount of motion. But everything is controlled by that small electronic box there. Male: An inch in five minutes. So that means we're going to go 12 inches in an hour. Dustin: So that would be 120 inches. Hold this.

Using the tape measure and figuring out how far the dolly has moved over so much time. And then calculate what time you're going to start, plus line that up with the pacing of the Milky Way. Male: So at 4:30, Laura's going to need to be way down to the left. Dustin: (MUSIC) to get all the exposure that you possibly can get out of the camera. So, I was shooting more or less wide open. I was 30-second exposures, which is really, really long, and my ISO setting was at 2,500.

So, really bright settings. The lighting that I'm putting on the arch, then, has to be super dim. It's a balancing act when you're trying to do thirty second exposures of a dark night sky and light a foreground object. That's, that's something that's very difficult to do. It took me a while to figure it out, but the, the amount of light that I'm throwing on the foreground object when doing an exposure that long is so minimal. Your bare eye, when you're looking at the lighting, you can barely even see it, but the camera, when you're going to do a 30 second exposure, it brings out that light like you wouldn't believe.

And what I've got is more or less battery powered LED lights. Super low power, turned up 10 percent. And I actually was bouncing the light into the ground. So that diffuses it even more, and makes it more of a soft light. So that was kind of my key light. (MUSIC), camping lantern that's run off of rechargeable D batteries, and that will run forever. So just those two lights add that low of an output lit up that arch just perfectly.

(MUSIC) Once we got that finished, though, then I was able to divert my attention and the rest of the resources. Whatever I had left over equipment-wise to, to try to get a second shot like a bonus shot (NOISE). is pretty cheap and it's super portable and that, I think, goes hand-in-hand there Its got to be portable because a lot of these locations are really hard to get to. And while I have the real expensive equipment that we use on occasion, last thing I want to do is bring out the $25,000 dolly.

So this stuff that i have is solid, works great and gets the job done. The final product, is what I'm concerned about, it's not really looking super professional while I'm shooting. So I saw these two hoodoos. They were open to the south eastern sky, which is where the Milky Way would rise. So i had the idea of lighting them from the side and having the Milky Way come up behind it. I was kind of just experimenting, pushing the limits a little bit.

Doing something different than, than what I've normally been doing was the goal with the second shot. So I decided to incorporate the pan and the tilt and a little bit of a push-in move all in one (SOUND). And it's controlled by a little Nintendo Wii controller. And it's so much fun to use and it's simple. What I've doneis I've bolted that pan tilt head on the end of one of the dolly rails.

And I've got a dolly rail on top of a dolly rail which is giving me my push in movements. And then I add the bolted on PAL2 head onto the top of that, which now gives me not only a push in, but a pan to tilt, which results in a really dynamic looking move. That kind of almost looks like I could have the camera on a jib. Male: He's on (INAUDIBLE). Look at that (NOISE). Dustin: I shoot raw probably 95% of the time because having the raw data there is just priceless.

There are gigs that happen that I shoot JPEG because just for speed, and we need to get shots out. But for the most part, I always shoot raw because quality is my biggest concern. Often times, when I first open up a raw image on the computer, it's definitely underwhelming. Usually they're kind of dark and especially the night stuff, it'll be a little grainy and noisy. But there's so much information in that raw image. You are able to preserve highlights and pull up shadows and darks.

And get the detail out of shadows and darks that you can't even, when you're looking at the photo on the back of your camera you can't even see it. One of the shots that I shot this week at Devil's Garden was an HDR that has all of my highlight and shadow data in it. Shooting sunsets, there is a lot of dynamic range in the typical shot and I like to be able to capture all of it if I can. So the one exposure will not cover the entire dynamic range usually of a sunset because you've got the bright sun of course.

And then often times you have dark foreground and shadows that the sun may be, may be casting, so I used HDR mode. I shot three photos that gave me some overexposed areas and the underexposed areas. I bring that in and I edit with a program called sns-HDR. To process a flat image that has all of my highlight and shadow data in it. And that gives me then the opportunity to bring that finished TIFF sequence.

It's a 16 bit TIFF sequence into After Effects. And now I have all sorts of latitude and color information so that I can do the final grade inside of After Effects. For a shot like Metate Arch which is a single exposure, the work flow is slightly different. I just bring things directly into After Effects. When you import a raw image sequence inside of After Effects, it automatically opens up Adobe Camera Raw.

Some of the things that I typically do are some of the Lens Profile corrections. Lenses like the 14 millimeter prime, have a little bit of a vignette and a distortions. So there's actually corrections for specific lenses. Often times they'll be some sort of a green tint from, maybe my lighting, or the natural lighting so I try to reduce any green because it's not very pleasing. Another thing I do is the clarity.

Shooting wide open, often some of the images will be slightly soft or just not as high in detail. One of the first steps that I do inside of After Effects is that I usually duplicate the layer and I'll turn that top layer to a screen blend mode which will immediately increase the white value. Usually that creates little of a washed out image, so then I will bring down the black level of that top layer to bring back the vibrance.

Which usually leaves just a brighter overall image. Usually when I do that though, I increase the noise. Because I shoot my night time images with a higher ISO of over, usually, 2000, sometimes at 3200, noise is going to be there and it's just a part of shooting night time time lapse. Even though the camera like the Canon 5D Mark III is amazing camera at low light, shooting at 3200 ISO is going to introduce a lot of noise into your image.

So I'll add an adjustment layer to the top and click on the Neat Video plugin and that does an amazing job of getting rid of noise. (MUSIC) So that it can eliminate it the best. I don't know how it does it. How it's able to decipher between like what's noise and what's a small little star but it does. It gets rid of the noise and the star is just totally unaffected. Now with discovery of this amazing plug-in I'm not scared of shooting at high ISOs like 3200 any more.

I have adopted the workflow of future proofing my work and I process everything in a quad HD or a double DHD Resolution, which is title is 4k by a lot of people. And even after I've made a 4k composition, the files I've shot are five and a half K, so I have a larger than the composition file. So then I'm able to, to recompose some things that I may not like of how I composed them in the field. Now that I've done so much time lapse it's just second nature.

Usually what I'll do is I'll shoot wider than what I really need to. There's a lot of resolution there for me to reframe and reposition. The extra resolution can also be used as a creative tool so I can add keyframes. And I can adjust my framing as the shot is moving. And if I was to do just a simple locked off time lapse shot, I can still add some motion to that shot by doing a digital zoom or a digital pull, or a pan, or tilt. Because I have four times the resolution there to work with.

And when you're using a camera that's shooting in a four three aspect ratio and you're going to output to a 16 by 9 That presents another challenge after you crop a 43 to a 16 by 9, you usually have to chop off the top and the bottom. Sometimes I don't like that, so I will actually cheat it and scale it down and then stretch it back out the image, as long as I haven't distorted anything to make them look unnatural. And I also like to render everything out in a 29.97 frame rate.

In my experience, watching a time lapse at 29.97 is more pleasing than a 24p, because time lapse already has a little bit of a stutter to it. So if you add the stutter of the 24p, personally I don't like it, so I feel like a little bit smoother, higher frame rate looks better (MUSIC). The goal was to get the milky way through the matatae arch, but turns out that we needed to go back about a month later for the milky way to actually streak through the arch itself.

I still love the shot 100%. It was just kind of disappointing that the milky way didn't actually come through the arch. But, to tell you the truth, that happens a lot. I get in the car and then drive for hours and have a shot in mind and think that I have prepared as good as I could prepare, and it just doesn't pan out. (MUSIC) of the hoodoos, there were a lot of imperfections. I forgot to tape up a red light from, it was either from the camera or the pan tilt box, so in my original photo's you see this hideous looking red light.

So, inside of camera raw you are able to manually control any color. So I just selected the red slider, and I pulled the saturation down. And did a little bit of a hue adjustment, and a luminance adjustment to the red channel. And after it was all said and done, you can't even see that red light. (MUSIC). Seeing how it was midnight, and my energy level was definitely waning. I didn't put a lot of effort into the lighting. We just put up one side source.

Which created a big, broad, kind of boring light. SO what I'm able to do though in post, is more of a shape the light. In this instance, I put a bottom grad filter, and I shaped a solid to knock down the exposure of the foreground that was way too bright. And I add a adjustment layer to only appear inside of the solid. And it defocused, and it took down the brightness of the front there, and it fixed my poor lighting job. It really ended up being a pretty nice shot.

The final product always makes the process worth it. (MUSIC) Sometimes it's tedious and it's a lot of work, but I enjoy it. The camping aspect. The getting to experience the outdoors to enjoying it with my wife.

It's just amazing. I've had a creative outlet and I'm getting to do something from start to finish. (MUSIC).

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