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By Jim Heid | Saturday, June 21, 2014

Room with a View: Shooting a Time-Lapse Video from a Hotel Window

Room with a View: Shooting a Time-Lapse Video from a Hotel Window

Frank Lloyd Wright used to say there are two kinds of people: nesters and perchers. Nesters like to be tucked among woods; perchers prefer being high atop hills.

I’m a percher, especially when I’m on the road. In hotels, I always try to score an upper-floor room with a view. It’s great for cityscape photography and for one of my new photographic interests: time-lapse photography.

Inspired by Richard Harrington’s courses on time-lapse photography and on the GoPro HERO cameras, I’ve begun taking my GoPro camera and its suction-cup mount with me when I travel. When I check in to a room with a view, I know there’s a time-lapse movie in my future.

On a recent trip to Boston, my wife and I scored a room on the 36th floor of a hotel in the city’s historic Back Bay neighborhood. With views of Copley Square, the Hancock Tower, and some of downtown Boston’s busiest streets, it was a perfect perch for shooting this time-lapse video.

Here are some production details.

Mounting the camera

I use the GoPro suction-cup mount to attach the camera to windows (and car side-view mirrors, but that’s a subject for a different article).

suction to window

After mounting the GoPro and turning on its Wi-Fi mode, I used the GoPro app running on my iPad to fine tune the composition of the shot.

Battling reflections

When shooting through a window, you’re often fighting reflections, particularly after it gets dark. To eliminate reflections, I used gaffer’s tape to surround my GoPro with a piece of black fabric (specifically, a lynda.com t-shirt).

gopro with t-shirt

But there’s another source of unwanted reflections, and it comes from the GoPro itself. When the camera’s wifi mode is active, a blue light on the front of the camera flashes at regular intervals. I learned the hard way that the reflection of this indicator appears in your shot, ruining the time lapse. To avoid that, I put a piece of black gaffer’s tape over the light.

Setting up the camera

Once the camera was mounted and reflection-resistant, I was ready to set it up for the shoot. I set the camera in its still-photo mode, using the Medium field-of-view setting and a 5-megapixel resolution setting—more than enough to yield a high-definition movie.

An important decision for any time-lapse endeavor is the interval between each shot. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be shooting—my wife and I were going out for the evening and I planned to just leave the camera on until we returned. So I chose a one-second interval, knowing it would capture plenty of motion detail in clouds, cars, and pedestrians. And I knew that if my resulting time-lapse was too long, I’d be able to speed it up in Final Cut Pro X, the editing software I’d use to refine the final video.

Assembling the time-lapse

I ended up shooting about 6,600 still frames over a roughly two-hour period. To assemble the stills into a movie, I used a free app called Timelapse Assembler by Dan Bridges. I first learned of this app in an installment of Ben Long’s The Practicing Photographer series.

Post-production in Final Cut Pro X

My resulting time-lapse movie was over four minutes long and I wanted it to be shorter—in the 60-second ballpark. So after importing the movie into Final Cut Pro X and adding it to a new project, I used Final Cut’s retimer to speed up playback by 400 percent.

Fixing lens distortion and geometry

A GoPro camera’s lens has a very wide field of view. That’s great when the camera is attached to a skateboard, but it introduces a lot of distortion that I didn’t want in my time-lapse. I didn’t want that “curvature of the Earth” effect on my horizon—it’s always a dead giveaway that you’re looking at GoPro footage.

To correct the GoPro’s lens distortion, I used Fisheye Removal, a $39 plug-in from FCPEffects.com. With it, I was able to straighten out the curved horizon as well as the buildings at the edges of the frame.

before lens correction

Before lens correction

after lens correction

After lens correction

But the lens correction introduced some distortion in the center of the frame, making the tall Hancock Tower and the hotel in front of it appear slanted. To fix that, I used Final Cut Pro X’s Distort effect. It’s similar to Photoshop’s Free Transform tool in that it allows you to drag each of the four corners of an object independently. In this case, the Distort effect enabled me to straighten up the buildings in the center of the frame. By hopping between the Fisheye Removal plug-in and the Distort effect, I was able to correct my shot’s geometry to make it look less GoPro-like.

Adding a vertical pan

The movie created by Time Lapse Assembler had an aspect ratio of 4:3—the proportions of a GoPro camera’s still photos. That wouldn’t do for a video: I wanted my final movie to have the traditional 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio.

But I didn’t want to crop the frame, and I certainly didn’t want to distort it into a 16:9 frame size. So I added another dimension of motion. In Final Cut Pro X, I sized the movie so that it would fit the horizontal dimensions of the video frame, then added keyframes to create a slow pan from top to bottom as the time-lapse plays back. Besides avoiding cropping, the slow pan adds a nice counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the time-lapse.

Just add music

What’s a movie without sound? Too quiet. For a soundtrack, I wanted something with a staccato, arpeggiated rhythm—a style that goes well with time lapse, as anyone who has seen the early 1980s film Koyaanisqatsi can tell you.

To find a soundtrack, I headed for the Free Music Archive, one of numerous websites that provide music you can use freely—and legally—in a variety of online and on-air productions. After a few minutes of searching, I found and downloaded a tune that met my musical needs and was available under a Creative Commons license. There are a few different flavors of Creative Commons license; the song I chose was licensed for non-commercial use, provided I attributed its creator—which I did in the closing credits of my time-lapse movie.

Final touches

Speaking of credits, they were the final elements I added to the movie—just a few screens containing a couple of production tidbits and the aforementioned music credit. I timed the credits to match up with changes to the music soundtrack, and then exported the finished movie to Vimeo directly from Final Cut Pro X.

I’m happy with the final results. I can see a few flaws here and there, such as a reflection or two that seeped in around my black t-shirt. But I got a great visual memento of our room with a view, and a beautiful illustration of just how dramatic a cityscape becomes as daylight fades and artificial light kicks in—that mixed-light magic hour that makes for such striking urban photography.

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