During the past week, I have been very busy with some university work and with preparations for a month-long road trip through ex-Yugoslavia. However, I still wanted to capture the passage of the Perseids meteors, possibly from a great location. Then, I remembered that two of my friends and I wanted to climb the Monviso, which is the third highest peak in my region at 3841 meters (12602 feet). I combined the two and there we were, driving a two-days journey in the Italian eastern Alps. Astronomers tell us that the peak of the falling star has moved from the former 10th of August to the 12th, but the weather forecast for the 12th was depressing to say the least. Unfortunately, since my camera can’t see behind clouds (yet!) and I don’t like to walk under a torrential rain, the weather was in charge and the departure was moved to the morning of the 13th. Our gear included a tent, sleeping bags and mats, not enough food and water, and some photographic gear: my tripod, a Canon 1200D/T5 and two lenses: a Canon 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 and a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC, along with a remote and three spare batteries. My photographic goal was to make a timelapse of the shower of meteors and possibly capture some images along the way, whereas my climbing goal was to go up as high as possible and maybe coming back alive.
The real hiking started relatively late, around 3pm, because of some business in the morning and the 2 hour drive. Yet, considering the time, the light was great: shallow clouds were partially blocking and softening the sunlight, resulting in a very nice look.
I captured this shot at the very beginning of the path, where I still had the strength to take pictures. And so, we went up and up, taking countless breaks and finally succeeded…in taking the wrong path. Three hours after the start, we came upon the countless crossroad: we could either go towards the refuge at the bottom of the Monviso, or take another way which passed by a couple of more lakes. The fact that it seemed possible to reach the Mountain in either way made us go for the second path. In the meantime, the perennial clouds surrounding the Misty Mountain disappeared and we could observe it in its full majestic height, since we were standing at 2200 meters of altitude (1800 meters of difference might not seem much from home, but when standing just five km away, it is pretty impressive). Any climbing wish we had vanished instantly. Therefore, we merrily trotted on our newly chosen path. As it later turned out, it was the best choice of the whole trip, especially when considering that the other choices were about the amount of food to bring and we were always hungry.
Finally, at 6pm, we found a nice spot for sleeping and stopped. On the edge of a cliff. However, the height didn’t stop us from setting up the camp, whereupon I scouted the area for the location to take the timelapse from, as I wanted to include our tent and the Monviso, with enough head room for the night sky. After a couple minutes of scouting, I found a nice spot, right on the edge of a ravine, where I placed my rig:
Around 10 minutes later, I came back to tie the tripod to a rock with a mini-jack cable that I had previously used to tie my mat. You know, just in case a goat passes by and decides to kick the camera down into the 200-meters-high abyss.
I opted for a vertical orientation as it left more headroom but regrettably, I slipped into using a composition employing the rule of thirds: the tent in the first third, the top of the mountain in the second and the sky in the third. As I soon found out, I should have tilted the camera a bit more upwards, as all the details in the bottom of the image quickly vanished along with the light.
While shooting the timelapse, I stopped the process for a second and zoomed in to capture this shot of the Monviso at sunset. It is a rare sight, as the mountain is usually engulfed in clouds.
The uniqueness of the situation made me do things I’m not proud about. Zooming in and then out is one of them. I knew I couldn’t afford to mess anything up, but I wanted to capture the whole scene, with the best possible quality. Yet, having one camera only kind of forced me on the evil path.
Unfortunately, it was too late in the week to see any meteor at all. All the technical details about how I actually made this video are at the end of the article, along with a couple of tips on how to take day-night-day timelapses in peculiar situations. Just know that I had to wake up twice to change the batteries, and a third and final time to see the sunrise. It was unbelievably cold, considering the season: the thermometer in my phone read 6° C (42° F) and the wind was not gentle at all.
The next morning, the sunrise was completely worth all the sacrifices made to be there. 30 minutes after dawn, I stopped the camera, as I was running out of space in my memory card and the light was leaving the purple tones in favor of orange. Moreover, I wanted to take a little panorama including the valley below us.
Another thing particularly interesting visually, was the valley itself, the mother of the longest Italian river, the Po. The reflection of the sun on the water made it completely white, much lighter than the rest of the valley, which resulted in a high contrast between the two. The small amount of mist enhanced the scene. The only issue that occurred was that my 18mm lens was too wide and I had to severely crop into the image, which resulted in a relatively soft and noisy shot. I could have grabbed the 17-50mm but it was in the still wet backpack, and I just wanted to come back to sleep.
I think the most appropriate title would be Salgado, please…
During the descent, that was not as simple as you might expect, since there were many places that required our attention, we decided to swim a little in one of those fine lakes we met the day before. It was indeed time to get to know each other a little better as the sun had come up quite aggressively and we were sweating again. In fact, we swam twice first at 2400 meters of altitude (freeeezing) and then 200 meters below, where we dove from a little hill.
I decided to show this image because I had to modify it in Photoshop: a friend took the picture but, being not used to the super-long shutter lag of the 1200D/T5, cut my hands. I then combined three images together: one for the background, one for the body and one for the hands. Since I already was in Photoshop, I decided to change things a little, in order to pretend that I was diving from a much higher spot, making the image completely unrealistic, which is what makes it fun. By the way, I never thought that it could be so psychologically hard to do a head dive into a mountain lake.
The Making of the Timelapse
In order to capture the various lighting conditions of sunset, night and then sunrise, I couldn’t set the camera to manual mode, as I would have ended up with images that were either too dark or too bright. As such, I decided to shoot in aperture priority until it was dark. The first settings used were f/8, ISO 100 and I was taking one shot per minute. Then, the light began to go down along sunset and I switched to f/5.6 and then f/4.5 (wide open). Finally, when my exposure reached 30s, f/4.5, ISO 100, I switched to manual: 30s, f/4.5, AUTO ISO. The decision behind AUTO ISO is due to two reasons: the first is that the moon was still up and shining light onto everything, thus affecting the overall exposure, which required an ISO of 400. The second was because my camera’s meter is not accurate at all for astrophotography, which forbids the use of Aperture Priority. I have tried it once and it heavily underexposed by two stops. However, I knew that for gains above ISO 800, the camera simply digitally brightens the image, similarly to what I could do within Lightroom.
Another issue was battery life and storage: I started shooting at 7.30 PM and had to keep it up for around 11 hours. I was sure that I would run of power in the middle of the night, so I slept with my batteries to keep them warm and set up two alarms: one at midnight and the other at 4AM. While I was able to wake up at midnight, I just delayed the other alarm for one hour and a half. I was lucky, as the camera was off only for ten minutes before I came to swap the batteries in the morning, so I didn’t miss too many shots. In this instance, I wish I had a camera with a better battery life and a battery grip. In fact, while I have no problem to squeeze 1300 shots (within 3 hours of shooting) from a 400-shots-rated battery, the cold weather and the longer run time just halved the performance. Something else I was afraid to run out of, was storage: since my largest SD is only 32 GB it contains only 1000 high-ISO shots (High ISO increases the file size) and I had already taken around 100 from the day on it. I should have used another card, but it just didn’t come to my mind until it was too late. So, I was afraid I would run out of storage in the middle of the night, but the need to swap batteries allowed me to change SDs as well. Another consequence, though, was the impossibility to set my desired frame rate, that is 12 shots per minute until the shutter speed falls to more than 5s, after which I usually set the continuous drive. In this case, it was not possible and I set many different frame rates: first 12 shots/minute, then 60/m (for the peak of sunset), 1/m for stars (this I is what I regret the most, as it resulted in scattered star trails), 60/m (for ten pointless minutes, due to a mistake) and then 12/m. Overall, I captured 1515 shots, and no movement whatsoever between them, which is great news!
Back home, I began my usual workflow for timelapses, which involves Lightroom, LRTimelapse, and Premiere Pro. After the importing process, though, I found something I didn’t like at all: a couple of corrupted images. Luckily, I copied them again and they were no longer damaged, so something must have happened during the initial transfer process. The next step was LRTimelapse, one of the best programs for creating transitions between frames. As the name suggests, it works best with Lightroom, but since it only writes metadata, it works well with any program. After deciding some key frames, LRTimelapse made all the transitions for me (which include all the possible edits in Lightroom, even brushes). Then, I was able to load those changes in Lightroom and export the files as JPEGs. I wanted to create something different from the standard, so I opened all the images of the starscape in After Effects as layers, not footage. I set the length in time of each and every one of the 200 layers to 200 frames and then shifted each layer by one frame compared to the precedent one. They were only 200, so it didn’t take long. I’m sure there’s a smarter way to do it, but I haven’t found it yet. Finally, I set the blending mode to “Lighten” and exported an uncompressed AVI file into Premiere Pro. The last step was putting it all together, setting the right speed for each sequence and export the final result.
It seems easy on paper, but I messed up the whole process about six or seven times: settings such as lens correction forgotten, transitions ruined by bad key framing, Premiere files that refuse to open… Every time, Lightroom had to export 1500 images, which takes about 3 hours: a real pain!
In the meanwhile, I got other five images corrupted and I don’t know yet how it could happen, as they were ruined once on the hard drive, which is still working perfectly. Since no program writes to .CR2 files, some forum users blame RAM. I’ll have to dig deeper in order to prevent this from happening again.
At the end, I merged some photographs from different moments and created a fun image, which looks completely unrealistic and fun.
To Sum It Up
Sometimes, it’s easy to think that having large batteries and cards is not that important after-all. Most of the time it may be true, but there are cases where we cannot afford our gear to let us down, so I think that a few rules should be applied to timelapses:
- Bring lots of batteries and use them in a way that allows you not to change them during the process.
- The same as above, just with cards.
- Use a nice tripod and head: involuntary camera movement are pain to eliminate in post processing.
- Visualizing the final image before the actual shooting process will help in the overall process.
- You never know when backup will be useful but when you do, it’s always too late. Decide on your backup plan now, if you haven’t already.
- Think twice before hitting that Export button in Lightroom and remember to set everything up before doing it!
This guest post was contributed by Giovanni Ruffinengo. You can see more of his work in his gallery at 500px.