Night time lapse video – it’s a pain in the arse but the results are worth it

In November I’ll begin working on a special project I’ve had in mind for a very long time, featuring the Lake District National Park. A feature that’s going to take up much of my time and just under a year to complete. I’ll talk about that more nearer the time, but there is one aspect to the video I’ve quietly spent the past few months working on.

And that’s night time lapse.

There are lots of breathtaking videos in the virtual world showcasing wonderful landscapes at night while the millions of stars and Milky Way glide slowly across the sky. They’re amazing. And I’ve been particularly keen in my spare time to learn the techniques and fine tune them to achieve the results I wish to capture. After all, you’ll struggle to find such scenes featuring the UK in truth.

Essentially, it requires 5 key ingredients.

A steady tripod, DSLR camera (ideally any camera with a large sensor and full manual control), an intervalometer (a remote to control the camera and set a timer), a clear, dark night, and lots of patience.

Because in layman’s terms, what you’re doing is taking a sequence of photos of the night sky and stitching them together much like an animation, to create one final video. Have a Google and you’ll find that many video editing suites or other such software can help you in one degree or another to ‘stitch’ the images together to create a video.

A DSLR is perfect for capturing the sky at night due to it’s large sensor and all the other manual features you’ll require to enable you to nab that one shot revealing the heavens above.

Now, bearing in mind that video is generally considered to be 24 frames per second and above this equates to you capturing 24 separate photos just to create 1 second of video. So, if I wanted a 10 second clip of the night sky moving over a mountain? That’s 240 photo’s you need.

To top that off, each photo can take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds to take as you need that exposure to enable to capture the dim stars above. And of course, once your camera has clicked away and saved the scene, the process starts all over again. So, it can take hours just for a few seconds of video!

It’s not as easy as all this either. Things like humidity, air temperature and more can affect a successful shoot. For example, one night I was up by Hordron Edge stone circle in the Peak Park for over 4 hours waiting for my camera to do it’s thing. Once I figured all was done, I went over to my DSLR and was mighty pissed off that the lens was caked in condensation!

My shoot was ruined.

A tripod is essential too. Due to the number of photos you’ll be taking, you can’t have it move a single millimetre. There’s lots of other things to consider too, such as ISO, focus, the lens you’re using and so on. The number of seconds you leave between each picture being taken can contribute to how smooth or jagged the time lapse will look.

Take a look at the test sequence I’ve embedded above and you’ll see the difference in frame rates, with speed. There’s a clear difference. If you’re keen eyed you’ll see the Milky Way at one point and a number of shooting stars along with late night commercial flights. Alas, I didn’t pick the darkest of places for that shoot but it did make for good practice.

I shall not go into all the ins and outs of night time lapse as there’s plenty of information out there online if it’s something you’d like to give a go. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s time consuming, but immensely rewarding if you nail it. And like lots of things in life, it’s only by being out in the field do you really learn.

And it’s capturing such scenes I’ll be doing in a particular area of the Lake District National Park through this coming winter. I feel I’m about there on it now but am quite apprehensive as to whether my cheap tools will enable the camera to work in sub zero temperatures. So, we’ll see. Either way, I’m really excited about it and am itching to go chase the shots I want on video.

As a final bit of inspiration, take a look at this spectacular video from John Ecklund from Portland, Oregon in the United States. He sent me this video the other day and I was blown away by it as I’m sure you will too.

“I started the project back in July 2011 and finished in August 2012. It included lots of nights camping out and long hikes to scout out areas for unique views. I took approximately 260,000 photos to make this.”

I’m a long way off from John’s efforts but even so it just makes me even more desperate to get back out and play now!


Purely Pacific Northwest from John Eklund on Vimeo.

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