Smeared Sky. Made from 500 photos, this is the first sunset time-lapse I tried the stacking method with. I was surprised with the outcome, but even more so with the feedback. It wasn’t long before it went viral. I was getting lots of emails, some asking questions about the technique and others hoping to share it on their website or blog. Milky Way scientists shared it on their Facebook page, and it got 12,000 likes and 4,000 shares on the first day it was up. I was blown away!
During my studies for my Graphic Design diploma, Photography 101 was a required course, and that was the start of my passion for photography. After years of experimenting and just plain having fun, I’ve found time-lapse to be my favorite form of photography.
It wasn’t too long ago that I discovered “star trail” photos. They’re most commonly made from multiple photos of stars shot from a fixed position and later merged into one image. After trying this technique a few times, I wondered what it would look like with time-lapse sequences I had shot during the day.
My first few tries produced some interesting results, but looked a little too “busy” or “abstract.” A little experimenting with choosing the right sequences and number of shots resulted in exciting images.
Living on the shore of Lake Ontario, just east of Toronto, facing the west, has resulted in quite a library of sunset time-lapses. These were the first subjects of my experimentation with this technique.
I call the images made with this technique “timestacks.” To make them, I use a time-lapse sequence as my source. Timestacks are really a distillation of a video into a single picture. The movements of clouds often look like brushstrokes and give the image a painterly feel. It gives you a different perspective of time and a unique sense of motion.
I usually set up time-lapse shoots with the intention of producing a video as the end result. Timestacks are a nice opportunity resulting from the time-lapse sources with the right subject and settings.
My time-lapse sequences are usually multiple photos taken from a fixed position. You can use an external intervalometer to control the camera, or your camera may have that capability built in. If you have a Canon EOS DSLR, you can load software to perform the function. More about that later.
The interval between shots can change the look of the final image quite a bit. The shorter the interval between shots, the smoother the movements will look. I usually shoot in the range of 3 to 6 seconds during the day. I load my photos onto the computer and open the first one in Photoshop, making adjustments for color and contrast while recording my actions so I can apply them to all the photos. I highly recommend using an automated process for this, as it will save you time, but mainly a lot of tedious work.
This is where the “star trail” technique comes in, another thing you really want to automate—the first few timestacks, I made one photo at a time and it took forever. I couldn’t figure out how to properly automate the stacking process in Photoshop, so I searched online and found a script from Star Circle Academy (starcircleacademy.com) that worked great.
Basically, it opens the first image, then pastes the second image on a new layer and changes the Layer Blending mode to Lighten. The script adds all the parts of the second photo that are lighter than the first photo. Repeat that as many times as you like with your succession of photos.
Sometimes, I’ll use only 30 photos, and other times I’ll use hundreds; it’s all about the desired effect and what looks best to me, so I usually start out by stacking all the photos from the time-lapse and then try fewer photos if it’s too crazy.
Once I’ve found the segment that looks good, I do a final adjustment of levels and contrast, mainly to bring the darks back, because it gets a little washed out from adding lighter parts together.
The camera I’m currently using is a Canon EOS 60D (I’ve gone through more than a few). I use a battery grip that lets me use two batteries so I can shoot longer time-lapses. I most often use my wide-angle Tamron 10-24mm zoom, but I also have a telephoto and a 50mm prime lens. I have an assortment of filters; a circular polarizer and a dark neutral-density are my favorites.
Most Canon cameras can utilize open-source software that allows the camera to do things it can’t straight out of the box. I use a program called Magic Lantern that allows me to do all kinds of fun new things, but the main reason I got it is for its intervalometer, so I can easily shoot time-lapses. You can get it at magiclantern.fm. All you have to do is put a small file onto your memory card and it loads from there with new menus. Another bonus is that there’s no external hardware involved. Before that I was using a separate intervalometer and going through lots of batteries!
A tripod is more or less essential for shooting time-lapses. I also recommend anchoring the tripod; that will keep it stable and safer to use when you’re outdoors. My camera is in for repairs right now because I failed to do this on a windy day. I’ve found that a brick on a rope works well. Make sure to hang it close to the center, so it’s distributing the weight evenly between all three legs.
If you like the results you see here, why not try a few yourself? If you need help, feel free to contact me—you’ll find contact links and also can see more of my work at flickr.com/photos/matt_molloy/sets.
To see more of Matt Molloy’s photography, visit 500px.com/mattmolloy