Photography, videography, time lapse by Jaco Wolmarans

Scouting for locations
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans

One of the absolute best things about being a freelancer is being able to decide on what constitutes work. Trips to Pella in the Northern Cape, in most people’s books, would not qualify. But I had a plan: time lapse shooting. Of course it warranted (note, not justified) the purchase of a Timelapse SA  motion-controlled dolly. Justified is a bit of a stretch, and my wife saw right through all my arguments.

In the end, I think she relented and just let me get on with buying it. And the extra length of track. And the special charger. And long life battery. Then the bag I had made to fit it all into. Ah well, …

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

My brother Wollie and his trusty Pajero, helping me scout new locations.

But back to time lapse shooting. I have spent more money on kit than time analyzing why I am so fascinated by it. I suspect it has something to do with controlling time, fast-forward through time. In much the same way as we are fascinated by macro shots of objects. It’s just a new way of looking at something familiar. And it’s just way cool.

In my case, the official version was that I was shooting time lapses to sell as stock. Or to build up a bank of footage to be used in possible productions later on. I had to admit though, one year later, that the sales have been minimal. The subject has a niche appeal. To me, though, that was not the main reason. And I think my wife spotted this – and allowed me to justify away.

So there we were, our RAV4 packed to the hilt with kit, headed off to Pella one chilly July. My brother is a manager on a grape farm on the banks of the Orange River, in what must be one of the most incredible bits of scenery I have ever visited. On par with the Richtersveld, I’d say. And that’s not only me saying so. Nicholas Cage (who happens to share a birth date in 1964 with me) also thought so. That’s why they shot parts of Lords of War right here. Cage stayed on the farm itself. The farm is dotted with the most spectacular rock formations, gnarled tree shapes and to top it all, a proper quiver tree forest. Like thousands of trees in a clump. It’s eerie and totally engrossing to the landscape photographer.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

All set to go as the first rays of sun light up the peaks and quiver tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real addiction, I realised, was being up before dawn, the dolly creeping up or across, camera filming one frame every second, me with a flask of coffee behind, watching another spectacular natural scene materialise out of darkness.

There is something completely engrossing about this process – trying to pre-empt where the first rays of sun would come through, judging which objects it would light up first, what exposure to set to capture that magic golden light at the right moment, not blowing out highlights by setting too wide an aperture. It teaches patience – once you’ve made your calculations, set up and started rolling, you have to see it through.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa by Jaco Wolmarans

Working in Africa is hard. Real hard.

You’ll know whether your calculations were right the minute the sun peeks out behind the hills, and starts to colour your world. Sometimes you get it spot on, other times you misjudge it horribly, and have to abort halfway through, the morning wasted.

Did I say wasted? Not quite. I always remind myself that I could have been in rush hour morning traffic, driving to an office. Being out here is reward in itself. Whether the shot pans out or not. There is just something about the crispness of pre-dawn air. The quiet, the shapes unfolding in front of you as the light crawls over the horizon and giving shape to rock and tree. Being out there is pure privilege.

Time lapse planning process

Setting up a time lapse sequence is 80 percent visualisation, 20 percent maths. Which is a good thing, as I’m not so good at numbers. It also requires a lot of scouting, camera in hand, trying to visualise where the light would be by sunrise or sunset. Then looking through the viewfinder, framing the shot, and noting the field of view, the elevation, the zoom position on my camera. On the Sony PMW-EX1 video camera, the onscreen text makes it easier – the zoom width is indicated with a Z-value, and exposure too, so I would go to a potential scene, frame my final shot, note the exposure for a fully-lit shot, the zoom position, and memorise those.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa

A typical end position for a shot – background revealed, pleasing light around the trunk of the tree, and enough sky detail thanks to good end shot exposure calculation.
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans.

Next, I would move the camera along an imaginary track, trying to emulate the camera movement on the dolly once set up. This helps me determine at what angle to place the dolly, what the start position should be, as you always want to move from a nicely-framed start through some “dead” middle ground on to a nicely-framed final final shot.

Moving the camera through my emulation stage also helps me decide whether to let the track run up, sideways or down. Setting it up to move upwards helps reveal middle ground, keeps the viewer enticed. I would start with the middle or background blocked by some rock or bush in the foreground. As the camera lifts, it starts revealing that background. Similarly, moving sideways past a tree trunk, a rock or bush reveals background on a horizontal plane.

Once I’ve worked out where I want the shot to start and end, I have to calculate the start time. Knowing when the sun comes up or sets is crucial. That basically determines the end of the shot, as well as the final position of the camera. So you work backwards, and calculate how far the camera needs to travel over the track, and at what speed. With the Timelapse SA dolly, you can vary the speed to make the camera arrive at the fully-revealed, fully-lit position at exactly the right moment. Well, almost exactly, with my number skills.

_DSC1046

Using a tree in the foreground to increase the sense of three-dimensionality as the shadows lengthen on the hill in the background.

Finally, I choose an exposure, and here, you have to choose the end exposure that will be required. Which means you have to be on location at more or less that time of day to check what the exposure will be for when you do the shot. Some shooters use an auto exposure system, which means the camera tries to expose for the amount of light available each time it takes an image. But what’s the point? Surely you want to show progressing from dark to light, or light to dark?

Slow down and use the best light

I mentioned patience above. This is where yours will get tested. Because you basically do only two lapses in a day if you want to utilise the best light at dawn and dusk.

Shoots like these always entail scouting for a whole day, then finding two locations – one for that evening, and one for the next morning. I would run my sunset lapse, finish off and move the rig to where my morning lapse will be filmed, set it up in the almost darkness, and leave the rig (except the camera, of course) out in the veld. This helps you fumble less in the pitch dark pre-dawn sessions, when you’re half asleep still, and not thinking straight. It also helps if you don’t have to handle Manfrotto tripods and aluminium tracks in the chill of the morning. Metal tends to get painfully stuck on flesh.

So what determines a good lapse? Some of the most spectacular, I found, always included a strong sense of three-dimensionality. Foreground moving relative to background, clouds moving relative to shifting foreground. Static is fine for a cloudscape, yes, but a scene really pops if there is some extra movement in the shot – a tree moving across the view, a rock disappearing from view in the foreground, the camera moving past a dead branch. Dead is better. You you don’t want foliage moving in the foreground. Or anywhere in the shot, if you can avoid it. I found it is distracting to the viewer.

Time lapse videography, Pella, South Africa

Using foreground objects to aid three-dimensionality during the timelapse.
Copyright Jaco Wolmarans. All rights reserved.

In the end, a lot of it is trial and error. And more error. But sometimes you get it just right, getting a lapse with a sense of epic scale, showing off nature fast-forward mode that somehow, strangely, makes it feel like time is standing still. I know, it sounds contradictory, but there it is – a privileged glimpse into space and time, two or three hours condensed into seconds of pure wonder.

A short video from my last Pella trip.

Another behind-the-scenes post from Wordsource Productions.

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