Pictures in Motion: Timelapses with a GoPro

Time Lapse

This post is the first part of a mini-series on the topic of time lapses. One of my main motivations for doing photography is to capture scenes in ways that usually elude the naked eye. This includes macro images, freezing fast motion, or visualizing movements in a movie.

To achieve a special effect, you can slow down movements – many current smart phones and action cams offer slow-motion capabilities with up to 120 frames per second. This allows to show action at about 1/5 of the original speed and still have fluent motion. If you want to go even slower, and still have a decent video resolution, you’ll need a dedicated (hence pricey) slow-motion camera.

The opposite effect can be realized in a much simpler way: time lapses are suitable to visualize motion patterns that move too slow to grasp them in their entirety by simply looking at them. All you need for a time lapse is a digital camera with the capability to take photos at fixed time intervals, as well as a software tool that turns the individual images into a movie. Numerous such tools can be found on the internet. The camera doesn’t even need to be a high-end model; a 10-megapixel camera can already render a 4K video.

This first part of this series will cover the process from capturing the images to creating the movie using a GoPro camera and its proprietary software.

IDEA & LOCATION

The Railway Museum Darmstadt-Kranichstein is definitely one of the locations where I have taken the most pictures, and over the longest period of time. I don’t primarily focus on the various engines in the exhibition, but rather try to capture the hustle and bustle during the events. This is particularly true for our biggest event, the “Railworld Days”, which take place every year on a four-day weekend around the mid of May. I put the focus of my images on the audience in the first place, while the moving engines and such are shown as what is drawing the visitors’ attention.

However, these photos always captured just a single moment in time: Since I am working in the museum myself, I am bound to my tasks in the exhibits during the events. Thus, I mostly miss what is happening outside – except for breaks, which I use for taking pictures as well. But I was always curious about what happened “out there” during the entire day. Hence, I mounted my camera right in the middle of the action. It would be rather boring to watch the recording of an eight-hour day in real time, and so I had the idea to capture time lapses.

GOPRO CAMERA & SOFTWARE

Many years ago, I bought a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition action camera, to capture photos and videos from perspectives that are not – at least not easily – accessible with a big camera. In addition to various video modes, all GoPros offer a time lapse mode, which takes a photo every few seconds. The time interval can be set between 0.5 and 60 seconds. Which interval is the best depends on what scene you want to capture, i.e. what is moving, and how fast it is moving.

Once started, the camera keeps on recording until either stopped, the battery runs out, or the memory card is full. To avoid the latter, I bought a 64 GB micro-SD card. I used two different power supplies: the internal battery, in combination with the additional snap-on battery that is available for the GoPro 3+. This lasts for about 3-4 hours. To capture an entire day, I set up external power via a power adapter and a USB cable.

RECORDING

As with everything in photography, a time laps requires a suitable (interesting) subject. An additional challenge is that the scene should change over time: clouds in the sky, traffic on a lively intersection, or – at the railway museum – the turntable in front of the roundhouse. Next, a good location for the camera is needed, as well as the necessary adapters to mount it securely and solidly. I checked the orientation of the camera using the freely available Smartphone app, and also started the recording this way.

I usually work with a two-second time interval at the museum. In the course of an entire day, this results in 14,400 pictures being taken. Turned into a video at 30 frames per second, eight hours become eight minutes.

POST-PROCESSING

My old GoPro is capable of taking JPEG images only, which limits the post-processing possibilities; especially considering that any changes would have to be synchronized to all images. Given the huge number of files, this poses high demands on the hardware and software alike. So how can all these single photos be turned into a video? The simplest solution is using the “GoPro Studio” software that comes with the camera.

GoPro Studio
Screenshot GoPro Studio (v2.5.12) – Import and edit timelapse video

In the first step, you select the folder on the hard drive that contains the files copied from the camera. The software automatically creates a preview video from the images. Then you chose the desired options; primarily, how many frames per seconds the video shall have, and whether the fish-eye effect from the GoPro’s ultra-wide angle lens shall be removed or not. This makes sense especially if there are many straight lines in the image, but it can also lead to strong distortions in the corners of the frame. Finally, the tool converts everything into a final video, which can then be exported in the desired format.

EXAMPLE

The following video was created three years ago, using the GoPro and the included software as described above. The time interval was set to two seconds, so over the course of eight hours, 14,400 photos were taken:

This clip doesn’t have any sound, because it has been assembled from individual images. It can be used as-is, or combined with other building blocks to create a diversified movie – with sound, of course. The GoPro software offers some built-in video authoring capabilities, but I have never used them. Earlier, I used Apple’s iMovie software to create my movies. Now, I am using Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. However, I will not cover video editing in this post.

ALTERNATIVES AND LIMITATIONS

Thus, it shouldn’t go unnoted that in the meantime, many very affordable alternatives for the original GoPro cameras are available. Of course, there are some differences in terms of quality of the resulting photos and videos, at least when comparing them to the top-of-the-line model. Whether that is worth the additional price depends on your personal preference.

Many modern smart phones also offer a time lapse function – either directly in the built-in camera app, or by means of third-party apps. For my use case, however, this is not a viable alternative: smart phones are much more susceptible to environmental conditions (direct sunlight, rain), the storage capacity usually is as limited as the battery capacity – and who wants to mount their smart phone with all the data on it unguarded somewhere in the event area?

Either way, there are limitations. Foremost, you are bound to the fixed focal length of the camera, which contains an extreme wide-angle (fish-eye) lens. That is not always what you need. In addition, the small camera tends to have problems with high contrasts – on a bright sunny day, either highlights such as clouds end up as pure white blobs without any details, or the shadows drown in black. In addition, the automatic white balance and the auto-exposure function sometimes create strange artefacts, for instance when clouds move across the sun and cause the brightness and color of the light to change.

GoPro cameras offer an advanced capturing mode, called “ProTune”. It allows to set a fixed white balance and creates images with reduced contrast to offer more leeway for post-processing. However, I never achieved satisfactory results using this for time lapses. This may well be because I lack the necessary experience with color grading and look-up tables. Current GoPro models, such as the Hero 5, can capture photos in RAW format. If your camera supports this, you should definitely use it!

OUTLOOK

The next part of this series will cover capturing time lapses with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, as well as adding some additional motion to the video. Finally, the third part will deal with the post-processing; in particular, how to take full benefit of the RAW images to create a high-quality video with reasonable effort.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Time lapses can be created quickly and easily with the GoPro, and the results are remarkable. This approach offers several advantages: the camera is small, light-weight, unobtrusive and can be mounted almost anywhere. It works completely silent and lasts many hours when using the additional battery. The conversion of the individual pictures into a final video is just a matter of a few clicks using the included GoPro Studio software. All in all, lots of fun for little effort!

What I’ve learned: Time lapses opened a new way for me to use photography to capture motion patterns. The fact that you can leave the camera to “do its thing” once it has been set up, and that you can tend to other things in the meantime, is an additional bonus.


LINKS

 Picture Credits: Title Image – Screenshot Adobe Lightroom CC

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