Backyard Adventures (24th St. Time-Lapse) / by Michael Zwack

Welcome back to another backyard adventure from my hometown of Minneapolis, MN.  My first adventure began downtown perusing the Guthrie Theater Performing Arts Center, showing great photography opportunities can be found right in your own backyard...you just have to put yourself out there.  If you haven't read that article yet, be sure to check out the archives. 

This month my backyard adventures continue; this time I head back downtown to try my hand at time-lapse photography, and test out a new tripod.  If not familiar with time-lapse photography, it's a technique used to capture the passage of time and is often represented in the movement of cars, clouds, people walking, etc.  The end result is a series of individual photographs used together to create a video flip book of a scene.  Having never attempted this process before, I thought what a great way to learn a new skill and test out some gear.

There's only a couple pieces of gear needed in producing stunning time-lapse videos, and paramount among them is a sturdy tripod.  Having been in the market for a lightweight and compact travel tripod for quite some time now, I reluctantly settled on the popular Manfrotto Befree carbon fiber tripod. Coming in at 2.4 pounds and folding down to 15.75" it easily fits in a travel bag.  However, whereas the size and weight is quite alluring, stability issues were still of concern. It was time to put this tripod to the test.

My location of choice for this adventure would be the 24th St. Pedestrian Bridge, situated over the freeway heading straight into downtown...with cars zipping past and an amazing view of the Minneapolis skyline, it was my goal to capture the movement of the cars heading to and from the city with passing clouds overhead.                

24th St. Skyline.  1/250 @ F/9.0  ISO 320  16mm (cropped image w/ post processing)

Time-lapse photography isn't the trickiest of photo techniques to grasp. The way it works is quite simple; find a scene and take multiple images over a long period of time.  The trick is to keep the subject stable while capturing the surrounding movement. This along with some rudimentary mathematical skill and it's a breeze.  It's so simple in fact most smartphones, and some cameras have built-in functions that will do the math and take a photo every second or two for the desired length of the video.  Granted there are all types of additional gadgets and accessories around to create complex motion controlled time-lapse, but in it's simplest form, it's not too difficult. All a photographer has to do is show up, plug in settings, start the timer, and play the waiting game. Depending on the length of video one is looking to compile, the final result will be a stream of seemingly endless images eating up precious hard drive space.  With technology doing the heavy lifting all that is left is to combine and edit the images in post.

Whereas in theory it's simple, when arriving at my location I quickly realized the limitations of my newly acquired tripod. First being the bridge which I was shooting from is a simple foot bridge and thus lightweight enough for it to sway with the passing of traffic below.  This movement would be an issue with any tripod as the entire structure I was shooting on was moving.  Combine with this a windy environment and camera shake from automatically taking multiple exposures over a 10 minute timeframe and I daresay my poor little tripod could't quite keep up.  

As far as the timelapse, I had no issues.  Using my Trigger Trap intervalometer and accompanying app, I simply did the math and plugged in the settings for a 12 second clip at 24/frames per sec to capture a cinematic frame rate.  Basically I'd be taking a picture every 2 seconds for 10 minutes.  The device worked flawlessly, the only problem was how much movement the clicking shutter caused on the windy, swaying bridge over a long period of time...hence the need for a sturdy tripod.

To be completely transparent, I knew the likelihood of this tripod being able to handle long exposure photography was slim.  Prior to purchasing I read reviews regarding it's drawbacks and although it may not be suitable for time-lapse work, I'm still confident it will work just fine for my travel needs.  Plus, it's not that the time-lapse didn't work out, it's just not as sharp and stable as I would prefer.  Having pushed it to the limits I'm more confident in knowing which situations to use it for, and when I may need to get more creative to compensate for it's shortcomings.        

With my in-field work completeI headed back tot he studio to compile the pictures for the accompanying You Tube video.  To see the time-lapse in action be sure to check it out.  In the end I was happy to make the best of a beautiful summer day, and add to my photo knowledge by testing out the new tripod.  I still have a sturdier tripod for long exposure shoots, I know now however that planning ahead will be as important as ever.  Being a successful photographer isn't just about being able to take a photograph at the correct settings, in the end it's about understanding skills which will transform ordinary images into extraordinary photographs.  In order to succeed, a image must combine the proper exposure along with a strong composition, mood, and storytelling.  One thing for sure is time-lapse photography opens up endless possibilities to create feeling and story through the passage of time and movement.   

Thanks for joining me on this journey.  I hope this article helps motivate you to get out and try a new technique... and keeps pushing you to new heights as a photographer.