Chicago Timelapse Project – Windy City Nights
Behind The Scene iPhone Photos Below
I really want to thank everyone for all their kind words and comments about Windy City Nights. I really am thankful and appreciative of all the emails and social shares I have received from this movie. I would have never expected this to happen and I am happy my movie has been well received on the internet. In the first two days of this movie, I received thousands of emails and messages. All of these emails were so positive with many nice comments. People also asked a lot of questions about how I was able to make this and questions about equipment and settings. So I thought I would write some of this out to maybe better answer some of these questions.
I really wish I would have had some assistance with doing more behind the scenes footage of this project. I was generally working by myself and all I had was my iPhone and it is hard to take good photos at night with an iPhone. I myself appreciate good behind the scenes stuff I have seen from other photographers and if I could do it again, I would have tried to incorporate some into this project. So please bare with my bad iPhone photos of behind the scenes, it’s all I have.
I started this timelapse project back in April of 2012 after getting inspired by a video I saw posted on Vimeo titled “We are Chicago” by Ross Gerbasi. The video contained several night timelapse sequences that were captured in Chicago. Just prior to this, I had been shooting timelapses and started practicing the art on a regular basis. I had been shooting a lot of sports photography since 2005 and just really started to enjoy the art of timelapse. I have always enjoyed the challenge of night time photography and long exposures. There is something about the lights at night and the passage of time that is really captivating and what better place to capture this than the City of Chicago. Chicago is a really unique city, it has great architecture, the Chicago River and is surrounded by Lake Michigan. There is so much happening all the time and the lights at night here are truly amazing.
I have always been drawn in by timelapse photography. I really enjoy it and I love all the videos out there on the web that show amazing places through the creative art of timelapse. There is really something unique about it and I never get tired of watching it. Some professionals in the creative world out there really think timelapse can be over used and talk about a surge of lot of videos on the web showcasing this art. However, I believe it just shows there are more and more creative professionals getting into the field of timelapse photography. Over the past few years there has also been many great companies out there producing great pieces of motion controlled equipment allowing photographers to be much more creative with their shots. The first time I saw a timelapse done with a dolly, I was sold!
When I started this project it was really a serious under taking. I had a full time job, a family and many other side commitments. My family was supportive of me and I set some goals. I really had to step out of my comfort zone in the suburbs and drive to the city weekly to get my shots. For the past two years, I went to the city on an average of one night a week. Some weeks it was more depending on the shots I wanted to get and what the moon and weather was doing on any given night. When I talk about comfort zone, I also mean heading down to the city at night after a long day and being exhausted and to stay out until 3am or so. I remember one night specifically when my family and I were up in Michigan all day at the dunes and we got home late around 8pm after an early start. The clouds were perfect in the sky and instead of going in and relaxing after a long day, I loaded up my car with my equipment and headed down to the city because I knew it was going to be a perfect night to shoot.
I had scouted most of my locations prior to starting this project. From walking the streets and researching Google Maps I had a good foundation of where my shots were going to be. One of the challenges was trying to get building owners and or management of buildings to let me shoot from their locations. This was a difficult task but I kept pursuing it and every so often I would get a break. I really tried my hardest to make a connection with building owners or management and explain to them what I was trying to do and show them examples of my work. I also generally would provide them copies of rendered timelapse videos for them to use for their web marketing in trade for allowing me access to their locations. Some photographers probably would have not done this; however, when you can negotiate a trade like this than generally both sides win and get something accomplished. I am not talking about to give your rights to the media away, this was never the case and for most roof tops I had access to, there was always some small contracts done to protect both parties involved. Otherwise I found it was very difficult unless you personally knew somebody who had unique access. And I understand this too because why would building owners just allow anyone to come up to take photos. They are still a business and if you can offer them something in exchange this seemed to always work. I also am fully insured as a photographer and could show this to them which always made things go smooth as well.
Some of the other challenges came from shooting around 200,000 raw images during the past two years. This along with renders and other project files equated to almost 8 Terabytes of storage data. I am always big on backing up my work. After unloading the memory cards onto internal hard drives, I would back up to two different sets of 8 TB Raid configured hard drives to make sure I did not loose any work. I get asked all the time about shooting RAW vs JPEG. Well I always shoot RAW for my shots. It’s really something that I always do, I have way more latitude in post when editing my RAW files vs JPEGs. I want the best possible file to edit without any thrown out information that my camera processed. When you shoot JPEG, you allow your camera to process and compress the image and along with that, you will loose a lot valuable data. So it’s just a personal choice for me. The downside to it is storage and editing large files. It takes longer to copy and edit, but it’s worth it in the end.
As with any big projects there are set backs. I had the police called on me a few times and I was kicked out of several places by security personal. When I was shooting around O’Hare Airport, this is when I encountered this the most. Photographers will always stick out in a crowd especially if you have a lot of equipment with you. What I found in general is that even though I was not breaking any laws, rather than to challenge them and ask what law I was breaking or rule I was violating, I simply was nice. I had several samples if my timelpases on my iPhone and I would show them what I was working on. When they saw some of my work, some of them were very nice and interested in what I was doing. Many times photographers will challenge the authority and in some cases it is warranted; however, I have learned the best practice is always to be nice, this worked for me the majority of the time. One night at Navy Pier, a security officer told me I could not use my tripod up on the parking garage or shoot from it. I showed him a few of my videos and he was like “wow, that is so cool”. He let me stay. I was actually very happy with the way the police treating me in the downtown area. Many times, late at night, I would often park my car in a no parking area on a bridge for example right by where I was shooting. I sometimes would have several police personal pull up to me and ask what I was doing. I explained to them and they were like “Ok, just don’t stay too late.” Being out late at night there is also worries about crime. I had a lot of very expensive equipment with me and was by myself most of the time. I would not recommend this as a safe thing; however, it was just my personality to get this project done. I generally could not get anyone to accompany me with my late nights, because who is going to want to be out there with me for numerous hours at night into the early morning hours. Once in a while my brother would come with me and sometimes I would have a friend come with. To be honest, I preferred to be by myself. I found it to be peaceful at night and I worked faster. I really started to appreciate the city when I had set up a shot and waited for several hours for it to finish. It gave me time to think and relax. I was always confident and acted this way of my surroundings. Most everybody left me alone. There are scams where a lot of photographers can fall prey to in that someone would distract them while someone else will come steal their equipment. Sometimes people would come up to me asking for my help with directions, I never left focus of my equipment and would tell people I was too busy to help them. I just always played it safe. Some other setbacks were the weather. There were several nights where I was rained on, when it was not supposed to rain. Isn’t that always the case! Sometimes some of the best weather to shoot in is right before or after a storm. The clouds look so nice barreling through the city at a fast pace; however, as long as the rain is not over you. Sometimes it worked for me and sometimes I had to break down my equipment.
One of the things I love about photography is doing long exposures. Almost everyone of my sequences were between 2 to 4 second exposures with most being 4 seconds. I found this to work best for me and helped create the look I wanted to achieve. I shot my timelapses in full manual mode and generally set my white balance to around 3000k. I could easily adjust my white balance in post up or down depending on the need of the RAW file. My ISO was pretty much low all the time as I did not need to go very high with it due to the long exposures. I generally set my f-stop to around f/11 and shot about 1 stop or a little more under exposed to preserve my highlights. Remember, these are my values for night shooting. Again, I could always adjust these values in post as needed. Once I locked down my exposure after I set my focus, I disengaged my lens from my camera by hitting the depth of preview (DOP) button to lock the aperture in place than I disengaged the lens from the contacts. Doing this allows to lock the aperture in place so that it does not open and close after the exposure. This prevents aperture flicker in the timelapse sequences. You can remove flicker in post, but again, sometimes this does not always work and you are adding one more step to your post process. I also think that removing flicker in post can have an effect on your exposures and make them a little less sharp. I would also place a piece of gaff tape over my view finder to prevent any possible light leaks coming in. This could also lead to flicker. I always made sure my tripods and heads were good and tight and that nothing was going to move during the timelapse. I like smooth timelapses and any movement during it can ruin your sequence. So ounce I started, I never touched my camera or equipment. I would always stand near it also if there were other people around to make sure it did not get knocked by accident.
Most of my static timelapse sequences I palced my camera in high speed drive mode, used my intervalometer and just locked it down. I did not use a timed interval per se. So if my exposure was 4 seconds long, my camera would fire again as soon as the shutter closed. So really if I had a 4 second exposure, my interval was like 4 seconds. So my camera was continuously firing. I found by doing this my city scape timelapses were much smoother. I did not always do this, it would depend on what I was taking a timelapse of. If I wanted to show more of an elapsed time, I would set a longer interval between the shots. I shot all my motion controlled shots in a drive shoot drive mode. For example, when I used my dolly, it was programmed to take a photo, move the carriage, stop, and take a photo. This would continue until my timelapse was done. Doing long exposures especially 4 seconds you don’t want your camera to move even a tiny bit during the exposure. Things won’t look good. During the day using shorter exposures you can get away with using a continuous move on your dolly. My motion controlled shots I would generally double my exposure and that would be my interval. So if my exposure was 4 seconds my interval was generally 8 seconds. I found this to produce smooth results. It also was just enough time to allow my carriage to move along the track and to be steady again before firing. These are not hard and fast rules. This is what worked for me and produced good results for shooting at night with long exposures.
Speaking of equipment I now use the DitoGear OmniSlider. I have used many different sliders in the past and have enjoyed them all. Some have advantages and disadvantages. I really like the DitoGear products. They are built solid and just work all the time. When you set them up they are not going anywhere. They are heavy and this is why I like them. It will not flex, bend or move even the slightest bit as long as your tripods are locked down you are good to go. It’s heavy but this is what I like about it. The downside is that the company is in Poland and shipping is a pain with customs. Also, updating the OmniControllers means sending them back and again shipping is very expensive. But they are fast and easy to set up and for me this was very important. I wanted to move around the city fast and setup fast. Get in and get out. I would stick the dolly back on my hand truck after shooting and bungee it down and move. I worked out of pelican cases so it was very fast and efficient. The OmniSlider can really take beating too. It’s not fragile and nothing is going to break off of it or bend, period. Would I want to backpack around a forest or in the mountains with it, no, but for traveling around a city with a hand truck was an easy process for me. I also used the DitoGear OmniHead for various sequences too. One of the products I really came to enjoy was the eMotimo TB3. This motion controlled product was very easy to set up and program and easy to transport. I could easily fit it in my backpack and set it up in minutes. It is fragile so you have to be careful with it and don’t use it in windy conditions because you could have some movement in your sequences because your camera is balancing on a small stepper motor, so it’s not as solid. The DitoGear OmniHead is a tank and very solid but heavy and has multiple controllers to control each axis of movement. The TB3 only has one controller and is simple to operate. It does not have all the features of the OmniHead but it gets the job done for most timelapse sequences.
As far as the cameras go, I used the Canon 5D Mark III and Mark IIs and the Canon 1DX to capture the majority of the sequences. I have always been happy with my Canon cameras and to my surprise I have not worn out any shutters yet. The shutter on my 5D Mark II is probably about to go, it is acting up. I love these cameras and they produce some great images. The lenses I used to make this were the Canon 8-15mm fisheye, Canon 14mm f/2.8, Canon 24mm f/1.4, Canon 24-105mm F/4 and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. Shooting cityscapes is always a challenge with distortions being caused by the lenses. This presented a challenge in post. Some distortions I corrected, some I did not. To my eye, there is always a price to pay with sharpness when you correct for distortion. Every time you move pixels around it can degrade the image ever so slightly. A lot of times it works wonders and you can’t tell. Depending on how you do it you can also loose some of the scene you captured. So I tried to be careful with this. My favorite go to lens was the Canon 24mm f/1.4. I was very happy with how my images looked and the distortion was not bad at all. It is also wide enough that I was able to get a lot of my scene in the frame. There were times I wanted a wider perspective so I usually went with the 14mm; however, for wide cityscapes with buildings the 14mm can produce some distortion. The 14mm is great for close up scenes. My next lens to purchase will be the 16-35mm. I am curious to how this lens would do.
There are many ways and methods to render out a timelapse sequence. I found the most efficient way for me with this project and the amount of photos I took was to do this. I developed all my RAW files in Lightoom and applied the proper adjustments. I really like Adobe Lightroom and am use to the workflow having a photography background. I then would export out my RAW files as high resolution JPEG images after I applied my adjustments. I than brought my JPEG sequences into Adobe Premiere Pro and rendered out an uncompressed maximum quality .PNG render in a QuickTime Wrapper. I would place the high quality rendered file in a finished folder to wait for the final project edit. So my final project edit, I brought all the high quality rendered .PNG files into Premiere for my final edit. This worked for me and am happy with the results of the final movie. Had this been a smaller project, I may have rendered out right from Adobe After Effects after bringing in my RAW sequences. The nice thing about Adobe After Effects is the ability to bring in RAW image sequences. You can also dynamic link back and forth from After Effects and Premiere. But my project was so large with so many sequences over a long period of time this would have been a challenge and very hard on my computer. So I decided on the way I did it and am happy with the results. One of the hardest parts of the edit process was actually choosing which sequences to place in the final movie. The final movie is a little longer than I normally would have liked it to be but this was the edit I choose to do. There were a lot of great sequences which did not make it in. I may use them for another project, we shall see.
So this is it in a nutshell. I would suggest anyone wanting to shoot timelapse photography to just practice and learn the art. There are so many great resources on the web and so many tutorial videos out there by talented and creative individuals. There is also not one right way to do things, there are general rules you should always follow but there are many different ways to do things. You have to find what works for you and don’t be afraid to try new things as this in how you learn. When I started in timelapse photography I planted myself in the forum at Timescapes.org. There is so much good information here on just about every topic relating around the art of timelapse. Oh and yes you can spell timelapse like this or time-lapse or time lapse. I have been inspired and continue to be on a regular basis by photographers who put their stuff out on the web. I continue to learn because there are so many talented individuals out there to learn from. Learn, Practice and be inspired to go out and shoot.