The Photo Brigade: Creative Still Life Time-Lapses
The Photo Brigade: Creative Still Life Time-Lapses
May 6, 2013 By Joe Morahan
The following blog post originally appeared on The Photo Brigade:
Joe Morahan is an award-winning sports photographer, filmmaker and visual effects artist living in Denver, Colorado. Since graduating with high honors from the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography, he has shot for advertising and editorial clients including RedBull, Getty Images and Sports Illustrated.
Sometimes, I wake up and think: “Y’know, shooting regular product shots is just too easy. I know!! I’ll pour some paint over my whole set — that’ll make things interesting.”
I’ve never been one to settle for “good enough.” Honestly, normal kind of kills me. The first motion project I worked on was so normal that my soul died a little inside. I needed to seriously amp up my creativity and push the limits of my imagination to be happy with my work.
The videos you see here have been years in the making — maybe even longer. The ideas behind them have been brewing in my head since I first starting learning time-lapse techniques back in school at Brooks Institute. I took tons of classes in time-lapse and extreme high-speed photography, and ended up majoring in Industrial and Scientific Photography. Funny as it sounds for a sports photographer, I never took a single Sports Photography class! I was obsessed with warping time, bending reality and testing the technical limits of photography.
Eight years on, I still love seeing motion sped up or slowed down. My first time-lapses were of nature and the night sky, out on camping trips. Before I ever thought about adding motion to my commercial work, I was just out there freezing my butt off and having the time of my life!
At the urging of one of my mentors, a producer in Los Angeles, I began to think about putting together a director’s reel and pursuing motion jobs. Motion is such an important part of the visual landscape now, and I couldn’t ignore that the industry was moving in that direction. It was time to jump out of my comfort zone and try something new. I decided to build a reel of around eight spec projects, each showing something unique, creative and representing who I am as an artist.
Like the honor student that I was, I threw myself into studying everything motion. I had worked with high-speed motion cameras before, but I knew that I needed to learn everything I could about motion to do it well. If I was going to do this, I had to do it my way. A little crazy, a little different — but definitely me.
As a creative, the most terrifying thing in the world is the blank page. Nothing came to me at all in the beginning, and I started to get nervous. I went out in nature, and remembered my night sky time-lapses from school. I messed around on YouTube, and eventually (after watching a few dumb cat videos) came across some videos of an artist pouring layers of paint over boxes, the dried product of which he sells. My brain started waking up and I thought about how cool it would be to use pouring paint in a time-lapse motion project. I had to make the idea my own and take it to a new (and admittedly crazy) level, so I came up with the idea to play the video in reverse, gradually “revealing” a product from beneath the paint.
Just like the paint pouring over my set, there was no stopping once I got started. Soon, I’d shot ten of these projects. With each project came a new concept, new challenges, new failures and new triumphs. I kept pushing the technique and pushing my imagination. My rockstar team and I had a lot fun making these videos; I hope you like the results!
It was all cameras on deck when we went to shoot these videos. My Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark II were the main cameras because they produce images of such an awesome quality and resolution that you can use the still frames in a print campaign. Additional angles were captured with my older cameras that I hang onto and refuse to sell: a Canon 20D, Canon 1D Mark II and a Canon Rebel XTi. For the Vans video we had two extra angles captured by anEOS 60D and a 7D. One camera was mounted to the ceiling for overhead shots, but all the other cameras were setup on tripods. That’s a lot of legs!
Another fun problem you might have guessed is how to sync all those cameras to fire at the same time. I started out using multiple intervalometers on all the cameras, but my preferred method turned out to be using one intervalometer and a PocketWizard transmitter on the main camera and using PocketWizard receivers on all the other cameras to trigger the shutters in unison. This allowed me to stop all cameras with just the intervalometer on the main camera, instead of running around the room and up on the ceiling to shut off half a dozen intervalometers. This strategy was way simpler, and meant fewer chances to bump a tripod leg or the set — a time-lapse shooter’s worst nightmare.
To get saturated colors and maximize my depth of field with minimal noise, I used a low ISO and closed down the aperture as far as I could. For a few shots I opened up to f/1.8 just to mix it up and show a very shallow depth of field in a few frames of the final video.
Since I started out as a still photographer, my primary lighting kit contains strobes. Not wanting to pop those expensive bulbs thousands of times for a single project, I opted for a continuous light source. I wasn’t ready to make the financial commitment to a whole new lighting kit, so I went down to the hardware store and picked up some work lights. They’re cheap and easy to use. For diffusion, I mounted an old white pillowcase to a picture frame. My wife was horrified, but I was working with what I had. The pillowcase got a little singed, but we managed to not set anything on fire.
I did some calculations to ballpark how many shots I needed to end up with a full minute of footage that would play at 24-30fps. I figured that I needed about 1,800 shots per camera, and if I the shoot last six hours I needed to take a shot about every 12 seconds. I ended up playing it safe and taking a shot every 7 seconds instead. This was just enough time to run up to the set, drop a bit of paint and duck out of the way before the next shot. The intervalometer was crucial to capturing a consistent interval of shots. For the Vans shoot, we had to shoot every 11 seconds to give us more time to tug a stitch or nudge the skateboards. We ended up with more usable shots at the slower shot interval than if we’d set it at a 5 second interval and caught arms reaching into the frame.
Whenever you’re trying to do something new and different, there’s always a higher risk of failure. But you’ll never learn from your mistakes if you don’t fail, you’ll never fail if you don’t try, and you’ll never succeed if you don’t try. It’s all worth it for the final product and hearing someone say, “WOW.”