Astro Timelapse Project

I have been having a lot of fun lately. “Late” being the key word. And I am working on a new project.

I am very excited about the Canon 5Dmk2 DSLR, but not just because of the shallow depth of field people have been raving about. I am very excited about the low light capabilities of this camera. I have never used a camera that is able to shoot in available light in video mode or in near total darkness in still mode using long exposure. But now, I am producing video that requires nothing more than a table lamp as a key source. I am also snapping the shutter on the 5dmk2 all night capturing what most of us all sleep through.

Over the last few weeks, I have been experimenting with settings on the 5dmk2 trying to get the best night sky exposure. These settings differ depending on length of timelapse, moon cycle, cloud cover and what is in the foreground. As I master this tricky (and sometimes frustrating) shooting style I will share my settings and technique with you. But for now, I am still learning and getting help from people like Tom Lowe at timescapes.org and other insomniacs that use his forums.

Sorry, other than the experimental test I did a few weeks ago, I am not going to post any actual footage until the timelapse project is complete. But please keep reading…. please…. oh come on!

Setting up the camera is pretty easy. Basically, you just fire off a few test shots, take a look at exposure and focus and then let it go for the night. You can get more complicated and mount the camera to a step motor head, drag the camera across a dolly with a step motor, or use some crazy step motorized jib to get dynamic moving timelapses. For this project I will be using locked down shots (slow zooms in post), a motorized Celestron 114 GT telescope pan/tilt head (modified for 5dmk2) and a Mumford step motor to drag the pvc dolly using gravity as resistance.

I have found that it is best to go for just one long timelapse. The stars move pretty slow! You really want the camera firing off shots all night for best results. You get about 30 seconds of usable video setting the camera to snap a 20 second exposure every 30 seconds during the night. That is a lot of shutter clicks, like around 1400! Yes, you need a timer remote controller and enough power to make this happen with the 5dmk2.

I am not going to go that deep into this yet, but future blogs will contain information on what I have found useful and what is basically a waste of time. I will also talk about how to deal with leaving your kit in the wild at night and sleeping next to it. And if you did not know, you just take all these digital stills and place them on the timeline as frames. Resize, scale and then export the timeline. So easy with .JPGs, not sure with RAW files. That will be the next project.

My ultimate goal is to produce a three to five minute timelapse piece that will be a year in the making. I have about 5 percent of the project done and I have spent half a dozen nights outside under the stars (sometimes freezing my arse off) to get the elusive footage. Not every timelapse worked out. Frost, heavy wind and panning head malfunctions have burned me a few times. And I was very upset that a single leaf landing on PVC pipe at 3am while I was asleep could mess up an epic tracking timelapse shot.

Below are a few pictures from the last two days of shooting in the mountains of New Hampshire. It is starting to get cold up there and I will see just how far I can push the temperature limits of the Canon 5dmk2, the battery packs and myself!

Camp W

Two nights ago, I set up the camera in a forested area in New Hampshire clear of any light pollution. I had the camera panning right to left and snapping a picture every 15 seconds with a 10 second burn (exposure). This worked out well, the sky is blue even at night and the moon lights up everything it touches like the sun during the day.

Mt Summit

I will be testing this camera system out on the top (or near) the top of mountains in New Hampshire. This is from the summit of Mt Chocoura. The best way to attach this camera setup is to bring bags you can fill with rock to weigh down the tripod. Wrap the camera in a heavy plastic bag and make it tight so it does not act as a sail. Just hope the weather does not drive moisture into the lens. As far as making camp, never sleep in the alpine zone. I would say sleep just below treeline on the east side of the mountain. This way you are out of prevailing winds and the sunrise wakes you up! At least in this neck of the woods.

Kanc
sunrise
wide

Another little trick is to car camp! There are many mountain roads in the state of New Hampshire that take you and all your kit up the hill with very little effort. I have a Honda 1000i generator in my car for just this “camping” technique. The pictures above are from a scenic pull out off the Kancamagus Highway (RT 112) between Lincoln and Conway New Hampshire. If you want to see my twitvid from that sleep-in-my-car-over-dramatized night, they are here and here. Turn the sound down for the first one, I am yelling for no reason.

The light in the above pictures is only from the moon. I was very surprised how much the Canon 5dmk2 can expose with almost no light. This is good in the video function, but absolutely insane in the still mode. Remember, I am new to the picture taking craft. Until four months ago, I never owned a SLR or DLSR! My first 30 second burn was quite memorable (say no to drugs, I’m taking exposure here).

And speaking of drugs, just how do I spend the time with me, myself and my 5d? I either sleep or read a book. If car camping, I have a generator, so if you think of it, I could power it. Perhaps a few of these little cosmolapse adventures will include friends who don’t mind staring at a cloud for eight hours.

Tree

I pointed my camera into the sky for many of my timelapses so far and I really like the effect of a slow twisting pan while the stars are moving in the opposite direction. In the shot above, I had the Celestron 114 GT set to “rate 1″ the slowest speed and just let the the panhead work its magic. With the moon full and bright, I was able to see what I was doing with out the need of a head torch.

Cloudy Conditions

One thing that I really do not like is clouds. Some are ok, but since the stars move so slow and the clouds whip by so fast it is a bit jarring. I am having trouble hitting a clear night with my busy work schedule. And the fact that light pollution is so prevalent where I live, I have to drive hours away for good sky. I hope to get some clear winter nights in the coming weeks and point my lens skyward.

I will keep you posted of my progress on this project. I am working with a music composer to create a custom score for the piece.

Thanks for reading and post any questions below…

Here are a few bonus pictures from the day light hours.

dave

Thanks to my buddy Dave for his company and help over the last few days! I work with Dave in Boston television, but he lives in the north country.

waterfall
waterfall
waterfall
waterfall
waterfall

I have been experimenting with a one second shutter and moving water. I have found I get the best results when using ND filters and a matte box. I did not have ND filters with me! These shots were taken with the 5dmk2 mounted on a rock with the Canon lens closed to f22! I shot “Falling Water“, “Water and Light” and “Champney Falls” at this awesome location. I use to climb these rock faces when I was younger.

Tom on top

Dave got this great shot of me on the summit of Mt Chocorua. The Mountain is just under 4000 feet above sea level and it rewards hikers with some bouldering and 360 degree wind blown views. This is one of my favorite mountains in New England. My dog Zac even made it to the top!

For more on this project: click here.