First off, mistakes happen… We can be the most confident shooter or editor, but sometimes you can’t escape murphy’s law. We have shot many time-lapses, and it can tend to become routine after a while. And in my opinion, that’s when we are most susceptible to a mistake.
I love to photograph city skylines. There’s something majestic about them that fascinates me. Man created that… ya know? Every city you go to has a different personality and it can sometimes be reflected in its skyline. Some are really cool, boring, small or large… and some can be pretty obnoxious or confused. Either way, trying to capture a city skyline can be a challenge. In some ways, it’s no different than a portrait head-shot. Trying to find the right perspective, focal length and lighting can be challenging. Finding the right shot requires some driving and a little research if you’re in an unfamiliar city. Let us not forget the weather!
Not too long ago, we stopped in Dallas TX during a cross-country trip. There was no way we were leaving without an epic shot of the city! After a quick google search, we located a bridge outside the city. It was a little far out, but the location gave us a great view along with traffic in the foreground. Perfect for our time-lapse! I have found that taking long exposures for landscapes and city skylines, brings out a little extra detail and crispness that can’t be always achieved in a quick photo. And since we had a great view of the highway in the foreground, getting long light streaks from the traffic will make for a very dynamic shot.
The setup was simple. We had the Canon 5d3 with the 70-200mm 2.8 II with IS setup on a tripod. Now for any time-lapse, it’s recommended to shoot in full manual. If you’re shooting with aperture priority or auto anything, the camera will constantly adjust throughout the timelapse and this will cause flickering that can be very hard to fix later in post-production. There are de-flicker plugins that can help, but they’re not perfect…. so trust me when I say, It’s best to get it right in camera. As far as the lens, the same rule applies. You never want autofocus turned on, as every time the camera shutter fires, the focus can drift, and this is something that is unfixable. The other area of concern is Image Stabilization. If you have a lens with this feature, you have to turn it off for time-lapses. Just like autofocus, every time the shutter clicks the lens is adjusting its optics to take a steady shot. And in a sequence of photos, each shot will bounce around, simulating a day of drinking five pots of coffee.
Now, to our mistake… Our little whoopsie was accidentally leaving image stabilization on. After a long travel day, and switching our cameras between video and photos, IS was accidentally left on for our Dallas Skyline time-lapse. And unfortunately, it was the only camera to grab this cool perspective. So imagine the disappointment when you get back to your office to find that it looks horrible.
Can it be fixed? If so, how? Well, it required a little experimenting. But once I had processed all the raw files from the 5d3, I exported the sequence as full resolution jpegs to be edited in Adobe After Effects. The first thing was to apply After Effects Warp Stabilizer to the image sequence. Left on the default settings, it did a great job locking down the road area of the shot. The city buildings, unfortunately, looked bad. Since we’re dealing with a 4-second exposure, the optics within the lens never stay in one place. It’s trying to keep the lens steady, but since the exposure times were long, we got motion blur along with a jumpy image. There is a plugin that is meant to fix camera shake in After Effects and Premiere. But it’s not perfect… nor is it GPU friendly. If you have a fast computer, it will still take a while to render. Only to find out it wasn’t perfect, and you’ll need to find another solution. (I found out the hard way)
The fix for the skyline was actually simple…. FREEZE IT! I searched the sequence for the sharpest image that the camera had taken, and masked out the skyline above the roadway. Using a soft feather, the two shots blended well together. Now I know what you’re thinking… freezing it doesn’t make it a time-lapse. But when it comes to salvaging duty, you do what you can to make it work, right? In order to help give the skyline some life, I removed some of the tower lights from the froze shot and composited them back on top. But with a random opacity adjustment, the lights looked like they were flickering on and off. I also added an adjustment layer with a levels adjustment, bringing up the shadows and gamma of the layer. Masking off a building, I adjusted the opacity and also randomized it going on and off. This helped to simulate some downtown life in the city center. I used this technique on few different buildings, making different levels adjustments and opacity changes for a random feel.
Once the shot was composited the way I liked it, the final touches were to clean up and add color-correction. Removing some of the unwanted noise and artifacts was the first step. I used Red Giants ‘Denoiser’ plugin. This was applied to the entire composite along with a little sharpening to bring out some of the building details. Next, I used two adjustment layers for color-correction. One for the road, and the other for the sky. I used a simple Curve adjustment to add some contrast and darken some of the shadows of road layer. For the sky and skyline, I used a very contrasty curve and boosted the blues for the night sky. This is all subjective… I wasn’t looking for a perfectly white-balanced shot. I love the blue night sky look, and to help embellish the look, I also boosted the blue levels of the curve to bring out the night sky, while removing some blue from the highlights.
Finally, adding grain back on top of the image is the finishing touch. Again, this is subjective as well. And I know what you’re saying… ‘why remove grain, then add it back?’ Well Mr. Smarty Pants, great question! Some shots can have unwanted noise in the shadows. There can also be some artifacts from jpeg compression. Using denoiser helps to clean up the overall image. But not having a final grain to add to the image can give away your secret, that part of the image of the timelapse, is, in fact, a freeze frame. Adding that grain helps convince the viewer that the time-lapse in question, consists of moving pictures. Every frame is unique, so when it’s missing grain, the viewer can notice that something is off. Most people probably won’t pick up on it.
That was essentially all it took to salvage this time-lapse. One that looked like it wasn’t fixable. It’s definitely one of my favorites, knowing how it started, it feels good to bring it back to life and have an end result that I’m proud of. Hope you guys found this useful and are motivated to possibly go back and find one of your own ‘mistakes’ that ended up on the cutting room floor. You just never know till you try!