Go-pixL https://go-pixl.com Amateur Photographer. Landscape | Astrophotography | Nature Wed, 23 Sep 2020 12:34:12 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.1 https://i1.wp.com/go-pixl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/favicon.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 Go-pixL https://go-pixl.com 32 32 139403563 Astrophotography in the city https://go-pixl.com/2020/04/28/astrophotography-in-the-city/ https://go-pixl.com/2020/04/28/astrophotography-in-the-city/#comments Tue, 28 Apr 2020 10:13:06 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=5338 Light pollution can be a nightmare for astrophotography. Anyone wanting to get the best results out of their night session would go to a place with dark skies like Wales or Exmoor. There is, however, lots of things anyone can enjoy in the night sky with just an entry-level camera, right from the heart of […]

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Astrophotography in the city

Light pollution can be a nightmare for astrophotography. Anyone wanting to get the best results out of their night session would go to a place with dark skies like Wales or Exmoor. There is, however, lots of things anyone can enjoy in the night sky with just an entry-level camera, right from the heart of a big polluted city like Bristol. It is possible and you won’t believe the results. 🙂

Lesson learned from the 2020 lock-down

As I just said, anytime I want to do an astrophotography session, I usually drive to my favourite place of all which offers extremely dark skies: Wales. The night there is extremely dark and the sky just looks amazing when there is no light pollution! The Milky Way is simply jaw-dropping:

Tintern Abbey under the Milky Way
Tintern Abbey under the Milky Way

With the COVID-19 lock-down however, travelling is no longer an option. We are limited to what we can see from our window, balcony or back-garden. I’m lucky enough to have a balcony but I thought there was no point trying to shoot the night sky from Bristol city centre. With the lock-down not coming to an end anytime soon and extremely good weather, I finally gave it a shot. I was amazed by how much I was able to do with very little equipment. This has really changed my view about astrophotography in the city so I thought I would share my experience so you could learn from it and maybe enjoy the night sky for yourself. I promise you you won’t be disappointed. All images from this point on have been taken in Bristol which is among the most light-polluted areas in the country.

Before we begin though, I should mention that this post is not intended as a tutorial on how to shoot each subject but rather a way for me to show you that anyone can enjoy astrophotography in a light-polluted city.

Equipement

You don’t need much but let’s get that out of the way first.

A camera (any camera)

The primary piece of kit you would need is any camera with manual controls. I use a 6 year-old entry-level Nikon D5300. It’s nothing fancy but as you’ll see below, you can get great results with it. Having the latest full-frame or mirrorless camera makes things easier sometimes but by no means is it required. Any camera does the trick. Even smartphones with night mode can produce incredible images nowadays.

Nikon D5300

Support (the sturdier the better)

Astrophotography involves long exposure so keeping the camera still is essential. I recommend a good tripod but if you don’t have one, you can make do with setting your camera on a table, chair, or even on your camera bag and using the build-in self timer to avoid camera shake.

Lens

Any lens can work! A good starting point would be a wide-angle lens with a large aperture (low f/ number) but some subjects can work great with a standard kit lens. I will talk about specific lenses later when we come to the different subjects you can shoot. My go-to lens is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM: an incredibly sharp and fast lens. Perfect for astrophotography.

Optional equipment

There are lots of little things that are not essential but can make your life easier. Some are very cheap, some not so much, but I find them really helpful at times:

  • Spare batteries: long exposures can really drain your batteries FAST. Having a spare or two can make your life a lot easier
  • An intervalometer: Some subjects/techniques require to take pictures at regular interval (i.e. every 3 seconds for example). Some cameras have built-in intervalometers but an external one is easier to use and they only cost ~£10 on Amazon or at your local camera shop.
  • Apps to explore the dark sky: It’s a lot easier to know what to look for outside when you can look for it in advance on your phone. I use a variety of apps for that: Stellarium (free), Star Walk 2 (free) and PhotoPills (not free) are amazing for astro and treasure-troves of information.
  • A star-tracker: this is for advanced deep-sky astrophotography only. It is not needed for regular wide-angle shots and can be expensive (~£250) but I have included it here because it opens the door to a lot more opportunities to get exiting images.

What to shoot?

Now that equipment is out of the way, let’s talk a little bit more about the type of things you can do an a light-polluted area.

Let’s get it out there first: some subjects are literally out of the picture (unfortunately). No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to get a good picture of the Milky Way within a light-polluted area. Similarly, some deep-sky objects like emission nebulae are very hard to get without expensive dedicated equipment (modified astronomy cameras, narrow-band filters, telescopes, etc.). But don’t worry, there are still lots of exiting stuff you can see and shoot. Let talk about that now.

I have ordered these subjects with the easy ones first, the one that don’t require specific gear other than the basics I mentioned above. As we go down the list, it gets a bit more tricky to get and it might require extra equipment.

Starry nightscape

One of the simplest things to shoot at night is a regular city-scape where you incorporate the night sky. This is done preferably with a wide-angle lens and with a shutter speed that is lower than 25 seconds. You can start shooting as soon as the sky is dark enough to see some stars and I would recommend shooting at the end of the blue hours (roughly 1h after sunset) where the yellow street lights blend well with the blue night sky. Obviously the middle of the night works well too. It’s just down to personal preference.

Here is an example shot of the famous Clifton Suspension bridge during the blue hours. The stars are not the main subject of the photo by any means but it really adds to the picture in my opinion. This was shot at 35mm, f/5.6, 20 sec, ISO 100

Clifton Suspension Bridge at high Tide
Clifton Suspension Bridge at high Tide

Star trails

Next on the list of easy wide-angle astrophotography in the city is star trails. This is when lots of pictures of the night sky at regular interval (i.e. a timelapse) for a long period of time. As the Earth is slowly rotating, the stars will appear like they are moving across the sky in a circle. I really like star trail images, especially when they include a nice foreground. They are technically easy to shot and an entry-level kit is more than enough for beautiful star trails.

To get a successful image, set your camera in manual mode, 30 sec exposure (or more if you have an external intervalometer with bulb mode), wide aperture (f/1.8 or as low as your lens can go), manual focus to infinity to get sharp stars, manual white balance. Take a test shot and adjust the ISO to get a good balance between foreground exposure and visible stars.

When satisfied with your settings, set your intervalometer to take pictures every 33 seconds (the 3 seconds gap is to allow the image to be written to the SD card before taking a new one) for as long as you want (or until you run out of patience, memory space or battery). Make sure your battery is full before starting because this type of shoot drains them fast. You can also use a powerbank to charge your camera if it supports USB charging (or use a dummy battery if not).

Once at home, process one of the RAW files in Lightroom (or your favourite program) to your liking, sync the edit across all files, export them as TIFFs and use a program like StarstaX (free) to combine those TIFF files into a single star-trail image.

In the end, you can get images like these. The first one is Stoke Park Estate in Bristol (shot in March 2017) and the second one is the Clifton observatory.

International Station Station Flyover

Let’s move up one notch on the difficulty scale: shooting an ISS flyover. Well, technically it is not harder to shoot than any other astrophotography subject. It’s just that you will have to figure out your composition beforehand and nail the timing perfectly to catch the ISS as a flyover only lasts a few minutes and once you press the shutter, you cannot adjust anything until it’s too late and the ISS is long gone.

So arrive early at your location of choice (or if you are still in lockdown, go out in the back garden and figure out your composition based on where the ISS will pass. There is a number of ISS detector apps to help you with that. Once you have your composition, take a few tests shots to make sure your settings are correct. You can either shoot in bulb mode or in timelapse mode. Timelapse mode is a bit more forgiving on settings but there will be gaps in the trail that you will need to clone out in post.

Once the ISS shows up, start shooting and keep shooting until the ISS is gone. If you’ve shot in bulb mode, you should get a photo with a nice bright arc across the sky. And if you’ve shot in timelapse mode, you will have to combine several shots in post to get the full arc.

Once you’re done post-processing, your image should look something like this, which is a flyover of the ISS over Blaise Castle in Bristol in March 2019.

ISS over Blaise Castle
ISS over Blaise Castle

Similarly, there are other bright satellites you can image from the City: Iridium satellites or Starlink satellite trains make great targets.

The Moon

Maybe I should have started this list with the obvious astro subject we all know: the Moon!

You can either incorporate the moon in a night time wide-angle shot of your main subject, like I did here with (again) the Clifton Suspension Bridge

The Bridge and the Moon
The Bridge under the Moon

You can go with a tighter composition and play with perspective to get the Moon behind a foreground subject (tower, building, trees, anything!). The longer the focal length, the bigger the Moon will appear compared to your foreground so you can take advantage of this to fit your vision. For example, I wanted to get a big Moon behind the Cabot Tower so I looked at PhotoPills to figure out when the Moon would pass behind the tower at an angle that would fit my composition and I got the shot. It’s worth mentioning that you might need to focus-stack two shots to get both the foreground and the Moon in focus (if it’s what you want), which is what I did here.

The Moon behind the Cabot Tower
The Moon behind the Cabot Tower

Then you can go really long with a big telephoto lens (if you have one) to get just the moon, fill the frame with it and get incredible details. The images below were shot with a 900mm lens from my balcony. The first 2 images are actual stacks of several frames. This helps reduce noise and get much more details from the surface of the Moon compared to a single shot. I use RegiStax and Autostakkert for that.

International Station Station Close-up

We talked about the ISS already, but we haven’t exhausted all types of images we can create about it. The ISS is roughly 400km above our heads and as crazy as it seems, you can get a detailed shot of the ISS if you have a big telephoto lens. You should be able to get some details of the station at focal lengths of 600mm and above.

It’s quite tricky to get however 😐 . As I said, it’s 400km away and only 108m long so being able to get some details is very tricky. I have a 600mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter. On an APS-C camera, that gives me an equivalent focal length of 1260mm! To get a successful shot, there are several things you need to do before the ISS shows up in your viewfinder.

As with other ISS shots, you need to know where it will be before it arrives so you know what/where to look for. You need to dial in your settings in advance. As it is moving fast and we have an extreme focal length, I suggest having a shutter speed faster than 1/1000sec and aperture as wide as possible. For my setup it’s only f/9.0, which means I need to increase the ISO significantly to get anything. After some experiments on stars, I settled for 1/1250sec, f/9.0, ISO 1200. You also need to use manual focus and set it to infinity in advance. I suggest focusing manually on a star or a distant bright object and lock it. If your lens has optical stabilisation, turn it on. It will help get a sharper image.

Once the ISS shows up, it can be a challenge to get it in the viewfinder. If you struggle, zoom out so it is easier to track, and then zoom back in while keeping it in the frame. Avoid touching the focus ring as you do so or it will ruin your shot. Once you have it in the frame, you can start shooting. Shoot as many frames as you can. It will increase your chances of getting a sharp shot but it will also help you pull amazing details out of those shots in post.

Having several sharp images and stacking them in post will greatly reduce the noise and help out sharpen the image further. I use the wavelet sharpening in RegiStax for that. It works really well on this type of images. In the end, this is what I got from my balcony when the ISS flew over in April 2020 (I composited some stars in the background for a better image).

ISS Close-up
ISS Close-up

Galaxies and other Deep Sky Objects

Right, on to the good stuff now: Deep Sky Astrophotography. What is that you ask? It’s the photography of distant galaxies, nebulae, planets or star clusters. I find this genre extremely exiting and even thought it’s more difficult than anything we have discussed so far, you will be exited at the results if you manage to pull it off.

To do so however, there is a piece of kit that is almost always necessary: a star tracker or an equatorial mount. It is basically something you mount your camera on which rotates in the same way the Earth rotates around its axis. It compensates for the movement of the Earth to keep the stars always in the same spot for your camera sensor. That allows for much longer exposures at greater focal lengths.

You can get a star tracker for as low as £150 (or even less second hand). I use a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Pack that I bought for £279. Here is a picture of my Deep Sky imaging setup in its main configuration: Star tracker, Nikon D5300, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG, 1.4x teleconverter, intervalometer, dew heater band and power bank all mounted on a carbon fibre tripod.

With something like this, you can get sharp 30sec exposures at 900mm or even 1 or 2 minutes if your polar alignement is good enough. The process is more complicated though, and post-processing will take a long time. Since these objects are really far away (millions of light years away for some galaxies), you need to collect a lot of data to get a good image. I usually collects between 3 and 6 hours of data to get a good signal-to-noise ratio.

Venus & Pleiades Conjunction

In April 2020, I managed to image the conjunction between Venus (the brightest object in the image) and the open Star Cluster Pleiades. It only happens every 8 years so I was really pleased to get this from my balcony.

Venus&Pleiades Conjunction
Venus&Pleiades Conjunction

Bode’s Galaxy

Galaxies are also good Deep Sky targets in light polluted areas. Unlike emission nebulae, they work quite well in the city. The first target I would consider is our closest neighbour which is the Andromeda Galaxy.

The image below is Bode’s Galaxy and it’s neighbour the Cigar Galaxy which I shot across 2 nights in late April 2020 and collected 4.5 hours of data for. Considering they are 12 million light years away, I was really pleased with the results and it really goes to show you can get incredible images from the city.

Bode's and Cigar Galaxies
Bode’s and Cigar Galaxies

The Pinwheel Galaxy

Also called M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy is another great target for Deep Sky Astro in the city. It is however fainter than all the other objects discussed before. That means it requires longer exposures and greater tracking accuracy. The image below needed 6.10 hours of total acquisition during 2 consecutive nights to get a decent image with enough details.

The Pinwheel Galaxy
The Pinwheel Galaxy M101

Conclusion

Even though I had shot astrophotography in the city before, the COVID-19 lock-down really opened my eyes to what is possible. I hope this post has opened your eyes too and that you might consider giving it a go in the future. Let me know if you do. I would really like to see what you have been shooting.

Even though some subjects cannot realistically be imaged in light-polluted areas, shooting from home comes with a lot of advantages I never thought about before.

Pros

  • You can shoot literally from home! It’s so nice not to have to travel 1h out of town to start imaging. It means you can get the most out of clear skies and it also reduces the impact on the environment.
  • Home is a really familiar place. Once you know what the night sky looks like where you live, you won’t waste precious time trying to figure out where to look or where Polaris is for exemple
  • Levelling my tripod for Deep Sky Astro on my balcony is really easy. Just extend the tripod and that’s it! No need to fiddle with each leg to get the tripod levelled like I usually have to do on uneven grounds.
  • You can do something else and leave your setup outside, imaging for the rest of the night. An entire night of imaging out in the field can be nice but it is usually cold and you get tired after a while.
  • If you combine multiple nights of shooting, you can collect a lot more data, resulting in better images. That is hard to do if you have to drive out of the city every time you shoot.

Cons

  • The obvious: light pollution. That means no Milky Way shots, no Hydrogen-alpha nebulae (unless you are using dedicated astronomy cameras) and trying to deal with it in post.
  • Temperature: City centres are usually a few degrees warmer than the countryside. While it is better for us humans, it tends to increase the sensor noise your image.

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Pictures of the Bristol 2020 WGMU https://go-pixl.com/2020/03/16/bristol-2020-winter-green-man-ultra/ https://go-pixl.com/2020/03/16/bristol-2020-winter-green-man-ultra/#respond Mon, 16 Mar 2020 14:12:46 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=5322 These are the pictures from the finish line of the Bristol 2020 Winter Green Man Ultra that has taken place on 07/03/2020. I was at the finish line until 5.25PM approximately so if you arrived before that there should be some pictures of you in there. (I might have missed the very first arrivals as […]

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WELL DONE TO ALL THE PARTICIPANTS!

These are the pictures from the finish line of the Bristol 2020 Winter Green Man Ultra that has taken place on 07/03/2020. I was at the finish line until 5.25PM approximately so if you arrived before that there should be some pictures of you in there. (I might have missed the very first arrivals as well… Sorry about that)

These are the low resolution pictures from the event. If you are interested in the high resolution version, please contact me using the contact form.

If you like these pictures, please consider following me on Facebook and Instagram.

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Go-Balloons: video of the 2018 Bristol Balloon Fiesta https://go-pixl.com/2019/02/08/go-balloons-video-bristol-balloon-fiesta/ https://go-pixl.com/2019/02/08/go-balloons-video-bristol-balloon-fiesta/#respond Fri, 08 Feb 2019 17:18:40 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=1282 The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is arguably one of the best festivals in Bristol. It is one of the biggest gathering of hot air balloons in the world and personally my favourite festival of the year in Bristol (Upfest is a close second). The short sequence of the Balloon Fiesta 2015 that appeared in my […]

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The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is arguably one of the best festivals in Bristol. It is one of the biggest gathering of hot air balloons in the world and personally my favourite festival of the year in Bristol (Upfest is a close second).

Bristol Balloons take-off during Saturday Morning’s Mass Ascent

The short sequence of the Balloon Fiesta 2015 that appeared in my previous video Go-Bristol was among the favourites judging by the comments and seeing as 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the festival, I thought it would be a good opportunity to make a short film dedicated the to Balloon festival. Here is the result:

I really hope you like the video! Ever since I moved to Bristol and attended my first ever Balloon Fiesta in 2015, I wanted to do something to showcase this wonderful event. There is something magical about the moment when all those balloons take to the sky all at once. If you like it, spread the world, share it with your friends and let’s see if we can beat the 1M+ views that my first video got last year!

Making-of

Brainstorming

This is an event which is very limited in time. It was fundamentally different than my previous video where I would just go shooting whenever I wanted. This time, I had to be prepared in order to get all the footage I needed in the 4 days of the event. I laid out all my ideas in a spreadsheet to keep things organised, try to balance everything, plan the type of shots, the locations, the schedule, and use it as a reminder during the event.

Once that was done, I realised that getting close-up footage of the balloons, the pilots and the crews would result in a much better story-telling and higher quality video. The problem is: these are restricted areas where the general public is not allowed into. I decided to contact Plaster, the company that handles media management for the event (which did a fantastic job BTW), and they very kindly agreed to grant me accreditation to enter such areas 😀 . I cannot tell you how happy I was when I received their email! This video would not have been the same without them. So to the team at Plaster and the Balloon Fiesta organisers: Thank you SO MUCH!

My official Balloon fiesta accreditation
“Official Media” wrist band: check!

New techniques

Now that the accreditation was sorted, I had to think ahead. What was my creative vision for this video? What would I want to emphasise and what tools to use to get the shots? Contrarily to Go-Bristol, I wanted to mix things up a bit and not have 100% time-lapses. I wanted it to be more diverse, look more cinematic and learn new things in the process. Adding some slow motion shots, rack focusing, some tracking shots, and all kinds of in-camera transitions would help. I am not used to shooting videos, let alone more advanced things like rack focusing so I watched and read countless tutorials and practised ahead of the big day (Thank God for the internet!).

Audio

I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted the film to look like before starting to shoot a single thing. I then focused on finding a soundtrack for the video. A good soundtrack is essential to any video. I always try to find the main soundtrack first and then edit the video to the music. It is harder to find a soundtrack to match your film once you’ve edited it.

I am not getting paid to make these videos so I always try to find a good royalty-free soundtrack. Lucky for me, the internet is full of talented creators that release incredible work out there for free. I wanted something that complements the video without drawing too much attention. I also wanted a track that slowly builds up to a dramatic slow-paced beat. Brass instruments and violins always work well for drama and I thought it would also work well with balloon shots. I sifted through hundreds of tracks and eventually found the track I wanted.

Planning

With the music sorted, I planned my shots to go with it. It’s usually not a good idea to pair calm footage with the up-tempo part of the soundtrack for instance. I decided to use the quiet intro to give some context of where is event is happening. A sunrise time-lapse of the Ashton Court Mansion, some rack-focus shots of the welcome signs, etc.

After that quiet intro, the pace and drama start to build up. I thought it would be a good time to have shots the crowd coming in to Ashton Court and drop a few hints of balloons, whether they are close-up shots of some detail on a balloon basket or B-rolls with a blurred balloon in the background. By that time, the viewer should have an idea of what this video is about and actually want to see more. That’s when the main beat drops. It’s now time to unleash the main footage and let the rest speak for itself. I don’t know if it worked and you experienced it like that but it was my intention.

With all this, I pretty much had a story board in my head ready to go. But how would I be able to capture those footage I thought of?

There was one more issue: equipment!

Because my camera is more geared towards still photography than videos, it wasn’t the best tool for the job 🙁 . I needed something that could shoot at 120FPS for smooth slow motion shots. Action cameras like Go-Pros can shoot 120 but have crazy fish eye distortion and lack the ability to use long focal length and shallow depth of field. For that, I needed a DSLR-like camera. The problem is, most DSLRs that can shoot 1080p 120FPS are really high end cameras like the Nikon D850 or the Canon 1DX Mk2. These are way out of my budget and renting one for 4 days would cost £400+. Again, I don’t get paid to make these videos so I want to keep the cost as low as I can.

Then I found out that the Sony A7III was able to shoot 120FPS (I know it’s a mirrorless camera and not a DSLR but you get my point). It has tons of features for videographers (focus peaking, IBIS, 4K, S-log profile, fast auto focus, etc) and it really is a great camera. It ticked all the boxes. All I needed now was to find somewhere to rent it from at an affordable price. I found a lovely and helpful bloke in Wales who was renting his own A7III body with a 28-70mm lens and extra batteries. Perfect! Gear sorted!

Shooting those balloons

You can prepare all you want but there are things you will never be able to control. The weather at this year’s Balloon Fiesta did not really play in our favour. Out of the 7 scheduled mass ascents, only a single one took place. The high winds of the first two days and the rain of the last one didn’t make it possible to safely fly the balloons. Bummer! But pilots were determined to put on a good show so they tethered in the arena so visitors would have something nice to see. Saturday morning’s mass ascent was INCREDIBLE! The sun was shining, the conditions were perfect so the balloons took to the sky and flew over the Clifton Suspension Bridge and towards the city. It was glorious, which is why most of the shots you see are from that day.

As for the night glows – which are my favourites – they were very nice as always. Thursday’s night glow went perfectly and Saturday’s Night glow had a twist. Because of high winds and rain (again…), it wasn’t possible to inflate the envelopes safely. So instead of just scrapping the show entirely, the pilots braved the elements and decided to go ahead and do a basket glow, which is the same as a traditional night glow but without the balloons. It is not as spectacular as a traditional night glow but it was different and I liked it! So props the pilots and organisers for doing that!

Thursday’s Night Glow

In the end I really liked shooting this video. The staff and pilots at the event were really nice to me, I met loads of new people, and visitors were very kind. It’s amazing what an accreditation can do! Suddenly, people see you as a genuine photographer who is officially part of the event and not some creepy guy taking videos of random strangers. It had a much bigger impact than I anticipated. People I shot were more relaxed than I am used to. It’s probably because this is a relaxed and family-friendly event but I’m sure the accreditation had something to do with it too.

Editing

I’m not going to describe my editing process in details but let’s just say that it took me around 3 months to edit everything in my free time. As always I started with editing the RAW time-lapses first with LRTimelapse and Adobe Ligthroom and rendered JPEG sequences. Everything else was done in DaVinci Resolve 15. Culling, editing, colour-grading, 3D rendering of the opening animation, sound effects, soundtrack editing and rendering. It was harder than my previous video because I had footage coming from 3 different cameras with very different characteristics that I needed to edit to make them blend and match each other in a visually coherent manner. I also shot at night which is very different in term of settings and post-processing. I’m obviously not a professional editor but I think I managed to pull it off so that everything seems pleasing and consistent.

As I said earlier, I only had 4 days to get the shots. That’s it! In these situation, it’s always better to shot more than you need so that you only include the best shots in the final video and you have more freedom in terms of editing. Needless to say that I took that a bit too seriously and got a little bit trigger happy. A lot of footage didn’t make the cut (I could probably do another video with what I’ve got). Just to give you some statistics, all the source footage ended up taking 369GB on my hard drive for a final 2min40 (and 589MB) video.

Acknowledgement

Several people helped me make this video come true so I would like to personally thanks them here.

First of all, the whole team behind the Balloon Fiesta. You don’t see them often but they do an amazing job behind the scene. The festival wouldn’t exist without their incredibly hard work before, during and after the event. They were super nice to me and I would not have been able to make this short film as good without them.

I also would like to thanks the person who I rented the Sony A7III from for being a top guy who made my life so much easier. Go check out his work at @loriwaitephoto on Instagram.

Lastly, a big thanks to the balloon crew members for allowing me to shoot among them, all the anonymous creators on the internet for releasing free content on the public domain for other creators to use, and the people who attended the festival for being in such a good mood (I think that shows in the film).

So Happy belated 40-years anniversary to the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta and see you in 6 months for the next one!!! 😀

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Photographing Puffins on Skomer Island https://go-pixl.com/2018/07/02/photographing-puffins-skomer-island/ https://go-pixl.com/2018/07/02/photographing-puffins-skomer-island/#respond Mon, 02 Jul 2018 16:11:56 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=1220 Taking pictures of Atlantic Puffins has been on my bucket list for a while. A few days ago I finally got the chance to do it 😀 . I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about the whole experience. If that’s on your list too, you might learn a thing or two […]

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Taking pictures of Atlantic Puffins has been on my bucket list for a while. A few days ago I finally got the chance to do it 😀 .

I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about the whole experience. If that’s on your list too, you might learn a thing or two and hopefully not make the same mistakes I did.

A bit of background information about puffins.

First of, for those of you who don’t know what Atlantic Puffins are, they are a species of migrating seabirds that is in my opinion one of the cutest birds ever! Judge for yourself:

Puffin portrait

During the breeding season (May to July), their bill becomes bright orange and they fly down in colonies to our latitudes seeking the abundance of fish to feed their chicks. The UK is lucky enough to have plenty of places and nature reserves where puffins can be found in huge numbers. The most popular places are Scotland, the Farne Islands in Northumberland and Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire.

Since I live in Bristol, Skomer Island is by far the most convenient for me. This year, the island is host to more than 31 000 puffins which makes the island VERY popular among locals, tourists and photographers.

Advice number 1: Arrive early! Really early!

As I said before, Skomer Island is a nature reserve that is only accessible by a 15min boat trip. To preserve the environment and to avoid disturbing the breeding birds too much, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales only allows a maximum of 250 people on the island for a maximum of 5 hours. As the tickets for the island are sold on a first come first served basis, you should arrive early if you want to secure yours.

The ticket office opens at 9AM and the first boat leaves at 10AM (there are 2 other boats leaving at 11 and 12). You can visit the island every day except Mondays, with the weekends being the most popular days. My plan was to go to the island on Sunday, the weather forecast was perfect and as I was already in Pembrokeshire on Saturday night, I could get to the ticket office early to make sure I would be one of the lucky 250 people to make it to the island.

I arrived at the car park around 7.20AM and I got immediately worried: the car park was already almost full… That didn’t bode well… I quickly paid for the car park, took my backpack and walked to the ticket office. That’s then it became real! There were already dozens of people queuing for a ticket. We all wanted to see the puffins on what was one of the best days of the year so far. I made my way down to the back of the queue, becoming increasingly worried that I might have showed up too late (even if it was 2.5 hours ahead of the first boat).

We patiently waited for the ticket office to open, the queue was slowly moving and we made our way into the ticket office. I was relieved they were still selling tickets, there were only 5 people in front of me, the tickets were in sight, when the women selling the tickets said to the group of 5 before me “I’m really sorry guys but we have just sold all the tickets for today…”. We all had the same look of extreme disappointment on our faces and I was so angry at myself not to have showed up just a bit earlier. We were SO CLOSE! And then the women said “Actually, I only have 1 ticket left”. Because the people before me were a group of 5, they turned it down and I was the next in line so I literally jumped on the ticket! I got the 250th and very last ticket to the island!! What an emotional roller-coaster!

Waiting for the boat.

With my ticket for the 12PM boat finally in hand, I had 2.5 hours to spare so I did a short hike along the beautiful coast and practised my panning and focusing technique on passing seagulls. As I bought this lens a few months ago, I am still not fully familiar with it and as I don’t do much wildlife photography I had to brush up on my technique. This is key for getting the best out of your camera/lens. You need to know it well, know what it can do, know what settings you will use, know how to handle the lens, etc.

Keeping a seagull in the viewfinder at 900mm is no easy feat and it takes some practice to get it right. After an hour of shooting seagulls, I was quite happy with the results. The birds were in focus, well exposed and correctly framed.

Seagull in flight

Now time to shoot some puffins!

Arriving on the island

This is it! The boat was docking on the island and there were puffins flying everywhere! I couldn’t help but smile as it was the first time I saw puffins with my own eyes and they look really cute and a little clumsy.

Puffin in the meadow

Before we were allowed to walk around the island, we all got a briefing from the Wildlife Trust warden about what types of birds are on Skomer, how many there are, what to do and what not to do to avoid disturbing the birds or damaging burrows, etc.

After that, we were free to go. Exciting!

Puffins everywhere!

Literally EVERYWHERE! Many were nesting a few feet away from the footpath, they were flying in and out of the burrows, going out to the sea to catch fish (mostly sand eels, herring, hake and capelin) and bring them back to feed their chicks. Puffins have the same partner for their whole life, so when one is out to sea to get fish, the other one stands next to the burrow to keep an eye out for predators and protect their pufflings.

Loving couple

On the ground, puffins are relatively easy to photograph. Even though they are only 15/20cm tall, they are not afraid of humans (as they know we are not a threat to them) so you will eventually see some of them approach you in a lovely but clumsy way. You don’t even need a telephoto! They get close enough to shoot with a wide-angle lens.

Here are a few of the ground shot I took.

The difficult bit

Photographing puffins in flight on the other hand, is a totally different ball game! I know my camera quite well and I had practised on seagulls just an hour earlier but puffins are a lot harder to shoot! They are smaller than seagulls, they fly faster and in a more erratic way. That makes it a real challenge to keep the bird in the viewfinder for long enough to focus properly and shoot. I took SOOOO many blurry pictures where the bird was out of focus… They looked like this (or worse):

Blurry puffin

There are 2 explanations for this: my technique and my gear.

I am not an expert in bird photography and panning the camera smoothly enough to follow the puffin in flight is a lot harder than it sounds, especially at extreme focal lengths like 600mm or 900mm (I shot with my D5300 paired mostly with my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM). The slightest movement and you can lose sight of the subject. For the first 2 hours, 98% of my flying shots were crap, but the success rate slightly improved as I got used to their flying pattern and got better at panning the lens around to follow the birds.

That’s when another problem kicked in. You see, I work out and I am used to holding a heavy DSLR but after hand holding a big telephoto up to my face for 2 hours trying to keep it as steady as possible, it started to feel heavy. My shoulders were aching so I took a brake and used my much lighter Nikon 70-300mm for a while. It doesn’t have the reach of the Sigma but it is much easier to handhold and I got some really nice shots with it.

Puffin looking out to Sea

Reaching the limit of my gear for the first time

The most challenging situation that day was trying to shoot birds in flight coming straight towards me at high speed. When I managed to get the bird centered in the viewfinder for long enough, I was frustrated not to be able to get to shot because my camera and lens were not fast enough to keep the subject in focus as it flew towards me. My camera has a maximum burst rate of 4FPS which is too slow for this type of photography. On top of this, my lens would often lose focus even though I was in continuous single point auto-focus with 3D tracking.

This was very frustrating because it was the first time in my life that I felt like my equipement was holding me back.

As most photographers, I too am sometimes prone to what we call GAS (short for Gear Acquisition Syndrome). We are always drooling at the latest £3000 pro body or the best lens thinking it is going to make our pictures look way better. But most of the time, it is not and we are just fooling ourselves thinking the latest camera is instantly going to make us better photographers. Even the mid-range consumer cameras are good enough to take amazing pictures and whenever I feel the urge to buy a new camera, I go on Flickr and search for pictures that other photographers took with the same camera I have. This always makes me realise that other people out there are way better than I am with the same equipment so buying a new camera would actually be a waste of money. I just need to get better and learn to squeeze all the potential my camera has to offer.

This time though, it was different. There is nothing else I could have done better to get the camera to focus quickly enough on the subject. This is because that situation is one of the most demanding for any camera and you need to have a really good focusing system. Sure, you might get lucky once every 100 frames and get one that is acceptably sharp but it won’t get much better than this.

The only times I manage to get sharp images of a puffin in flight was when the bird was flying parallel to me and staying roughly at same distance (i.e. constant plane of focus). Because this is much less demanding for the camera, I was able to get a few nice shots.

One more Rookie mistake

As i said, we had perfect conditions to shoot. It was really sunny and warm. Since I was focused on taking pictures (pun intended), I didn’t even notice that I was getting roasted alive by the Welsh sun before it was too late (it’s not a legend, it does exists 😉 )… I forgot to bring sunscreen with me and there is not a single tree on Skomer Island to get in the shade. Lucky for me, I had a cheich (Tuareg scarf) that I used to cover myself as much as I could to limit the damage. So it might seem obvious but do not forget to bring sunscreen and water with you!

Conclusion

  • I had an amazing day. Skomer Island and Pembrokeshire are beautiful. The coastline is gorgeous. Even if puffins aren’t your thing (Seriously! What is wrong with you! 😉 ), the South West of Wales is very nice and if you are lucky, you might see a few seals floating around, taking the sun:
Seal in Skomer Island
  • Puffins really are incredible! It was the first time I saw them with my own eyes and I can tell you I left the island with a big smile on my face. They made my day!
  • Arrive at the ticket office really early (earlier than you think) and have a plan B in case you don’t make it to the island.
  • Pack sunscreen, water and snacks
  • Be prepared to fail. You cannot control what the animals do and you have to work with the environment. Even if you have planned everything like I did, you will not get all the shots you want, unless you have a lot of experience with bird photography and the gear necessary to keep up with them.

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Making a DIY time-lapse and video slider https://go-pixl.com/2018/04/12/making-a-diy-time-lapse-slider/ https://go-pixl.com/2018/04/12/making-a-diy-time-lapse-slider/#comments Thu, 12 Apr 2018 15:36:43 +0000 http://go-pixl.com/?p=107 Here is a lengthy article about why I made my own custom DIY time-lapse slider, how I made it, tuned it, refined it and now use it. How it all started I really enjoy how time-lapse videos look. They are beautiful and they convey a sense of movement is a way still photography cannot. Most […]

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Here is a lengthy article about why I made my own custom DIY time-lapse slider, how I made it, tuned it, refined it and now use it.

How it all started

I really enjoy how time-lapse videos look. They are beautiful and they convey a sense of movement is a way still photography cannot. Most of the time, they are shot from a static point of view (i.e. the camera sits on top of a tripod) and the movement in the final time-lapse only comes from the moving elements in the frame (clouds, people, cars, the sun, etc.).

To make it a bit more interesting and dynamic, it is possible to also move the camera while shooting, giving you the possibility to rotate the camera or play with perspectives. This is what really makes a good sequence look more professional.

I am always trying to get better at what I do, learn new techniques, and get better-looking results so I really wanted to get this kind of shots. I had a look at the equipment needed to get those shots. That’s when I realised why they are hard to get and why they look so  professional: you need proper professional equipment… I am talking really expensive and bulky gear that would set me back hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars… That was a bummer!

Why is this so expensive? It’s just moving the camera, right? The problem when moving the camera while doing a time-lapse is that the movement needs to be small and very precise between each shot, and the system needs to be very stable not to introduce camera shake. A human cannot get to this level of accuracy which is why every solution out there is computer-controlled or automated in some way. We’re talking sliding a few millimetres at a time or rotating the camera by a fraction of a degree precisely between each shot.

What exists out there

The most common time-lapse movements are rotating the camera or sliding the camera.

To rotate the camera there are devices that you put between the tripod and the camera like the Genie Mini from Syrp or the Radian 2 from Alpine Labs. These devices are battery powered and have a small motor you can control via an app on your phone to rotate your camera.

The same principle exists for sliding the camera. There are sliders with a moving platform powered by a small motor. Syrp also makes one of these, the Magic carpet. Other examples include the SliderPlus from Edelkrone or the Slider EVO from Rhino.

There was no way I would spend that kind of money, so I decided to look around and see if DIY solutions existed. I know the internet is full of creative people that must have been in the same situation before. I few Google searches later I found some promising DIY projects but none of them addressed everything I wanted to do, so I decided to combine a few of these projects and take them further.

My own build

Specs

Here is a list of the main features I wanted to have:

  • Sliding motion
  • Panning motion
  • Battery powered
  • Easy to configure on the field
  • As sturdy as possible

Mechanics

This was the most challenging part for me to build. I live in a small apartment with no workbench and limited tools so I had to do with what I had. It wasn’t easy at times but it worked out pretty well in the end.

Most of the mechanical parts of the slider are based off a DIY camera slider from DIY Perks who made a great tutorial on YouTube. I modified his design to make a motorised slider with a timing belt.

Instead of copper pipes, I chose to use curtains rods from IKEA as they are cheaper, have greater tensile strength, and are already painted black. I might switch to carbon fibre tubes in the future if I decide I want the slider to be even stiffer than it is now.

It started off like this:

The start of the timelapse slider

I took my time during the winter months to slowly build it up. The first version did not have panning capabilities and used MDF for the platform. It turned out not to be stiff enough as the weight of the camera combined with the sliding motion would make the whole thing wobble way too much for me to correct in post. It is probably OK for a small camera or a GoPro but not for a DSLR and a big heavy lens. As I was already thinking about version 2.0, I added that to the list of things to improve. Here is a few pictures of what V1.0 looked like

For V2.0, I added the panning capability and addressed the wobbling issue. As mentioned earlier, I used another motor to rotate a platform that would sit on top of a 120mm Lazy Susan bearing. This bearing gives good support to the platform while enabling smooth rotation.

To address the wobbling, I redesigned the whole platform using carbon fibre plates instead of MDF. It was a lot harder to cut, drill and file but it was worth it. The whole thing is as stiff as it can be, it is much more durable and looks better than the MDF version.

While doing the mechanical side, I also experimented with the electronics to decide which solution was the best.

Electronics

I chose to use a 12V rechargeable battery pack with enough capacity to run a time-lapse for a few hours. You can find them for a few quid on Amazon or eBay.

As the output of the battery is not stable enough as the battery discharges, I connected 2 LM2596 DC-DC Buck Converters, one for a 5V supply to power the Raspberry Pi and the display, one 10V supply to power the H-bridge and the motors. These are adjustable, small, very cheap and reliable enough to power the Raspberry Pi without risking frying it. On that note, I chose to power the Pi via GPIO pins 2 and 6 instead of using the recommended micro-USB port as I didn’t want to have anything plugged into the ports (other than the GPIO interface). Doing this is a bit more risky as it bypasses the supply fuse found on the micro-USB line so there is no short-circuit protection, but I was OK with it as the LM2596 has a built-in output current limiter that should hopefully kick in if needs be.

For the motor driver, I went for a L298N Dual H-Bridge motor driver as it can easily drive 2 DC motors using the GPIO pins of the Raspberry Pi.

For the motors, I hesitated a long time between stepper motors and DC motors. Stepper motors have better accuracy and torque but I wasn’t sure the minimum angle (step) would be precise enough for the movements I was going for without requiring external bulky reductors, so I went with DC motors of 10 RPM for the slider motor and 0.6 RPM for the rotating motor. I could tweak the power supply or use PWM to adjust the speed of each one as needed.

For the shutter release circuit for my Nikon camera, it is simple enough to build one. I had a few resistors and 2N2222A transistors lying around so it was just a matter of connecting things up to the focus and release wires of my camera using a prototyping board.

Here is a quick&dirty diagram of the electronics.

Electronics Diagram of DIY Timelapse Slider

And here is a view of the ABS box that holds all the electronics and the sliding motor.

Timelapse Slider Electronics

User Interface

This is arguably the most important part of any system from a user point of view. You can have the best system in the world with the best features, but if it has a rubbish user interface, it is seriously crippled. To me the best way to check and control the system was to use a touchscreen.

I looked online for touchscreens that would be compatible with the GPIO interface of the Pi and would still leave some GPIO pins accessible for me to connect the rest of pins to the motors and shutter release circuit. I found a cheap one on Amazon with a 3.5 inches LCD touchscreen and a 480×320 resolution. It’s far from HD quality but good enough for my simple UI.

I spent quite some time designing the user interface. I wanted it to be practical in the field and nice to look at. It doesn’t hurt does it ? 😉

As I have never designed a UI before, it was quite a trial and error process but I got there eventually. I used Affinity Designer to make it and here is a screen shot of the process.

UI Screenshot DIY Timelapse Slider

Here are some screenshots of the different screens I have created to control every aspect of the time-lapse:

Programming

Now that the system had a skeleton, muscles, eyes and a pretty face (OK, OK, I got carried away here), it needed a brain to make it all work. That’s were the programming comes in.

The program is written in Python using the Pygame UI library and WiringPi to control the GPIO pins. I used the code of a similar project called LapsePiTouch by David Hunt as a starting point. I modified the code to adapt it to my new UI, I added new configuration parameters to finely control every aspect of my system, added some feedback to the user to see how the system is behaving and I added multi-threading capabilities to be able to run multiple things in parallel. The main program controls the UI and spawns the main thread that runs the time-lapse. This thread spawns one thread for the sliding motion, one for the rotation, and one to drive the display back-lighting (it turns out my display does not support turning the back-lighting off but the thread is coded in case I switch to a better display in the future). All these threads communicate via global variables (I know, it’s not a great coding practise) and built-in inter-process communication for synchronisation points.

Making it even better

At that point the slider was working and I was very happy with it. A few days later, I realised that my Raspberry Pi 3 had WiFi capabilities and a bright light bulb went up in my head. How cool would it be to use the WiFi to connect to my system and control it remotely using my smartphone?

I was really excited about this. This was the feature that would make that thing on par with professional equipment. And the best part is, it wouldn’t cost me a penny other than figuring out how to make it work and spending time configuring everything.

The easiest way to do it was to use VNC to connect to the Pi. By default, the Pi connects to my home WiFi network so it is just a matter of running a VNC server on the Pi and connect to it via my home WLAN. It’s all well and good but it doesn’t work on the field where I have no WiFi network to connect to.

The solution was to write a small script that would run when the Pi boots and scans all the available networks. If my home network is in reach, it would connect to it and if not, it would create its own access point so that I could connect my smartphone directly to the Raspberry Pi WiFi hotspot. Once done, I always had a way to connect to the Pi and remotely control my system. Very cool and practical!

I could have written a dedicated app instead of “just” using a remote VNC connection but the time I would have spent on this was not worth it in my opinion.

As everything else, it did not work at first but I persevered and managed to make it work. Now I have time-lapse slider I can remotely control with my phone or tablet, check the status when capturing a time-lapse, and abort it if needed.

It turns out that this feature is absolutely necessary for something I did not anticipate before trying it in the field. You see, I used a cheap touch-screen that has very limited contrast and luminosity. It is OK in most cases, but when using it on a very bright day, the screen appears completely black and I cannot see a thing on the screen. Because smartphone screens are of way better quality I can still see something on it in the same conditions. So when it’s too bright outside, which admittedly doesn’t happen very often in the UK, I use my smartphone to control the slider.

Video Slider update (June 26th, 2020)

I have been thinking about how the slider could be used for shooting video instead of time-lapse for a little while. Because of the specific move-stop-shoot-move behaviour required to get perfectly sharp pictures suitable for a time-lapse, the slider is not very suited for video use. The hardware is all there but the controls are not and you would end up with very jerky footage.

A recent comment from SCOTT was all I needed to motivate myself to update the code to enable that use case. I have spent a few hours updating and testing the code, updating the UI to reflect the new video mode and I am happy to report that I have got something that works and the slider can now be used to shoot video.

What I did is create a separate video thread that smoothly controls the motors and that’s it. Well, technically it was not that simple 😉 . To still be able to control the speed of each motor, I switched the sliding motor control to PWM control. The panning motor was already using PWM so there were no modifications needed there. Unfortunately, all the hardware-PWM GPIO pins are already in use 😐 . As I didn’t want to rewire the GPIO pins to support hardware-PWM on the sliding motor, I decided to use software-PWM. While a bit less accurate than hardware-PWM, it can be implemented on any digital GPIO pin. The accuracy is not really an issue for the motor control and after some testing, it seemed to work great so I went ahead and modified the main Python code.

As I didn’t want to modify the main time-lapse feature, I decided to change the UI to show it as a completely different mode on the start screen (even though the code underneath reuses most of the existing features).

When selecting “New Video” on the start screen, you are now presented with the same sliding and panning controls as the time-lapse feature with a slight difference: while the motor controls in time-lapse mode are a pulse in millisecond, it doesn’t make sense for a video so I changed that to a “motor speed” which is now a percentage (from 0% to 100%). Setting the speed to 50 will make the motor move at 50% of the maximum speed. I’ve put some safe-guards in the code to cap the input value at 100 in case the user enters a greater value by mistake.

I have removed the first screen where you would set the number of frames and the interval between each frame because it doesn’t make any sense for a video. I have also removed all shutter controls in video mode because the external shutter release on my camera only works in photo mode. So you would need to press record before starting the slider and stop it manually at the end but that shouldn’t be an issue. Every other control and feature stays the same.

I have updated the downloadable archive with the latest code and icons. I hope you enjoy this new feature and make good use of it. 🙂

The finished slider

Here are some pictures of the finished project in its environment:

It was a lot of fun to do and it kept me busy during the winter months. The whole thing cost me around £150, which is way cheaper than anything similar on the market.

With it, I was able to capture much more interesting time-lapses, some of them can be seen in this time-lapse of Bristol.

Download link

If you want to re-use my code for your own slider, I created an archive with all the code and resources to run the controller. I have also added templates of all the Raspbian configuration files that I modified to make the whole thing work and a list of the external packages I needed to install. You can download it here:

Room for improvements

I have been using this system for more than a year now, and there are a few things I could improve to make it even better,

Build precision

I built the whole thing in my flat with a very limited set of tools. On top of that, materials like carbon fibre are notoriously hard to cut or drill. Even with all the accuracy I could muster, some of the build could be more precise and accurate. A real workbench and a vice would have help me a lot but I didn’t have those. Ideally, cutting all the parts using a CNC machine would be perfect but the cost of those was too much for me. In the end, the slider is very strong and stable (as Theresa would say 😉 ) but there is a bit of wiggle room in the rotating platform. It would have been nice to get rid of it but it’s not a big issue and I can deal with it in post-processing.

Motion accuracy

I used DC motors for all the moving parts. They are more flexible to work with and smaller but they are less accurate than stepper motor. If I had to do it again, I would probably use stepper motor for the sliding motor. I couldn’t use a stepper motor for the rotating platform without some sort of reductor to be able to get a very precise angle. The problem with this solution is that a stepper motor attached to a reductor would be too big to fit on under the platform without some clever mechanical design that I cannot achieve myself.

Safety

This is something I didn’t think of when building the slider but it wasn’t long until I realised a flaw in my design when using it for the first time. There is no limit switch on the slider. It means that If I don’t set up the time-lapse correctly, there is a possibility that the platform can hit the end of the slider and damage it. I am planning to add 2 limit switches so that the slider stops itself (or goes back in the opposite direction) when it reaches one end of the slider. The source code is ready for this. I just need to find a good way to add those switches to the platform.

Updated 25/07/2018: As I will soon need to shoot a time-lapse while leaving the slider unattended, I decided it was time to add limit switches to the existing slider to avoid damaging it. Here is how I did it:

I cut two thin pieces of wood of approximately 8cm long and 1.5cm tall that would fit between the rails without touching the platform. One end of each piece has a bevelled edge. This is very important so that when the limit switch is hit, the slider can still travel for a few cm without hitting the end of the rail. That way, I was able to implement an easy in/out movement. The resulting time-lapse would be much more aesthetically pleasing than if the slider stopped abruptly when hitting the switch.

I painted those pieces of wood black and glued them at each end of the rail and glued 2 limit switches underneath the sliding platform. I made sure the system was symmetric at each end. I drilled a hole through the carbon fiber platform and the ABS Box holding the electronics to pass the wires into the box so that all electrical connections are protected from the outside world. That’s the mechanical side done. After that, I connected the output of each switch to a GPIO pin of the Raspeberry Pi (while I connected the common contact of the switches to the ground of the system). I configured those 2 GPIO pins to use the internal pull-up resistors. This way, I can connect them straight to the Pi without requiring external resistors. Neat!

After this I modified the code so that the slider stops after hitting the switches. When coding it, I decided to add new configuration parameters to control the behaviour of the system when one of  the switch is hit. I added the possibility to either directly stop the slider or have a configurable ease in/out movement. In my opinion, an ease in/out option leads to much better time-lapses. I also added the ability for the slider to go back in the opposite direction once reaching the end of the slider. This way, I can leave it loop indefinitely without risking it being destroyed. I also added a couple of error and diagnostics message so that the user knows what’s happening at any time. I have updated the downloadable archive with the new code and updated UI/icons.

Display

As I said earlier, I used a cheap display for my slider. It is fine in most situations but it is impossible to see a thing in bright conditions. I might upgrade the touchscreen in the future for one that has better contrast. It would also be nice to be able to control the screen back-lighting. This way, I could switch off the screen while the time-lapse is running to save power and limit the reflection in my camera.

Software

There are many improvements that can be added to the code. I might add a few more configuration options in the future. Here are a few things I thought about:

  • Being able to set keyframes with different speeds between them
  • Add the ability to have ease-in or ease-out movements
  • Use Bezier curves for more creative control of the speed of each motor
  • Connect the camera via USB and display EXIF data and histogram on the fly while the time-lapse is running

Some improvements are easier than others but the good thing about software improvements is that it doesn’t cost a thing. I just need time to code them.

Removable platform

Right now, the slider is not modular. I cannot remove the rotating platform even if I don’t plan to use it. The same thing is true for the sliding motion. For example, I might want to shoot a time-lapse with rotation motion only. As of today, I cannot remove the platform from the slider and fix it to my tripod. That means I have to bring the whole slider with me even if I don’t need the slider. I might modify the platform in the future to be able to do this.

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Go-Bristol: A time-lapse video of the City of Bristol https://go-pixl.com/2018/04/12/go-bristol-time-lapse/ https://go-pixl.com/2018/04/12/go-bristol-time-lapse/#comments Thu, 12 Apr 2018 16:35:56 +0000 http://go-pixl.com/?p=80 This is it! More than 2 years in the making, it is finally here! My take on the City of Bristol which has been my home for more than 3 years now. A time-lapse video entitled Go-Bristol. Long story short My intention was to show Bristol at its best, its iconic landmarks and what to […]

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This is it! More than 2 years in the making, it is finally here! My take on the City of Bristol which has been my home for more than 3 years now. A time-lapse video entitled Go-Bristol.

Long story short

My intention was to show Bristol at its best, its iconic landmarks and what to me represents the city and its people. Basically, 2 years in 3 minutes.

This “little” project took a very long time to come to life. Doing this in my spare time, waiting for the right conditions to shoot, and the sheer amount of work and time needed to shoot and edit each individual sequence is why it took so long (and maybe my lack of dedication 😉 ). The keen eyes will actually spot a few things I shot months ago that no longer exist.

There is a lot more to discover in Bristol than what’s in this video but I wanted to keep it short. There are also some places I wanted to showcase but for which I did not have/get the necessary authorisations to shoot (the drawback of being an amateur photographer with no credentials). Maybe I will create another time-lapse showing other beautiful areas of Bristol that shows a broader picture of our city but didn’t make it in the first one.

I hope it does justice to the vibrant city that is Bristol and I hope you like the final result, my first ever time-lapse video. Give it a thumbs up and share it if you do.

Technical details

Everything was shot with a Nikon D5300 paired with a Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, a Nikon 18-140mm f/4.5-5.6 or a Nikon 50mm f/1.8.

This video is made of 20100 RAW pictures (465 GB), individually processed in LRTimelapse and Adobe Lightroom. The processed pictures were then imported, colour-graded and put together in DaVinci Resolve and rendered in 4K UltraHD at 30FPS. Some sequences required extra steps in Affinity Photo or Adobe After Effects. The whole process generated 1138 GB of temporary data.

It took more than 23 hours to capture the original photos and literally hundreds of hours of post-processing and rendering.

Despite all these big numbers, the final video is only 3 minutes long for a 6.3GB file.

Hang on! What’s a Time-lapse video?

Time-lapse photography is a technique where you take many pictures of a scene at regular interval (say, a few seconds apart) and combine them afterwards so that each shot makes up a frame of a video. As a video is usually shot at 24 or 30 frames per second, it has the effect of speeding up the scene, making any slow movement (like the clouds moving in the sky, people walking, etc.) appears a lot faster. If you want more details on the subject, Wikipedia is here for you.

The full story

Getting started

As a photographer, I am always amazed whenever I come across great time-lapse videos. They have been a trend for a while now, and rightly so, They look amazing, they often have this WOW factor that really makes the subject stand out and they somehow have a kind of relaxing and soothing effect on me. They have this dynamic and cinematic feel that is hard to translate in still photography. In fact, this is where photography meets cinematography, yet all you need to make a basic time-lapse is a camera (or a smartphone) and patience. LOTS of it!

As I already had the necessary equipment and I am always trying new things I thought I would give it a whirl. All I needed now was a great subject. I decided to head down to the Bristol Marina and shoot my first ever sequence near The Cottage Inn, looking up at the colourful houses of Cliftonwood and Hotwells across the floating harbour. I really liked the experience, taking my time to capture the clouds moving, the boats passing by, etc. It was totally different from the kind of photography I was used to.

Later that day, I came back home, transferred the 300 shots on my computer and tried to make an actual time-lapse video out of it. That’s when I discovered that making a great time-lapse video is way harder than it looks. There were so many things wrong with it! My framing was off, my composition was not great, I used the wrong settings on my camera, I accidentally hit my tripod while shooting and so on. It was beyond anything I could recover in post-processing (which is why it didn’t make it to the Go-Bristol final time-lapse).

Keeping it up

That did not discouraged me to try again. As with anything, the key to success is studying and practising. I watched countless online tutorials and articles. Each time I went out and shot, I learnt something new, each little sequence came out better and better and so did my post-processing skills. Before all this, I was no stranger to post-processing my images, but doing this for time-lapses is very different. The first steps are quite similar to what I usually do for still photography but real video-editing techniques (story telling, colour-grading, transitions, sound effects, etc.) were new to me.

As my technique grew stronger so did my confidence, so I started to shoot more complex scenes like sunrises and sunsets. I find them really beautiful, but BOY did they tested my patience to the limit! You see, when you take a single picture of a sunrise, you just need to turn up 20 minutes before it, setup your camera, shoot, pack up and go grab a coffee to warm you up. Easy peasy!

Shooting a time-lapse of a sunrise is way more complicated. They are sometimes referred to as “Holy-grail time-lapse” because they are much harder to achieve. Why? First, because you need to be there before anything interesting happens, which means when it is still dark (and usually in Bristol, cold and windy). Secondly, a sunrise is a rather slow process which spans over an hour or more so you have to be on location for at least an hour and a half. And to top it all up, the light changes constantly during a sunrise or sunset so you cannot setup your camera and let it fire away for an hour while you run around in circles in a desperate attempt to keep your body temperature from plummeting. No no no! You have to stay there, check your camera settings and adjust them every five minutes as the light changes. This sounds daunting (and it is) but MAN is it satisfying to manage to capture a beautiful sunrise!

Kicking things up a notch

After a while, my time-lapses were looking OK, but I am a perfectionist and I felt like there was still something missing. I wanted them to feel more dynamic, more cinematic. One way to achieve this is to move the camera while shooting. Things like panning motions, sliding, playing with perspectives, etc. look better than a static point of view. But again, it’s more complicated than it sounds. Doing this for a time-lapse requires special equipment like a very precise motion-controlled slider and rotating head that only moves a few millimetres/degrees between each shot. A quick look online and the hammer dropped: this was WAY out of my budget.

I never back down from a challenge and I am quite good at DIY so I decided to make my own motion-controlled camera slider and panning head. It took me a while and 2 trials to get it right but I did manage to make my own for a fraction of the cost of anything equivalent on the market. I have written a separate blog post about how I built the slider but that’s what the finished product looks like, and it served me well!

Time-lapse Slider in Cliftonwood

With it, I was finally able to get the desired look I was going for.

The rest of it was planning, shooting, post-processing, repeat.

Personal growth

This personal project has really been a rewarding experience for me. I have learned a lot and grew stronger as a photographer, I discovered beautiful places around Bristol I never knew existed and it gave me the opportunity to interact with many, many people.

Shooting time-lapses has all the benefits of landscape photography but you get to meet a lot more people and engage with them. When I am out shooting time-lapses, I often bring lots of equipment: tripods, my custom slider, and of course my camera bag with lenses, filters, batteries and more. Needless to say that it gets you noticed. People are intrigued about all this gear. Most just pass by and wonder what it’s all about. However some people were curious enough to reach out to me and ask me directly “What are you doing?”, “What’s all this?”, “Are you making a movie?”, “Who are you doing this for?”.

This was usually the start of an interesting conversation with people I never would have met otherwise. I got to know them a little and we shared a conversation and ideas even if it was only for a brief moment. I also had more technical questions like “Are you shooting a time-lapse?” or “Is that a motion-controlled slider?” which often came from fellow photographers or creators with whom I shared creative thoughts.

I met many people from the neighbourhoods I was shooting in: a lovely curious old lady passing through the park on her way back from the shop who reminded me of my grand-mother, a young guy from Colorado who was visiting Bristol for a few days who asked me for local tips, a film producer from Manchester, teenagers who asked my if I had a studio, a family from Grimsby visiting Bristol for the first time who thought the other side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge (i.e. Leigh Woods) was part of Wales, and many more. We talked, we shared, we laughed.

I could go on and on. The point is, when I started this project 2 years ago, I never thought it would bring me this much on so many levels!

Update and Feedback (Feb 2019)

This video has been up for almost a year now and the feedback that I got from it has been amazing and exceeded all my expectations. When I made it public, I was proud of it – the first video I ever made – but I never expected it to do this well.

In total, it was viewed more than a million times (probably closer to 1.2M) from people all over the world. Articles where written about it on Bristol24/7, BBC News, BBC Radio Bristol, ITV, The University of Bristol, Bristol TV, etc. It made the #5 spot in the top 10 most read stories of 2018 on Bristol24/7.

The video was also selected by the producers at We The Curious to be broadcast to the public on the Big Screen at Millennium Square. Needless to say I was rather proud of it:

Go-Bristol showing on the Big Screen at Millennium Square
Go-Bristol showing on the Big Screen at Millennium Square

There were so many nice comments from people on Social Media. People that were born in Bristol but now live elsewhere, people that lived in Bristol at one point in their lives, people from Bristol, etc. I read most of them and I felt honoured about what people had to say about the video. The kind of emotions this little video made people feel is why I made it in the first place. Thank you to everyone who watched, liked, commented, shared and appreciated the video!

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Coming back to Iceland: A side by side comparison https://go-pixl.com/2018/02/20/coming-back-to-iceland/ https://go-pixl.com/2018/02/20/coming-back-to-iceland/#comments Tue, 20 Feb 2018 10:26:15 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=1056 Iceland, 1.5 years later. A side-by-side comparison of how the seasons and the weather can have a huge impact on your travel experience and your photography. Falling in love with Iceland I first travelled to Iceland for a holiday in September 2016. I went for a road trip around the island and I was amazed […]

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Iceland, 1.5 years later. A side-by-side comparison of how the seasons and the weather can have a huge impact on your travel experience and your photography.

Falling in love with Iceland

I first travelled to Iceland for a holiday in September 2016. I went for a road trip around the island and I was amazed by how beautiful and unusual this place was. It was like nothing I have ever seen before: rocks, volcanoes, glaciers, icebergs, waterfalls, northern lights, etc. No wonder why this place is considered as Heaven for landscape photographers! I could go on for hours about my experience there but that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I will just share a picture of that trip. This is Skógafoss under the northern lights, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Iceland. If you want to see more pictures from that trip, there are a few in my landscape portfolio and on my Instagram feed.

Auroras over Skogafoss, Iceland

At the end of this first trip, waiting at Keflavik Airport for my flight back to Bristol, I was going through the pictures I had taken and could not believe all the things that I had seen in such a limited time. I went to some amazing places in my life but there is something different about Iceland, something I cannot really explain. At that moment, I decided that I wanted to see more of what this magical country had to offer and as The Terminator famously once said, I said to myself “I’ll be back!“, some day. Maybe in 6 months, maybe in 10 years, but I’ll be back!

2017 was an amazing year for me. It was filled with incredible travel experiences around the world. I went to Scotland, Corsica, Portugal (twice), Kenya, Tanzania and I am not mentioning the various weekend trips around the UK. Needless to say that I had run out of days off long before the end of the year. 🙂

I said I’ll be back!

Without any holidays left for me to travel in 2017, I started thinking about my first holiday of 2018. Where would that be? It wasn’t long before Iceland popped up in my head so I decided I would go back in January 2018. This way, I would be able to see the difference between the summer period of my last trip and the winter time of this one. This time around, it would only be a 5-day trip so I had to make the most of it.

It was an opportunity to discover some places I didn’t have time to visit the first time, but also to go back to the same place and see how different they would be in the winter. A picture is worth a thousand words so I thought it would be a fun idea to go back to the exact same spot where I took some of my 2016 pictures, put the tripod at the exact same place, with the same composition and compare the two. Let’s see how the seasons and the weather can affect the mood of an image.

Summer vs. Winter

Skógafoss

I’ll start with one of the most iconic waterfalls in the country, Skógafoss. A powerful 60m waterfall in South East Iceland.

Skogafoss Summer vs. Winter

As you can see the scene looks very different even though it’s been taken in exactly the same place, both in the late afternoon. The winter shot was taken on an overcast day which gives it a flatter look compared to the summer shot that has the shadows of the sun and obviously a lot more colours.

Gullfoss

Next up, another beautiful waterfall, Gullfoss. This is a 32m waterfall with an average flow rate of 140 m3/s. The pictures don’t really give you a sense of scale but I can tell you: this is HUGE! In fact, if you look at the winter image you can see some people standing on the snow near the water in the top left corner. This should give you an idea of how big it is.

Gullfoss in September 2016Gullfoss in January 2018

If you haven’t noticed, there is a slider in the middle of the image that you can move to compare both shots The two images are dramatically different but I like them both. I like the colours of the summer image but the huge chunks of ice formed by waterfall’s mist gives the winter shot a lot of impact.

Road to Skatafell

The next place I happened to go back to was Skatafell, one of Iceland’s numerous glaciers. When I went there the first time, I remember I took a shot on the road to the glacier so I thought I should try to stop at the same place and see how the photos would look.

Road to Skatafell in the Winter

On top of the different seasons, these two pictures where taken at very different times. The summer one was taken around noon, the sun was bright and high in the sky. The winter shot however, was taken in the blue hours, soon after sunset, which gives some of the clouds this orange/reddish glow. Again, very different but I like them both a lot.

Mountain near Kálfafell

OK, I confess. This last comparison is not really fair. Not only it is a comparison between a night shot and a day shot but on top of that, the summer shot shows some amazing Auroras and a shooting star. It is very hard to top that! Nevertheless, I thought it was good to show you how different the same location can look at different times.

Mountain near Kálfafell in the summerMountain near Kálfafell in the winter

What do you think?

Wrapping things up

This was a fun little thing to do. It shows how different the same location can look at different times, how the seasons, the lighting and the weather can have a dramatic impact on landscape photography.

If there is something I have learned from that trip is that no matter how many times you have been to a place, it will always look different every time you go. That is the beauty of landscape photography. Even at the same spot with the same composition, the season, the light, the time of the day or the weather all play a huge role and will definitely make your image look different. It can be a problem if you are looking for a very particular feel but most of the time it will work in your favour.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to explore new places. I love it too, but there is nothing wrong with going back to the same place times and times again. It might even open your eyes to something you didn’t notice before.

With that said, I hope you liked reading this post as much as I did writing it and shooting the pictures. I hope that it will make you want to visit Iceland. Regardless of when you decide to go, I can guarantee you that you will have a wonderful time.

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Let’s start the adventure! https://go-pixl.com/2018/01/20/lets-start-adventure/ https://go-pixl.com/2018/01/20/lets-start-adventure/#comments Sat, 20 Jan 2018 02:43:13 +0000 https://go-pixl.com/?p=146 Hi everyone! It’s my first post on this website and I am super pumped to start this journey with you guys. 😀 Before I go any further, I thought now would be a good time to tell you a bit more about why I am starting this whole thing, why now, what went on in […]

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Hi everyone!

It’s my first post on this website and I am super pumped to start this journey with you guys. 😀 Before I go any further, I thought now would be a good time to tell you a bit more about why I am starting this whole thing, why now, what went on in the background before today, what my plans are and what you can expect from it going forward. There is a lot to say so just a heads-up, it’s going to be a long post!

A bit of background first.

I have been into photography for a bit more than 3 years now. It started while on a road-trip in Australia after which I bought my first camera. To be honest it sat there in my cupboard gathering dust for a few weeks and I didn’t do much with it at first. Not the best start… 😕

But in December 2014, I decided to leave the town I lived in for many years, leave my friends, my job and move to Bristol, UK. It was exciting (new country, new culture, new job, new life basically) but also a bit scary. I didn’t know anyone in Bristol and I didn’t even know the town.

That is when I really started getting into photography. It helped me explore this new city I was in and its surroundings. Taking pictures was a motivation to get out and see what was out there. Let’s face it, I needed a good deal of it to get out in the wintery British drizzle I was still adapting to.

It was also a way to keep busy the first few weeks when I was still making friends and had an embryonic social life.

Now all of the things that made me pursue photography in the first place are no longer true. I know the city pretty well, I am settled and happy where I am, but photography is still what pushes me to get out and explore. Going out there, travelling, discovering new and beautiful places really is something I love. I also enjoy the creative process that takes place after taking a shot. Post-processing is what makes a good photo truly come to life.

Being a very scientific-minded person, my creative side was close to nonexistent. Photography is slowly helping develop that side of me, which I think is great.

All of this to say that photography is now a real passion.

Why am I starting this adventure? And why now?

As with everything I do, I am trying my best to learn and improve. I have improved my photography skills and technique, my eyes are picking up on things I never would have looked at a few years back and when I go somewhere, I think photography first.

I have come a long way since I started shooting, I am getting increasingly good feedback from family and friends (but why wouldn’t they? They are friends right?) but also from complete strangers and fellow photographers. That is encouraging.

But there is still a long way to go. I want to keep progressing, I want to improve my visibility, share my work, meet people and get more feedback. After all, photography is meant to be seen and it is useless if it sits on my computer and I don’t share it with anyone.

This is why I am starting my own Instagram and Facebook pages along with this website. Each will have a different purpose but more on that later.

Working towards quality content.

I plan to only release quality content and do so regularly. I am not only talking about the purely photographic side of things. Of course I will share my pictures but I will also try to write quality articles about my thought process, try to share how I go about creating content and other aspects that don’t necessarily come to mind when you look at one of my pictures.

One key element that holds everything together and creates a coherent profile across all media is branding: choosing a name, designing a logo, having a concept, a consistent style, etc. This is what people relate to and it has to be done right, from the start.

I spent a lot of time brainstorming different ideas but as I said earlier, I am not very good at this. Fortunately for me, I have a brother who is much better at this stuff and he kindly offered to help me with it.

After several ideas and a quick internet search to make sure that name wasn’t already taken, we settled on the name Go-pixL. It combines the sense of travel with the world of photography while cleverly using my initials.

With the name out of the way, the next step was a logo. I wanted something clean that could be used on any platform at any resolution as well as for watermarks. Again, I got some help from my brother and we came up with this:

Go-pixL

It is sleek, readable, easily identifiable and has a few subtle features that relates to photography. The square brackets on the sides should remind you of the focus point marks on a typical viewfinder. I hope you like it. 🙂

What you can expect from the different platforms.

As you know by now, I will try to be present on multiple platforms. I will use each of them differently so that people instantly know what to expect from each of them.

Instagram is where I will share most of my photographs. It is the most appropriate platform for this. As I am mostly into landscape and travel photography, this is the kind of shots you can expect from me. Shots from around Bristol, shots from my travels, but also some other things I might be inspired by.

I will use Facebook to give people some quick updates about what I am currently working on, some behind-the-scenes, teasers, etc.

This website will be used for more in-depth articles about my work, my train of thought or a project I am working on. I will also use it to post some of my work as some people don’t have Instagram or Facebook and it is the easiest way for them to access the content I am putting out there, so keep an eye on my portfolio.

Needless to say, this is my plan as of today and it will probably evolve with me as time goes by. I am confident it will be a positive experience and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Go-pixL taking pictures

So without further ado, let’s pick up that camera and start the adventure! Let me know what you guys think! 😉

 

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