24 Hours of Neon: Shooting HDR timelapse and how to create them in post with Photomatix Pro

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To listen to the commentary either download it or wait for the video to load up then only press play when instructed to do so and then pause also when told too. It’s a lot longer than the video and gives you loads of info about the shoot and how I did it! Enjoy!!!

One quick note on the commentary. Do not do a drinking game every time I say “erm”! Also I added a shot near the end which is not mentioned in this, it’s the one of the ants at the pool third shot from last. I forgot I had it and edited it in.

24 Hours of Neon Commentary by PhilipBloom

24 Hours of Neon from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Music by the awesome Clint Mansell from the stunning movie “Moon”

We're Going Home - Moon (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)

 

BTS of “24 Hours of Neon” from Philip Bloom extras on Vimeo.

Demo of how to use photomatix pro for HDR tone mapped timelapse from Philip Bloom extras on Vimeo.

Gear used:

Gh2, T2i, T3i, 5Dmk2

Canon Lenses: 17mm TS, 24mm TS, 14mm F2.8. 70-200 F4

Lumix Lenses: 100-300mm, 8mm fish eye, 7-14mm F4

Delkin Fat Gecko Suction Mount

Miller Solo DS20 3 stage carbon fibre tripod

Gitzo Traveller tripod

Lots of cards, batteries and mains power supplies and patience!

So this piece…I had already done two films of view from hotel rooms recently. The one in Sydney and the one in Seattle. I was hotel roomed out. There is only so much you can do without what you are doing feeling repetitious even if you are capturing something totally new. Being inspired makes filming so much more fun! I was pretty much burned out after the 12 city tour of Canon Filmmakers Live so I was not very inspired when I got to Vegas. Just dead!

The process of actually filming timelapses is not a lot of fun most of the time. Very time consuming and this one was by far the most time consuming I have ever done. Doing them in controlled environments where you can leave them for many many hours makes things easier there is no doubt. Sitting with a camera for 12 hours + whilst it captures a timelapse is not much fun and I really don’t have the patience to do or the time to be totally honest.

I booked the room at the MGM Signature many months ago. Around the summer of last year. I wanted a great view with the plan of doing an epic timelapse there. Although I hadn’t seen what the view was. It said “View of strip”. That sold me on it.

When I saw the view I was impressed but slightly disappointed. The strip view was certainly there. Just not really THERE. The hotel is set back. But no problem. The view was still pretty special, just lacking in focus for a piece. No key element in the frame to focus on. That was not going to stop me, I just had to rethink…So after about 2 days at the hotel I started! As I progressed I got more into it and then something happened that clicked and inspired me completely…

Spot the cameras!

Up until this point I had a collection of timelapses being taken but no real glue…it’s the glue that holds a piece together. Be it a theme, an object, a character, a story. Without that glue it was just random shots.

I went over to Tower 3 to help Eric Kessler set up his camera for a timelapse, I took two cameras with me too to capture his angle as he was facing the other way. It was not at this point that I had my Eureka moment. It was the next morning when I went to pick up my cameras. Eric had done a 7 bracket timelapse with his GH2. I had experimented just once with bracketing exposure for timelapse a while back but never did the post work on it. Eric showed me an example frame and it looked nice. I stole the footage from him and messed around with it in Photomatix Pro and using the tone mapping setting I tweaked it around a fair bit until I got something that was striking…

Mr Kessler and I
The first HDR tone mapped attempt

The straight timelapse of this view was nice. But the tone mapped version was something special. Tone mapping is a technique used to take the colours and tones from a HDR master image that most displays simply cannot display properly and map them onto a low dynamic range image. Giving the effect of HDR that we can see. You are still using the concept of HDR photography just making it possible to see it properly. The trouble is it often overused. Like most things if you can do it they are often pushed too much and with HDR to the point there is nothing natural about it at all. I have seen a lot of HDR work recently and so much of it looks either like an alien landscape or totally rendered CGI world. I needed something not quite so drastic. For me that would be the point of HDR to take what the eye can see and replicate it digitally. BUT, there is a middle ground. What if you took the hyper-real look of HDR tone mapping and used it to accentuate something, to use it for a reason. This piece was the reason. A timelapse of Las Vegas that lacked focus. Now I had some glue. I would do a section in it that had tone mapping in it to give the piece life. After all Las Vegas is a very odd place that is unlike any place I have been to. It’s fake. It’s not real. What better than HDR tone mapping.

So with this idea now firmly in place. I started taking lots and lots of HDR timelapes with all my cameras. 7 bracket exposure on the GH2 and 3 on the Canons as that is all they can do (you can do more with the T2i Magic Lantern). I set the bracket in the camera. With the 3 bracket Canons depending on what I was shooting I found the best results came from 2 stops under, one spot on and two stops over. This would then be blended in Photomatix pro to get the best of all three. Now I am totally new to this and what I am saying here could be totally the wrong way to do this. But I followed a couple of online tutorials and worked it through from experimentation.

On the timer remote I set the interval to 1 and the long exposure part to around 10 seconds. So that gave the camera 10 seconds to take the 3 photos then after ten seconds it would take another set. You could make the long exposure part quicker so you could take more photos but just make sure you can get all 3 (or 7 if using a gh2) shots taken within that long exposure time. On the Canons I had the drive set to continuous photos and on the GH2 there is a specific bracketing setting.

So using all the cameras and different focal lengths over the period of about 5 days I did A LOT of bracketing exposures. Of course this meant a huge amount of post processing. Blending those photos together, especially 7 brackets take a long time.

I did a few test blends to see how well it worked. Below you can see a nice result and an over the top result. Notice especially the halo around the PH westgate building on the right of picture two. That can happen a lot in Photomatix the key is to set the smoothing high, sometimes to max in the settings.

Looks good, albeit like a nuke going off!
Too unrealistic for me...too much!

By seeing too much brightness on the buildings the shot above looks totally wrong, whereas the top photo, although again hyper real it’s not “too much” for my tastes anyway.

At the end of 5 days of this I had a ridiculous amount of photos and a ridiculous amount of processing to do. I started if going whilst shooting and was still processing about 5 days after I got back to England, by which point I was running it on both my imac i7 and my 17″ MBP i7 to maximise time.

A quick word about camera settings. I set my white balance to 5600k for all day to night and vice versa and for just nightime I had it set to 3200K. It’s easy enough to re colour balance in post. ISO I had very low most of the time. Either 100 or 160. It was SO bright in Vegas you really don’t need high ISO even with bracketing. It could easily capture 3 photos within a couple of seconds or so. Iris wide open, none of the lenses I used were faster than F2.8. Aperture priority unless I was shooting just daytime of just nightime then I was manual. Interval for non HDR stuff was anything between 3 seconds and 15 seconds depending on what I was shooting. Always better to have too many photos than not enough!

Whenever starting a new timelapse I thoroughly recommend creating a new folder on your card. Keep each one in a seperate one. Makes post a LOT easier!
Step 1

Above is the first step in Photomatix pro. I selected three average photos from the 3 brackets. Remember, the camera take the correctly exposed photo first, then the under one then the over one. This is the same with 5 or 7 brackets. It bounces back and forth like this, it’s not linear. So with these photos selected I do a test HDR photo.

For nightime stuff I always select reduce noise, you get a lot of it on underexposed images. In future I will process on source images not on merged images. I think the results seem to be better.

The intermediate HDR. Doesn’t look that special as the computer cannot display the true dynamic range of this intermediary so it needs to be tone mapped.

 

Two examples of the tone mapping not done too over the top. The bottom one is more natural, the top one more dynamic. What you choose is totally up to you! The top one is the one I went with as it had more “ping” which was what I was after. Experiment. It’s very intuitive. The bottom photo has smoothing set to MAX which is really what you should be, that or high otherwise you get that horrible halo effect i mentioned earlier

These are my settings for bath processing. I only select tone mapping details enhancer and don’t bother with any of the others. Again experiment….for your first attempt click them all and have a look at what you like best. I found I simply like the Enhancer the best!

Select the number of images per photo. For the Canons it was 3, for the Gh2 it was 7 (one thing I noticed on the 60D you are able to do 3 stops over and under which the 5DmkII cannot do) Go into naming options and make them simple names with a sequential number. This makes it much easier to create the timelapses later. I also click remove the 32 bit HDR image. I don’t need it. I am doing timelapses not photography. I will have thousands of these, so to keep space on the hard drive I removed them, I didn’t need them. Select the source folder and also create a destination folder to keep things organised and click run. It’s as simple as that. It just takes a lot of time.

When done build the timelapse like you would normally. You may get some really nasty flicker with some of the sequences. This is mostly down to AV mode and Photomatix not being totally spot on each time it seems. In which case it means try again really, or try and cope with it in post. Some of the flickering I had was so bad there was no way I could fix it, so I simply re-built it and for some reason it was fine next time!

Check out this great Photomatix tutorial for more in-depth on this software

So this piece had 7 days of timelapsing going into it with 4 cameras, about 10 days of post and the edit itself took about 5 hours after I found the Clint Mansell track. Once I had the music it fell into place.

After all this what are my thoughts. It worked for this. Will I do it again? Of course, just not every time. Just look at the penultimate timelapse of the sunset, so natural and so beautiful. You lose a lot of that natural beauty with this so use it sparingly. Don’t be over the top with it.

As a piece I am very happy with it. It flows well. I am really happy with my titles which I did with FX Factory Pro and Luca’s light box all within FCP.

For more info about each shot and how I did all the digital movement do listen to my commentary. It’s very in depth!

Some of the finished timelapses before editing
7 bracket Gh2 with 8mm fish eye

For a bit of fun this is what I shot the first time I went to Las Vegas for NAB. Quite different to this as it’s mostly people…still very fond of this!

 

“Deer Vegas” HD from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.