The story of a time-lapse video

Note: This story was essentially written as a journal entry, so it’s only lightly edited and is a bit meandering. That said, I enjoyed writing it; it’s your call whether it’s worth reading :) If you just want to see the video itself, though, scroll to the bottom.

I was recently up in the Scottish Highlands, about a 2-hour drive north of Edinburgh. I rented out an Airbnb cottage high up in the hills above Blair Atholl, where the only source of outdoor light was my rental car’s headlights and the primary source of heat was a cozy fireplace between the brown leather couches in the cottage’s living room.

It was an incredibly detoxing experience being away from WiFi, street lights, and even clean runnning water. And the views were gorgeous: I could see hundreds of sheep grazing in the fields around me, and hills stretched out in the distance for miles:

A photo of sheep grazing on a field with hills in the back

But the most striking aspect of my time there was the utter blackness at nighttime. With the only light pollution being a dim glow peaking out from behind a hill miles away, it was nearly impossible to see anything for several minutes until my eyes adjusted – and even then, the most I could make out was the vague shape of jet-black treetops below the barely visible dark gray-blue of the nighttime clouds.

Fortunately, I had brought my hobby DSLR camera: a Canon Rebel T2i I bought on Craigslist years ago. So I started experimenting with long shutter exposure times. Using my 50mm lens, I opened up the aperture to ƒ/1.8 and began shooting 30-second exposures. Obviously, the camera was able to pick up a lot of light that the naked eye can’t, which resulted in some pretty cool-looking shots1:

A photo of a dark sky above a line of trees

Naturally, the ability of my camera to capture clouds at nighttime prompted me to want to capture their movement as well, in the form of a time-lapse video. This was a bit time-consuming to do, however, since each individual frame of the video would be a 30-second-exposure photo. This means that an hour of constant shooting would produce just 5 seconds of video (120 photos divided by 24 frames per second).

It was pretty cold out, so I wasn’t too eager to stay out there and shoot. The good news was that my camera has the ability to shoot photos continuously on its own. The bad news? It only shoots up to 10 in a row, and then must be manually restarted.

Thus began about an hour and a half of my starting a 10-shot run manually on the camera, setting a 5-minute timer on my phone (10 shots times 30 seconds each is 300 seconds or 5 minutes), running back inside the cottage to warm up by the fireplace and sip some wine, hearing my alarm go off, and then going back out to start the next 10-shot run.

I then lightened the highlights of the photos in Lightroom so that the clouds would show up better. Unfortunately, though, only clouds were visible in the sky. Since they move a significant amount in 30 seconds, putting the photos together at 24fps resulted in pretty fast movement. Overall, though, the end result wasn’t too bad! And I liked the streaks of light that occasionally crossed the blackness of the trees. (At first, I was convinced I’d captured a UFO in my photos, until I realized it was just a 30-second exposure of a car’s headlights in the distance.)

I figured that was all for time-lapse shooting for the week. But then, two nights later, the clouds cleared up. I walked outside and looked up to find that I could see literally thousands of stars.

Of course, this begged for another photo session. Given how much time it’d taken the first time, I didn’t really want to do the whole time-lapse thing again – after all, I’d already set up the fireplace for the night. But I figured I’d at least shoot a couple 30-second-exposure photos to capture the sheer volume of stars that were visible, and the results were stunning:

A photo of stars in front of a gray haze

I’m no astrophysicist, but the gray haze might be the Milky Way…? Either way, I was pretty blown away when I saw this, so I had to take a test shot of what the stars looked like over the trees, to compare the shots to what I’d taken a couple days earlier:

A photo of stars above the treeline

Shit. I was going to have to do another time-lapse shoot. The stars looked too cool above the trees to miss this opportunity; and as a bonus, they’d move more slowly than clouds, since they “move” with the rotation of the earth.

So I set up my tripod and began the every-5-minutes routine once more. This time, though, I was sick of taking my shoes off every time I re-entered the cottage (or crawling on the rug to avoid tracking things in). So I chose to go barefoot instead, which, given the cold dampness of the grass, was a bit unpleasant.

To compensate, I added coal to the fire to make it hotter. (I’m not much good at making fires, but this seemed to work.) I sat down close to the fireplace to warm up, and opened up my laptop to work on a project during the 5-minute intervals. But the next time I got up, the back of my laptop screen was almost too hot to touch, and one of the stickers on it had nearly peeled off. I whispered a frantic apology to my laptop (I’m like that), and moved a considerable distance from the fire the next time I sat down, despite the cold.

It’s worth noting at this point that the trips outside weren’t all bad: at least initially, until I got too cold, they were actually really calming. Somewhere far down the hills was a dam that made a rushing noise, and occasionally I just sat outside on a picnic table to listen to the sounds of the water, and to the click the camera made every 30 seconds when it closed and immediately re-opened its shutter for another exposure. (I’d actually made a recording of these sounds using the iOS Voice Memos app two nights earlier, when shooting the time-lapse video of the clouds.)

The back-and-forth routine started to get a bit old after an hour or so, and after each 5-minute interval I wondered if I should call it a night and bring the camera in. But then I’d look at the last 10 shots the camera had taken, and the movement of the stars and clouds just looked too cool to stop photographing.

So I kept going, until I had 222 photos – nearly 2 hours of shooting, and just over 9 seconds of video at 24fps. After importing them into Lightroom, I darkened the highlights in the photos a little bit to make it clear this was a nighttime shoot, since they were originally so bright it almost looked like daytime. I then cut together some of the audio from the previous shoot – including the sound of the shutter clicking, and closing the cottage gate – and added it to the final video to a give a sense of the atmosphere I was in while shooting.

In the end, it’s not a particularly revolutionary video – it’s only 9 seconds long, and it’s just me playing with my camera. But it’s definitely the coolest time-lapse video I’ve made so far. And I’ve recently purchased an intervalometer, which takes up to 400 photos in a row without human intervention, so I hope to be producing more of these soon!

Enjoy:

  1. This photo's colors have been lightly edited to more closely resemble the colors I could see with my own eye.