Shooting a summer sunset timelapse of Putney Bridge and the river Thames

I have been experimenting with timelapse photography for a while now, with varying degrees of success. However, the one thing that I have never tried has been recording a transition from day to night. The significant technical challenges in successfully recording scenes from bright daylight to starlight has resulted in this shot being termed (perhaps melodramatically) the ‘Holy Grail’ of timelapse photography.

Who could resist a challenge like that? Well, not me, so on a fine summer’s evening last week I lugged my equipment up to my perch by the side of the Thames in Putney, London, and set about trying to capture a smooth sunset sequence.

At first I had planned on trying the ‘Bulb ramping’ feature in Magic Lantern in order to get a smooth gradient of exposures during the rapidly changing light. However, Magic Lantern needs hands-on setting up at the beginning of the timelapse sequence, in which you select your preferred exposure based on a recent photo of the scene. As I had to set up the camera at least three hours in advance this ruled out the use of ML.

So, it was back to using my trusty Canon intervalometer, set up with a three hour delay to take a photo every 5 seconds until either the batteries gave out or the card filled up (in the end the batteries ran down first, with space for just 260 images left on the card).

I shot in Aperture priority at f8 with Auto ISO, so that the camera would automatically adjust shutter speed and ISO to match the light conditions.

Lastly, I set the camera to record the images as small raw (S2) files. The images from these raw files are just 2784 x 1856 pixels, compared to the full size 5616 x 3744 raw files, so I could squeeze over 2,500 of them on to my 32gb memory card. Also, I knew that the images would be only be used for HD video (1080 or 720) – so the 1856 pixels offered by the S2 raw files was ample.

After testing that the intervalometer was working correctly I set the timer going and prayed that I had set everything up properly.

Well, it was a beautiful summer’s evening, one of very few that we have had so far this year. Unfortunately, the sky was almost cloud-free so the sunset itself was without much drama, but the clear sky did mean that there was a beautifully smooth transition from late afternoon sun, through to Golden Hour, then sunset and finally the Blue Hour.

I returned the next morning to retrieve my camera and found it drenched from an early morning downpour. Still, everything was fine and I had over 2,200 images on the card.

The next step was processing the timelapse. My normal workflow is very straightforward: use Lightroom to try to get an even brightness across all of the images by using Match Total Exposure, then export to video using Sean McCormick’s plugin in the Slideshow module. However, a test run of the sunset timelapse showed significant, and distracting, flickering arising from small changes in the camera’s exposure settings as it tried to keep up with the large changes in light over the three hour shoot.

Thankfully, there is a fantastic piece of software that, if used correctly *, can eliminate flicker in timelapses: LRTimelapse, by Gunther Wegner. LRTimelapse is designed to be used with Lightroom, and is an intelligent metadata manipulator. The software scans the metadata of the timelapse images, calculates the exposure adjustments needed to eliminate flicker, and writes these adjustments back to the images. The final production of a flicker-free video is done as normal from Lightroom, using presets supplied by LRTimelapse. The result of my sunset timelapse was astonishing – no discernible flicker at all, and so a very satisfying first attempt at the ‘Holy Grail’ shot of timelapse photography.

* it’s easy to get your knickers in a twist when reading and writing metadata to and from Lightroom and LRTimelapse, so read the instructions! Gunther has written a detailed workflow on his web site; follow the instructions carefully and you will be rewarded with the results you are after.

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