Long Range Time Lapse: an (almost) comprehensive checklist

What are we talking about?

If you have tried to shoot a time lapse with a telephoto lens, you will certainly know that it can be quite challenging. The biggest challenges will be:

  • Weather must be compatible,
  • Be sure your sensor is perfectly clean,
  • Manage the wind shakes on the tripod.

Nothing original ? Wait, these topics are far from being trivial or “business as usual”.

An example of Long Range Time Lapse – Nikon Z50 – Focal: 1’000 mm

Weather forecast for Long Range Time Lapse

You will need much more than the usual classic forecasts. It seems to be quite close to astrophotography. So, in theory, this site should do the job.

Dashboard provided by 7timer -www.7timer.info

Really ? Well, not perfectly, even if it is useful. Because one of the most important criteria, contrast, is not measured or anticipated locally (or tell me where please !). They are heavily reliant on local specificities as contrast will be lowered by emission of particles (for instance). The experience, in my region, shows that as expected, a clear day after a rainy and windy day looks much better. But there are plenty of exceptions and counter examples. Finally, I came to the point I need to check contrast the day before my shooting day or the morning of it and nothing else can work. I am using former images to evaluate the contrast.

A clean sensor

It is not like for any other kind of photo session. Most of telephoto lens are not as opened as other prime are. So, any dust would be much more visible. Furthermore, haze is inevitable even if the day chosen will limit it (see former paragraph). Therefore, dehazing tools during post-process will be helpful. But dehazing tools enhance dust as well…

As a conclusion, a rigorous approach of sensor cleaning is a must have. Either by a pre-check just before starting the time-lapse or by a systematic cleaning of the sensor.

Wind shake

Not an easy one… With telephoto lens, even if the wind is negligible, aligning the images will be almost mandatory. You will need a dedicated software for this purpose.

The checklist

On top of the above challenges, it is important not to forget anything:

  • Scenario: what you want to achieve, how (intervals, number of shots, shooting RAW or not, which focal, …),
  • Sensor cleaned,
  • Weather forecast (don’t miss the day and remember in particular contrast and  turbulences), clouds as well as clouds are essentials in a time lapse,
  • Programmation of the camera (much easier at home than on the field where it could be dark and cold) for the time lapse,
  • Camera and lens at the right temperature: the gear will need at least 20 minutes outside to be at the right temperature. Failing to do so will change the focus, for instance and the focus must be manually done most of the time for these photo sessions.
  • Set most/all parameters to Manual (focus, exposure, ISO, …) and if not to what is needed. Time Lapse are frequently shot manually and this is more true with Long Range ones.

Please let me know if I have missed something, happy long-range Time Lapse!

P.S. : cover image – Mont Blanc from Geneva during the lock down. Over 80 km away. Exceptionally low pollution. Nikon Z50 – Focal: 1’000 mm. The bright spot at the bottom center of the image is the “Refuge du Goûter” from which most of the mountaineers start to climb the summit.

About Clipping blacks and blowing highlights: an attempt to bring together art, science and discipline

Introduction

Clipping in photography is well known and whereas sometimes done on purpose, it mostly comes as a non-desirable effect, because of poor exposure (worst case) or at least reaching the limits of the sensor range (best case). By clipping, I mean both blowing highlights and clipping blacks. The topic has been debated countless times in different forums and blogs.

As a summary, some people believe it does not really matter as long as the photo is great and other advocate why and how to avoid it. Other rightfully point out it is sometimes better not to fix it whereas other explain in detail how to do it the right way.

This is a classic case of different opinions in photography between those who do not want to consider something else than the purely artistic result and the scientists obsessed by being consistent with some physical principles. As usual too, both are right and wrong at the same time. Indeed, what matters in photography is the result, the emotions a photography can carry, and whether you like it. Period. Clipping, no clipping, who cares. At the same time, it is true to say that blowing your sensor which can no longer deliver any information but “I am blown” (white burned) or “I am blind” (black clipped) is not really what someone can call good practise, to say the least.

I am trying in this post to find a way to make all these opinions somewhat aligned, in a very much Swiss-like consensus way.

How to detect it and how to fix it

There are also plenty of information about the topic. I would recommend reading:

[1] How to Avoid Burned-Out Highlights
[2] Stop Doing This to Your Photo’s Highlights
[3] What is Clipping in Photography and How to Fix It!
[4] Restore Those Clipped Channels
[5] 6 Ways to Reduce Blown Out Highlights in Your Outdoor Photography
[6] Highlight Clipping in Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw (and Why You Should Care)¨
[7] What Is Clipping and How To Fix It
[8] Blowing Highlights And Clipping Blacks: The Rule Behind Lost Details

“Physical” and “visual” clipping

Most of the people know well the “physical” clipping: when the sensor is blown. Technically speaking, it means the pixels of a given channel (R, G, B) or its luminance (Based on the square root of R, G, B weighted according to the human eye characteristics) is at its maximum value (typically 255 for 8 bits JPG) or its minimum (0).

But it is also important to remember that what matters is the “visual” clipping: the pixels that are almost blown or clipped also matter because (at least for JPG images), there can be no way to really fix them properly and get information from the clipped regions of an image.


Example: a JPG image of a very high contrast scene.

Let’s have a look at the clipped pixels highlighted in blue for the blacks and red for the highlights in the image below. First, one could argue that using JPG for such conditions is not the best idea, RAW would have been by far a better choice but without going to start another countless debate RAW vs. JPG, the image has been poorly exposed as there is no clipped pixels in black (they would be in coloured in blue in the image below) whereas they are quite a few blown ones (in red below). So, basically, it says the image should have been significantly less exposed..


Same image with highlights in red, blacks in blue (none in this case)

But whereas the number of actuals blown pixels in red is not so significant, the number of visually clipped pixels is at an unacceptable level. It is making the image ugly whereas it was an interesting one. There are almost blown from a physical perspective, but for our eye, they are just blown… you can try to reduce highlights or exposure, there is basically no information recorded into the sunny mountains part of the photo. The image will stay poor. So, what matters is not the truly clipped pixels but those which look clipped. Using Lightroom or other software tool is not enough even if, again, you can’t do much to fix it when you shoot JPG. That’s a good transition to the next point.

Clipping is not the same animal when you shoot RAW or JPG

I believe it does make sense to differentiate JPG from RAW images when it comes to clipping. For RAW images, with modern sensors, clipping images is rare. Or you really do it on purpose. Or you have no idea how to use your camera’s exposure systems! The below example shows how tolerant sensors are now to clipping:

Very high contrast image with my son in an hotel room, completely in the shade. The skyline behind him is of course much brighter. This is really an extreme case and with a good but really mainstream full-frame sensor (Nikon D750 in this case), there is almost no clipping shooting RAW.

I know it is not so simple and you can clip some parts of a photo despite your goodwill and expertise whilst shooting RAW. My point, however, is to say it is rarely a problem and it is easy to identify and to anticipate as it will only concern extremely high contrasted images.

When it comes to JPG, this is a totally different story. It can be easy to clip parts of an image and it can be difficult to fix it as we have seen above. What matters is first to know quite well how to detect that the image will have some clipping. Second, you need to know whether it is a problem for your image or it is not. There is no good answer to this (from my perspective, though, it will very often be a problem). One approach would be of course to shoot RAW anytime there is a risk of clipping, just to have more latitude in the process, but it is not always possible or desirable. At least you know what to do. So, it looks important to understand the causes and the consequences of clipping and how RAW can fix it while bringing the usual inconvenient of shooting RAW (processing time, file size, buffer limits, …). If you don’t shoot RAW, you normally have reasons for this choice. This is a good transition to the next point: this is where good and bad clipping matters as well in your decision.

The Good clipping and the bad clipping

The bad clipping is the one you should not get. Just expose better your image by underexposing it when you have bright parts or underexposing it when you have potentially too many black clipped pixels.

The good clipping is just inevitable. Below an example:

When we analyse the image below, we can see we have both blacks clipped and highlights burnt. In red the burned pixels, in pink the “visually” clipped ones. In dark green the black clipped ones and in light green the “visually” clipped.

Having significant both red and green zone just say you are going beyond the capabilities of your sensor. Just buy a better one with a higher dynamic range… or use an artificial way (flash, umbrella, filters …) to decrease the contrast, which of course is not always possible or desirable depending on the kind of pictures you are shooting.

Conversely, if you aim at having high (or low) keys images, the result will be clipped, fair enough but the pre-processed images – before you start to work at them, the RAW images or the JPG out of the camera should not be clipped. And to illustrate this, a cute gallery that I like of high keys-on-purpose images:

Knot
Gallery on Flickr of white and high key images

I like these images but I would not bet they were clipped out of the camera.

Good principle: clipping is bad

Long story short, it will be difficult to convince me clipping is not bad. Indeed, if you are looking to shoot high or low keys image or if you want to stylize your images, that’s more a post process thing. If you know what to do, you can argue “I clip on purpose” but most of the time, clipping is just bad. Your sensor doesn’t provide information any longer but a very black and white approach of the reality. What you will do in the post process is a different discussion, when you shoot, and you anticipate clipping, unless knowing exactly why, you should just take whatever it takes to limit it (thanks to under/over exposing or bracketing) or avoid it (same actions + RAW + stacking/HDR).

Conclusion and summary

Let’s start by another example. From my perspective, this image below is poorly exposed, over clipped in a white grey ugly sky:

The city of Mopti, Mali

The light was terrible, due to some haze caused by hot air. This image looks ugly to me whereas Mopti is such a dramatic city and I have tried to post process it, there was no way to fix it (I was travelling, was short on time, and I did not see a way to avoid clipping). Light is bad, it is what it is.

My point: clipping is (very often) bad even if you can’t avoid it. They may be some counter examples (try to shoot an image of a polar bear in the artic without clipping the snow…) but they demand to have at least understood how to produce a pleasant image and taking counter measure to reduce the visual impact (shooting RAW, shot only when there are some shadows to produce some darker zones, …).

Tokyo Japan, RAW image underexposed by 1.5 EV, no final clipping whilst the original image before post-process looked challenging with both under (the sphere) and over exposed parts (backlight windows).

When you always shoot the same kind of picture, you know what you are doing. You don’t really need the following conclusion as you have no problem to deliver images you are familiar with. But it is also good in life to try new things. And it is good to remember some good principles because when you shoot new subjects, in a new way, in new places, you will have many reasons to fail delivering great images. It is good to remember some basic principles. Beyond all the discussions and remarks, I like to remember something easy not to forget:

Shoot whatever you like, but clipping is bad.

The more you know how to detect it, avoid it or at least manage it, the better. It is not a fight between art and science, it is about discipline.

Some thoughts about the future of DSLR and cameras market

Two critical shifts

The two main shifts of this industry look to me so clear I have no doubt the DSLR market will evolve significantly soon, and actually may have already started to: smartphones & mobile device are making many point & shoot cameras obsolete, if not many entry level DSLR. Not because they can challenge them in terms of image quality or performances & controls, but because they are proposing something unique: having always with oneself a camera, and sharing the pictures so easily, two things the other cameras can’t do.

Simultaneously, the mirrorless products are invading the markets and are a fast growing market. Not only they are smaller and as good as DSLR, but they are so innovative that many will continue adopting them. They are not only refreshing the market, they actually fit better with many photographers specification. DSLR was not for many want they really wanted, but only a way to take better pictures, or hoping taking better pictures. Both the reality and the dream now belong to mirrorless. DSLR just mean “being a Pro” or “living his passion whatever the price and the weigh”.

Why DSLR (and Point and Shoot) will continue to exist

However, writing articles about “why smartphones have killed the other cameras” or “DSLR is dead” look irrelevant but to attract readers to the journalist’s stuff.  High end Point and Shoot are very promising, but need to adapt their publishing services and DSLR are certainly not dead. They indeed propose something unique too, unchallenged so far by both smartphones and mirrorless: an optical view finder. As it exists so far only one full frame mirrorless (awfully expensive and quite specialized, the Leica M9), the full frame DSLR also propose bigger sensor, a must for shallow depth of field. DSLR have other advantages but I am not sure they will last (performances are now similar most of the time, if not overcome for some features by mirrorless, and low light advantages of big sensors are becoming less important as the other sensors are becoming so good).

Shallow depth of field and optical sensor can make your photo experience unique. So as long as the other cameras won’t challenge them for these two things, DSLR will resist for the long term. For the short term, Pro and wealthy amateurs will continue buying DSLR for many other reasons.

Long term future

However, the two main advantages of DSLR may not last forever. Nothing prevent manufacturers to release full frame mirrorless. And it would be dangerous to believe EVF (Electronic view finder) won’t be able to challenge if not becoming better than OVF (optical viewfinder) eventually. Or rangerfinder-like camera (dominated so far by Fuji) combining altogether OVF and EVF features are just proposing the best of two worlds. It looks however unlikely to convince many demanding photographers as the rangerfinder ergonomics certainly not fit everyone requirements.

What does it means for us

Unless you are investing for the long term in photography – either as a Pro or a serious amateur, I don’t really see the point for newbies to invest in DSLR. For those who must for their job or want for their passion, DX DSLR look uninteresting but for a pricing motivation, which unfortunately, overcomes everything else as usual. Therefore, concept like the rumoured new Nikon D600 looks great, as it will allow to make a kind of bridge between the “entry-level” DSLR world, and the real one (Full frame bodies), by working easily with both systems. That’s why I believe DSLR DX is dead but for entry-level, or rather should die as I find it not very attractive nowadays. OMHO, it would make more sense “learning” photography with mirrorless or high end Point and Shoot and invest in full frame bodies later, but whenever possible. By the way, the price of some excellent full frame cameras is rather going down, so this is not an option now impossible to consider for many people.

The final words

My bet:

Smartphones will become better and better cameras, introducing zooming, low light enable sensors, and better autofocus to replace definitively most of the point and shoot. This market will not disappear, but will get specialized (megazoom, waterproof, fully customizable& RAW capabilities, …).

Mirrorless will continue to destroy the entry level DSLR market, too bad for Nikon and Canon who have preferred milking the cow rather than surfing the wave, and some mirrorless will become excellent second body for those who will continue to love the full frame DSLR, or other medium format cameras.

And you, what do you think?