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In this lighthearted mini-tutorial we’ll take an 80/20 approach to creating a simple time-lapse of a common pinecone (in this case a Black Pine).
For a more general introduction to time-lapse photography view: Time-lapse Photography Tutorial: An Overview of Shooting, Processing and Rendering Time-lapse Movies.
You already know that pine cones are nature’s mysterious seed pyramids, but did you know they have a gender? Yes, there are both female and male pine cones. Did you also know that pine cones are an interesting time-lapse subject? Go get a female pine cone, and give it a shot. Let this whole male/female Nature Notes youtube revelation be your last straw, or should I say pine needle that breaks your procrastination. Here was my result:
Here’s how to make your own pine cone time-lapse:
Collect some good looking pine cones (preferably female: watch the Nature Notes video above). Look for good cones in fresh condition, without rot or discoloration, uniform shape, and bottoms that provide support for upright standing. I’d grab two or three for variety, and a dog chew backup. Here’s an example of an open found pine cone.
Pine cone motion is all about moisture, it’s a hygromorphic response. In high moisture environments pine cones close. In low moisture, over time, they open. This video showing both opened, and closed cones, with visible moisture is a perfect learning example.
To close a cone, simply put it in a cup of water and leave it for an hour or two. That’s it.
Key thoughts: Steady (consistent) lighting, simple background, camera position, power. Let’s take these one by one.
Steady light: Light fluctuations in a sequence of time-lapse images are bad, as they create unappealing bright and dark frames in the rendered movie, better known as time-lapse flicker (learn much more about that here). Chose a room that you can cordon off for a day or so to prevent disturbances, and block all light from any windows. Move any light sources near the photo white box, to provide a constant uniform brightness, then adjust their positions to eliminate shadows.
Background: Completely up to you creatively. I chose a minimal white background, using a simple inexpensive white box. By slightly overexposing each shot, you can effectively eliminate almost all appearances of a background.
Camera position: Choose one or more angles from which to shoot. I chose first, a front downward angle, and a second fully vertical angle from above.
Power: A pine cone bloom from closed to opened may last anywhere from 8-24 hours, so you’ll need an AC adapter for your camera to make sure it keeps going.
We talked a little bit about avoiding stray light sources in the room where you are shooting, as these changes introduce time-lapse flicker into the image sequence. Having your camera in any automatic mode may also introduce flicker. To get the best possible consistent exposure over many frames, shoot in manual mode, set a manual white balance, manual ISO, and manual focus. In the example video above I used a Sony A7s and FE 90mm f/2.8-22 Macro G OSS lens.
Exposure: Six seconds at ISO 200, f/22, produced a great image, and just started to wash out the brighter white background. You can push the whites a little further in post-production, and really create a clean image background.
Time-lapse interval: To be honest I didn’t know how long I would be shooting, or when the action would begin. Times will vary, as no two cones and no two climates, or indoor humidity levels are exactly alike. The side angle pine cone shot took from about 9:00 a.m., to 3:00 a.m. the following morning, approximately 18 hours. I chose a 30 second interval, and set the shot count to infinity, so it would continually shoot until it was manually turned off. When unsure of how quickly to shoot, or how many frames to capture, it’s always good to capture more, rather than less. You can always speed up a time-lapse with too many frames, but if you don’t get enough shots and miss important movement, you are usually stuck.
These 30 second exposures, over 18 hours, resulted in about 3,246 images. That’s a lot of frames. Pine cones are slow. Much slower than I anticipated, and my interval was pretty fast capturing more frames than necessary for smooth movement. For your experiment I’d recommend increasing your interval time to about 50 seconds, or one minute. Having a longer interval time will result in less photos, and with the slow moving nature of the bloom it will not result in a jumpy or less smooth cone opening video.
The beauty of Lightroom, or Adobe Bridge and other applications, is that you can adjust the exposure on a single reference photo, then apply those changes across all your photos. Simple – and so is rendering the basic time-lapse. There are several different applications to choose from, to turn your collection of images into a video – varying from free and inexpensive, to not so inexpensive. Fear not, you can learn much more about time-lapse rendering in previously mentioned article, but the diagram below provides an overview of time-lapse software and applications.
Patience is your most valuable commodity for this project. From pine cones to The Milky Way, I hope this mini peak into the world of creative time-lapse photography has ignited your curiosity to learn more. Time-lapse has a way of slowing the world for the photographer, while at the same time accelerating it for everyone else. I shoot time-lapse because it alters the way I think, it challenges my view of the world, and teaches me things I can bring back and share with everybody else. It’s a real honor and privilege to partner with you on this training journey. I hope is helpful and I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
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