All posts by Biolapse

Shooting Wildflowers

Hey folks.

I am currently out in Sedona Az on vacation. I always love this time of the year as the wildflowers are starting to bloom.  This week I have been using the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 macro lens on a Sony A7 and I absolutely love it. I figured this may make a fun blog post to do sort of a review on this lens/camera combination for this purpose.  I have always been into macro photography but 60 and 100mm are always so tight. You can get the subject but the background is usually pretty non existent, at least, it does not really become as big of a part of the photograph as the main subject.

Up to this point my favorite wildflowe lens was the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye, while it is not a “macro” lens it had such a huge DOF that you could pretty much focus on something that was touching the lens. However the fisheye aspect made it a bit tricky to use.  I had that lens for about a year and ended up selling off all my Nikon gear in a move to mirrorless. Personally I really prefer mirrorless over DSLR,  the battery life is not awesome, but the cameras are small and light, they take very little room in a backpack, and are not as conspicuous as a large DSLR.

They almost always include an articulating screen which I find remarkably handy with timelapse work, and there is no mirror assembly to get jammed up. Not that there is a huge problem with that, but the less moving parts the less potential mechanical failures.

I loved my setup from Fuji, I had an Xe1, Xm1 and an XT-1, all which produce fantastic results, however I never had a very good close focus wide angle lens that would get the results I wanted with wildflowers.

Until now.

The moment I saw the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm F/4 macro lens I knew I wanted one. It is a very niche lense to be sure. 15mm is extremely wide on a full frame camera, and it has fairly low distortion which would make it a pretty solid landscape lens. However the macro aspect is what really fascinated me.

I finally picked one up in late july 2016, well after the wildflower season. I played around with it a bit but missed the prime time to use it for what it would excel with.

The lens itself is very well built. it appears to be all metal and glass. It has a very solid feel to it that many lenses are missing these days. Physically it has a few quirks. First off, the aperture ring and the focus ring are reversed. This takes some time to get used to. even after using this lens non stop for a week, I still want to reach to the end of the lens to adjust the focus.

The focusing is very precise but a bit odd. Being a wide angle lens it naturally has a deep DOF, and the first 75% or so of the rotation shifts the focus only a few cm. From 1 m to infinity is almost instant. They are marked in meters which yankees like me sometimes struggle with. I know what 4 inches, 1 foot, 1.5 feet look like, but i get a bit hazy with 17cm. So it takes a few shots before I usually get it right.

Shooting Bees

Both the focus ring and aperture ring feel fantastic. There is a very smooth yet solid feel to them. No slop, no play.

The image quality is outstanding. I have never looked for MTF charts, but I would expect the sharpness scores very high. Off to the corners it does soften a little bit, but not enough that I have noticed it to be a problem. There is an ever so slight vignetting that occurs, but I personally find some slight vignetting to be aesthetically pleasing and it brings attention to the center of the frame(as long as it is not drastic)

The bokeh is pretty good too. While this lens is f/4 and wide angle it is not really great at blowing out the background. I normally find myself shooting between f/11 to f/32 in full daylight. It still manages to render the background content out of focus enough to isolate the subject.

This lens is also sort of a tilt shift lens too. The lever for it totally sucks, and it is one of those scenarios where you push the level and start trying to shift the lens, and it finally gives free and moves to the extreme. Same when returning it back, so you have to put effort in and pace your motion in order to move it partially. When using the tilt shift the vignetting gets very severe at the opposing side. It does do a good job of correcting distortion though. I spend some time playing with that today at Courthouse Rock.

Lens flare can be a bit of an issue. I have shot with some lenses that can give very pleasing lens flare, this is not really one of them. It manifests as a very sharp tight chain of shapes, and I tend to try to avoid lens flare with this one.

My main gripe with it is the barrel flange is stupid huge. it extends well out further than it really needs to. It has a 77mm filter thread and could easily have been just a 70. The flange flare at the end is just obnoxious and creates shadows where you dont want it. The close focus on this lens is literally just a few mm away from the glass, so with the size of the flange you take up nearly half the light hitting the subject. Good luck getting 1:1 with bugs unless they are walking on the lens……. which gives me a neat idea….

I have found to get real close you have to really pick and chose your shots. I picked up a cheap flash from Newwer. I generally dont like using flash, and have had some pretty hit and miss experiences with it. I much prefer natural light, but you have to work with what you got.  I picked this one up because it provides TTL metering and only cost about $60. I used to have several Nikon flashes, two SB-600’s and an SB-900, and after experimenting around with them for several months I ended up hardly ever using them. So cheap was a factor. I liked the design of this flash as it moves the strobe head forward closer to the front of the lens. Then I picked up this cheap flash modifier from amazon. The idea was to curl the front of it down to roll the light over the flange and illuminate the subject.

After spending a few days I found that the flash works fairly well when aimed about 45 degrees to the side and hand holding the bounce to reflect the light back in, but my best results are without the flash, and just holding the bounce and using it as a reflector.

All the nitpicks aside, this has become my favorite lens hands down. The more I use it the better the results. Shooting Bee’s has been a LOT of fun. I set it to f/16 , iso 800, and 1/-500-1/800 shutter speed and set the focus about 1.5cm away from the front element, then just start shoving the camera into the faces of the bees and snapping away. I get quite a bit of bad ones, but some really good ones too.

Check out this bee’s butt.

As for the A7, well, its a decent body. I really wish Sony would pick up on fujis control scheme. I love the control of the XT-1, and pretty much always shoot manual because of that camera. The sony allows for manual control but I dont like the front and rear dials.  If i could stuff the Sony’s guts into an XT-1 it would be a perfect camera for me. I really do dig the sensor of the A7 though. Beautiful colors.

I am eyeing the Sony A7r II very closely right now. Getting such high ISO performance AND IBIS would be huge with this lens.

BCM2

So my Biolapse Control Module has a relay that is starting to flake out. This is the 2nd time this has happened, but to be fair that relay has probably turned off 10-12k times in the past 2 years.

It is going to be a PITA to swap out. For the most part the BCM has run flawless, but there are some nitpicks I have about it. Heck I basically hacked a chronoshield and cut some traces and added new ones to get a lot of the circuit work done. Most of it works, but this Biolapse project is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and I would like to build something a bit more flexible.

Last night i started sketching out the concept behind the BCM2. How could I build upon the original, how can I improve. I had thought about doing this a little while back but I got distracted with Otto.

My requirements,

Better control interface, larger screen for more data
Dual power rails, one protect, one non.
8 assignable outlets, 3 protect, 5 non
Day/night cycles
Grow light control
Fill light control
Temp control (high/low mark)
Humidity control (high/low mark)
Pump control for watering cycles
Adjustable pre/post shot buffers for grow lights and fill lights
Easy to replace relays, plug n play as much as possible.
Input trigger for external timer
2 -3 triggers for camera or external moco
Better chassis, better build.

I will build myself 2 for sure. I like having a backup. If there is interest I might actually make a small limited run of these, 7-8 total and put some of them up for sale. Considering how much work is involved in building/coding these things, they would not be cheap, but at least obtainable. Depending on the difficulty, maybe a grand. May sound like a lot for a glorified set of relays, but it will be a very small run of hand made systems. Very time consuming for a single father with a full time career and a could side businesses.

Something like this is hardly needed for flower blooms as those are usually done in a few days and you can just keep a light on the whole time, but any sort of seed-adult type work, or anything that may take a few weeks the plants start to suffer as fill lights dont hit the spectrums they need very well, and the lack of day/night cycles can stunt growth or even kill the plants. So this really is a specialty system. But i might as well make a couple extra.

Ill be sure to blog about the status and how things are going.

 

 

 

Planet Earth II

Planet Earth II

I know a lot of people on the other side of the world have already seen all of these, but here in the US we are making our way through this series for the first time.  This series is spectacular. I watch it and see shot after shot wondering how the hell did they manage to film that?????

I am just amazed when I see their botanical work.  Timelapse itself is something that takes quite a bit of time, research, trail, and effort to learn.  Botanical timelapse is an entirely different beast than landscape work. You go from being at the mercy of the environment, to being required to fully control the environment.  I have been filming plants for about 3 years now.  During this time I have had a lot of failures, a lot of wasted footage. Quite a few successes, but the stuff that they have on Planet Earth just blows my work out of the water. No comparison.

To be fair, I am completely out of my element when it comes to botanical timelapse, which may sound strange coming from somebody who spends so much time trying to do it.

I am not a photographer. I picked up my first SLR about 7 years ago. I have never taken a class, never had a photography business, never studied under anybody, never had an apprenticeship.  I have done maybe a dozen shoots for friends and such, but never been hired for a shoot. I am just a self taught amateur at best.

I don’t know shit about plants.  I really don’t. I am excellent at killing houseplants. I am somewhat decent at keeping carnivorous plants alive, but that is about it. I am no good at looking at a plant and understanding what its problem is.  I have been learning, but I dont really have any access to botanists to know much about them. Is this something I cut? should that be at an angle? is this too much light? too little light? is this soil ok? how often should I give plants food? Most of those questions are a mystery to me.

I have always had an artistic streak in me, but I wouldn’t consider myself an artist at all. More like a xerox machine.  I have spent time painting, airbrushing, carving, sculpting, sketching, etc. Enough that I can build some rudimentary sets but they all look pretty fake to me. 🙂

I have a very strong technical background, but I am not an engineer. If you want somebody to discuss the finer points of VoIP with SIP protocol, I’m your guy. If you want an understanding on how telecommunications work from user to carrier to user, I know how it all works. 8xx, CNAM, CID, SS7, 5ess, DMS, EWSD, CAS, ground start, loopstart, q931, all of it.  However the mechanical engineering stuff, building robots, programming micro-controllers, etc. That is all pretty far outside my wheelhouse professionally, and there is really no carryover from that technical world to robotics. It may as well be comparing a  catfish to a doorknob.

I suspect that is not the case with the people working for the BBC gathering that sort of footage. I would imagine they have real photographers, set designers, mechanical engineers, motion control experts, time lapse experts, and the sort working together as a team. I could be wrong, if they have a one person Op doing that work I would love to be able to talk them up.

 

I suppose the one thing I really have going for me is I am too dumb to know when I am out of my league. When I find something of interest I tend to achieve a laser focus and manage to push through until I accomplish what I am looking to accomplish. On the same token, that can also be a hindrance, as sometimes I don’t know when it is time to pull in additional resources. Maybe I need some help with this project.

I have several Biolapse projects I am working on. The thing is they are very slow going because I am trying to build living sets now, and it can take quite a bit of time for those sets to establish (if they don’t just outright die).  I feel like I am lacking a clear direction though. Building the robots, setting up the studio, all those had clear end goals.

I suppose this is sounding like I am being pretty down on myself, that is not the case though. I have only been filming plants for 3 years, and I have had to undertake every challenge on my own, and i have accomplished quite a bit.  It may not be the quality you see on the BBC.

Yet….

 

 

Data organization

NERD WARNING. This is not a post with cool robotics, or botanical timelapse, or cats doing funny stuff. This is all about data.

One of the least discussed but real challenges with time-lapse photography is data management.

The fact is I am not very good at managing this stuff and I lose footage all the time(well, I don’t lose it, but I don’t know where it is). I need to get a grip on this, and this is how I am planning to do it.

My storage is as follows.

C drive = 500GB SSD (OS, apps, etc)
Z drive = 500GB SSD (primarily used as a scratch pad, temp place while working with files)
M drive = 7.8TB, Raid 0 configuration (my sandbox)
X drive = 3tb Raid 1.

Aside from having STEAM loaded on my PC so my son can play Gary’s Mod, this machine is only used for media work.  So there of course is the Adobe suite, LRTimelapse, and a few other programs for modeling in 3d and designing circuit boards, but all together with the OS that takes up roughly 200gb on the C:\

The Z:\ was added because I wanted a place to stack a lot of material on a drive other than the C. I primarily use this as a temp location to house footage while working on a project.  This is all short-term storage.

Those files eventually make it on the M drive which is my sandbox. I wanted a drive with a lot of elbow room where running out of space would not be a problem (ran into that issue with The Big Pacific). This is used for Mid to long term storage. As I finish a project (which with botanical time-lapse can take months to a year) I then move to an external drive for archiving.

And last, the X drive which consists of two 3tb drives that are mirrored. This is used to house personal stuff, photos, etc, and quite a bit of time-lapse.

That all sounds good right?  Except its not. Its a goddamn mess right now and I could spend weeks trying to get it all organized. I realized how bad it has become when I was trying to find source files for a clip that is being licensed, and it took me the better part of an hour to get it worked out.

The fact is I need a workflow, and I am trying to get one figured out before I start to re-organize all my files.

It could be worse

But I need to get a handle on it before it does.  Things are starting to hit a bit of a routine with Biolapse. I generally find myself shooting for a week, then pull the data, change subjects, angles, etc, then restart for another week.  I spent quite a bit of time shooting some very slow growing plants for The Big Pacific which has not been released yet which took 8-10 weeks. Other plants like daffodils can be shot in a day. But average about a week per shoot.

I generally have 5 cameras running when shooting, and average 480-600 frames per shoot per camera.

Canon 6D (Raw + Jpeg)
Two Sony A7 cameras, (Raw + Jpeg)
Fuji XT1 (Jpeg)
Fuji Xe-1 (Jpeg)

That is about 1800 Raw images, 3000 Jpegs per week.  Then I load all the full res images in Adobe and output full resolution master files in Quicktime format, all of which are over 4k resolution with the Sony’s close to 6k resolution.  Those master files average about 3 gigabytes per second of footage. I will also down-sample those to 1080p to make them player friendly.

When I say it could be worse, many time-lapse photographers will pull in that much footage in a single day of shooting.

I have absolutely no idea how many TB’s of footage I have. I have got stuff on all my drives floating around. I also have a couple smaller 1tb drives and a 2tb external drive floating around.

I am open to suggestions

I have been thinking of the best way to establish a workflow with the existing equipment I have.  And this is what I have come up with.
To be clear, I am sort of a control freak. I will never be OK with relying on another program to organize my stuff. I like to know where it is and how it is structured. I also do not like Lightroom. In fact, I think i would rather smell a strangers fart than use Lightroom. It feels very restricted and too controlling for me. So I only use it if I absolutely have to.  I am not interested in arguing why I SHOULD use lightroom, or any other program to track this stuff for me. I prefer a manual process.

Lets start with RAW images, the Jpegs will follow the same process but skip the RAW.  For this example lets assume I have all 5 cameras shooting.

Note: I have somewhat been doing it this way as a result of trial and error. the goal is to be able to outline a complete process for handling the data and to stick to it.  So this is what I have come up with.

  1. Shoot finishes. Load all the Jpegs/RAW to the M drive into a folder. The M Drive being striped reads pretty fast, and it has worked out great as a place to hold the source material while rendering.
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Current\
    Each cameras output will be in its own folder, my naming conventions are as follows
    \Subject\end date\moco or static\Camera\
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Otto Canon 6D\
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 5 Axis A7\
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XE1\
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XT1\
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static A7\
  2. Get rid of the Garbage. Sometimes I may have a need to run a test shot during the sequence which results in images illuminated by the grow lights. I find them and throw them out. Sometimes I will get a frame that is noticeably darker than the rest, this is a bug in the Biolapse Control Module and will happen after midnight. I never debugged it because it is not a big issue and only happens once in a while. I will throw those out.  I will also usually throw out the first 5-10 images as they are normally test images from when I was setting up.  I then open the folder with the thumbnails on the largest size and open the first image and hold the left arrow which provides a low resolution preview of the timelapse. I look for anything that needs to be adjusted, if the frame moves due to a camera bump, or any pink or dark frames.  They all go in the trash.
  3. For the cameras shooting RAW, I will then create a /JPEG/ subfolder in each of those folders listed above. I load all the RAW images in Adobe Camera Raw and will select all, and edit all RAW images at the same time, color/exposure adjustments only. No cropping. Then I will save them as Jpegs into the Jpeg folders.
  4. Next comes Adobe Premiere Pro. Launch Premiere Pro with a new project with the appropriate name. Subject and Date, similar to the folder names.
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017
    The project will be saved in
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Current\
    I will create Bins for each camera and load all the Jpegs into their respective bins. The Bins will all carry the same name as the source folders listed in Step 1.
  5. Create new Native resolution Sequences. I will organize the files by name, select all, and drag into a new 30fps sequence of their native resolution. So the Sonys are 6000×4000, Canon is 5,472 × 3,648, and Fuji is 4896 x 3264.
  6. Scrub for adjustments. I will slowly scrub through each master file, generally looking for the points identified in step 2 where something was shifted. I have actually had very good success adjusting the cameras height if a plant is growing taller than expected and moving out of frame and re-aligning it up in post.
  7. Render the Master Files. Once I am satisfied that the master file is good, I will go ahead and export them, keeping the same name as the folders.  I keep the same maximum resolution in some custom Quicktime formats. All of these are exported into Z:\AUDIT which is a temp holding folder for new videos for review. However I have not found a player that will play them, these are the master soruce files used for any cropping, burns moves, or whatever else.
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Otto Canon 6D MASTER.mov
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 5 Axis A7 MASTER.mov
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XE1 MASTER.mov
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XT1 MASTER.mov
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static A7 MASTER.mov
  8. Render the 1080p files. Next bring the master full res files into premiere Pro and put them in new 1080P 30fps sequences. Those are then rendered in H.264 30fps 1080p high bitrate.
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Otto Canon 6D 1080P.mp4
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 5 Axis A7 1080P.mp4
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XE1 1080P.mp4
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static XT1 1080P.mp4
    \Nepenthes 2 17 2017 Static A7 1080P.mp4
  9. Rescrub for any issues. This is a good time to view each of the 1080P files and see if there are any issues, dark frames, flicker (which I never find), pink frames, or shots in the beginning or end that should be clipped. I will then go through and redo Steps 6 through 9 for those timelapses until they are all perfect.
  10. Instagram and social media. This is a good spot to go ahead and re-render in a format suitable for instagram or any other social media sites. If there are any I feel like showcasing. I have a sequence preset I will use for this, when that is done I put them in a dropbox that is tied to my PC then pick them up on my android and export to instagram.
  11. Move 1080P files from the AUDIT folder to M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Current\
    Move the MASTER files to
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Current\MASTER
  12. Add to Inventory List. Using a format I developed for a shot inventory for The Big Pacific I will create an inventory spreadsheet to track the shots, duration, a ranking 1-5 in quality, description, and other information.
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Inventory.xls
    This inventory will have multiple pages, each page represents a an external drive.  Once this folder gets about 1.75 terabytes these will all be offloaded to a hard drive and archived.
    Copies of the 1080P will be added in new subfolders
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Drive1
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Drive2
    M:\Biolapse\SourceMaterial\Drive3

Now everything should be nice and tidy.  Using a hot-swappable drive port I can pull the drive and store it. Each drive will contain a copy of the shot inventory, the source material, master files, etc, and all of this can be removed from the computer. Except of course the 1080p review files and the shot inventory.

I think this SHOULD help me keep track of footage. Anytime I need something I just look at the inventory list and it will tell me which drive it is archived on, and If i need anything higher res than the 1080p file stored in the Drive folders I can pull the corresponding drive and plug it in and retrieve the master file and source material if needed.

I would like to hear feedback.

Not sure how everyone else does it. As I mentioned earlier with Biolapse I gather footage at much a slower rate than many other time-lapse photographers and might have 6-7tb of footage tops, but it is really starting to become an issue. I have a lot of misplaced work. I know it is on my computer somewhere, I just have to spend the time to find it. But it does not make sense to go through that effort until I have a good workflow and archiving method.