Botanical Timelapse Tips – Long Term Shooting Concerns

Hey Everybody!

So in the last article I went over how to achieve good flicker free footage. But what of the studio?  How should things be setup? What sort of environment is best for the plants?  This can be a bit tricky to go over, so I will break this out into several classifications.

My first recommendation is to get to know a florist. They see flowers 24/7 and can usually give solid recommendations on flowers based on how long it takes from the flower to bloom. They also may have ideas for flowers you might not normally know about, and usually can assist sourcing them.

Ultra Short Term (Less than one day)

This is the easiest way to start into botanical time lapse, and you can get some awesome results with minimal equipment.  Some plants such as Daffodils and many types of Daisies will go from full bud to full bloom in a matter of hours.

Studio Requirements:
Literally anywhere at home or at the studio. If it is a nice sunny day with no clouds you can even use natural lighting near a window.  Cloudy days are a bit more risky if there is a window, I would recommend using a well lit windowless room.

Equipment Requirements.  

  • First you need a camera. In order to prevent flicker, I recommend any DSLR or Mirrorless with a non-native lens, or a Canon DSLR with the twist lock trick for the aperture.
  • You will need an intervalometer if the camera does not have one built in.
  • You will need a plant. I recommend talking to a florist to find something that is expected to bloom within a few hours. Daffodils, Daisies and Lillies are good bets. You can almost watch a daffodil bloom before your very eyes.
  • You will need a fresh and full battery for the camera. Despite the poor CIPA ratings for mirrorless cameras, generally a single battery is still enough as you are not using focus, flash, or any of that other nonsense.
  • You need a decent tripod.

I recommend with ultra fast blooming flowers that you get setup first, THEN go source the flowers. (especially if shooting daffodils they REALLY go fast) That way you can get home and just prop them in front of the camera and let it run. I would recommend intervals of about 2 to 3 minutes on the long end.  Flowers in vases run fairly well for this type of work as many of them when cut will flower pretty quickly.  When you are preparing for this, it may even be worthwhile to pick up the flower in question and take pictures of it with notes throughout the afternoon so you can better predict when it will bloom.

Short Term (1 – 5 days)

You may find yourself getting bored with the Ultra Short and decide to try something a bit longer. Now things will start getting a bit more complicated, and there are more things to concern yourself with.  This will cover a vast majority of flowers, and you may be able to get multiple blooms.

New concerns from Ultra-Short

  1. Power.
    You no longer have the luxury of popping in a battery and letting it run. You will now need to get some long term power setup. This is actually not too difficult, and can be cheap, or expensive depending on the camera.  Some cameras are super easy to power, such as Fuji.  I have a page -HERE- that details how I successfully gutted a cheap aftermarket Fuji battery and inserted a DC/DC power regulator.  This worked like a charm, and I just plugged a 12vdc power supply to the battery and I can keep my Fuji’s running indefinitely, Months at a time have been no concern.  Other cameras may work with this technique as well, others may not.  This should ONLY be performed by somebody that is experience with electronics, and should only be done AT YOUR OWN RISK.
    I have found that Sony and Panasonic have chips in the batteries and do not work very reliably with this method.
    You can buy aftermarket AC Power adapters as well. The cheap Chinese versions are usually about 20% the cost of the name brand versions, and SOMETIMES work just as well. I have used these with Olympus and Nikon and there was never an issue. However the Sony A7 series cameras would only power for a day or so then the camera would assume the battery was low and shut it off. I tried the cheap knockoffs from 2 brands and got the same result. I took the plunge for the $130 ac adapter and it worked like a charm, the A7 cameras can now stay on months without issue.  I ran into a similar issue with the Canon 6D. The good thing about the Sony and Canon brands are that you wont void any warranties. So once again, use the cheap shit at your own risk. I still use my self made Fuji Adapters, but I use OEM units for my Sony and Canon.
  2. Keeping the plant alive.  
    First off, now you need to water the plant. I will use a chemical sprayer and fill it with distilled water, which allows me to squirt water into the pot of the plant without accidentally bumping anything.  Other times i would use a setup where for one reason or another that would not work, so I would run a small tube to the top side of the pot and glue it in place with a funnel at the other end of the tube, and deliver the water in that method.  If the plant is good with wet feet, you can also just sit the pot in a tray of water. However some plants will not react well to this, so always do your research.
    Lighting the plant. If you are only shooting for a week, you can get away with some pretty easy lighting techniques without the need for day/night cycles. I would just use a 75w bulb and keep it on the entire time, or grab some T5 florescent lights. As you get later in the week the plant might start to stress from constant light, but if planned out correctly you should be able to get the footage before it causes any problems.
  3. Light Control.
    Now that your are spanning several days, you need to get an firm grip on any and all light in the studio. No longer can you simply stick it by the window. There are several ways to handle this.
    1) Room with no windows, or Blacked out windows. This is the best way to do it, but not everyone has access to this.
    2) Shoot in a closet or a grow tent.  With the legalization of certain plants throughout the US there has been a boom in grow tents, they are fairly inexpensive, usually well built, they have easy access to run in cables and wires, and have virtually 100% light control. Also a closet would probably work equally as well if you have the room. If using a tent or a closet, you should look into a LED light instead of a bulb or florescent due to the heat those fixtures put off. Not a “grow light” just a regular fill light. Grow lights often use a spectrum ideal to plant growth and terrible for photography.

This will get you most of the flower shots you want.  I will generally run intervals between 6 minutes and 12 minutes for these shoots depending on how many days I plan to capture. Make sure your memory cards are large enough. Check, doublecheck, triplecheck your focus.  If possible, use an HDMI output to a small monitor so you can keep an eye on the results. But do NOT touch the camera. best bet is once it is running, leave it the heck alone. Shoot tethered, use a monitor, or just be careful in setup, but dont touch the damn camera once it starts. Be very careful with watering as well. I recommend an external intervalometer so you can easily see when the next image is taken so you don’t try to water 10 seconds before it shoots.  If you DO bump the camera, dont freak out and shut it all down. Often this can be corrected in post if required.

Intermediate Term (5 Days – 2 weeks)

This is where shit starts to get real. With the carnivorous plants I generally shoot between 10 to  20 days . This is where you start needing to pay a lot of attention to the plants environment, lighting, and the rest. Unfortunately there are no good turn-key solutions to coordinating the lighting, so some effort into devising some relays may be needed if you want to get involved in this. Intermediate Term gives you a lot more flexibility as to what you plan to shoot. Flowers normally bloom fast enough that this sort of thing is not needed, but if you are filming actual plant growth Short Term is often not going to cut it.

Intermediate Requirements

  1. Grow Lights
    First off, you now need grow lights. Using the single incandescent Bulb just wont cut it anymore, it will not generate enough light for the plant, and for this type of work you need a very good environment for the plant to grow. You want LED. Period. Don’t waste any time and money on ML, or HPS, or Florescent. They are useless for this.  I made this bad decision and wasted some good money. None of those lights are made to be turned on/off throughout the day. Within a few days you will kill the ballasts on the ML and HPS, and drastically shorten the life of the Florescent lights. Go for LED grow lights period. They work awesome, can be turned on and off thousands of times a day without issue, don’t need to warm up, output very consistent light, they are inexpensive, efficient, and dont generate much heat. They are perfect for this type of work.
  2. Fill Lights.
    Whats that? Fill lights?…. yep. grow lights put out all the wrong color for photography. You also need Fill lights. As i had gone over in the last blog post all you need are some inexpensive LED panels normally used for video work. Make sure they can be dimmed, and there is no reason to pay over $100 per light. I use a total of 3. One for the foreground, one for the background, and one for the backdrop if needed.
  3. Light Coordination
    Now you are moving into specialized equipment. You have to be able to time 2 lighting routines at the same time. First off, you have to shut off the grow lights and turn on the fill lights before the camera takes an image.  How you accomplish this is up to you. I am unaware of any turn-key system that allows for this, save for one which I will discuss in a moment.  My solution was to build my BCM (Biolapse Control Module) you can read the blog post about it HERE , but in a nutshell this is my lighting and environmental coordinator. The BCM has 4 relay controlled outlets and it controls all the timing in my system. about 10 seconds before it takes an image it turns on the fill lights. 5 seconds before it triggers the camera it shuts off the grow lights.  It then takes an image, waits 5 seconds and turns the grow lights back on and the fill lights off. All of these timers are configurable in the BCM, but those are the settings I use.
    NEXT, you have to have day/night cycles for the plants. You cant just keep the light on them for 10 days an expect them to be ok with it. Generally much longer than 5 days and most plants will start getting stressed and either stop blooming, stop growing, or start to die. The need their beauty sleep.  My BCM controls this as well, of course this is no use to anyone else as they dont have a BCM.  I am thinking of building a new version of the BCM and may produce a small run if anyone is interested. They will NOT be cheap though, as this sort of thing takes a lot of time and energy to develop and build.
    DRAGONFRAME SOLUTION
    There MIGHT be another option though. Dragonframe has something called the DDMX-512. If you are unaware of Dragonframe, it is program used for stop motion films. I use this myself and recommend it to anyone who wants to do this sort of work.  Dragonframe has the ability to integrate with DMX lighting systems. This is the same system that DJ’s use for lighting effects, concerts, all that sort of stuff. This box will connect to the computer running Dragonframe and enable you to have brilliant full lighting control over your scene, including a “Bash light” which is a work light used while you manipulate the puppets between the images(it IS stop-motion afterall) You would need to get a DMX dimmer pack, which sets you back another 100 bucks or so. You plug the grow light in the dimmer pack, assign that channel as a Bash light. Then plug in the Fill lights to the other channels in the Dimmer pack and assign those as the fill lights. Dragonframe has an extremely well done intervalometer built in, when it gets ready to take the picture it will shut off the Bash light and turn on the fill lights, take the image, then revserse them and shut off the fill lights and turn the Bash light back on.
    Now this gets you most of the way there. You still need day/night cycles which can easily be accomplished with a simple lighting timer plugged between the Grow light and the DMX dimmer pack.
    This is not exactly a cheap setup. Dragonframe is about $300, the DDMX-512 is another $250, and the DMX dimmer pack is another $100 or so. So figure $650 – 700 not including the grow lights and fill lights (typically about $100 each for either).
    So ballpark a budget about $1000 to get the lighting coordination needed for this work.
    Arduino Solution
    Another much cheaper option is using micro controllers. These things are a blast and had been the brains for Dynamic Perception, eMotimo, The Chronos Project, and many other motion control systems. If you are already familiar with Arduino you may well already have it pretty much figured out, if not, this is an awesome thing to learn and its a great way to learn about robotics, automation, sensors, and such. Anybody who commits the time can learn this stuff, its amazing how big of an impact learning this can actually have on your life, and it is a LOT of fun.
  4. Environment.
    I live in Colorado. it is a desert at nearly 6,000ft elevation. Very low levels of humidity, this is NOT a place conducive for many plants. The longer you are shooting a plant, the more this can be a problem. My BCM also has temp/humidity controls. I have a fogging system which is essentially a large plastic storage tub with a pond FOGGER and a PC fan which will blow fog into the room. I can hit a humidity range of approx 20% to 90% in my studio. The BCM also disables the fogger several minutes before the shoot to ensure all the vapor has dissipated before it takes an image. I also have a space heater I can turn on to ratchet up the temp, being in my basement it normally sits around 69 degrees Fahrenheit year round. with all the grow lights on and Otto’s motors hot that room will get around 85 degrees without any ventilation.  I also had to run some ducting and fans for a fresh-air exchange system, if needed I can suck the heated air out of the room in order to cool it. Also having the FAI means that between shoots I can pull fresh air direct from outdoors into the studio to freshen things up a bit. These are all considerations you should keep in mind when doing longer term timelapse. If the plant is not in an ideal environment, it will not grow/flower properly.

Long Term (2 weeks +)

Long Term botanical time lapse is really not much different than Intermediate, however the stakes get much higher. If you ruin a shoot, you lose weeks and months of time. So you really need to make sure you have everything setup correctly. I have some recommendations to help with the success.

  1. Watering.
    Automated Watering Systems are super handy. Nothing is worse than shooting for 2 weeks, finally getting the development you were looking for in a plant, and end up kicking the set or camera stand when watering the plants. I have experimented with many types of watering systems and they all have different times when they would be best employed. The main thing is to give yourself a way to water the plants without touching them. Whether it is a pump in a bucket with some drop lines, or a large tray underneath for bottom watering, or using a chemical sprayer and squirting water to the plant, explore your options to to see what works best with the plants.
    Fouling Water can be a real problem. This most often occurs when a plant is sitting in a tub with any amount of standing water. Doing water changes might not be possible without disrupting the set. I have tried with filtration systems but in general they are just expensive and problematic. If you want to water from the bottom using a large tray and dont want the water to foul an easy way to resolve this issue is to use Sphagnum Moss in the watering tray.  It has natural antibacterial properties that keep the water fresh. It is cheap to buy live, it handles the mail very well, and grows very fast. There are plenty of youtube tutorials on how to cultivate sphagnum moss, and it is very easy to keep alive.  My live sets live in large tupperware containers with hundreds of holes drilled in for drainage, those sit in larger trays that have distilled water with clumps of sphagnum moss for months on end and the water never fouls, Just top it off from time to time.
  2. Dealing with bugs
    You would be amazed what shows up in soil. Beetles. Worms. Bugs. you name it. But how to get rid of them? Well, not all plants work well with pesticides. Most carnivorous plants will die when exposed to that stuff. You can usually use something like Neem oil as a safe alternative but it might not be enough.  So here are a few trade secrets.

    1. Pressure cook your soil.
      Just seriously pressure cook the shit out of it. That should kill pretty much ANYTHING inside.
    2. CO2 baths.
      If you have a living set and an aphid infestation or something along those lines happens, drown the buggers in CO2. Take the plants/set and put them in a large bin. Add a couple large cans of water and dump in dry ice. The dry ice will generate massive amounts of CO2 which weighs more than oxygen.  Light a match, if you lower it past the top of the container and it goes out, then the container is full of CO2. Then put a lid on the container and leave it somewhere for a couple days. The plants will be fine, but all those little critters will drown from a lack of oxygen.  I highly recommend this before doing a long term shoot where they might be disruptive.
    3. Biological Warfare.
      I have quite a few carnivorous plants, when it comes to efficiency on getting all the little tiny bugs the most effective are the Drosera, also known as Sundews.  Drosera Capensis are relatively hardy.  Mine are grown in 3-4 inch pots with a mix of Sphagnum Pete, silica, and chopped up New Zealand sphagnum moss. They sit in about an inch of water with plenty of light and they produce tons of narrow leaves with little sticky fingers that are excellent at catching prey.  My largest Drosera Capensis are about the size of softballs. They can take down almost any sized prey, from flies to tiny tiny aphids that Venus fly traps are unable to capture.  Normally when shooting a live set i will have 3-4 of these surrounding the set and they do a great job of keeping the pest population down.  Just be sure to read up on how to care for them, they require distilled water, no tap water ever. Drosera Capensis can usually be purchased live for about 7-8 bucks per plant, they reproduce and over the course of time you might find the 3 you started out with have spawned another half dozen smaller ones which can quickly grow to mature size. Carniverous plants require a bit of knowledge, but a few youtube tutorials should be plenty. Stick with the Drosera Capensis. If you spend $70 on some other fancy Drosera you may find the one you purchased for $30 never gets bigger than a dime.
  3. Power disruptions.
    Buy a UPS power backup, plug the Fill lights, camera, and any controllers into this. if using a computer to run dragonframe use a laptop as it has a built in batter backup. If using any moco, make sure they are plugged in.  Do NOT plug the grow lights into the UPS, the plants will be fine with a short outage of grow lights and you dont want them draining the battery backup.  My battery backup is enough to power all 5 cameras, otto, and the fill lights for about 30 minutes. I have pretty stable power, but already that has saved my butt 2-3 times.

I hope these tips are useful.

Generally anything a week and under is very simple and requires very little specialized equipment and you can get excellent results. That’s about all I have for now.  Next time around I might go with control systems and motion control.  Please leave a note in the comments if there are things you would like me to cover

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