Thunderstorms, Time-Lapses, and a Panoramic

Last month, Southern California experienced some rare summer weather: rain. As most people are aware, California has experienced a severe drought over the last several years. Water levels are at their lowest in more than 20 years. It’s rather scary to be a permanent resident here, with little prospects of moving somewhere with a better potable water supply. Southern California’s enormous population doesn’t really compute with a water conservation strategy. So, when we do get rain, I’m excited for two reasons: one, more water is being deposited into out local reservoirs. And two, we get to see something other than a dry blue sky.

This storm was a bit unique. The vast majority of storms we experience over the course of a year come from the Pacific Northwest. They are cold and bring driving winds straight out of the Gulf of Alaska. Those storms have become less common over the last three years due to a ridge of high pressure, which previously sat near Baja, right on top of California that prevents them from delivering to us our much needed resource. This latest storm came from the southeast. This is the 3rd storm of the season that we have seen come from the south/southeast, and with our ever-changing climate, one must wonder if (and hope that) this is a new summer weather pattern that will bring us a little more moisture than we are accustomed to seeing during the summer months. And, although it is considerably more humid, these storms give us a reprieve from the normally burning sun by dropping the temperature on hot days nearly 10 degrees.

Tuesday I noticed the growing clouds, and at about 1:30, I committed to head out and shoot. I drove to the Quail Hill Trail Head off of Sand Canyon and the 405. The car read 90 outside, so I took a few last big gulps of water and threw on my pack that contained my Canon 5D Mark III and Sony A7R, plus several L lenses and two tripods. This trail is about a 4 mile loop. It is easily visible from the 405 freeway in Irvine, and has panoramic views at some points. There are also a few smaller trails that people have created, but are noted as off-limits by signage. I almost always find that to be disappointing.

I walked nearly the length of the trail, and ended up hanging a left to climb on of the hills that has a view of Irvine Spectrum and some of the larger business buildings in South Irvine. As I got down there the wind really started to kick up. There was dust blowing from the trail, and I knew I’d be in for some solid time-lapse opportunities.

The first clip was is a total of about 24 minutes of shooting at 1 frame per second (FPS) using the Magic Lantern firmware available to 5D III users. This time around I setup the camera to shoot with the mirror up (silent mode) to avoid adding to the shutter count. This is useful since the some time lapse sequences can reach more than 2000 frames (or even more). Because shutters are Canon shutters are rated to 100,000 cycles, that would leave me with 50 time-lapse sequences from the time of purchase before I could reliably count on the shutter failing (in the middle of a shoot!).

Some problems with these: As is typical with time-lapse footage – especially that captured during the day – flickering is pretty noticeable. I didn’t apply any correction to it. I certainly didn’t do enough research to find a reliable anti-flicker software. These are shot at full resolution, so I have the ability to pan and zoom without losing quality. This is a nice effect, but still doesn’t compare to motorized slider footage. (side note/update: I just traded some gear for a slider that can be accessorized with a motor!)


The second video was shot at Bolsa Chica. The following day the storm was just sitting on top of us, not producing rain, but certainly making for interesting views. I had shot a couple of sequences of the clouds passing by – one with a Snowy Egret pecking around, and one on the back side of the reserve where the protected nesting area borders the oil field.

As I turned around to move back toward the dock that crosses the preserve, I saw this giant eyeball-looking cloud had formed. It looked like something out of a sci-fi film. I quickly got to a point on the dock where I could compose a panoramic that didn’t include a lot of the structure around me. It’s quite challenging to accomplish this without either being on the beach looking off into the ocean (which a lot of my work does), or composing a crooked image that clearly was trying to avoid showing something. I’ve shot more than 50 panoramas, and, due to the nature of the extreme wide angle,  there always seems to be some element that I didn’t intend or want to be included. But, I think I was able to accomplish a pretty good crop with this image, without it being clear that there is structure all around me.

Click on image for full view.
Copyright 2015, Craig Norris. Click on image for full view.

What I love about panoramas is the ability to make huge reproductions of these images without compromising the sharpness. The native size of this file is roughly 50″x25″. With the right post processing I’d be comfortable printing this in a collectors edition as large as 75″x37.5″. Canvas could go even larger – up to twice the size of the native file. That would be so fun to see!

The time-lapse from Bolsa Chica is posted below. My goals definitely changed once I saw the vortex spinning off the coast. I was there sort of putzing around, aimlessly capturing the clouds passing by. It goes to show the more you expose (pun unintended) yourself to, the more opportunities you will have to capture something remarkable.

Lessons from this day:

1. My computer is slow as shit when it comes to processing time-lapses. As I’ve stated in earlier posts, I’ve been exporting these sequences as 16-bit tiff files. I’m pretty sure I need more processing power and more RAM in order to continue doing this in a timely manner.

2. Flickering, again.

3. Panning. ML allows you to override the FPS you can capture in HD video. So, I can capture 6 FPS, and make a relatively smooth time-lapse. However, I can only do that in 1080p. So, I’m either stuck shooting at 1 FPS for full resolution while getting what looks like a claymation movie, or shooting at 6 FPS without the ability to pan without losing quality. Ok, it doesn’t look like claymation, but the difference in smoothness between 1 FPS and 6 FPS is pretty astounding. I would love if ML were adjusted (like it is with recording at a normal FPS) to allow for time-lapse capture at different FPS intervals, and the lower the frame rate of video capture, the higher resolution you could record. It should really come down to card speed and the ability to write the maximum amount of information to the card as the restricting factor for what resolution at which a time-lapse could be captured.

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