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Mission Time Lapse by Mark Humpage, Elemental Photographer

Mark Humpage is a stormchaser and photographer. Here's his advice on time lapse weather photography.

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Question: What does a seasoned stormchaser do when not chasing storms?

The answer, Watch the storms come to him of course!
Photo by Mark Humpage
Photo by Mark Humpage.

The economic crunch is being felt far and wide, and that includes photographers. Ripples from the crunch shock wave are now being felt globally by the average person, like you and I. Unfortunately, for me and my specialised genre of work, travel is paramount to success. However, travel costs, and with global cutbacks I am by no means excluded from the purse pinch. Visits to remote parts of the planet, capturing extremes of nature is on hold. Nobody is more disappointed than myself, but that’s how it falls at the moment, and life goes on. In a way, it has opened me to other ideas and how to make the most of all things local, almost going back to our roots.

June 15th 2009 was quite an extraordinary day across the UK. Thunderstorms were forecast across almost the entire country, something you do not see too often! I recall watching the BBC forecast, the previous night and my favourite presenter, the extrovert Rob McElwee, started off by stating "tomorrow will be a good day for storm chasers!!". Wow, I thought, never heard that term
mentioned on UK TV before - I was excited.

I made a conscious decision not to go chasing storms on the Monday for the simple reason they were too widespread. Experience has shown me that on some days it is more productive to sit tight and let everything come to you. As it happens this was a wise decision. My next wise decision was to perform a form of photography I don't use that often, but when I do, and the subject is right, it can be nothing short of breathtaking. This being time lapse photography.

Not via a video but a dslr camera. Using a still camera for capturing time lapse offers many practical and quality advantages over its video counterparts. Skies in motion are one of the best mediums for showcasing time lapse work. Mondays fast moving storms would provide just that.

I invested in an external time lapse controller unit (PClix) a few years ago and it is one of the most useful bits of kit I have. A tiny unit (not much bigger than a matchbox) which automatically fires the camera for any period or frequency of time. Quite a powerful piece of kit and at £99 it won't break the bank. The Olympus E3 does not have a built in intervalometer but its waterproof capacity allows me to leave it out all day in all weather.

I set up my Olympus E3 camera primed with a wide angle lens (7-14mm), together the time lapse unit and mounted the tripod in a field at the bottom of my garden. The settings are pretty straight forward. I downgraded the in-camera image resolution to small/ normal, which yields a 1280x960 image of around a couple of hundred Kb. Huge resolution/quality images are pointless since ultimately a 640x480 resolution video file will be produced. A mid range aperture (F5.6) in 'A' mode (the camera would then choose the shutter speed for the changing light levels throughout capture) and manually locking the focus did the trick. Using the power battery holder (HLD-4) on the E3 gives me nearly 10 hours of continuous shooting....and that's exactly what I did. The camera was positioned in the morning and stayed there until sunset, some 10 hours later. The time lapse unit was set to capture (via a cable which runs from the PClix unit to the E3's RC port) a single image every 8 seconds. I have learned to gauge the interval time with observations of cloud movements through experience and 8s would be just perfect as clouds would be moving along at 'jogging' speed. A broad rule I have adapted when deciding interval times based upon cloud movement speed is as follows:
  • Walking - 8+ secs
  • Jogging - 4-8 secs
  • Running - 2-4 secs
The camera was set up and started clicking away approximately 1100 hrs. I was at home all day working on various things and closely monitored the weather radar as convective showers piled in, one after another. It was fascinating to watch. Coincidentally, the surface pressure charts had my location smack bang in the centre of the low pressure system and which almost became stationary all afternoon. This meant surface winds (and cloud movements) were veering constantly all around me, creating crazy looking cloud structures, almost swaying to and fro, as the air masses above me were wrapping around and circulating the low pressure core. I knew this would look fantastic on the time lapse and I could not wait to play it back. This was, alas, a long way off yet, however I did keep walking back to the camera to check battery status in an unnecessary paranoid fashion.

Hour after hour passed and with it came the most torrential convective showers. Water was running down my drive creating huge artificial lakes, such was its intensity. Another good test for the camera I mused. Ten hours later and after waiting for the sunset shadow to relieve the camera of its torture, I wandered back outside, retrieved all my equipment and got straight to work. Now it was play time and here is my post capture workflow:

• Download over 4000 images from camera to PC.
• Batch resize/rename to 640 x 480 resolution.
• Import, via image sequence, batched images into QT
Pro at 60 frames per second (This can be reduced
depending on number of hours/frames captured).
• 4000 images have now been converted into a single
minute of movie file.
• Add music.
• Save raw original finished movie file.
• Export to Mobile Me and share (creates compressed
m4v file) via a nice sexy interface!

After all that post processing I sat down and watched the fruits of my days labour. As it played, I screamed out an initial burst of 'Wow', which rudely awoke the dog from her sleep and who subsequently fell off her bed! It must have been good, and boy it was. The 10 hours of footage converted into one minute of stunning footage.

The skies were like a turbulent river of constant turbulence and motion as the moving air masses
wrestled around the low pressure system. Fascinating. The camera lapped up the numerous visible
drenchings, adding to the spectacle, and the grand finale of an aeroplane contrail melting in the sky was the icing on the cake. Not bad, even if I say so myself!

Cloud time lapses are an incredibly useful and visual educational tool showing those layers above our heads. I liken the atmosphere to layers in a cake. Each one, from the bottom up, has air movements, and at different speeds/directions, called wind shear. Each layer and its own respective air movement is independent and almost inert, until they start to mix into other layers of the cake. This is when the fun starts and a good recipe for unstable weather conditions. Initiation of that trigger is the key ingredient. Summer convection, fronts or orographic features (hills, mountains etc.) being a few trigger mechanisms.
 Photo by Mark Humpage
 Photo by Mark Humpage.

The wind shear in this video is clearly evident as you can see the clouds moving in different directions at different levels and at different speeds. This is the invisible mechanism by which hot air balloons can actually turn. I bet you never knew that!

It was a privilege to witness and I hope it helps inspire you to even have a go at time lapse photography.

Enjoy the video.

The video can be viewed on Mark Humpage's video.

For more information on Mark and his work visit Mark Humpage's website.

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