Category Archives: Camera Control

Plan C: How To Plan a Time Sequence Shot

If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.

But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

 

The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:

  1. Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
    1. Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
    2. Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
    3. Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
  2. Monitor the weather at each location.

After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments.  I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.

San Jose City Hall Panorama

Calculating the Angles

Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse.  The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead.  Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.

Coming up with a Foreground

There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing.  I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally.  You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.

Calculating Where to Stand

I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed.  I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall.   My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.

Watching the Weather

Remember that the Rotunda was plan C.  I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites.  My favorite weather app is provided by weather.gov – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column.  Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”.  It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility.  We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.

Last Minute Adaptation

When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!

And then there are all of those flag posts.  My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high.  Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly.  I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time).  The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around.  It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course.  Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.

Planning Moonrise

If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda.  There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!

Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location.  The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.

Review: CamRanger

I am always looking for the best solutions for automating my night photography. In fact, I recently reviewed a litany of products. At the time I didn’t know about the CamRanger product – my friend Rob C. told me about it.

I am now the owner of a CamRanger. Here are my first impressions:

IMG_1552

iPhone Application

  1. I ordered from the CamRanger website, selected two day delivery. The box came all the way across the US. From Virginia to California and it arrived in two days. Woohoo! Great store and interaction.  It’s also available through Amazon, but doesn’t qualify for Prime. I figure if I’m going to pay for shipping I’ll order it directly from the company and hope they keep a bit more of the cash.  By the way I paid with PayPal. Sweet. 
  2. The packaging is reminiscent of the iPhone. Everything is nicely tucked into a little box. I was worried briefly because I also ordered two extra batteries. Thankfully they were tucked into the same box.
  3. Included were: Quick start instructions, a charger (wall wart), charger cable, USB to mini USB to connect to the camera, Ethernet cable (for upgrading the firmware), the batteries, a cigarette sized-packet with the CamRanger unit, and a carry pouch with a velcro closure and a carbiner clip.

The CamRanger is an incarnation of the TP-Link portable wireless router. It even says so on the batteries and under the case. Really clever approach! Kudos to them. Of course the firmware has been customized, and they are using the USB connector to drive the camera.  With that arrangement they can do a WHOLE lot more than you can do with a lowly intervalometer.

Essential is the CamRanger application for iPad and iPhone. They are planning to roll out other applications, including one for the PC. Since the device is a portable router, theoretically they could even provide some simple browser driven connectivity.  I loaded the app long before I received the box. You can’t get to square one without the device, however – it won’t show you any of its glorious features until it can talk to a camera. Makes some sense since what you can do depends on the camera it connects to.  I found some blemishes with the application which I’ll enumerate in just a moment.

What Can the CamRanger Do?

Before I criticize, let me first explain what you CAN do with this clever device. And this is just scratching the surface.

  • Focus stacking – let CamRanger control incremental focus for maximum depth of field with your macro (or other) shots.
  • Remotely adjust focus (camera auto-focus must be turned on for this).
  • True HDR using exposure time, ISO or f/stop increments. Up to 7 exposures are allowed.  Intervalometers with this feature can only work in low light since they can only crudely control the camera shutter.
  • Monitor “live view” and captured images. Even delete them when they suck. I am slathering at how this will improve my Astrophotography. Have you ever tried to adjust focus of a telescope pointed nearly straight up – it’s a neck breaker.
    IMG_1556

    Delete Images from Camera

  • Intervalometer functions: timelapse, and bulb exposures.
  • Complete control of settings (how complete depends on your camera). Nearly all of the settings can be changed remotely including ISO, f/stop, exposure time, metering mode, image size and type… and more.  I even moved the connection from my Canon 5D Mark II to my cohort’s Nikon D800 and had immediate control of his camera and its unique settings.
  • Some features do require manually changing the camera mode knob. For example to get bulb exposures you must be in Manual mode on a Canon 50D or in Bulb Mode on the 5D Mark II.  These peculiarities vary by camera.
  • CamRanger can do everything the EyeFi can do for sending images. EyeFi isn’t supported on CompactFlash media cameras so CamRanger is a great replacement!
  • IMG_0137Focus by touching the iPad screen.
  • Provides a Live View Histogram.
Touch the iPad to select focus point!
IMG_0128

Landscape Mode

 

 

 

 

IMG_0127

Portrait Mode

IMG_0136

View images from the camera memory card

What Could Use Some Improvement

I’ve ordered my complaints according to how much they affect the way I do most of my work which is night and astrophotography.  Some of these are nitpicking, I know.

  1. There is no sub-second interval for long exposures. I’d love for them to add a “star trail mode” and select the shortest possible interval between shots based on the camera type and behavior. The company says this is a limitation in what they are able to do through the USB connection to the camera.
  2. There appears to be no way to know if a timelapse is running nor can you stop a timelapse in progress.  The CamRanger can continue to run a timelapse sequence without an app driving it.  That’s a plus. But not being able to tell if it is running or to abort a sequence in progress is annoying. CamRanger tells me they are planning to address this in an upcoming release. Yeah!
  3. The pouch for the CamRanger could be improved to:
    • Hold all the items that come in the kit. The pouch can only hold the CamRanger device, USB cable and perhaps an extra battery – not the additional cables or plug-in charger.
    • Add velcro straps so I can wrap them around my tripod leg and secure the pouch to my tripod,
    • Provide a closeable window so I can see at a glance the unit status (i.e.those LEDs which are too bright, see below).
  4. The timelapse settings use spin dials to select the number of exposures and exposure times. The keypad would be more efficient.  It would also be great if the App automatically calculated your elapsed running time based on the number of exposures and a configurable frame rate (like TriggerTrap does). CamRanger is adding the calculation.
  5. The LEDs on the device are pretty doggone bright for night work. Would be great if they were dimmable. Of course that can be achieved by putting the device in the pouch or by putting some semi-opaque tape over the LEDs.
  6. IMG_1564To interact with the CamRanger, you have to switch your iDevice to the WiFi network generated by the CamRanger. Unfortunately that means you can not use your iDevice browser to surf the internet. If there were some fast-switch way to do it, I’d like that. Or better yet, I’d like to integrate the CamRanger into an existing network.
  7. The CamRanger itself comes with a serial number sticker. I’m SURE it will come off or get lost, but you need that serial number to connect to the device. The same serial number can be found on a sticker under the battery cover, though.
  8. The Access Key to join the CamRanger network is all in upper case.  All lower would be easier to type.
  9. My buddy Rob noted that he felt like he was going go have to break the battery cover off. Mine seems to come off quite easily if you hold it correctly.
  10. The CamRanger battery is a custom lithium-ion form factor. You can charge the battery in-device, but there is no additional charger provided.
  11. Sometimes when switching functions, for example when switching to Timer it told me “must turn off live view” which seems a bit strange since it knows how to do it!
  12. I ended up with both my iPad and my iPhone attempting to connect to CamRanger. It caused a problem that was not obviously solvable (Communication Error) until I realized both of my devices were trying to get CamRanger’s attention.

As I noted, some features depend on the way your camera interacts with the USB connection. I didn’t figure out, for example, how to cause my camera to meter the scene for me so that I could manually adjust my exposure – i.e. what I’d normally do with a half-press of my shutter button.

I haven’t tested the range or battery life as yet. Claimed battery life of the CamRanger is 6 hours. There is, however, no on screen indication of the CamRanger’s current battery condition.

Now That I’ve Used it More…

The problems with not being able to see if or stop a timelapse are more than irritating.  The only way to stop a timelapse in progress is to turn off the CamRanger device and turn it back on. It takes about a minute to come back up and meanwhile since the WiFi from CamRanger goes away, my iPad or iPhone will by default switch back to another known network (my home in this case).  That means I have to remember to also switch WiFi networks or I get “unable to communicate”.  I also noticed that for bizarre reasons which are not quite clear I could start a timelapse, but the camera did nothing.  However I *could* use the Capture button.

But that’s not the end of the pain, unfortunately.

  • The Bulb and timelapse settings are not saved. All settings reset to 0 when a timelapse completes.  If you want to re-run the same program – as I do when I take darkframes after my astrophotography sequences – you have to reprogram everything. That’s tedious.
  • Apparently the interface is not smart enough to know how to do HDRs that exceed the camera settings 30″ exposure time.  On my 50D, for example, an HDR sequence that should shoot at 15, 30 and 60 seconds will not be accepted. However that sequence can easily be achieved by using bulb mode for the last shot and that does not require changing the dial on the camera – so the app could figure it out.  I even tried doing this in “Bulb” mode, but it still didn’t seem to work.
  • The biggest pain in the butt is that the “Autofocus” behavior is not preserved.  What this means is I leave the AF button on on the lens, carefully fine tune the focus, turn it to MF (manual focus mode) on CamRanger and take my shots. If, however I am forced to cycle the CamRanger power it reverts to AF mode by default so the first shot will try to autofocus in the dark – which prevents the camera from shooting.  I’d like to set the default behavior to NOT AF even though I have set AF on the lens.
  • It also appears the timelapse is not aware of the drive mode for the camera.  I often set my camera to the 2-second (or 10 second) delay for two reasons: 1. it lights the self timer on the camera so I know when a frame is about to fire, and 2. In delay mode, an Autoexposure bracket (AEB) will automatically complete from a single press of the shutter. The timelapse settings could know that the minimum delay will be the length of the camera self timer delay (plus perhaps a second).  But it doesn’t use that information.

The good news is that the biggest pain points can be fixed in the app. I suspect some of the more advanced things would require the app to know more about the camera – and are thus less likely to be supported.

The other good news is, it really does save me from breaking my neck trying to get my eye down to the view finder or to view the LCD – when objects are high overhead I’ve had to lay down on the ground to see the LCD – blecch. And it’s great fun to watch the images roll in as the timelapse runs – even from indoors while my poor equipment is out shivering in the cold.

Stacker’s Checklist

Created November 2, 2010
Last Updated September 9, 2018

Note: Items in RED are suggestions and may be changed based on circumstances at the scene.

Site Selection

  • Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset and moon phase all known.
  • Safe area, travel paths known

Equipment

  • Camera, tripod, release plate, camera batteries, memory card, lens, intervalometer + batteries, lens hood, rain protection, headlamp, flashlight/torch, and items for light painting.

On Site

  • Tripod set up – no leaning (center column should be vertical) – leg locks tightened.
  • Camera aimed, leveled.
  • Camera locked onto tripod. Head tightened.
  • Tripod weighted/secure and everything is wobble free. Keep the tripod low and out of the wind for best stability. Do not extend the center column.
  • Neck strap removed or secured to prevent wind throw. Intervalometer and any other cord, or wiring also secure. Velcro on the intervalometer and the tripod leg is a handy trick.
  • Save GPS coordinates and/or mark site with glow stick / other?

Camera Settings

  • Manual Mode, Bulb exposure
  • ISO 200  (varies but from 100 to 800)
  • Single Exposure
  • LCD brightness down
  • Image review time off
  • Record in RAW
  • White Balance = daylight (Auto not recommended)
  • Aperture f/4 (f/2.8 to f/7.1)
  • Auto focus OFF
  • Image stabilizer (vibration reduction) OFF
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction OFF
  • Mirror Lockup OFF
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing OFF
  • Focus Assist OFF (this often fires an infra-red beam/red beam and will annoy other photographers). On many cameras this feature is on the flash unit/speedlite. On Nikons, this resource may help.

Timer Setup & Test

  • No delay, length of exposure = 1:59 minutes (adjust based on conditions. A 2 minute total interval is a good starting point), interval = 1 second, Num exposures >= 120
  • Timer cabled to camera
  • Test sequence (lens cap on) – Verify that second shot starts before canceling.

Focus & Final Framing

  • Check image composition, field of view.
  • Set camera to Aperture priority mode (not needed if it is already dark)
  • Take several bracketed shots in daylight or twilight: if it is already dark take a high ISO “range finding” shot. E.g. 2000 ISO for 30 seconds.
  • Pixel peep and adjust focus until sharp.

Battery and Card Shuffle

  • Remove memory card and insert second card. Format new card in camera.
  • Take second set of bracketed shots.
  • Return camera to Manual/Bulb mode.
  • Turn off camera and remove battery.
  • Reinsert battery (or insert fresh battery).
  • Verify that all settings are correct (See Camera Settings, above)

Final Steps

  • Check for wobble. Start by lightly jostling the camera, tripod, center column and even walking around in the area to make sure no movement occurs.
  • Set DELAY on interval timer appropriately (at least 5 seconds).  Goal is to start and/or end in twilight.
  • Secure cables for timer, external batteries (and neck strap). Do not block battery or memory card access.
  • Switch to aperture priority mode (so that your manual settings do not change), take a single image and re-verify focus. If already dark, take a high-ISO range finding shot for this task.
  • Switch back to Manual/Bulb.
  • Verify all camera settings as described in Camera Settings
  • Start Timer and verify that the timer is running.
  • If practical wait for first two shots to complete.
  • NOTE: You can leave the lens cap on for the first few exposure to collect DARK frames.

My thanks to Mike W. for comments and improvements to this checklist.

Additional References