I spent nearly 3 months in Abu Dhabi last year, February to April 2015 It wasn't my first time in the UAE, I'd been twice before to work at the NYU campus there. This was, however, the longest span of time I'd spent there. I was working on a new piece of theater with long-time friends, Theater Mitu. The piece was a re-thinking, a re-contextualization of Hamlet and it was wild. But I digress (but there's a really cool video about the piece you should watch.)
The first week I was in Abu Dhabi, I was waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, before the sun had risen, and figured I might as well use this opportunity to practice some sunrise time-lapse photography. I'd set up my Nikon D700 on a tripod against a window in my living room facing east and, using an old iPhone and my Triggertrap mobile kit, would start the camera clicking away while I tried to get a few more hours' sleep.
The first few time-lapses weren't great. I ended up stitching one together and uploading it to Vimeo, you can see it here, but it has many flaws. The most obvious issue is that the window I was shooting through causes a ghostly reflection of the couch in the center of the frame that becomes especially visible when the sun rises above the horizon (you even see a few frames of me checking on the camera around the 0:23 mark) Additionally, the framing of the shot isn't particularly exciting - there's very little going on in the desert aside from cars, and while the clouds are pretty, the framing doesn't give them the dominance in the shot to make them the focal point. Lastly, from a technical standpoint, there's a lot of flickering. Because I was (trying to be) asleep during much of the shooting, I wasn't manually adjusting the shutter/aperture/ISO as the sun rose, instead I let the camera shoot in aperture-priority mode, so it would stay locked at f8 and change the shutter speed to produce a well-exposed image. In most cases, this is totally acceptable. The problem with time-lapse photography in any priority mode is that you're asking your camera at a given moment to create a well-exposed image, but it doesn't know to consider what its settings were for the previous image. So, should a ray of sunlight catch the lens, the camera might make the overall image much darker than the previous images because it's metering for that ray of sunlight. So, now you suddenly have a very dark image in the middle of an otherwise good string of images and, if you're shooting in JPEG mode instead of RAW, it may be virtually impossible to correct that frame in post.
I ended up shooting 3 or 4 little time-lapses that first week, all sunrise, trying different techniques and settings. To stitch my photos into a video, I bought a piece of software called LRTimelapse which was expressly designed to create time-lapse videos from folders of images. It was the first time I read about the "Holy Grail" workflow - how to best capture a day-to-night or a night-to-day transition and then develop it into a smooth, seamless time-lapse video. The basic trick is to shoot RAW images in full manual, and slowly ramp the shutter, ISO and/or aperture manually over time. So, instead of the camera thinking each time the shutter clicks, you are in control and can slowly change camera settings to transition smoothly with the change in light. Of course, this means you have to be awake and near the camera to be monitoring the images and adjusting the settings. Not something I would be doing at 5 in the morning.
A few weeks later, we had an evening off from rehearsal, so I figured I'd get my camera out and try my hand at a sunset time-lapse, using the manual ramping techniques I'd learned about. I scouted an open-air balcony in a common room on the 11th floor of my housing building on the NYU campus and setup my tripod. The camera was set to take a photo every 5 seconds and I let it run for 2.5 hours...or 1,832 images. LRTimelapse is able to interpolate adjustments of images, so you only have to edit a few keyframes (the first photo, the last photo, and maybe a few in between) and then it will figure out how to transition the adjustments that you made on your first keyframe to the next, and so on. It's a very powerful tool and the end result is far better than what I would have ended up with, editing each of those 1,832 images individually. After it had rendered the 1,800 images/frames into a video, I opened up Apple Logic and wrote a super-quick little synth piece as a "score" to the sunset. I uploaded it to Vimeo and didn't think much about it.
Fast forward to just two months ago, I was contacted by the head of archival video for HBO's Vice. They had found my time-lapse on Vimeo and wondered if I had any additional footage. Sadly, I didn't have anything to offer. Two weeks later, they came back asking to license my time-lapse for an upcoming episode! The episode (Vice season 4, episode 10) aired this past Friday, April 22nd and is available on HBO Now, Go, etc. For those of you who don't have HBO, there's a teaser for the episode on Youtube and, if you don't blink, you can see a few frames of my time-lapse at the 0:20 mark! (It's the shot right before the guys in red hard-hats. It's SUPER fast.)
You'll only see 2-3 seconds of the time-lapse on HBO, but here's the full "as seen on TV" original video: