How to Prep Your Gear for Timelapse Shooting
One of the biggest challenges when shooting a time-lapse is gear management. I don’t know how many times I have arrived at a location and realized a crucial part of my kit was missing. However, like most things, you only learn from your mistakes and what I have learned is that it is extremely important to create checklists and prep gear BEFORE heading out to shoot. Although it does take more time to do this, it will save you time and heartache from going out to get a shot and realizing you don’t have everything you need.
Now I must admit, my least favourite part about filmmaking is the gear prepping. It’s a fine balance between taking too much and taking not enough and this battle is unique for every job. This is especially critical when traveling. With this post, what I hope to do is breakdown the key elements you will need when shooting a time-lapse and I will do this using case studies to better help understand the crucial setups you will need for a variety of shooting environments.
*Note: This post is a continuation of a previous post done on kit breakdown. I will be doing a video breakdown of this content but for now, here is the text.
Prepping gear can pose many challenges depending on the needs of each job. In this section, I will breakdown how to prep the base kit and walk you through a few case studies based on recent time-lapse shoots that I have done. Obviously each job is different so the setups below are for reference only. Also, if you are unsure what makes up the base kit, be sure to check out the kit breakdown post.
Base Kit Management (Camera, Lens & Intervalometer)
Before heading out to any location, it is key to ensure both your lens and sensor are clean. When shooting a time-lapse, especially shots with motion, it is critical that both are clean as there is a good chance that your shot could be ruined. Although techniques do exist for getting rid of dust specs in post, it is best to try minimize the issue as there are times when you will be unable to remove the specs in post. When shooting, it is also key to note that as you stop down your lens, you are in turn increasing how much of this sensor dust you see in your final image. I know there are many opinions on whether or not you should clean your sensor yourself but I have been doing so for 2 years and have run into no issues so far.
- Sensor Cleaning: For the sake of this post, I will call it sensor cleaning but in reality, you are not actually cleaning the sensor, rather, you are cleaning the low pass filter mounted in front of the sensor. If you have a steady hand and a good mechanical aptitude, you may be capable of accomplishing this task successfully. I don’t want to scare you, but if you don’t do it right, you can mess up your camera. If you still don’t feel comfortable after reading this section, by all means don’t attempt this. I’ve yet to run into any issues myself while doing this but try this AT YOUR OWN RISK. There are multiple different products to do this. Attached is a link to what I use.
- Turn camera on and navigate to the ‘clean sensor manually’ screen.
- Take a sensor cleaning swab and put a drop of liquid on the end of the sensor brush
- Lightly pass across the low pass filter in one fluid motion.
- Inspect for remaining dust.
- If clean then put back cap on and turn camera off.
- Lens Cleaning: Cleaning your lens is extremely critical. When I am shooting, I do not have ND filters on my lenses unless trying to drag my exposure. I know many people have ND filters on the end of their lenses at all times but I prefer not to have them. With this in mind, I am very aware that how I clean my lens is extremely critical. Here are a few tips when cleaning your lens:
- Do not use your breath to clean off the lens. There are acids in your breath that will mess with the coating on your lens.
- Use an air puffer first to get rid of any particles before wiping your lens. This will ensure your lens does not get scratched as you apply pressure to the front of your lens.
- Clean in a circular fashion starting from the centre and working your way out.
- Use a cotton lens cloth.
- Intervalometer Prep: I have owned a variety of intervalometer brands and all seem to do an amazing job in regards to battery life. I have gone full seasons without changing the batteries. However, I highly recommend always traveling with an extra battery for your specific device. Find out what type of battery your intervalometer takes and make sure to have spares in your kit.
- Cards & Batteries: When working with both cards and batteries, it is important to find a workflow that will ensure you do not lose data and do not get charged and empty batteries confused. When I have filled up a card, I will take a piece of tape and place it over the edge of the card so there is no way of putting this card back into my camera. I will then label the card with what camera the card came from and the date. As for dead batteries, I will do the same thing. When I take a dead battery out of my camera, I will place a piece of tape over the contacts so I know the battery is dead.
Corporate / Commercial Time-lapse Shoot
For corporate or commercial time-lapse shoots, gear prep is dependent on the types of shots you want to accomplish. I tend to build kits and transport them in pelican cases to keep the gear protected and easy to move around. It is key to have these kits labeled as most corporate / commercial shoots require more gear.
Back-country Time-lapse Shoot
Weight is the primary concern when back-country filming. Every small piece of gear needs to have a purpose. Here are a few tips to consider when selecting your gear. Please note that every trip will be different so use these points only as a starting point. The longer and more strenuous the trip, the lighter pack that you will want to have.
- Use Lightweight Tripods. My go to tripods are the Manfrotto 190CXpro’s. They are great lightweight carbon fibre tripods.
- Lots of Batteries and Cards. Although adding more weight to your pack, having more cards and batteries will allow you to shoot longer and not worry about dumping your footage or charging batteries. Any trip under five days I will try bring enough to get me through the trip so I do not need to worry about bringing computers, hard drives, or charging solutions.
- Work with Zoom Lenses. I try work with zooms as much as possible when out shooting as it reduces the amount of lenses you need to carry with you yet allow you to have a wide range of focal lengths to choose between. I know a lot of people completely disagree with me on this point but this works best for me. For trips under three days, my go-to kit is either the Nikon 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200mm or the Canon 16-25, 24-70 & 70-200 depending on which brand I am shooting with.
- Lightweight Motion Controlled Gear. If wanting to travel with motion controlled gear, it is important to find light-weight solutions. My go-to gear is Kessler because of it’s build quality, reliability and team behind the gear. I typically either travel with the Shuttle pod mini kit (2 x 2ft sections) or 2ft Stealth slider and basic controller powered by the ION Battery system.
- Small Audio Recorders. For all my time-lapse films, audio is an integral part of the film. There are many great solutions and most of them do a great job.
- Balance your kit. When carrying heavy loads, you will want to make sure your kit is balanced. By doing this, you will be able to carry your gear for longer periods of time and not struggle with a sore back. For shorter expeditions, I am using the F-Stop Tilopa BC and for longer treks I am using a pack by Eberlestock.
- Refine your kit. With each trip you take, you will learn what works best for you. Make sure to take notes along the way for modifications you can make to your kit.
When determining how to pack camera gear when traveling, there are a few things I try and do. I my experiences, I have learned that the best way to transport gear is not in hard cases, rather cases that do not look like equipment cases at all. If you would like to find out more about traveling with gear, check out a previous post I have done on the subject.
Maintaining Gear / Preventative Measures
Gear can be very costly and in order to ensure that you get your money’s worth out of the gear, it is important to maintain it. Each piece of equipment requires a different type of maintenance so make sure to review your gear after every shoot to ensure it is in perfect working order. By monitoring your gear and fixing issues as they arise, you will be able to avoid costly repair bills. I also recommend sending in your gear once a year for a thorough cleaning to make sure your gear remains clean and in perfect working order.
The next thing I want to talk about in this post is gear management. As your arsenal of gear continues to grow, finding a way to manage it is critical. Being that this post is focused on prepping gear, I felt that it was fit to also touch on the management of this gear as you really can’t talk about one without the other.
For me, developing a system to keep my gear straight has been very challenging but also rewarding at the same time. By de-cluttering my life, I have also managed to create systems to streamline the process of dealing with gear.
Organize gear based on how frequently you use it. If there is a specific piece of gear that you do not use on a regular basis, store it accordingly. Breakdown your equipment into relevant areas and build kits based on specific shoot requirements. I keep all my batteries with chargers in one area, all my sliders in another and all cables in it’s own section as well. I create labels and printout sheets for all kits with all gear that is in the kit with a picture representing what is in each kit.
- Organize Gear. Figure out what gear is needed for the shoot and organize it based on shooting needs.
- Label All Gear. When working on multi-person shoots when multiple people are supplying gear, you will want to make sure you have a full list of all your gear with all gear having labels to ensure you get all your gear back.
- List of Kit Breakdowns. Create lists of all gear needed for a specific time-lapse project. Break it into static, one-axis and multi-axis kits or day / night kits.
- Reference Image. Once you have selected the gear you need for your shoot, lay it out and take a picture of the gear out of the case and take a second image of all the gear packed in the case. Include these images with the kit.
- Gear List. Create a gear list for all gear you will be using for the shoot. Ensure to create a print out with all pieces that are in the specific kit and include this print out with the images.
Although each of these tasks takes time, you will be thankful you have the lists and images when working with others.
The last thing I want to touch on is data management and this is usually an overlooked section when talking about gear management. However, data management is a huge element to consider in the process and developing a consistent workflow is imperative. I will be touching on this more in depth in the post production section but I’ve included a few tips below to help:
- Redundancy. For any project, it is important to have multiple copies of files in case of hard drive failures. I typically have three copies of all files in case one hard drives dies. This will keep you from stressing when you are in the process of backing up the failed hard drive.
- Naming Conventions. I highly recommend a consistent naming structure for all projects. This will help find files when revisiting a project filmed previously.
- File Integrity. Before formatting any of your cards, make sure to check your offload folders to ensure all contents are transferred over. Double check the size of each of the folders and do a quick visual check.
As seen in the points above, once you get into the routine, gear prep is not that difficult and will benefit you immediately and benefit your gear in the long term. By taking the time to setup systems, you are effectively investing in yourself and your business.