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360° Timelapse, Mowing the Lawn

I’ve been wanting to shoot a 360° spherical HDR timelapse for quite a while now. The challenges are enormous: storage space, battery power, programming the brackets and camera movements, etc. It gets quite complicated! A few months ago I bought the first Panoneed robotic head in the western hemisphere; since then I’ve helped two more people configure and purchase theirs. I’ve worked with the Panoneed designer and Promote Systems to get it working with the Promote Control, and even take a panoramic timelapse with two Promote Controls. A couple weeks ago I decided to put it all to the test while mowing my back yard. We had about a month of nothing but rain, which watered the grass well but prevented me from mowing it. It also prevented me from really doing anything practical outdoors with the Panoneed and two Promote Controls to test firmware versions. Not that a timelapse of me mowing my lawn is practical, but it seemed like a good demonstration. Here is a handheld video I took with my iPhone describing how the Panoneed and two Promote Controls are configured. Forgive the stammering, I did it off the cuff without a script while the blackflies were eating me alive! The last third of the video is the finished 10 second timelapse and then some rolling credits with more information, described in more detail below. Turn on HD if your internet is fast enough, it looks much better! The interactive sphere is near the bottom of this article.

Video

To get enough power to the camera, I bought a cheap 3rd party Nikon EH-5A AC power adapter and cut the DC cable coming out of the brick. I attached some Anderson PowerPole connectors to both ends so I could always reuse it if I wanted later. I also bought a DROK 12v to 7.5v DC buck adapter or step down converter and attached PowerPoles to both ends of that to power the camera. I cut the cable going to my 300w inverter and added yet more PowerPole connectors to both ends of that. Lastly I bought a PowerPole splitter. Now I can plug the 12v to 7.5v step down converter for the camera, an AC inverter which will have a 15v 1A DC power supply plugged in to power the Panoneed, and a dew controller and heater strip for my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens for night photography all into a portable battery at the same time for long exposure night panoramas. For this demonstration I only used the external camera power however.

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I set the lens to 14mm, f/8, and manually focused to 2.5 feet. I had meant to set it to f/9 as that would have kept everything sharp from 1.2 feet to infinity, but I forgot and left it at f/8. The trees across the pond in the distance were still pretty sharp. I set the camera to ISO 200, disabled auto ISO, and chose a custom white balance to keep exposures consistent throughout the timelapse. For exposures on the second Promote Control I chose 1/320, 1/80, and 1/20 (three exposures spaced 2EV apart) to cover most of the dynamic range. The overcast sky was still slightly overexposed, but I didn’t want to shoot more than three photos because I wanted to shoot each sphere as quickly as possible and I knew I was going to overload the 64GB memory card anyway with three brackets. I prefer to shoot my HDR brackets in 1 to 1.3EV steps, but that would not have been enough dynamic range. I didn’t want to go over 2EV either, so I let the sky overexpose a little. I also disable auto image rotation, rear LCD preview, and cover the eyepiece when I’m shooting timelapses and spherical panoramas to make stitching easier, prevent heat from building up inside the camera, preserve battery power, and keep stray light from entering the camera.

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I set the touch controller on the Panoneed to 14mm, 20% overlap, and three brackets with vibration detection enabled and 2nd curtain sync monitoring enabled. The firmware I have installed on it only sends one trigger command to the second Promote Control for each bracket, but it will write two .xml positioning files for aligning the photos in PTGui Pro or AutoPano Giga: one is a single bracket if you want to tonemap or use exposure fusion before stitching, and the other has images for all the brackets if you want to stitch all of them at once before tonemapping. Very convenient! The vibration detection will wait to shoot if there is wind or other vibrations and the second curtain sync will monitor the shutter on the camera through the PC sync port or flash shoe so the Panoneed knows the brackets have been taken and it is safe to move to the next position. You could use a fixed interval here instead, but occasionally a bracket can take slightly longer than the previous one if the camera or Promote Control are busy or a signal takes a little longer to process, and I wanted to shoot my spheres as quick as possible with no additional manual delays in the intervals.

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I took one sphere and timed how long it would take, about a minute and thirty two seconds. I put the first Promote Control in timelapse mode, “on camera” exposure (since I wasn’t sending any exposure signals anyway), disabled any warnings in the setup about a camera not being present, and set the interval to 1 minute and 35 seconds to add a small safety buffer. I was only using it as an external timer and trigger to tell the Panoneed to repeat the last panorama at regular intervals.

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For nearly the next two hours I took 2,730 photos (70 spheres) for a timelapse, and then it started raining. I paused the timelapse and covered everything up with a tarp to protect the gear. It was just as well, the 64GB memory card was getting quite full. I took an hour and a half break, downloaded all the photos off the memory card, ate some lunch, put more gas in the lawn mower, and waited for the rain to stop. The second half of the timelapse was 3,978 photos (102 spheres) over a two hour and forty two minute timespan and the memory card was full. [Yeah, it’s a very big lawn!] There were actually a few more photos from a partial panorama that I discarded.

For post processing I converted all the RAW files to 16-bit TIFFs with minor sharpening and color correction in Lightroom. Then with Photomatix Pro’s batch feature and exposure fusion I turned them into 2,028 files to stitch with PTGui Pro. I created a template and exported out 156 projects via PTGui’s batch builder. Unfortunately my zoom lens creeped a little from 14mm to 15.5mm over time, even with rubber bands on it to hold the zoom ring. I’ll have to try masking tape next time. So it didn’t matter whether I built the template from the beginning, middle, or end of the timelapse, not all of them would blend well. In the end the easiest solution was to open every project file that the batch builder created and manually enable automatic EXIF data from the camera, align the images, and create the panorama. This also gave me a chance to mask out any ghosts or duplicates of me on the lawn mower, so it was just as well I stitched each one manually. At least batch building the project files saved me a lot of time and all the panoramic frames of the timelapse came out very consistent. If you look very closely at the tiny black nadir hole in the middle of the tripod you’ll see it gradually change as the focal length creeped. :-)

Displaying the spherical timelapse was a whole different set of challenges. KRPano can display a video in different projections, but the technology for compression algorithms and internet bandwidth is currently just not available yet. Each frame was a 50 megapixel image (10500 x 5250 resolution) and most people don’t have internet bandwidth to watch 1080p (1920 x 1080 resolution) video without stuttering. Also, anything wider than 1920 won’t play on most mobile devices like iPads. So I chose 1920 x 960 for a resolution at 24fps and 8Mbps for a data rate. It looks good when displayed flat, but when viewed as a sphere you are then dividing that resolution by 6 because you are looking at six different faces of a cube, but only one at a time. Even at a really high 8Mbps data rate for more details it displays a very low resolution when viewed at anything larger than 320 x 160. When you blow something that small up to full screen it is going to look heavily pixelated and smeared. Technology does not yet exist to my knowledge to view multiple resolutions of video on the fly so you can zoom in and get a higher resolution of only the specific area you are viewing like still images can do. Maybe in time technology will catch up. Many people don’t have fast enough internet to display 8Mbps (mine is 3Mbps), so there will be some severe stuttering until the entire 5MB video can be downloaded and looped. I chose only the second part of the timelapse I shot to cut down on filesize for the interactive video, and I reversed the frames on the second half and then looped the whole thing so you can watch the grass get cut and then grow back again. I couldn’t find a way to loop the video without a pause or stutter in the middle. Flash no longer allows for seamless video looping I guess. Mobile devices running HTML 5 instead of Flash are not capable yet of displaying 360° video in various projections, so it will only play as a flat video on them. Maybe in time with better video cards this can be accomplished.

In the meantime, click the photo below to explore the interactive spherical timelapse. Right click and try out the various video projections if you are on a desktop, such as flat, normal, and little planet. If anyone reading this is a video compression guru and has some tips to help me make it look better, I would greatly welcome your suggestions!

Panorama

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I would like to once again publicly thank both Type & Colour and Promote Systems for their generous support in helping me with this project. I have several more ideas and issues to resolve as funding allows, one of them being an 8mm or 15mm fisheye to shoot spheres faster for night photography, and figuring out how to tackle bulb ramping with panoramas and without ND filters for an unattended “holy grail” spherical timelapse. Storage will be a very big issue for that, but many obstacles were resolved with this demonstration such as external power for the camera, repeatable HDR panoramas via two Promote Controls, and second curtain sync monitoring on the same circuit (necessary for bulb ramping).

Lots more to come on this topic over time… Happy shooting!!!

Gallery

 

Equipment Used

• Panoneed robotic head with touch controller and 2nd curtain sync kit
• Really Right Stuff TVC-34L tripod
• Really Right Stuff TA-3-LC-HK leveling base with clamp and hook
• Really Right Stuff TH-DVTL-55 dovetail plate on bottom of Panoneed
• Really Right Stuff MPR-192 rail bolted to Panoneed (a B2 LR II 60mm clamp will be bolted here soon for convenience)
• Really Right Stuff B2-FAB & B2-40 clamps mounted back to back (made obsolete by the better FAS clamp today)
• Really Right Stuff BD700 camera plate
• Nikon D700 camera
• Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (rubber bands to keep the focal length from creeping)
• Sandisk 64GB Extreme Pro 90MB/sec compact flash card
• 2x Promote Controls
• Maha Powerex 2700mAh batteries for Promote Controls
• 12v car battery / charger (check out GoalZero’s new battery)
• DROK 12v to 7.5v step down converter
• Kid’s stool to keep the grass clippings out of the battery! :-)

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  • leegorecki

    Wow I thought i shot some complicated stuff. Highly impressive. Probably the most dramatic grass cutting video I have ever seen.

    • aaronpriestphoto

      Hahaha! I hope to shoot more than grass being cut with it in the future… :-P

  • Brennan Nance

    This idea kicks ass. Mind Blown. THANK YOU.

  • Stian Rekdal

    Nicely done. I can appreciate how much time it took to process the images. I tried something similar without the HDR a few months back with a D800, 8 mm fisheye and a Seitz roundshot (3 shots x 2700 rounds). I’m curious if the Panoneed is accurate enough to stop in the exact same position for each round, as my test drifted a litte for each round causing some problems batching PTGui. http://www.vimeo.com/63863144 – password: 3seksti

    • aaronpriestphoto

      Stian, thanks for sharing! Good work! I would very much like to try your D800 and 8mm lens on the Panoneed! :-) 14mm just takes too many photos to cover a sphere and my D700 is not high enough resolution to pull off a good sphere with an 8mm fisheye.

      The Panoneed has a positioning accuracy of 0.036° in both directions and electronically adjustable torque from 1Nm and 4Nm for heavier loads at slower speeds. It can also be positioned 90° off axis and still be accurate, for sticking over a railing or outside a tall building window for example. If you play the KRPano interactive panorama again, right click and switch it to flat view, and watch the telephone pole on the left side of the screen you can see that there was no measurable drift over almost three hours of shooting. The timelapse in the first video on Vimeo is made from almost five hours of footage because I only used the second half of what I shot to cut down on the size of the KRPano panorama, and the only jump in the five hour timelapse is when I bumped the tripod and head covering it up with a tarp while it rained. Here is another 360° timelapse I took at night a few months ago where I discussed the accuracy: http://www.aaronpriestphoto.com/2013/05/full-sky-star-trails/ I’ve taken longer timelapses too testing bulb ramping and a few things, but nothing worth sharing publicly. I haven’t had any issue at all with drift yet though, and that really amazes me!

      If I can get a wider fisheye like you’ve got for shooting faster, I’d like to do more night time stuff in more interesting locations than my back yard. :-) I keep waffling between an 8mm circular fisheye or 15mm full frame fisheye. Have you used both Sigma lenses on the D800 to have an opinion?

      • Stian Rekdal

        Wow, nice startrails. The drift in my test might be due to the fact that the Seitz does not have a program that suits this purpouse. I can program it to shoot a sphere, but there’s no option to repeat the move so I had to wing it with another program where it doesn’t stop for each shot. Of course this makes it useless for anything where the shutterspeed is < 100-200ms. I explained the problem to Seitz, but 4 months later there's no sign of them upgrading their firmware. So you could say I'm in the market for something that will let me do these kind of shots. The Panoneed looks promising even if it seems to move a lot slower than the Seitz.

        The full resolution of my test with 3 shots per round is 9500x4700px making it larger than the 8k standard. It's going to be a couple of decades before anyone will be asking for resolutions larger than that i think. Also, imagine showing this kind of footage through the 1080p Oculus Rift VR-glasses ;-)

        I haven't tried the 15mm fisheye, so I can't really say which would be better. I'm guessing either would be a lot better than the 14-24 which I find stretches the corners far too much @14mm for shooting spheres. The 8mm fisheye is great though, it will save you a lot of HD-space and processing time if 360-timelapse is what you'll use it for. A D800 would be even more useful, as you wouldn't have to do HDRs anymore. The DR on it is amazing. I stopped shooting HDRs completely when I upgraded from the D700.

        • aaronpriestphoto

          Yes, the dynamic range of the D800 very much impresses me! I’ve been able to do incredible stuff in Lightroom with RAW images that folks have sent me from it.

          Josef added the repeatable panorama mode to the Panoneed via an external trigger for me in a custom firmware so I could shoot panoramic timelapses with two Promote Controls. It could be any panorama too, not just a spherical one. The Panoneed also has a fast drive mode where it shoots without stopping, but you lose the ability to shoot HDR, slower shutter speeds, vibration detection, etc. of course. It also continues spinning in a circle instead of resetting back to home position, so any wires extending below the head would get tied up, like my external power cable for the camera. I don’t find much of a use for that mode myself, but it does work in a hurry with a single fast shutter speed.

          My ultimate goal with some of this is a tiled multi-resolution video viewed through 3D glasses. I’d like to attempt 3D stereoscopic shooting with a timelapse soon. I’ve already taken a few static scenes this way by shifting the camera and repeating the scene, but a timelapse will require two identical camera bodies and lenses, which I haven’t been able to afford yet. Haha!

          The 14-24mm is great for static panoramas. 24mm in particular gives a very high resolution and sharp panorama that is easy to stitch with very little distortion or vignetting to fix. I use 14mm typically for indoor real estate at 20% overlap (2 rows of 6 plus 1 zenith for better stitching) where I don’t need as much resolution and I have a lot of rooms to shoot. This whole virtual tour was shot at 14mm: http://www.aaronpriestphoto.com/2013/04/harvest-gold-gala-ranch/ I haven’t found corners to be any issue with PTGui if using a zenith shot.

          Have you tried the 5:4 crop mode on the D800 with the 8mm fisheye? Does it still give you the same stitched resolution with less wasted pixels and storage space due to the black circle? Folks with a shaved Nikon 10.5mm fisheye have said it works well for them, I don’t know about the Sigma 8mm. I’m not sure which lens is sharper, the 8mm or 10.5mm. Both seem to take the same number of photos to cover a sphere, so I expect the stitched resolution would be about the same.

  • JimandTrisha White

    Very cool. I like the different views you can choose.

  • Hans

    Hi Aaron,

    Seriously dig your work. Incredible imagination! 360 Spherical Time Lapse! Very cool. I checked out your Harvest Gold Gala Ranch tour and really like how clear it is. I’ve been working on HDR 360′s myself but still haven’t found the magic sauce. It’s very difficult to capture that full dynamic range when there are large windows in the room. I just finished one for the Hotel that I work for. I do this mostly as a creative outlet but maybe one day it can support a family. Check it out when you have time. http://www.MaunaLaniLife.com/Plumeria360/Plumeria.html
    I used Lightroom, Photomatix, KRPano, Photoshop, Autopano Giga and Panotour Pro to make this. It’s very time consuming but the results are getting there. I’m now saving the Virtual Tours to an iPad so you don’t need to stream it from the internet. Now I can make high resolution tours without having to worry about data size but I only figured this out yesterday so there is much more testing in the very near future.

    Again, thank you for the lesson. I honestly appreciate the amount of work that went into this. I look forward to seeing more from a brilliant mind.
    Hans

    • aaronpriestphoto

      Thank you Hans! I’ve got a new project I’m nearly ready to post. I’m still uploading everything and fixing a few bugs. It’s a 1.5 gigapixel spherical panorama of a sunrise and Mt. Katahdin reflecting in Sunday Pond. It took 20 minutes to capture 945 images for the complete sphere plus the brackets for the dynamic range. Stitching it was a real challenge, but it’s finally done. This stuff certainly is time consuming if you want really good results! You can see part of the panorama (it’s the final closing shot), plus several timelapses with bulb ramping, etc. in a video I uploaded yesterday: http://vimeo.com/aaronpriestphoto/sundaypond All of this will be in a blog post hopefully this weekend with a KRPano tour (Panotour Pro 2.0 Alpha) and more details.

      I have much the same workflow as you do. I don’t usually use Photomatix for my tonemapping or exposure fusion though, but I often use it for alignment and deghosting to 32-bit .hdr files if there was a lot of wind or I shot handheld, and then I will use SNS HDR or Oloneo on those files since they are not as good as Photomatix at alignment and manual deghosting. I also use exposure fusion right in PTGui Pro or LR/Enfuse out of Lightroom, both require adjustments afterward in Lightroom as they look very flat and dull, but they look good after some curves and adjustments. The Harvest Gold tour was done with PTGui’s own exposure fusion in this manner. Recently I discovered Photomatix’s Merge to 32-bit TIFF for Lightroom and I’m really loving that! Unfortunately it does not have batching yet. Usually I stitch my spherical panoramas with PTGui Pro, but the 1.5 gigapixel sphere I just finished of Sunday Pond turned out really well in Autopano Giga. I exported two blended modes, one optimized for the sky, and one for the ground, and layered them in Photoshop to get really smooth skies. I was very pleased with the outcome with APG and I wasn’t getting anywhere with PTGui on that one for some reason. All this software gets expensive, but there really isn’t one tool that works for everything!

      I’d like to learn more about running tours natively off the iPad. That would be very convenient for showing clients! I’m still not getting the new multi-resolution tiling with KRPano to work quite right on my iPad with this Sunday Pond panorama, nor at 2048 pixel resolution for an iPad 3 or 4. But I’ll work on it more tomorrow and hopefully figure out what I’m doing wrong.

      • Hans

        Dude! Just watched the video. Unfreakinbelievable! Excellent work! Very inspiring. Have so much to learn but that’s the best part!