The Castle: Midnight Sun Time-lapse

Time-Lapse Shoot at Bancroft's Castle in Groton, MA

by Ron Risman - April 2012

Over the past 3 1/2 years I have shot hundreds of time-lapse sequences and continue to be amazed at what we can create using an ordinary digital SLR.   While I shoot morning, day, or night - I prefer night time-lapses as they enable me to capture the stars as they move across the sky.

The other night I got together with a friend of mine, Matt Stapleton, to shoot time-lapses at Bancroft's Castle in Groton, MA.  The Castle was originally built in 1906 as a gift for William Bancroft's wife. It was intended as a bungalow that would accompany a larger castle-style house, but he lost funding before it was completed.  In 1918, a doctor purchased the castle, renovated it, and turned it into a private sanitarium, and during the 1930's the Groton Hunt Club used the bungalow for entertaining. In 1932 the bungalow caught fire during a July 4th fireworks celebration and burnt to the ground, leaving only the exterior stone walls intact.   This exterior structure was the focus of the time-lapses we wanted to shoot.

Movement is the key to any successful time-lapse.  People, cars, clouds, a flower opening over time, stars moving around the earth - are all great subjects for a time-lapse.  Fortunately we had a beautiful, crisp, clear night.  If it were a new moon the stars would have been incredible, but the night we chose was the full moon.    A full moon brightens the sky making star lapses a challenge, so we needed to focus the time-lapses on something other than stars.   We decided to focus our time-lapses on the movement of light and shadow on the castle as the full moon arced across the sky.

To access the castle we needed to park down below at street level.  This made it quite a challenge to carry 30-40 lbs of gear (each) up the hill.  To make things more interesting, the hill is also home to a huge deer tick population.

After making two trips up the hill, and needing plenty of rest after the hike, we scouted to find the best angles as the sun was beginning to set.  Between us we had 4 Canon DSLR's.  This made it possible for us to capture 6 different sequences in a span of about 7 hours.

Dark-sky time-lapses take time. Each exposure is between 20 and 30 seconds long with about a 5-second interval in between.  This means you can only capture about two pictures per minute.  When we combine these pictures into motion video we'll need at least 24 pictures just to get one-second of video. Doing the math:  (2 pictures / minute [x] 12 minutes = 24 pictures).  12 Minutes gives us 1 second of video.   So to create a sequence that would last 10-seconds would require 120 minutes (12 min x 10). 

Matt set up his Canon EOS 7D on a tripod in the patio area of the Castle, with the camera aimed up toward the Castle turret.  He set the camera with the following settings:   ISO 640, F/5.6 aperture, Exposure was 15-seconds, with a 5-second interval between shots.

I set up the new Canon 5D Mark III with 14mm lens on the DitoGear OmniSlider (servo) motion dolly.   I have been testing this dolly for review purposes and this was a great opportunity to capture some footage for my upcoming review (stay tuned).    I was hoping to try out an HDR time-lapse using the new HDR feature in the 5D Mark III but I was having a problem with exposure values on playback. Instead of fiddling with it in the dark I decided to shoot with a normal long exposure, which worked out perfectly.  I set one end of the dolly on a tripod and placed the other end on the ledge of one of the castle windows.  This would allow the camera view to travel from outside to inside, as the shadows of the moon lit and moved across and through the windows of the Turret.  I set the 5D Mark III using the following settings:  ISO 3200, F/5.6, 15 second exposure, 5 second interval between shots. 

I set up my Canon EOS 60D on the Joby Gorillapod near Matt's camera. I normally wouldn't set up a camera near another camera, but due to the fact that I was using the Joby tripod I wanted to keep the camera out of the wind and the patio provided the perfect barrier.    I set the 60D using similar settings to Matt's 7D that I listed above.

While Matt and I were talking outside the patio area we noticed the amazing shadows that were being projected on the exterior walls as the moon slid behind tree level.  I quickly grabbed my 5D Mark II  and placed it on the ground with a slight tilt up.   I set the camera to F/4.0, ISO 1250, with a 10 second exposure and 5-second interval.  The higher ISO setting allowed me to reduce the shutter to 10-seconds. When combined with a 5-second interval I was able to capture 4-frames per minute. 

It was now about 1:30 a.m., and my first motion sequence was coming to an end. After reviewing the thumbnails, I replaced the memory card, repositioned the dolly inside the turret with the camera moving from window level down to ground level - the camera tilted up about 25 degrees.   At around 2:30 a.m. we decided to end the shoot, mainly due to stomach pains I was having.   I hung in there for about four hours with the pain, as I wanted to make sure we had captured 'enough' footage to have made the outing worthwhile.  It was my way of suffering for my art. :-)

Stopping the shoot at 2:30 a.m. meant having to stop my second motion time-lapse only a 1/3rd of the way into the sequence.  Luckily that gave me enough footage to create another camera angle for our final short film.

I was thrilled by the quality of the footage.  If it weren't for the few stars in the sky you'd swear that we shot this mid afternoon.  The full moon, when combined with long exposures, high ISO settings, and medium to large aperture settings, can capture the night as if it were day.   The motion dolly shots were both captured on the dark side of the castle.  It was so dark to the naked eye that I needed to use a flashlight in order to set focus, yet the camera captured it with amazing clarity.

All in all I was thrilled with the results from this shoot.  I hope we get a chance to get back to the Castle next fall in order to add to the footage we captured this week.  In the meantime I hope you enjoy what we put together.  Feel free to leave comments over on Vimeo.  We love feedback.

Castle research from Wikipedia and Dupontcastle.com


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