Shoaling

If innovation is born out of necessity, then the idea I want to share here represents a weird manifestation of that principle. To be clear, I've heard that line quoted many times before but I haven't been able to find reliable documentation of an original author.

My daily routine starts with waking up at 6:00am. This isn't by choice so much as it's a reality of my life that I happily embrace for many non-photography-related reasons. One by-product of this lifestyle is that while driving east on I-480 south of Cleveland, I have seen more sunrises in the last two months than I saw in the first 29 years of my life. Since I'm awake (and fueled for driving by caffeine) before the sun comes up every day, there's no going back to bed when I get home so I often try to capture some unique images in this pre-dawn world.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the Cleveland Metroparks Acacia Reservation at sunrise for a PhotoRoam. I chased pretty sunbeams and skittish cranes for a couple hours before stumbling on a pumping station at the edge of a small lake on the western edge of the park. For some reason, there was a large number of bird flying in looping patterns back and forth over the area of the lake in front of the pumping station. My first I idea was to set up a time lapse of the flocks flying back and forth, but my initial tests didn't result in anything particularly impressive. When an odd idea struck a moment later, I tweaked a few of my settings and created the image below. 

Then I pressed the "ON" button on my intervelometer and took 500 more. Through a process that involved a lot of compositing, what I was able to create in the end is the picture you see below.

Shoaling - Acacia Reservation.jpg

On a basic level, what I shot was functionally a time lapse. I had 500 images shoot at a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second. Fast enough that the birds flying through the frame would show up in the final image but slow enough to show a bit of motion blur. Once back home, I grouped the images into groups of between 10 and 20 and imported those frames as seperate layers in a Photoshop document. Then I used the Auto Blend function to composite all the birds caught in those frames into a single image. I repeated the process for all the images I captures and then, after flattening the resulting composites into individual layers in a second Photoshop document, blended all the composites into the image you see above.

I call the technique "Shoaling" and I think it has some interesting applications for taking time lapse to a new level. What would be really interesting is to come up with a way to automate the process so you could shoot ten minutes of video and export the video to a JPG sequence (18,000 frames at 30fps). Then you select how many frames you want to combine into each super-frame (let's say 400) and composite the entire sequence into a time-compressed sequence that plays back like a 45-second time-lapse video but captures 400 times more movement. Now, I should point out that I'm aware that this technique is similar to what you get when you speed up a video clip in Adobe Premiere and turn on Frame Blending but you don't get nearly the same level of quality. I'm psyched to see where it goes and I would love to see other people try it out.

And to think that none of this would have happened if I had stayed in bed.