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Hacking the Digital: Stills in Motion (guest post by Andrew Kornylak)

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Today's guest post is by Andrew Kornylak. You probably remember some of his stop motion videos taken with a Nikon D3 I posted back in 2009. The topis he will cover today is "Hacking the Digital: Stills in Motion":

Before I “became” a professional photographer, I was a software developer. Windows applications, wireless devices, game software, web… This was the late 90s, and we hacked everything, pushing beyond design limits. We rolled our own script languages, designed database engines from the ground up, dissected device drivers, and programmed using interrupts and bit operations. It was awesome. A small alpine-style team of programmers could go anywhere and do anything, applying their craft and creativity to this magical hardware. Create a server to host interactive games to half a billion Chinese cell phone users? Yeah, we can hack that out in our garage.

But all good things come to an end. Eventually the hackers got so good at it that their hacks became the standard, and soon all you had to do was take a class on it and learn how to pull the levers. Projects became so big that it took an army of lever-pullers to do anything cool.

I left that world about the same time digital cameras started hitting the shelves. Hacking photos is pretty much the same: These magical little machines can do much more than what they were designed for. Even better: you can see the results, right there, in a picture. Or in a bunch of pictures.

I’m going to share a couple examples of hacking the digital camera. First I use multiple cameras to create motion in a still image. Then I use one camera and multiple stills to create motion.

credit: Andrew Kornylak / Aurora Photos

credit: Andrew Kornylak / Aurora Photos

An editorial client came to my agency Aurora Photos asking for a time-lapse shot of a guy jumping a gap, in the style of Parkour, a French pastime of navigating the urban jungle in the most efficient and spectacularly dangerous way possible. Because of their editorial standards, they wanted the shot to be a single exposure, in-camera, with no Photoshop. Aurora tapped me to produce this photo, because of my comfort with capturing action with artificial lighting.

Even though I was shooting digital and I could experiment in-camera, Max couldn’t do this big jump forever. Plus, there were cops about so eventually we’d have to move on. I had to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure this one out ahead of time. In these cases its best to know what all the limitations are, and go from there. So, first I figured out what I knew for sure. Get ready for some mumbo-jumbo:

To separate Max’s positions on the jump across the field of view of the 10.5 fisheye, I’d need about 5fps, which is the maximum speed on the D2X without cropping the frame. According to Profoto, the 7b’s second-lowest power stop, at 34ws, recycles in about 0.18 sec, which would just let me shoot at 5fps. Ambient exposure was about 3 seconds @ f/4.5, at ISO 100. That wasn’t changing since it was nighttime. I needed to figure out the flash exposure so that Max’s positions would be equal to the ambient exposure. Since the flash output was fixed, this was a matter of moving them closer or further to Max. I did some test shots to get a rough idea of the flash-to-subject distance. It was far enough away that I could keep them out of the frame if I doubled the strobes up. To simplify things I would try to only light max with the strobes so the flashes would not add to that exposure, using grids and barndoors. I used a second camera, a D200, to fire the flashes at 5 fps using Pocketwizard radios. So I just started the exposure on the D2X on a tripod, then reached over and mashed the D200 until the exposure was over. I had assistants hold the flashes so that they could follow max in an arc.

See? Mumbo-jumbo. But the numbers and stuff are important. I read the manuals and nerd out about camera specs, but really after tons of shooting like this, I get a gut feeling for what will work. Or what might work.

“Might” is the space I like to work in. It keeps me moving forward rather than doing the same shit all the time.

Or sometimes you move sideways, and stuff doesn’t work. For this shoot, a lot was not working. The terrain I mapped out for Max was too complicated at first. It was hard to control strobe spill. Max hurt his ankle. A cop showed up.

Max had one more jump left in him. This was the very last frame of the shoot, and I think it was the best. The client loved the photos, but for other reasons they didn’t run the piece. Time Magazine was doing a story on Parkour around the same time though, and they licensed a different frame showing the entire landing roll as a two-page spread to open the feature.

In Line - Stillmotion Short from Andrew Kornylak on Vimeo. Profile of Atlanta photographer and inline skater John Kelso. Shot as still photographs with a Nikon D3. Music by Little Tybee www.myspace.com/littletybee

Stillmotion – using high-speed bursts of still images to create motion pictures – is another way you can hack the digital. It fits somewhere between time-lapse and stop-motion, both techniques that use stills to either compress or stretch time into motion. With stillmotion the intent is to capture real-time movement, like video. The limitations: no live sound and relatively low frame rates. The advantages: print-resolution frames, you can use strobe lighting, and it just looks cool.

I have done several stillmotion pieces over the years, for personal projects, commercials, and even as short clips in documentary and television production.

Here is an album: http://vimeo.com/album/118964

I shot “In Line” as a personal project, to experiment more with stillmotion and strobes, as well as different ways of handholding and triggering the camera.

The bearded hipster in the video is John Kelso, is a good friend of mine who works frequently with me as an assistant. Not only is he a great photographer (who shoots film in the style of William Eggleston), but John was also a punk rock singer and a pro inline skater.

My goal here was to use a single camera – the Nikon D3 – to capture everything for the video, including audio.

I roughly storyboarded the whole thing and came up with a shot list and a set of interview questions. John is a busy guy (“Is this interview over yet? I got shit to do.”), but even if you don’t shoot such jetsetter rock stars, its important to do some planning for this kind of thing. It’s kind of experimental, so almost everything goes wrong while you are shooting it and you need time to improvise.

The interviews were conducted on John’s couch, with the camera’s onboard mic as close to John’s mouth as I could get it without feeling too foolish. The sound is not bad actually, considering the D3’s mic is intended for quick voice memos.

I shot a series of establishing clips that I knew I’d want: John walking out of the door with his skates, John on his back porch, John’s camera collection. To keep the camera steady and to get smooth camera movements, I had the D3 on a Glidecam 4000, which is a small counterweighted rig used to make steady handheld movements with a video camera. It’s awkward for the D3. You’d never use it for still shooting. You can’t just press “record” and have it start firing off frames continuously, and if you even touch the shutter, it throws off the balance of the Glidecam. For the same reason, you can’t have any wires coming off the camera. So I devised a wireless trigger using a Pocketwizard receiver connected to the D3 via a N90M3 10 pin to mini jack connector. This allowed me to trigger the shutter remotely using a Pocketwizard transmitter and not upset the balance of the camera on the Glidecam. (Note: the N90M3-P is a better solution, since it has a pre-trigger to give you better shot accuracy)

For a lot of the skating shots I also used a strobe, a Profoto 7b firing at 11fps, at the lowest power setting (it recycles in 0.09 seconds at this setting). I triggered the strobe from the camera using another transmitter on the D3’s hotshoe. So for each shot, I had an assistant (Andy Scott) mash down a Pocketwizard transmitter which was on one channel. This triggered the D3. The D3 triggered the strobe via the hotshoe Pocketwizard on another channel. Complicated. Spectacular.

With the strobe I could do things you can’t do in video, like drag the shutter. I did that here and there but for the most part things were complicated enough. I mostly used manual focus since you can’t really trust the AF at 11fps, especially shooting blind (the shutter blackout means you can’t see what you are shooting). Once the skating started, most everything was run-and-gun. We’d get kicked out by a rentacop, hit another spot, get kicked, hit the grocery store, get kicked…

Each “scene” consisted of a burst of photos firing at 11fps, which lasted about 10-12 seconds. I was shooting in cropped mode at jpeg high, to give me the highest speed and deepest buffer possible. Once I had all the clips, I ingested them into Adobe Bridge, organizing them into folders. Each of those folders then contained about 130 jpeg files. I opened up 130 jpegs at a time in Adobe Camera Raw, figured out the look I wanted and then applied it in batch to all the other images in the same lighting conditions. Then I exported everything as tiff files to separate folders.

I imported those tiff files into a Final Cut Pro project, which was set to 24fps. Here is where it gets a little tricky. Since my frames were shot real-time at 11fps, I had to multiply frames so that it would play back at 24fps and still look real-time. You can either multiply each frame 2 times and then things will look slightly fast-motion, or you can use some tools in Final Cut and Cinema Tools to conform it more smoothly to exactly 23.976fps, in which case you will have to blend some frames. I did both in this video, just for kicks. You can make it easier by shooting at 10fps and setting your timeline to 30fps.

I took the sound bytes and music and sequenced everything in Final Cut, and exported it as (letterboxed) HD video.

You can see more about how to do stillmotion including step-by-step details at this Digital Photo Pro magazine article.

I would like to thank Andrew for this informative guest post . You can follow his work at:

www.akornphoto.com

theblindmonkey.com

www.weddingsbyandrew.com

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  • jon D

    This is why I really like MJPEG that Nikon uses, even though so many say it is old, lame, etc. Each frame is an image, and they are really fairly clear images, at 23.98 fps, they make a very film like movie. I really do not think that the more “modern” codecs capture the images as well. Stillmotion is very similar to what already exists just higher resolution. Nice post.

    • mshi

      the difference is that you can shoot RAW, and tweak them later.

      • Akira

        Except that even a D3 only has like a 20 shot RAW buffer, which is presumably part of the reason the video in the post was made with JPEGs.

  • Phil

    Maybe it’s just me, but while I can see this becoming a fad, it got old really quick for me.

    • Ronan

      Agreed.

  • R!

    NOTHING NEW !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!IT IS MADE FOR THAT!!!!!!!DUH!!!!!!!!!

    • http://theblindmonkey.com Andrew Kornylak

      You mean the D3 was made for video? or the D200 was made as an intervalometer? :)

  • Theo

    Thanks for another great post :)

  • http://www.thunderkissphotography.com Trey Campbell

    Sounds like a ton of work for just a short clip. Why not just shoot HD video and also have a photographer to shoot the print resolution stills?

    • Zograf

      I would guess it’s not fun — too easy))

  • Joe

    been there, done that

  • Mock Kenwell

    Nice work, Andrew. Good for you. Keep the creativity up, my man.

  • Tom Mitchell

    Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work.

  • Eric Pepin

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwv82GIrHOg

    been done… years ago… with film. And they only had 37 frames per clip.

    • http://theblindmonkey.com Andrew Kornylak

      Awesome video! Alastair Thain is amazing. Muybridge did this way back in the day too by the way, among many others.

      • Eric Pepin

        I actually hate the F5 video lol, but the idea was neat then, yours is executed much better but you have the technology on your side now.

  • craigc

    good work, thanks for sharing. I believe shooting in “HD video” would have required more cumbersome lighting equipment in order to get the same shots possibly,. They seemed to be able to move fairly quickly, and from place to place as they were getting kicked off each location. You couldn’t do that with traditional HD video cameras.

    Its always new to somebody “R!”

  • Funduro

    Whoa, I’m dizzy reading his technics. What did I do bad today that I deserve to read this mumble jumble techno geek speak melodramatic art in the making? jk. Glad I did read it, Admin great write up by the guess. Kudos to the gifted artists pushing the technology envelope.

  • ZoetMB

    Even if someone has already made videos with still frames, I think this writer/photographer deserves our respect. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into the way that he works and this was an excellent article, IMO.

    The arrogance of some of the posters on this site is really annoying (at least to me.) I’d like to see how their work compares. I don’t see them volunteering to write such an article.

    Back in the 1970s, I used to shoot still frames with a Rollei, make 8×10 prints, then animate them using a 16MM Bell & Howell movie camera. I did one on trash in NYC and another on the “clackers” fad. (I did others, but those are the only two I can remember.) But I think what this guy has done was far better thought out and far more complex technically.

    • Discontinued

      ” This was an excellent article, IMO.
      The arrogance of some of the posters on this site is really annoying (at least to me.)”

      Make that two (at least).

      Of course Andrew Kornylak is not the only one, who ever got into stop motion technics and he isn’t the first either. But he is pretty obviously good at it as well as kind enough to share some of his recipes. Comforting to know, that only an annoying minority is unable to see and appreciate that.

      • dorme

        You’ll find trolls under every bridge to technology and creativity.

    • Mock Kenwell

      +1

    • jdsl

      +100000

    • Eric Pepin

      I agree its good work, I dont agree that its “hacking” the camera, which is the premise of this whole thing. People have used cameras to do all these things since the early 1900′s, look at the study of a running horse for example.

      • Victor Hassleblood

        “hacking” terms and splitting hairs?
        Just kidding.

        NICE work Andrew!
        I especially like the photographic
        look and feel of this “motion” pictures.

  • Mike

    Nice work Andrew! I recall reading about your work in (I think it was) Digital Photo Pro (?). I looked up the Adidas (again inmay be mistaken?) commercial you shot, awesome. Nice to read here how you do it! Cheers!

  • http://www.dungbeetle.com.au/ Scurvyhesh

    This is an interesting approach. its unfortunate that so many come on here only to contribute with negativity. Nikonrumors is a nice alternative to the played out sites like DPreview. I really cant stand to see another thread of Dog and Baby pics with everyone ohhing and ahhing to them. I hope all the shit comments by the haters doesn’t drive people off, because I plan on posting here from now on. VIVA NIKONRUMORS!

  • preston

    Thanks for sharing Andrew. Keep pushing the boundaries. .

    • Joe J

      With all due respect to the author fo the article, “boundaries” are not “being pushed.” They are old techniques, particularly the photo end which have been utilized for decades, on film, which takes much more calcuation and no “test shots” to gauge off of. Interesting that some of the posters take this criticism as negativity, and not criticizing the author for not recognizing previous true innovators for his inspiration. He did not come up with these techniques (which are even easier with digital technology, no less), and should state it as such.

      • Mike

        What have you done lately? Taken pictures of kids or cats? Look in the mirror before you look down your nose.

        • Joe J

          I am looking in eh mirror, and I see a handsome dude. ;-) I’m not looking down on anyone, and I don’t need to show you a portfolio to state an opinion. Besides, I’ve personally done those type of action multi-exposures over 8 years ago- on Provia 100 film and a Canon EOS1N camera body. And I was just repeating something done over a decade or more previously…

  • slightly fuzzy

    beautiful work. soul in every frame.

  • http://grevgrev.blogspot.com Grev

    D2x and D200, do you guys hear!? :P

    • http://micahmedia.com Micah

      …D2x is a fine camera in the right hands. Many shots still lingering on my site were taken with one.

  • http://www.sinclairvisual.com/cognitions ChriSin

    Cant you get 12 fps in crop mode? Feel like that would be a lot easier to change to 24……

    • http://micahmedia.com Micah

      12fps? The D3 is 11fps and the D2x is 8fps. Not sure where you’d get the 12fps figure (besides some screwy sites that claim you can get higher fps with tricks that don’t reallywork…)

  • http://www.sinclairvisual.com/cognitions ChriSin

    And if you guys are so good at hacking these sorts of low level programming, take my D3 and get me mjpeg with better quality!

  • alèm

    i saw those style of movies here before :

    http://vimeo.com/9519333

  • http://nicke.pictures.fi MrWalker78

    Well that was a horrible misuse of the words “hack” and “hacker”.

    • nerdlynerdelton

      Agree – as a self proclaimed full stack guy I object to the use of the term “hack” in this post. That said, a little less sell up and a few more vids posted or straight talk about the techniques used and it would have been a great post. Keep up the good work NR (and post author), a few more guest posts and we’ll have it dialed right in to what the readers are looking for!

  • robert

    I don’t think that video looks “cool”. for me it looks like a jerky video.. stop-motion or simply HD would be better — but that’s only my taste.

  • http://go-dslr.com Flosse_r

    Sorry but I would have to agree. essentially what the outcome looks to me is that someone just filled the buffer over and over again on the D3 and then made a movie out of it. The jump shot isn’t bad, its actually quite well done but it’s definitely not a “hacking” project. It’s merely knowing the technique. Nothing is done to the camera in any special way in order to achieve this (that would imply hacking it). I really thought something else was going to be the content.

    Kudos to the guest poster for making great work and writing it al up but honestly for most people this is nothing new. Though the title WILL help with google’s ranking :)
    Sorry, just my 2cents, though i can be wrong.

  • http://micahmedia.com Micah

    I kinda agree that the technique here isn’t anything unheard of. The more interesting part to me are the details involving the industry. I’d love to hear more there. I’ve got stories and I’m sure people with more experience have much better tales.

    Er, that is the photo/ad/pub industry, not the programming/tech.

  • jk

    The technique to create most photographs is not really unheard of either. He is actually out there doing it and that is where the difference lies.

    Good stuff!

  • ab

    This is nothing new…

  • hybris

    not impressed

    • Victor Hassleblood

      Most impressive comment.

  • avi

    Eadweard Muybridge did this half way the 19th century.
    No pocket Wizard or Profoto.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/f7oor/3695958436/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eadweard_Muybridge

  • Greg

    Why is “became” and “scene” in quotes? Are you familiar with the purpose of quotes?

  • Joe

    Shut the hell up people! This is cool! Does anybody have anything that is more impressive than this that they would like to post? Didn’t think so… Its kinda like the RED cameras, but MUCH cheaper. Very neat idea.

    • Eric Pepin

      only two people from what i read said its not cool….. just misleading post. Could have been the most masterful photography of all time, still would be a misleading post.

  • Mike

    Thanks for sharing Andrew… inspiring stuff.

  • http://www.DaltonPhoto.com rick

    “Hacking” doesn’t quite seems to fit as a descriptive word for what you are doing. In the past it was creative problem solving. When someone tells me they are hacking digital photography, I assume they are going into the camera’s firmware and tweaking it. Am I wrong?

    I guess the video from stills could maybe considered a “hack” though.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the images, and respect the creative problem solving you used to achieve the end result!

    I hate it when sales people tell me a book contains “secrets” of photographers, and then it is filled with common photo wisdom. Maybe “hack” was used in the same way as the “secret” = hyperbole?

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