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Hawaiian infrared time-lapse of haunting Mamane trees made with IR-converted Nikon D5200 camera

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In this guest posts Gary Yost (www.garyyost.com) will share his experience shooting infrared time-lapse of the Hawaiian Mamane trees with a 650nm Lifepixel IR-converted Nikon D5200 camera:

What really turns me on in photography and filmmaking is finding ways to visualize the mysteries of the natural world.  In the summer of 2013 I came across a stand of beautifully gnarled dead trees on the Big Island of Hawaii and they evoked in me feelings of similarity to the beautiful ancient Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains.  Kohala mountain, which is the site of the these amazingly-shaped Hawaiian tree bones, also has some of the craziest cloud patterns in the world because of the way this dormant volcano pushes the tropical moisture around the northern part of the Big Island.

The mystery of why they died captivated me and I felt compelled to capture their cloud-shrouded flowing windswept beauty using time-lapse cinematography.  Unfortunately however, these trees were on private grazing land belonging to the Parker Ranch, which controls 10% of the Big Island, approximately 250,000 acres.  After returning to my home in California I kept thinking of these amazing trees.  I did some research and learned that they were Māmane trees, considered sacred by the Hawaiians and used as building material for important houses, for making tools, and even for crafting dry-land sled runners (sledding is a sport on Hawaii… who knew?).  The Māmane were threatened in the early 1900s by overgrazing from goats, sheep and cattle and they successfully brought a lawsuit against the state of Hawaii, along with co-plaintiff the Palila bird (a threatened songbird who depends on their branches to nest in).  It was amazing to learn that a tree and a bird actually won a court case to protect their environment, and I become charged up about honoring these trees with a video homage.

This snapshot provides a sense of what they look like, in color, when you’re standing among them.

Mamane_snapshot-1914

I contacted the manager of the Parker Ranch and submitted a proposal about how I wanted to capture the images of these trees for a short respectful film, and after a few months of discussion and patient waiting I was given a week-long filmmaking permit!  I’d been thinking about how to best capture their shapes and had already decided that I wanted to create this piece monochromatically so that the color of the grass and sky wouldn’t detract from their beauty.  I’d been experimenting with infra-red photography for the last couple of years, having sent an old D200 to Lifepixel for a 650nm SuperColor conversion.  After some tests here in California I decided that infra-red would provide the contrast between the sky, clouds and trees  that I was looking for.  But the D200 is not a Live-View camera, so the only lens that I was able to use with it was the Nikkor 17-55/f2.8 that had been calibrated by Lifepixel at the time of conversion.  My vision for these trees required much wider fields of view than the 17mm would offer (effectively a 26mm crop on the D5200’s APS sensor).  I realized that I’d need a Live-View camera to be able to focus arbitrary lenses with an infra-red sensor, so I purchased an inexpensive red-bodied Nikon 5200 and sent it up to Seattle for conversion in early June.   The red body for an infra-red camera was a fun bonus and a good way for me to not get confused!

Once I got the camera back from Lifepixel, I made some tests with the Tokina 11-16/f2.8 lens (effective 16-24mm) and got exactly the look I was hoping for.  I brought that lens along with my Nikkor 24-120/f4 to Hawaii, plus some neutral density filters and a great little portable Mefoto travel tripod, the A1350.  This tripod has interchangeable feet, including a great set of spikes that I knew would be useful on that rough landscape.  It also has a center-column hook for hanging weight during periods of high wind for extra stabilization.

Here’s a snapshot of what my rig looked like.  Super compact and portable:

Yost_shooting_mamane-1941

Soon after I arrived on the island I visited the Parker Ranch headquarters and the very generous people there handed me a permit allowing me to shoot for 5 days to my heart’s content.  It’s frequently foggy, misty and rainy up there at 3,000 feet and I watched the weather carefully – it needed to be clear enough to see the trees but with still enough clouds to capture that feeling of time passing.  One of the most powerful shots in the film for me was made with the 24-120 at 120mm, at 1:16 into the film.  It’s a shot of one tree in the foreground with a storm moving over the plain that lies between the Kohala and Mauna Kea volcanos.  As the storm is passing over the land, it looks like the ocean roiling and bubbling.  Compressing 25 miles of space so tightly (that’s Waikaloa Village in the midground, frame right) creates a beautiful optical illusion, and is a great reason to always bring multiple lenses with different focal lengths so you can explore visual compression and expansion.  That 24-120 was useful in 2 other shots.  Can you tell which?

Of course I shot RAW files which allowed me to white-balance the infra-red images in Adobe Lightroom on my laptop back at my rental house.  But there are challenges you must overcome in Lightroom when processing infra-red images because no matter how cool you make the image using the WB Temp slider, there will still be a red cast.  So after googling around, I found a few people who had figured this out using the Adobe DNG Profile Editor.  It’s simple to make a new camera profile just for infra-red images and load that into Lightroom!  Here’s a good description of the process:

http://www.davidclapp.co.uk/blog/view/calibrating-white-balance-to-process-infrared-images-in-lightroom or

http://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/an-in-depth-guide-to-infrared-photography-processing--photo-9540

Once I had the white balance adjusted correctly, I used LR Timelapse to create time-lapse sequences with all of the other raw parameters I chose for contrast, clarity, exposure, etc.  After each day of shooting I’d render a set of proxy animations to make sure I had what I needed, and if shots didn’t work out I’d schedule reshoots for the next day.   Here’s what the raw files look like in the preview window of LR Timelapse before white balance adjustment and processing.

LRTimelapse_UI

After four days of shooting, my wife Sondra saw the footage and suggested that the film needed an actual spirit to emphasize the haunting feeling of the place.  The question was… How to film a spirit?  Because the 650 nanometer IR filter is directly on the sensor, the D5200 can shoot IR video and I filmed my wife dressed in a shroud, walking near one of the trees.  Without moving the camera I then made a time-lapse shot from the same perspective.  I sent both off to my friend Jamie Clay on the mainland and he composited them together in After Effects using three layers; the top layer was applied using the Overlay mode, the next layer was applied using Linear Light, and the bottom layer was the timelapse sequence.  A simple feathered oval mask was tracked on both ghost layers to isolate them and give them a small halo.  I slowed the real-time sequence down in FCPX using Optical Flow, which added to the ghostly effect, and contrasted the slowed-down spirit with the sped-up clouds.  As I’ve written before about Time-lapse filmmaking, it’s important to incorporate narrative elements to amp up the emotional impact of a piece.

When I got home to California I re-rendered each scene in ProRes 4:2:2 format using LR Timelapse, and then added motion blur with Re:Vision Effect’s RealSmart Motion Blur in After Effects.  Finally I added a deflicker pass using Digital Anarchy’s Flicker Free AE plugin.

Putting everything together in Final Cut Pro X, the first thing I did was explore different looks for the piece.  I didn’t want to go with something that obviously shouted “infra-red” but still it was crucial to create a dreamlike feel.  Using a deep periwinkle blue palette created a beautiful otherworldy grade and the FCPX color board made this very easy.   Here’s how the final piece looks inside the editor:

Treebones_edit

Once the look of the film had been established, I researched finding the most appropriate soundtrack that would compliment the haunting feel of the piece.  After doing a half-day of research I found a Hawaiian pre-European love chant by Charles Albert Manu'alkohanaiki'illili Boyd.  His chant brought the piece into clear focus and gave me the inspiration I needed for the edit -- his pauses and breaths were a perfect counterpoint to the movement of the clouds.  I added a very limited number of camera moves in post (panning, tilting and some subtle pushes) and then finally put a windy soundtrack behind the chant, giving Boyd’s voice some ambience.

My intention when creating any short film or photograph is for the viewer to feel something.  I hope that, when you watch this 2-1/2 minute piece, the hair stands up on the back of your neck the way it does on mine.  (As they say in Hawaii, “it’ll give you chicken skin.”)

http://vimeo.com/100185920

Thank you for watching.

Bio:  Gary Yost is a filmmaker and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area who focuses on telling stories about the interesting people and places where he lives.  Yost has been using technology to tell complex stories for a long time.

As the leader of the team that created Autodesk 3DS Max he gave millions of people 3D modeling and animation tools, enabling them to use computers to visualize anything they could think of… and a lot of those things were too large, too small, too fast or too slow to show with conventional video.  These days, Yost refers to nature as “his grand animation stand” and spends much of his time on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.

You can view his work at: garyyost.com.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • js200022

    Wow, it looks very nice. The lens are awesome. Great job.

  • Duff

    Nice end result, however the technique used made me scratch my head.
    The 11-16 Tokina has a big and disturbing hotspot in the middle of the frame – is the II. version has this issue corrected, or was it corrected in the postprocessing?
    Since the end result is a monochrome footage, why didn’t the author use a monochrome filter (830nm for example) right from the start? With a live view enabled camera it’s not a problem: if you screw the external IR filter on the front thread of the lens, live view sees though it. Also, 830nm gives much sharper results than 650nm since it blocks misfocused visible light components reaching the sensor.

    • Gary Yost

      Duff, those are great questions. Answers… I don’t normally use crop sensor cameras and the Tokina was borrowed from a friend. I’m not sure if it’s the II version, but I didn’t have to correct anything in post vis a vis a hotspot.

      Very good question about going out past 720nm into full IR instead of using an almost-full 650nm filter. I use the super-color 650nm Lifepixel conversion to give me more flexibility in post to use some visible light for certain effects if I need to. I’ll be exploiting this more in an upcoming music video that’s in pre-production now. You’re right about how it’s tough to get critical focus at 650nm and I had a much harder time with that than with the 24-120 Nikkor lens. For some reason getting tack sharp focus with the Tokina was super hard and yet with the Nikkor it was trivially easy. Not sure why that is. Regarding screwing an external filter onto the front of a non-converted camera, I’ve done that and the result is too dark for me to work with without resorting to crazy-long exposure times.

      • Duff

        Thanks for the answers! I don’t have experience with the 24-120 in infrared, but it has probably less focus shift than the 11-16, that would explain why it is better focused on a 650nm camera. With a lens that has a strong focus shift, the more visible light you let past the IR filter, the softer the final image gets.

        With the external filter I’ve ment a converted camera of course. Using a stronger external filter than the one in front of the sensor is a great way to narrow down the recorded spectrum if needed. I’m using a 695nm converted D90 right now, with 720nm and 830nm external filters.

        • Gary Yost

          You’re right that the 24-120 probably has less focus shift than the 11-16 because it has a max aperture of f4 compared to f2.8. That said, I didn’t think that focus shift would have much of an effect if I was stopped down (which I was, to about f5.6) and using Live View. What are your thoughts about that?

          Regarding your comment about using an additional filter to go farther out into the IR spectrum, that’s a fantastic idea! My conversions are 650nm for reasons I mentioned above, but sometimes I’d rather push it harder to eliminate all visible light. I do have a 720nm filter here and will do some tests with it. Thanks!

        • Dobbler

          I have a 715mn converted camera. Does adding an 830nm filter reduce overall light transmission below 830mn, and thus dictate longer exposures or wider apertures? Or will I simply get a different cut-off (830 vs. 715 of course)?

          • Gary Yost

            I just did a test with the 5200, shooting the scene with the 650nm in-camera filter and then adding a 720nm filter on the front. It didn’t change exposure at all, so I’m thinking that putting an 830nm filter on the front would have minimal-to-no impact also. This is pretty cool stuff and I’m off to find an inexpensive 800+nm filter now.

            • Duff

              If it didn’t change either the hues and the exposures at all, then 2 things are possible: both the filter in front of the lens and in front of the sensor are the same strenght, or the one on the sensor is stronger.

              The filter inside my D90 is supposed to be a 695nm. On a sunlit nater scene in the middle of the day I can shoot at iso 200 and f/8 at 1/400-500 sec, with a Hoya R72 added this goes down to 1/320sec, and with the B+W 093 (830nm) this goes to around 1/80 sec. Contrast and sharpness is the best with the 830nm filter of course, but you’re limited to a monochrome image then. For blue-white shots the 720nm, for pink-blue shots the 695nm is the best. The 650nm suffers sharpness significantly, while does not add much more color.

              Make sure you buy quality filters that don’t cheat with the numbers written on them.

            • Gary Yost

              I used a 720nm filter over the 650 conversion as my test and was just eyeing up the histogram. Now that I look closer, maybe there’s a half-stop of difference. (I could do this more scientifically, right? :) I’ll be getting the 820nm filter next week and that ought to show at least a stop of difference — will get back to you on that. I found one for $50 that was well-reviewed, btw. You are way more into this than I am and I appreciate your sharing your knowledge here. I’m already thrilled about the prospect of adding filters in front of my conversion to get deeper IR effects. Thanks!

            • Duff

              You’re welcome!
              Have a look at my site:
              http://dimensionseven.deviantart.com

            • Gary Yost

              Very lovely and also technically excellent work! I particularly love the statue of the reaper with the white trees in the background and the one where you’re looking up through a cluster of black rectangular obelisks (what are they?) at a long-exposure sky. Fantastic stuff and thanks for sharing, Dr. Zoltan!

          • Duff

            Through a 830nm filter less light reaches the sensor than through a 715nm filter. The exposure difference is around one stop in my experience (1/80 vs. 1/320 sec at same iso 200 and same f/8 aperture on a typical midday sunlit nature scene.)

            • Gary Yost

              Yup, I made further tests this week and my results are exactly in line with yours. Thanks again for pointing this out… now I have the options of 650, 720 and 830nm depending upon the look I’m going for. (In many cases, actually, 830nm will be the best way for me to go.)

  • CarolDLee

    Gary Yost is a filmmaker and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area who focuses on telling stories about the interesting people and places where he lives. Yost has been using technology to tell complex stories for a long time. http://qr.net/FrS2

  • Patrick O’Connor

    I loved the video but, to be honest, had to turn off the sound to enjoy it. This reminds me of a quote, ascribed to Abraham Lincoln: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” :-)

    • Gary Yost

      Yup, the chant is really polarizing for people. It’s the indigenous sound of that place, but it’s something that you either love or not.

      • Patrick O’Connor

        I guess you couldn’t get permission to use Elvis’ “Rock-a-hula baby” from Blue Hawaii ;-)

        • Gary Yost

          Ha! I’ll leave that remix to you. Would be even more surreal than my version.

  • Spy Black

    Nice work. I member the name from my early experimentation with the then DOS-based 3D-Studio in the early 90s.

    I have say I found the chant distracting, I think just wind would have been nice.

    Nice-looking piece.

  • Z

    Awesome video … although I, too found the chanting bit distracting; agree with Spy, just the sound of wind … less is more … anyway, thanks for sharing, great work …

    • Gary Yost

      Yup, from feedback it’s really interesting to see that people are so polarized by the chant. For me it was critically important to find a soundtrack that was as indigenous as possible, which meant going back to pre-European times. (Just wind would’ve been ultra-indigenous, sure… but that didn’t fit with my vision for the piece.) As soon as I heard Boyd’s recording I instantly knew it worked perfectly for me. Maybe that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the Islands and my ears are attuned to that type of sound.. who knows?

  • neversink

    Excellent job… I enjoyed the chant as well, and felt it complimented the mystery of the scene. I’m sure natural actualities of only the wind would have been fine also, but glad to hear new sounds. Perhaps those who didn’t like the chant should listen to it several times. I watched it in a darkened room on a 30 inch monitor. Perfect. Thanks.

    • Gary Yost

      Thanks. And it also helps to read the translation of the chant that I found (and put into the description). It’s a beautiful love song and (to me) somehow speaks to the relationship between the Palila bird and the Māmane trees and how dependent they are upon one another. Very glad you enjoyed it.

  • BillD

    Meh, I could do that in Photoshop. No need to get a custom camera to do that.

    • Spy Black

      We are all awaiting to see your results…

    • Qws

      You probably just don’t have an eye for it. Sorry to hear..now go back to selective colour and overdone PS effects.

  • Tharizdun

    Funny, here in the Netherlands we use the same expression (gives you chicken skin) :D

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