I work in the marketing department of a landscape architecture firm. We tackle large projects worldwide, such as new resorts and casinos, and we often want to record a project as it develops, including 3D photography of the concept models, the project underway, and the final result.

To document our latest project, I bought a Nikon Coolpix 8400. I didn't need anything too fancy and I didn't want to break my budget. The 8400 has a good balance of advanced features and reasonable pricing.

One function that I noticed immediately was the ability to shoot stop-motion movies. I've been a big fan of Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi: A Life Out Of Balance.

This film is entirely time-lapse cinematography of grand images of landscapes, cityscapes, and crowds of people so that the viewer can see hours of real time pass in a couple of minutes of movie time. The Coolpix 8400 can create this sort of movie by snapping pictures periodically, and then using all of the pictures in the series to create a QuickTime movie.

I knew that would be the first function I wanted to explore. Now, all I needed was an idea and location. Since I had purchased the camera over the Christmas holidays, the approaching New Year's Eve seemed like a good photo op. My girlfriend and I had planned a trip to Monterey from Los Angeles: about a six-hour drive in normal California driving conditions. We'd mostly drive on Highway 101 during the day, so I wanted to "film" the pilgrimage.

A trip to Monterey? A perfect opportunity to test time-lapse photography with the Nikon. A trip to Monterey? A perfect opportunity to test time-lapse photography with the Nikon.

The Camera Setup

I set up a tripod in the back of our car, a Chrysler Concorde LX that has an amazing amount of room. I was able to position the camera to have a good view out of the windshield without obstructing the rear-view mirror. To stabilize the tripod, I adjusted the front leg to floor length, the back two legs on the seat.

I set up the camera on the tripod and focused just below the rear-view mirror. On the Nikon, I can set the time interval between photos anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. I wanted a movie about 30 seconds long; at 24 frames per second, I'd need 720 frames. Since I expected nearly six hours of drive time, I'd need to take 120 frames every hour, or two frames every minute. Magically, that came out to the minimum time interval I could set: take one picture every 30 seconds. Since I had a 2GB Hitachi Microdrive, I could store the entire movie without replacing the card.

Simple yes, but the old 'tripod on the backseat' trick worked well for this project. Simple, yes, but the old "tripod on the backseat" trick worked well for this project.

I set the camera to auto-focus and auto-flash (more on that in a minute). This was the first time I had tried this, so I was going to let the camera figure everything out on its own. Satisfied that everything was set, I started the camera and we left for Monterey.

The only problem we encountered was the potential for sharp turns to knock over the tripod. That was easily solved by reaching back and supporting the tripod upon seeing any potential road hazard. If I ever do this again, I'd try to secure the tripod with some weights or tie-downs that integrate with the seat belts.

After four hours, the camera had depleted its battery, but since it had been on for that long and had already taken 480 pictures, I thought it was pretty good. The camera was kind enough to wait until we stopped for food, and I changed the battery without losing any continuity in my movie. After all, you can't tell the difference between me taking five minutes to change the battery and us not stopping at all. That's the beauty of time-lapse photography.

We didn't get to shoot for the full six hours, though. As it started to get dark and a storm moved in, the camera started using its auto-flash (which is just what it is supposed do). I hadn't thought of this ahead of time, but a camera flashing every 30 seconds while driving on the highway in a rainstorm is not only really distracting, but a bit dangerous as well. We didn't get to the full 720 frames that we wanted, but that's OK. We'll just have to leave earlier next time or wait until the summer months when we have more daylight.

Going from Camera to Movie

The Coolpix automatically makes QuickTime movies. My friend, brian d foy, was also staying in the house over the holiday, and he was able to transfer the movies to his PowerBook with a USB cable. I could have also transferred them by giving him the flash card, but this was easier.

He loaded the movie into iMovie, which he said he had never really used before. Through iMovie, he selected from iTunes a frenetic-sounding track by the Raymond Scott Quintet (which we leave off of the movie here because of rights issues). Once the movie and the music were in place, he exported the combination to a new QuickTime movie. The whole process took about 15 minutes. Everyone in the house wanted to see it several times, and we showed it to everyone who came over.

Click to view the movie. The finished movie. Click to view.

Final Thoughts

Everyone involved with the project was doing this for the first time, and considering that, we came up with something pretty good. This stuff use to be in the realm of the photography or movie geeks, but now consumer electronics and software does most of the work effortlessly. We just had to provide the subject.

Besides the movie, I also tried the camera in several artsy shots along the Monterey coast. Not being a "real" photographer, I didn't keep track of the various settings, and I mostly let the camera make the decisions on its own.

The joy of today's digital cameras--you can make movies and capture artistic images, too. The joy of today's digital cameras--you can make movies and capture artistic images, too.

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