Alessandro Della Bella shoots low-light EOS-1D X timelapses
© Alessandro Della Bella
Produced in extreme conditions, and from remote locations, Alessandro Della Bella’s timelapse low-light landscapes are as beautiful as they are captivating; showing the world from a spellbinding new perspective, as CPN writer Ian Farrell discovers.
By day Alessandro Della Bella is a staff photojournalist at Keystone, Switzerland’s largest photo agency.
By night, however, he lives a secret life, photographing alpine landscapes in the most severe weather conditions, using extraordinary timelapse techniques. Della Bella’s photography shows the world around him in a state of perpetual change: the sun sets and rises, stars track across the sky, and the nocturnal movements of cars and airplanes record as high-speed flashes of activity. He says it’s this ability – to record the passage of time – that first motivated him to explore timelapse photography.
“Night-time photography has always been one of my passions,” he reveals. “But timelapse offers the possibility to take this a step further and actually show the movement of the earth, adding a new dimension to the picture. This is fascinating for me.”
The combination of shooting at night and working at such high altitude means that Alessandro Della Bella – and his EOS cameras – face some harsh conditions, with temperatures plunging well below freezing. “When I started shooting this material I was surprised how well the cameras performed: on Piz Corvatsch at -25°C the EOS-1D X worked perfectly. Usually low temperatures themselves are not the problem – a cold alpine environment is also very dry, so lenses stay free of ice. It’s when clouds appear that humidity arrives, bringing ice with it. Sometimes I love the unpredictable results this can give, though I'm always looking for good ways to protect my equipment. When ice gets too much, a quick lens change is the best way of clearing things. I put the frozen lenses in front of a little oven to warm up a bit, though sometimes they clear themselves in the wind.”
But freezing temperatures aren’t the only risk that Alessandro Della Bella faces when shooting timelapse sequences. Twice his equipment has been stolen part-way through a timelapse shoot. “It’s as annoying as it is funny,” he says with a smile. “On both occasions I’d been shooting in the same town, and was very lucky to get my gear back.”
Della Bella explains: “The first time a camera went missing, a police officer who was out walking his dog discovered it. To make sure that nobody pinched it he decided to take it himself for safekeeping, and returned it to me later. The second time I had left my cameras shooting on their interval timers while I went off to a friend’s birthday party. When I came back one was missing – thankfully not the EOS-1D X! The thief who stole it was caught by the police when he was spotted showing off with the camera. It was returned to me by the same policeman who took the first one. Maybe I should have listened to him!”
Conventional landscape photography requires some considerable skill, especially when shooting in low-light. For his timelapse projects, though, Della Bella needs to shoot hundreds of frames from multiple angles over regular time intervals for hours on end. To say that this makes things more complicated is understatement to the extreme.
His EOS-1D X, EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1D Mark IV cameras are fired by Canon RS-80N3 and TC-80N3 remote releases. The TC-80N3 unit has an interval timer function so it can be programmed to fire at intervals ranging from one second up to 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. The timings used depend heavily on both the conditions and the effect Della Bella is after: “[By] exposing for 30 seconds I get about 120 frames per hour, taking one picture after the other without a gap, which gives me nice smooth movements for the sky and clouds. In brighter conditions I can’t use such long shutter speeds so I choose an interval of between one and 10 seconds, depending on the extent of movement in the scene. For instance, clouds on a windy day move quickly and require shorter intervals to render their movement smoothly.”
In order to shoot frames one after the other without missing anything Alessandro Della Bella warns that the long-exposure noise reduction, which captures a dark exposure equal to that of the main shot, should be turned off in the camera menu.
Experience has also shown Della Bella what combinations of shutter speed, ISO and lens work well. “I get a good result if I use the EF14mm f/2.8L II USM lens on a clear, moonless night at f/2.8, ISO 3200, and expose for 30 seconds in RAW format. A longer focal length requires shorter exposure time and a higher ISO to keep the stars sharp. With newer camera models, like the EOS-1D X, image quality at ISO 6400 is excellent.”
Alessandro Della Bella uses up to three camera bodies to capture footage from different angles and uses a variety of lenses, from 8mm up to 600mm. “The location of the various cameras depends on the scene I’m shooting,” he says. “But I usually keep them within 100 metres of each other. Sometimes they end up in quite precarious places just because that’s the view I want. These are the kind of spots you can only access in the dark, when nobody can see you. For motion control and panning effects during the shoot I use dollies where possible, such as those from Dynamic Perception. A Ken Burns [panning and zooming] effect can also be applied in post-production.”
Once Della Bella has shot the hundreds of frames needed for one of his timelapse movies, a considerable amount of post-production is needed to put the frames together. “There are countless ways of doing this,” he says. “I’m always looking to adapt and refine my workflow.”
He adds: “At the moment I develop RAW images in Adobe Lightroom and export them as high quality JPEG files, sometimes with the aid of a plug-in called LRTimelapse, which helps with white balance and flickering issues. Then it’s into Adobe After Effects to create single short clips for each vantage point. I combine these to make the final video using Avid software or sometimes simply Apple’s iMovie.”
Finishing touches include a musical score, which Alessandro Della Bella sources from local artists. “Finding beautiful, affordable music has been a difficult task. The song I would have loved to license for my movie would have cost €10,000 for internet usage alone, and it wasn’t even from a very famous artist. Fortunately I found the terrific Swiss music database audio-kitchen.ch. Now some musicians are actively asking if they can compose music for my images, like Michael Gertschen of the band Bündnerflaisch did for the movie 'The Thief'. Going forward it’s clear to me that I want to continue to work together with Swiss musicians.”
Alessandro Della Bella’s time-lapse landscapes are spectacular stuff, as evidenced by the strong following that his project 'Helvetia by Night', has attracted on the internet. An additional stamp of approval came from the 'One Day on Earth' project – a group of photographers who aimed to get photographs from every country in the world on the same day: 12 December 2012.
Della Bella explains: “I didn’t know about 'One Day on Earth' before they got in touch with me, but I fell in love with the idea instantly. A few days after the chosen date I was due to be shooting the Women's Ski World Cup in St. Moritz, so I took advantage of the travel arrangements and stayed in the beautiful Engadin Valley on 12 December. The local authorities gave me access to two peaks, but conditions nearly ruined everything.”
He reveals: “I couldn’t set up the dollies the first night because everything was freezing. About 1:30am the weather suddenly improved, although it continued to be very windy and cold. The second night felt like a summer’s day by comparison: just -15˚C at 3,000 metres altitude. But the sky was crisp and clear, it was one day before a new moon, and the peak of the Geminids meteor shower was approaching.”
There is something addictive about Alessandro Della Bella’s moving landscapes – the way the world moves on a timescale that we are usually oblivious too. Della Bella seems addicted to shooting them too, with ambitions to capture more views over Europe in this spectacular way over the coming months. “I really want my next location to be Jungfraujoch,” he says. “It is 3,471 metres above sea level. For good reason it’s often known as the top of Europe.”
Biography: Alessandro Della Bella
Photojournalist and filmmaker Alessandro Della Bella is a young Swiss photographer based in Zurich, Switzerland. By day he works for the Keystone photo agency, and when the sun goes down he continues to develop his personal project ‘Helvetia at Night’, which has won him worldwide acclaim for his series of timelapse movies and stills, all shot with Canon EOS DSLRs.