Interview with time-lapse photographer and finalist in New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year 2017 Steven Harrison.


The tricky, time-consuming and incredibly rewarding work of creating time-lapses is something that Steven Harrison knows well. He's done over 100 time-lapses from skyscapes and cityscapes, though his Sky tower piece in the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of Year exhibition is no doubt his most difficult piece with over 3000 shots merged into a 57 second time-lapse. In this Q & A, he gives us a blow-by-blow explanation of this piece and tell us about the highs and lows of being a time-lapse photographer and more. 

How did you get into time-lapse photography?

I stumbled into time-lapse photography by trying to do light trails - this involves taking photos of the stars in one spot and then layering them over each other. I figured I could try my hand at time-lapse photography - something I had never considered before.  Since then, I have done about 115 time-lapses, from clouds rolling over Ruapehu to fast cityscape pieces. Day to night time-lapses of the Milky Way are probably my favourite to do, because it is something you can’t see with the naked eye. It traditionally involves manual ramping of exposure settings, so although it means you’re up and down in the night, it means you get to camp under the stars.


Creating the Sky Tower time-lapse



How did you create the Sky Tower time-lapse that appears in the exhibition? 

I had this time-lapse in my mind for a couple of years, but never had the motivation to do it ‘cause I knew it would be a lot of work. I had seen a similar idea of it done before, with single photos taken around a central point. I wanted to get the effect of going around and around the Sky Tower. I used a website called Auckland GIS which enabled me to print a map of central Auckland.  I then drew a circle from the centre of the Sky Tower at a radius that intersected with several points that I thought would work great for the concept I had planned.  I had that map on my phone, so I would walk around the city and hit a point, and adjust myself on the street to get the right distance from the Sky Tower, that way I could be sure that all my shots would look similar. 

What techniques did you use to get the final piece? 

There are three types of shots that I used in that time-lapse.  There are single time-lapses where I am standing still and over the course of 30 mins - 1 hour I would shoot about 150 frames - I did that in about fifteen different spots. Then I did three hyper-lapses which is a moving time-lapse in which you move your camera a few feet, take one shot, over and over again.  The final one that I did was a day to night hyper-lapse  leaving the city where I had to adjust my exposure length to deal with the fading light. I wanted to give the effect of going around the tower, into the middle, then you shoot off down the road away from the city. In total I hyper-lapsed about 1500 metres while trying to take a photo every meter which took me about 6 hours to shot over 3 different days. 

How long did it take you to do the piece? 

I started planning it in February and finished in early September. During that time I did eight ventures into the city to scout out the shots and create it all. I completed it the weekend before the deadline, so it was very much down to the wire. 

Have you entered the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year competition before? 

I entered in 2015 and 2016 where I made the finals by submitting a hyper-lapse of the pink cycle path in Auckland and I came away with a highly commended prize.  In that competition, I was up against top photographers, people I have looked up to for years, so I was incredibly stoked to get an award. 

Have you had any disappointments over the years? 

Yeah, I went down to Tongariro once to shoot the Milky Way as it set over Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe and during the shoot some of my gear stopped working due to the cold. It had warmers on it and I even took my jacket off and wrapped it around my camera to warm it up but it just wouldn’t kick into action. It was devastating, you drive all that way, plan it out and then end up with something that you are not happy with. I have had something similar happen on two other occasions also. I now have new gear and so far, so good. 

What have been some of your biggest learnings over the years?

Eliminating any distractions is important. I try to ensure there is nothing that diverts the viewer from what I am trying to shoot, like branches coming into the shot etc. You also need to be aware of what’s around you and never try to end the shoot too soon. There may be a plane that comes into shot and if you finish it while it is tracking across the sky, it will just look weird. I try to avoid having random people in the shot and also flicker caused while changing the shutter speed during change of light. 

How would describe time-lapse photographers as a breed? 

Time-lapse photographers are incredibly dedicated. You can walk for days in the bush, sit there for twelve hours and walk away with 16 seconds of usable footage - so at the end of the day you have to do it for yourself not for your audience. Often you’ll find that you’ll put a video up online and people will scroll past, and give it a passing ‘like’, so in some ways I feel they don’t get the recognition that they deserve. I think it’s that people don’t know what that person has done to get the shot - they don’t know that they tramped up a big mountain, spent ages finding the right spot, slept out on the rocks in a sleeping bag and ate spaghetti out of a can. Often the weather will close in which kills your shot, so all of that effort and hardship is for nothing, so you have to be emotionally prepared for those unforeseen disappointments.

In what way do you think time-lapses can reveal something about the world that is otherwise unseen?   

What you don’t get from a video or a photo is the change in time. From a photo you don’t see stars moving or satellites working their way across the sky, so it gives you a different view on the world. It helps what would make a great photo come to life and tell a better story.  I also believe time-lapses are important to show patterns in nature that are unseen to the human eye. Through a time-lapse you can see an ice-shelf disappearing into the ocean, large scale deforestation or a glacier receding.   When multiple photos from many years are combined into a time-lapse to show these things, it creates much more of an impact on the audience and will hopefully raise awareness on these issues that are affecting our planet.

Cite this article 

'Timespanner'. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 30th January, 2018.