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Interview With Long Exposure and Timelapse Photographer Brian Akerson

Interview With Long Exposure and Timelapse Photographer Brian Akerson

Recently we had the chance to have a talk with MIOPS Ambassador Brian Akerson for an interview where he shared his experiences about how he became a long exposure and time lapse photographer, what setup he uses or his tips to today's photographers..

Q. How did you become a well-known long exposure & time-lapse photographer?

I started creating long exposure photographs around 2003 with waterfalls. Slowly but surely, I started building a sizeable portfolio because I lived in Hawaii, island hopping was particularly inexpensive, and the waterfalls were plentiful.

I started with waterfalls and expounded on that by integrated lava flowing on the Big Island. That landed me my first gallery representation in the tourist area of the North Shore, Haleiwa. I have since extended my long exposure photography with astrophotography and by dragging the shutter for clouds during the day.

After moving back to the mainland, lava flowing was obviously not an option. My obsession with hiking and waterfalls started gaining me attention a few years later after I was published, along with one of my favorite waterfall photographs of all time, in View Camera magazine. At about the same time, being voted onto the board of directors for the International Association of Panoramic Photographers. 

When social media came around, I had already built up a decent portfolio to put on display. Quite honestly, I found the usefulness of Twitter and Instagram far later than most and have gained a reasonable following, which benefitted both my long-exposure and time-lapse work.

My time-lapse work was minimal until the past year or two. I had seen a few made by some local photographers at local spots and that pushed my desire step out of my creative box and make them. What made me believe I was becoming well-known for my work was when a woman approached me out of the blue while down in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

I was setting up a time-lapse with my MIOPS Capsule360 when she approached me. She knew who I was, was very familiar with my work in the Outer Banks and followed me on Instagram. That was a very humbling moment when someone I did not know knew who I was and what I did. That happens every now and then when I am out on shoots which is one of the coolest feelings as a photographer.

Q. What does photography mean to you and what was the reason that you became a photographer?

Photography, for me, is life. Having been diagnosed bipolar and ADD, creativity is generally a trait that both provide. Prior to taking up photography, my wife had made some beautiful photographs and I wanted to find a passion that I could be good at while pushing that button in my head that made me extremely happy. I desperately wanted to become a painter but, no matter how hard I tried or how many lessons I took, I could not manage to paint very well.

Due to that failure to launch, I took up the photography and my wife, Lena, helped lead me into her hobby by teaching me the principals of photography which I expounded on them from there. It was not more than a year before the gallery in Haleiwa, Hawaii wanted to carry my body of work created throughout the Hawaiian Islands. After finding early success, it became a fire that I could not put out.

Q. How did the Coronavirus outbreak affect your career?

While the Coronavirus has devastated so many lives, I have been extremely fortunate during the outbreak. The virus shut down many of the places that I normally shoot. Because I was not out shooting as much, particularly when the waterfalls nearest me in the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Parkway National Parks were closed to the public.

What happened next was that of a perfect storm. Normally, I have a distinct fear of rejection about communicating with photo companies and publications that I love the most. Due to the shutdowns and being forced to stay out of my normal haunts, I then realized that I needed to broaden the scope of types of photography to more than waterfall photography. I took up time-lapse more seriously, carving out a spot in a niche area of photography and found that it and the process intrigued me greatly.

Starting with using smartphone apps as more accurate intervalometers than the ones offered in-camera, I wanted to up my time-lapse game with movement. This is where MIOPS Capsule360 came into play. Next came the Timelapse+ VIEW. Having a relationship with both companies, I asked both companies if there was any way to integrate the two devices wirelessly which resulted in the MIOPS Capsule360 and Timelapse+ VIEW wireless integration.

Timelapse+ offered me my first ambassadorship and MIOPS following not long after. Normally, I would not have had the confidence to put myself out there like that. However, after loosening my fear of rejection, my confidence built up which gave me the courage to ask about approach the companies whose gear I use the most.

This newfound self-confidence led me to pitch an article idea to Professional Photographers of America’s Professional Photographer Magazine. The editor thought was a good idea for their publication, and I received the green light to write the article. Once the July 2020 issue went to press PolarPro brought me on as an ambassador.

I also pushed past my fear of rejection by asking BenQ about working a deal to sponsor a series of webinars. I figured it was a long shot, but you cannot be told “no” if you never ask the question – something my father taught me long ago. BenQ responded with an open mind and said they would like to try that. Hosting the webinars has helped me overcome my fear of being in front of the lens while live-streaming. I am so used to being behind the lens, not in front of it, which was not the easiest transition. The platform to talk about the products that I use and the things I love most about photograph has been exhilarating!

Developing all these relationships and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone was largely due to Coronavirus. It has opened my eyes to in terms of other ways to be creative. I am grateful to all the companies that I am involved with for allowing me to represent their products because I use all of those products in nearly all of my shoots.

I hope that everyone afflicted by this terrible virus gets through these tough times. For me, I have been truly blessed (with maybe a bit of luck) from all of the opportunities that have presented themselves.

Q. Briefly talk us through what a shooting day is like for you…

A shooting day for me is quite simple. I try to research the subject I intend to photograph or create a time-lapse of on Google Images and social media platforms. I look at what everyone else has done in the past and try to develop an idea about how to shoot my subject in a different perspective.

I recommend that to everybody; look at the common ways people have photographed the subject you intend to photograph via search engines and social media and do NOT shoot it that way. Try to find an original take that does not exist yet. Now, sometimes there are limited options to photograph a certain subject and a cliché approach might have to suffice. To that, I say to look at any and all options to create an original photograph.

After doing all the requisite research on my subject, I charge up my camera batteries, Capsule360, Smart+/RemotePlus (depending on which I plan to use), Timelapse+ VIEW, and my tablet so that I have plenty of juice to make it through the day. Then it comes down to the location where I plan on shooting and how to get to it. Many times, they involve long hikes to waterfalls.

When shooting time-lapses, I tend to use educated guesses and utilize the PhotoPills app to assist in setting up my gear, particularly my Capsule360s, when I reach my destination. Finally, in almost all cases, I tend to get back home and do the initial post-production work. I prefer waiting at least a day after my initial edits to sit back down and approach the final edits with fresh eyes.

Q. What is the most difficult part of being a photographer for you?

The most difficult part of being a photographer for me is that the majority of great photographs come under the worst conditions. Cold, heat, snow, rain, exhaustion, and all the other uncomfortable situations have led to the creation of the majority of my well-known shots and time-lapses. The rush of getting those kinds of shots or time-lapses drives me to go out in rough conditions to keep on achieving the captures that I desire.

Q. What kind of tools do you use for post processing time-lapse videos?

I post-process my time-lapse videos using LRTimelapse Pro and Adobe Lightroom Classic with the finishing touches being added in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I use X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport in the field and use that image to create a custom color profile.

I also use X-Rite’s i1Display Pro paired with my BenQ photo editing monitors (SW321C and SW2700PT) to ensure complete color accuracy and consistency. I shoot and process my time-lapses frame-by-frame which is extremely demanding in terms of computing power. I utilize a Loupedeck CT along with an Elgato Stream Deck and Stream Deck XL to make my job easier.

This necessitates a powerful computer so that I can accomplish my post-production work quickly. The exporting process that creates the intermediary 8K 16-bit TIFF files of a 15-60 second time-lapse from a Nikon Z7 or D850 often maxes out the performance capabilities of my machine. It is no slouch consisting of a Ryzen 9 3900X 3.8GHz 12-core processor, 64gb of RAM, NVIDIA 2080 XC Ultra, and an array of NVMe and SATA 3 solid state drives.

Q. What camera settings do you need to create long exposure waterfall photos in daylight?

In general, I usually shoot in aperture priority, the lowest native ISO, and shoot everything in RAW to retain the most dynamic range possible. I do tend to set my exposure compensation to -0.3 or -0.7 so that I do not blow out the highlights, particularly in long-exposure waterfall photography.

I use my PolarPro Summit Landscape System, which consists of a three-stage system with a circular polarizer, a solid neutral density filter, and a graduated neutral density filter. The stopping power is unreal! The Summit, by far, is the best option on the market that I have used and will continue to use. If space or time does not allow for it, I use a PolarPro 2-5 stop variable neutral density filter.

The use of the neutral density filters allows me to shoot exposures one second or longer exposures while maintaining an aperture in the f/8-/f11 range. That range is the “sweet spot” of sharpness in most lenses. I prefer very long exposures, between 15-30 seconds when photographing waterfalls. Silky waterfalls can be achieved with far less exposure times, but the longer exposures usually make for better final images.

However, exposure times greater than one second will generally create the silky effect. Lastly, I dial in my exposure settings and filters then using a MIOPS remote trigger via an app on my phone to trigger the shutter. The trigger that I choose to us all depends on what I need out of it and size.

The RemotePlus fits inside my Think Tank Hydrophobia when needed with little effort due to its smaller profile. However, I use the Smart+ more often than not because of the battery’s longevity and overall functionality it delivers. Both triggers are always in my bag and that gives me the ability to use the smaller RemotePlus when necessary and the more powerful Smart+ for all my other shots.

Q. What MIOPS products do you own, and what challenges do they allow you to overcome?

I own the MIOPS Capsule360 pan/tilt kit, the Smart+, the RemotePlus, Dongle, and Splash. The only piece of gear that has given me any sort of major struggle to overcome is the Splash. There are many variables when using the Splash, being slightly off in anything can create very different results. The Splash allows me to have consistent results when performing water drop photography.

The triggers, depending on which one I am using, provide quite a bit of capability for triggering shots, from using my phone to control the shutter to the built-in lightning triggers, the various triggering systems are killer. Using the triggers also allows me to conserve my camera’s battery power by not having to be running its Wi-Fi.

The Capsule360 allows for accurate motion control, particularly for time-lapse and video. I do not have to second guess that my photos in a time-lapse sequence will have any motion blur because of the Capsule360’s accuracy.

Q. What is your setup for a photo shoot?

When I am out hiking, I carry a Nikon D850, Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30mm f/4 S, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, sometimes a Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR or Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 VR, and, when necessary, the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8.

I also carry two Capsule360s with the L bracket, the Smart+ and RemotePlus triggers, the PolarPro Summit Landscape System, various neutral density filters, a Timelapse+ VIEW, a Gitzo Series 1 Traveler Tripod, PolarPro Apex mini tripod, an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport, an iPad to control my Capsule360s and VIEW, several extra batteries, and a small toolkit to fix any equipment malfunctions. On occasion, I bring my Rode Filmmaker Kit or VideoMic Pro+ when I need to mic up for creating videos in the field. When out shooting, I like to be ready for anything.

Q. What’s been your proudest moment as a photographer so far?

My proudest moment as a photographer was catching a shot of my daughter, seemingly airborne, on the pier in San Diego, California when she saw my wife after a seven-month deployment overseas in 2012.

It was with a cellphone, but I released its shutter at the perfect time. I know I should be proud of lots of other things, but that shot is near and dear to my heart. This should go to show that a camera is a tool, it is how you make use of it that really matters.

Q. What makes the good picture stand out from the average?

I believe that what separates a good photograph out from the average is finding a new angle for a photograph that works and is not cliché, as I discussed earlier. If possible, find a different aspect and own it.

Do what they tell you is impossible – or at least try. It is truly amazing what you can accomplish when you push outside your box and figure out solutions to the equation that sets your work apart from the everyone else. Finally, being willing to put up with the early or late hours and harsh environmental extremes to be in the right place and right time usually rewards you with better than average photographs.