“SFO at Night” Behind-the-Scenes

San Francisco Airport Time-Lapse

The Video

“SFO at Night” is a time-lapse video I released in November 2013 of San Francisco International Airport. I can offer the basic info (20+ hours of photography, 150+ GB of RAW files, and nine months from start to finish) but this is TimeLapseBlog.com so I’ll give up all the secrets of how I made it.

The Idea

I first thought of photographing planes at SFO after seeing this photo on Flickr, which consists of 79 light trail images of planes landing. I had already made a popular light trails action for Photoshop and wanted to see if I could make an animated version of planes landing by using time-lapse techniques. I rented a Canon 7D in late 2010 to photograph a lunar eclipse but drove to SFO to get the most out of my ten-day rental. This is when I made a short video of planes landing with light trails.

The result was interesting but not as seamless as I’d like. That’s why in February 2013 I tried again with the Canon 60D I now own. I had learned a lot more about time-lapse by then and the resulting video was much better. These clips are the first two in “SFO at Night.” I considered using the light trail effect but decided consistency throughout the video was preferable.

Because these shots turned out well, I decided to try some shots on airport property. I wasn’t sure what the rules were for shooting so I looked it up online. It seemed that non-commercial photography and video was permitted, which I took to mean I could probably take a few shots as long as I didn’t try selling them.

The first night I wandered around SFO and left once I thought I had a few solid time-lapse clips. I try to have clips available on a mobile device when I shoot so I can show why I’m taking thousands of photos to anyone who asks. Most people really like photography and are happy to talk with me once I show them what I’m doing.

Stealing like an Artist

Once I had a few good clips, I contacted SFO so I could take photographs the right way. The public relations office liked the clips and asked for specific locations where I wanted to shoot. This is when I turned to Flickr and other photography sharing websites to find out what might make an interesting subject at an airport.

My goal in reviewing these photos was to learn about locations of interesting architectural design and not to copy exact composition. For example, my taxi corral shot was inspired by this photo, which turns out to be inspired by this photo. I knew I wanted to photograph at night but I looked for day shots as well. It didn’t matter if they were day shots, snap shots, or even taken at a different airport.

The Delay

I expected approval to take a few weeks but the crash landing of Asiana Airlines flight 214 soon after submitting my proposal caused a much longer delay. The same PR office that was fielding my request began handling interviews and questions from the media. The crash news cycle went well into the summer so I didn’t bother contacting SFO for a few months. When I finally did, they were very supportive of my proposed video.

The Gear

I used my Canon EOS 60D for all of the shots but needed to expand my lens selection. After asking for suggestions from other time-lapse makers, I decided to buy the Rokinon 14mm lens. Although it’s not perfect, this is a beautiful wide-angle piece of glass and is now my main lens. I have a brief review of this on my gear page.

I used my Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens for two shots but its quality gets much worse when zoomed, so I rented the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens for one night. This worked out well and gave me most of my tarmac shots.

Besides the camera and lenses, I only used a tripod and an intervalometer. All pans and zooms were done in post production.

The Photos

You can see the lens and processing settings in the EXIF data on select photos in my Flickr account. The Rokinon lens doesn’t communicate with the 60D, so there’s limited information for those shots. If the lens’ info is missing, assume it was the Rokinon fixed at 14mm and not 50mm as indicated.

I almost always shoot wide open and these photos were no exception. Shooting at the lowest aperture number lets me take shorter exposures with less noise than raising the ISO. It also creates less flicker in the final video and makes any sensor dust less obvious. A higher f-stop causes more diffraction from light bulbs and I only find it necessary if I need to extend the focal depth into the foreground.

Every shot was in RAW except for the blue and red lights above the moving sidewalk. I had to shoot these in jpeg because I had to capture the entire video from one end of the walkway to the other, which took less than a minute. The short time meant taking about three photos a second, which quickly filled up the buffer even when writing to a class 10 SD card with 45MB read/write speeds. This didn’t seem to make a difference in the final video.

The Software

The first step in my workflow is always Adobe Lightroom. I have a video and article explaining my step-by-step process for converting RAW files to jpeg for time-lapse.

In a few of the transition shots and those that needed a bit more motion, I used a program called Panolapse. I first heard of this program from time-lapse photographers Seventh Movement. It works well with wide angle lenses, such as fisheye, and creates post production pans and zooms. I used this software as a last minute addition to an almost finished video and am happy with the result.

Most photos were exported at a 16:9 aspect ratio to fit HDTV dimensions. However, a few shots worked better at a 2.66:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio. I then letterboxed the photos to make them fit in the final 16:9 video. I was a bit worried the changes to aspect ratio would make the video awkward but I think it works. Please let me know in the comments if you find it jarring. What made me think I could get away with the change was reading that some of the recent Batman movies changed ratio mid-movie, which I hadn’t noticed as a viewer.

Next, I processed the photos into .mov files with Quicktime Pro. I could have probably done this with After Effects but I’m used to Quicktime. I’ve said this isn’t my favorite software but I have a tutorial for anyone who wants to follow this workflow.

I imported the Quicktime files and music into Premiere Pro and cut the clips to the time-line. The final step was a title screen that I based on a Youtube tutorial video.


I shot some of the exterior shots from the open top of a parking garage. There was a brisk wind on the night I used the Canon 100-400mm zoom lens and the resulting video clips had more shake than I wanted. I got rid of most of this with the warp stabilizer effect in Premiere Pro.

I tried deshaking the 2.66:1 footage the same way but realized the black bars on the top and bottom moved along with the stabilized footage. To solve this, I used my VirtualDub deshake workflow but exported the stabilized photos as jpegs instead of an .avi file. This way I was able to process the photos in Quicktime the same way as all the others. If you look closely, you’ll see some blur in individual frames but it’s hard to see and the final footage looks much better than the original.

What I’d Change

I’m happy to say there’s not a lot I’d change in future videos. I’d like to use a more streamlined workflow so I’m not spending as much time editing individual files. I’d also consider doing some color grading to the video to even out slight differences between shots.

I avoided special effects such as light trails and mirrored effects on the AirTrain because I felt they would look out of place or cheapen the whole video. In the future, I’d like to experiment with using effects consistently throughout a video to give a look unlike my other time-lapse videos.

Thanks for reading and please let me know if you have any questions.

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24 thoughts on ““SFO at Night” Behind-the-Scenes

  1. The segments with the AirTrain are great! I like how they almost sync up to the music. Good job pairing the visual with the electronic.

    I don’t know anything about cameras but you have done a great job.

    1. Thanks, Alex. I must have traveled miles on AirTrain trying to get the shot right. I had to get off due to motion sickness at one point because I kept looking down at my camera around curves.

  2. Brilliant work Owen! I am a big fan of timelapse, having shot a tremendous amount for projects over the years. I love your balance of shutter speed and aperature to provide the incredible sense of movement in your shots.Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Glen. I would have preferred slightly slower speeds for shots with people but 2 sec. seems to be the minimum to prevent individuals from being recognizable. Part of my pitch to SFO was that I’d maintain guest privacy.

  3. Great work, I’ve always found airports fascinating. Could you tell us what the song is? I’ve heard that song in other videos and have been looking for it!

  4. Pingback: SFO de noche
  5. This is an amazing job indeed! I’m just starting in time lapse and found this article and your blog very interesting and helpful. I wish someday I can do something as good as what you do. Thanks for your great guidance.

    Greetings from Australia.

  6. Nice work! Despite your experience with VirtualDub, it looks like you are now using commercial tools for most of your TL workflow – did you find that VDub wasn’t working well enough? I’m just starting with TL, and looking for input on what toolflow to use. Thanks

    1. I still use VirtualDub for a couple specific tasks but commercial software gives me more options for producing occasional professional work. I also like that I’m learning programs, such as the Adobe Creative Suite, that will likely be more useful in the future.

      One of my main recommendations for someone starting out is to conserve money. This can be an expensive hobby and software is quickly outdated. VirtualDub works well for creating personal videos for online distribution. I’d suggest using it until you’re sure you want to spend more.

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