As an astronomer and visual artist, I use the arts to communicate science. My main way of doing this is through a series of Science & Symphony films that get presented with orchestras in concerts around the world. Since 2008 I have been shooting time-lapse sequences of the night sky and incorporating them into many of these films. My stills and sequences of observatories in Chile, the U.S., and the South Pole have also been featured in many science documentaries.
One way of giving time-lapse sequences a more cinematic look is by using a motion control system. These programmable systems move your camera with high precision as you shoot your scene. I have used several of them since 2008, so I was quite happy to preview this brand new system introduced by Cinetics.
The Cinetics Lynx is a light, portable and compact (yet sturdy) system that lets you program precise three-axis moves for video, stop motion, and time-lapse sequences. Its main components (slider, motors and motion controller) have their own soft cases for easy portability. You can even carry the slider preassembled in its own case to save time when working in the field. The standard length of the slider is 24 inches (61 cm), but an optional set of carbon fiber rails, stored in their own carrying case compartment, can be added to the kit for a total extended length of 48 inches (122 cm). The total weight of the system is under 13 lb (5.9 kg).
|The Lynx motion control system at its standard 24-in (61 cm) length. (Photo courtesy of Cinetics)|
It’s apparent that a lot of thought was put into designing a system that takes only minutes —and a single hex key— to assemble. Extending the slider with the second set of rails and replacing the belt with a longer one takes approximately 5 minutes. The slider comes with a set of built-in legs to rest it on the ground or against a wall (when inclining it). The legs spread out at a series of pre-determined positions, which avoids having an uneven slider.
The motor units are very compact and each one requires a single screw to install. The motion controller can be attached to the pan motor via an ingenious snap-on attachment and the system battery is conveniently housed inside the motion controller. These two features avoid the need for installing additional support accessories and contribute to the simplicity and compactness of Lynx.
|Motion controller snapped onto the pan motor. (Photos courtesy of Cinetics)||Pan and tilt motors with motion controller.|
|Slider and adjustable legs.||Slider motor.|
When assembled to the 24 inch length, the system can easily be installed on a single tripod without the unit tipping over, even when the camera is at either end of the slider. My first test in the studio was to see how the system behaved using a single but sturdy tripod/head configuration. I used a Gitzo systematic tripod and ball head with hydraulic lock.
Despite the sturdiness of the system, images taken at either extreme of the slider – when mounted on a single tripod – may need to be rotated slightly in order to align them. For a load of 5.7 lb (2.6 kg) the images needed to be rotated ±0.6 degrees with respect to an image taken at the center of the slider. This can be corrected in post-processing by key framing image rotation and letting software interpolate the rotation angles.
I extended the Lynx slider to its 48in. length and took it to the Chicago Lakefront to shoot for a new film I’m producing. With two Gitzo carbon fiber tripods easily attached, I leveled the slider, and proceeded to program the system. Lynx includes an Arca-Swiss style camera plate to quickly set your camera and, on the Cinetics website, you can choose from a comprehensive list of cables to control the shutter.
|The Lynx system extended to 48 inches (122 cm) in length and supported by two Gitzo carbon fiber tripods. The leveling tripod on the left has an adjustable center column while the other one has a ball head. These make leveling or inclining the slider fairly easy. Location: Sundial Plaza, Adler Planetarium, Chicago|
Once set up, it’s easy to program the motion controller. You simply slide the camera to the first position, adjust the pan and tilt as desired, and save the position as your first keyframe. Then, you slide it to the second position, adjust the pan and tilt, if necessary, and set your next keyframe. Once the beginning and ending keyframes are established, you can program the parameters for your time-lapse sequence, including duration between keyframes (time), shutter speed, and the interval between shots.
From L to R on the slider: slider motor, tilt motor, pan motor with controller snapped on and a Nikon D5 with an Arca-Swiss style camera plate.
The controller’s display shows you the total number of resulting shots. One thing that impressed me about the Lynx motion controller is that it not only lets you set up at least 5 keyframes, but it lets you program a different set of sequence parameters between each pair of keyframes! For example, you could program sets of keyframes in order to progressively change the exposure and interval times throughout a time-lapse – useful if you know that the lighting conditions are going to change during the sequence.
There are two motion modes available: shoot-move-shoot (S-M-S) mode and continuous mode. In S-M-S mode the camera is moved only between shots. In continuous mode, however, photographs can be taken as the system moves. This is useful for taking video or time-lapse sequences that incorporate motion blur. You also have the option of ramping up and down the motion speed when shooting video and time-lapse in continuous mode. (The S-M-S time-lapse mode has a built-in ramp, but unfortunately, it is not adjustable at this point.) Each segment of the programmed motion can have its own kind of motion. For example, you can have an S-M-S segment followed by one with continuous motion.
Once you have programmed a motion you have the ability to save it as a preset for later recall. When you’re ready to start the sequence simply choose Run, step back, and voilà!
Finally, you also have the ability of continuing a sequence by reversing the motion (called bounce) as many times as you want. This is a great feature, but I wish it were possible to bounce the motion after a sequence has started, since this is something you might decide to do once shooting is in progress. Other systems let you do this, and also give you the ability to tell the camera to continue shooting even after it has reached the last keyframe.
Another thing I would like to see in a future software update is the ability to quickly preview the entire run in continuous mode. Even when the intent is to take a time-lapse sequence one could quickly preview the motion by shooting video and tweaking the motion, if necessary.
501 one-second exposures (F4, ISO 100 at 18mm) with an interval of 2 seconds during a total shooting time period of 16.7 minutes. Since these scenes were shot during the changing illumination conditions of the blue hour, the white balance and exposure values were keyframed and interpolated using Lightroom and LRTimelapse. All sequence images were taken with a Nikon D5 and Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 and rendered as 24-fps videos. (ISO 100, F4, at 18mm)
I decided to use the Lynx to take a time-lapse sequence by centering the field of view on Henry Moore’s sundial in Chicago, moving my camera from the left all the way to the right end (over a period of 17 minutes), while panning my camera to the left so I could keep the sundial at the center of the frame. The combination of slide and pan resulted in the illusion of the camera moving along an arc around the sundial when the displacement motion was actually along a line.
I then set up a time-lapse of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (the reflective sculpture nicknamed The Bean) in Millennium Park. Have in mind that the farther your main subject is from the camera, the harder it will be to notice parallax (the displacement in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight).
|The Lynx system extended to 48 inches (122 cm) in length and supported by two Gitzo carbon fiber tripods. Location: Millennium Park, Chicago|
Nevertheless, for the particular composition I had in mind, I avoided getting too close to the sculpture. I slid and panned the camera to the right while tilting it up (in order to end up with less ground and more blue-hour sky) over a period of 20 minutes. Taking advantage of the dark blue that remained in the sky, I also placed the system right in front of Cloud Gate and simply tilted the camera up over a period of 8.4 minutes.
For the first sequence of Cloud Gate at Millennium in Chicago, I combined 604 one-second exposures with an interval of 2 seconds over a period of 20 minutes. I programmed Lynx to slide, pan, and tilt. (D5 and Nikkor 14-24mm F2.8; ISO 125, F4, at 16mm).
For the second Cloud Gate sequence, I took 254 one-second exposures with an interval of 2 seconds over a period of 8.5 minutes, and simply tilted the camera upward (D5 and Nikkor 14-24mm F2.8; ISO 400, F4.5, at 16mm).
Note that the Lynx system can be used vertically or inclined, though when inclined you can only point the camera along the direction of the slider if you want to avoid an unleveled horizon. If, for example, you wanted to shoot perpendicular to the direction of an inclined sliding motion then you would need a leveling wedge (not included) to compose your shot.
One has the option of programming the Lynx motion controller via Bluetooth with a smartphone app. Having two options for programming the unit is very welcome but, surprisingly, I thought that programming the controller using the app was less straightforward and somewhat confusing, but the app’s GUI was re-designed after I tested it. There’s definitely room for improvement in future versions of the Lynx app. Having said that, I like that on the app one can control the exposure values to a fraction of a second and use the smartphone’s IMU (a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes) to slide the cart.
In conclusion, the Lynx is a light, portable, and sturdy three-axis motion control system that can be set up very quickly. Its relatively light weight and compact design lets you carry it around in the field very easily, and its smooth and precise motion can be programmed with multiple keyframes. I can definitely recommend this motion control system and I look forward to future firmware and app updates.
Cinetics is offering Lynx through a Kickstarter campaign, with pledges ranging from $499 to $1499 depending on which features you want.
- Light and compact
- Quick and easy set up
- Lets you program at least 5 keyframes, each with independent set of parameter values and motion modes
- Ability to save presets
- Leveling wedge is not included
Updates I’d like to see:
- Ability to preview motion in continuous mode
- Ability to edit parameters in saved presets
- Ability to adjust ramping on S-M-S time-lapse mode
- During a sequence in progress, ability to decide what to do once the camera has reached the last keyframe
José Francisco Salgado, PhD is an Emmy-nominated astronomer, science photographer, visual artist, and public speaker who creates multimedia works that communicate science in engaging ways. His Science & Symphony films have been presented in 175 concerts and lectures in 15 countries.
José Francisco is a seasoned night sky and aurora photographer and filmmaker. If you would like to view, photograph, and learn about the Northern Lights then you can inquire about his Borealis Science & Photo Tours in Yellowknife, Canada.
You can follow him on: Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Facebook, and Twitter