29-year-old photographer Dan MacRostie was born and raised in northern California and currently works as an Energy Engineer in San Francisco. Growing up, he took pictures here and there on an old 35mm film camera, but he admits to Resource Travel that he didn’t really know what he was doing. It wasn’t until he signed up for a digital photography class in one of his last semesters in college, that he learned the fundamentals of photography and image processing, and eventually became hooked.
About 5 years ago, MacRostie bought a GoPro camera to capture the highlights of his mountain bike rides, but he also wanted to show his bike commute between home and work through the streets of San Francisco. “But I knew a 45 minute video would be pretty boring, so I started playing around with GoPro’s built in time-lapse feature.” And that’s how MacRostie’s fascination with this specific genre arose, quickly progressing into higher quality DSLR time-lapse shooting, like this epic 4k Mount Tamalaips fog chase, that took MacRostie 18 months to make.
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It takes a special kind of obsession to do what you did… Where did it come from?
I was inspired to start this project by a number of beautiful images I came across on Instagram a couple of years ago. Summers in San Francisco can be pretty gloomy, with all of our the foggy days, but I didn’t have any idea at the time that could actually get above the fog when conditions are right. Until I started noticing that whenever we had a super foggy day, beautiful photos from above the fog would start popping up on Instagram. Thanks to Mount Tamalpais, Mt. Tam. for short, being tagged in a lot of those photos, I quickly figured out where I needed to be on grey Bay Area days, and I knew immediately I wanted to shoot time-lapse. When I played back my very first batch of images, I was pleasantly surprised. It looked even better than I thought it would. From then on, I became very motivated to continue capturing more and more fog time-lapses.
Were you up there every day for 18 months?
Of course not. It takes the right conditions to form the low coastal fog I needed for this project, and those conditions occur most frequently from June to early September. After a little research to better understand the necessary conditions for low enough fog to get above it on top of Mt. Tam, I developed a bit of a system for figuring out when to go shoot. In total, I bet I headed out to shoot specifically for this project about 20 to 25 times.
On a typical shooting day, MacRostie needed about 45 minutes to drive and hike up to his pre-planned locations. If he was heading out for sunrise, that meant being up and out the door by 4 a.m.. In the evenings, MacRostie needed to sneak out of work a little early, making a quick gear stop at home, before fighting commuter traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge. Half the time, he ended up having to run down the hiking trails with all of his gear to just barely get setup in time to capture the sunset.
MacRostie says he usually set up two cameras: one for time-lapse images and one for long exposures. His time-lapse shots were almost always shot in two-second intervals, and never more than a three second interval, “since fog moves pretty quickly.” Each sequence covers only about 15 to 35 minutes of real time, since the fog looks the best in the small window of time when the sun is just above or just below the fog level.
Fog conditions and lighting change fast, so I always used a stationary tripod and never had time to try a slider or panning head. The amount of setup time required was too great and would lead to missed shots. The rapidly changing light also meant that shooting in full manual mode wasn’t an option. Instead, I used aperture priority set around f/16, white balance set to sunny to avoid changes in color temperature, and an ISO in the 100 to 400 range. I tried to keep the shutter speed down at or below 1/40th of second, sometimes using ND filters, to introduce a small amount of motion blur to the fog. This wasn’t always possible due to being in aperture priority. A little bit of motion blur makes for a smoother time-lapse in the end.
Did you experience any particularly special moments?
I think my first trip up on to Mt. Tam. to shoot a foggy sunrise was one of the most special moments in this project. I had never been up there before, and I didn’t want to just show up in the dark before sunrise and hope I could figure out where to go. So a friend and I grabbed a campsite a little lower on the mountain the night before and hiked up to where I thought would be a good stop to shoot from. There was almost no fog, so I was pessimistic, but when our alarms went off at 4.30, it sounded like it was raining pretty hard. I looked out of my tent and I saw that we were completely socked in with fog and condensation was dripping from the trees.
We started our hike up to the shooting location but we just kept walking through more and more fog. I was starting to think the fog was much higher up than anticipated and I was about to give up when we finally broke throug. Another 5 minutes of hiking and we were out of the wet. Standing no more than 40 feet above the top of the fog layer, I was blown away. While shooting, there were also a few times when we could feel the temperature drop suddenly and the fog would lift and engulf us for a few minutes and then drop back into the trees and valleys. It was a truly memorable experience.
How about some bad experiences?
Even with all of my planning there were plenty of days that I found myself completed consumed in fog, unable to get above it. There were also days where the fog just would not come on to shore and into the trees. These days were always a little disappointing due to the time lost and no photos to show for it, but I enjoy just being out in nature, sitting, contemplating, and taking in my surroundings. So it wasn’t all bad.
MacRostie typically carried around a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 7D, as well as 16-35mm, 28-135mm, and 70-200mm Canon lenses, two tripods and a couple of cheap intervalometers. But MacRostie’s work wasn’t done when he finished shooting. Then came the post-processing, and it was much more difficult than he had anticipated. MacRostie barely had experience with After Effects and Premiere Pro, so he “had a ton to learn.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring image makers who see your work and are inspired to do something similar?
Don’t rush. There were a few times over the course of this project where I just wanted it to be done so I could finally share it with people, but I’m really glad that I held off and waited until I was sure I had all the shots I wanted. Some of my favorite shots ended up being from the last few days of shooting. And don’t be afraid to mess up either. I have a lot of footage that will never be shared since it was either out of focus, over or under exposed, or just plain didn’t look good. It happens.
Now that you’ve completed your first time-lapse, what does your future hold?
I’ve started working on a time-lapse/hyperlapse film that will highlight some of San Francisco’s main attractions. For the hyperlapse shots, I still have a lot of techniques to learn before I start getting footage I’m happy with, so I’m currently just experimenting. I also really enjoy long exposure photos, and I plan to experiment more with those. They can really change the way a scene is perceived. Ultimately, since I recently shot my first Milky Way photos, I would like to continue to improve my astrophotography skills.
That’s right – MacRostie does more than just time-lapsing fog. He also takes his camera along on his travels, resulting in some pretty nice travel photography. Like that time he went to Iceland with his wife…
Iceland is truly an awe inspiring country to visit. There are rugged, beautiful landscapes everywhere you look. Iceland also had its own, wonderful energy. You can feel it. My wife and I joked on our trip that if you asked Iceland for something, it listened and responded. We were standing at the end of a huge glacier and I said “it would be awesome to hear a piece of ice break off,” and just then there was the cracking and thundering of ice falling from the glacier! We were blown away. Another time we decided not to stop at one of the beautiful waterfalls for photos because it was packed with people. We thought we’d try again on our drive back by later in the trip. On the day we set back out for the falls, we were talking about how we wished there would be fewer people there. As we got closer to the falls, the skies opened up and it started to snow. By the time we arrived there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground and only a small handful of people walking around taking photos. It felt like we had the place to ourselves.
If you feel inspired to go out and try some fog photography or videography yourself when you’re in the Bay Area: Dan MacRostie was kind enough to share the locations from where he was shooting. If you just feel like admiring some more of his work, head on over to his website – or take a look at the sneak peak below – but the artist is of course also on Facebook and Instagram. Oh, and if you liked the music on MacRostie’s foggy time-lapse: it was made by his wife Brittany. She loves life and loves to show that on Instagram and her blog.