A photographer is shooting a 30-year time-lapse of NYC. Here’s how, and why

Photography is about storytelling, but sometimes the story behind a photograph — or millions of photographs — is equally interesting. New Jersey-based photographer Joe DiGiovanna is shooting a 30-year time-lapse of the New York City skyline, and has already been working on it for 4 years. He has captured some 4 million photos so far.

As DiGiovanna told fellow time-lapse photographer Emeric Le Bars in a video interview, the project was born from a love for the city and the incredible view it gave him from his apartment every day. “I just was obsessed immediately. And I wanted to film it. I wanted to film everything.”

But there is a deeper meaning to the time-lapse, as well. DiGiovanna’s father, who passed away shortly before the time-lapse began, used to love to watch the sunset over the New York City skyline. “That was always my dad’s favorite thing … This project is a tribute to my father.”

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Followers have also started to flock to the Instagram account DiGiovanna set up for the project, where he posts a clip of each day. People will comment on specific posts about major events that happened to them on that date. DiGiovanna’s long-term goal is to upload the entire time-lapse to a website where visitors can scroll through a timeline to any date to see a big picture perspective of important days in their lives, which may have a therapeutic or healing effect.

He explained, “If somebody passes away … I’d like to take that day and send it to them. ‘This is the last sunrise we had with your mom. And this is the sunrise the next day. It keeps going.'”

A technical challenge

Shooting a time-lapse for a single day can be daunting, but shooting one for 30 years introduces a host of new challenges. Technology will evolve, gear could break, data could be lost.

“My first problem was, what camera?” DiGiovanna said. At the time he started the project, he had been shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, as well as a Red Epic cinema camera — just the eighth one Red had produced, he said. He also experimented with GoPro action cameras, going so far as to write custom code for them.

But in the end, he settled on a Sony A7S mirrorless camera. With the option for an electronic shutter, it could take pictures all day without any moving parts, putting less wear and tear on the camera.

That A7S has now taken one picture every 30 seconds for 4 years straight. Played back at 24 frames per second, that equals a 2-minute video for every day.

The camera is controlled by a custom-built intervalometer that DiGiovanna made with an Arduino board, a micro-controller popular for all kinds of DIY projects. It shoots tethered to an Apple MacBook Pro — which has been running for even longer than the camera — where images are automatically imported into Capture One, a professional image management program. Every night, a script gathers the images from Capture One and exports them and makes backups.

Over a year, the time-lapse generates 16 terabytes of data, or 32TB when the backups are factored in. DiGiovanna has a stack of hard drives to store it all. He quipped, “Western Digital, if you’re listening, I would love to collaborate.”

Editing the time-lapse is another challenge. DiGiovanna is currently using Adobe After Effects, but he wants to be able to make better use of a time-lapse automation program called LR Timelapse, which simplifies exposure adjustments for things like day-to-night transitions. As good as it is, DiGiovanna is envisioning ways to make the program even more streamlined through custom code, so that it can know, for example, that sunrise is at 7:00 a.m. on a particular day and automatically make the proper adjustments.

While the project is currently slated to end in 2045, DiGiovanna’s real hope is that it will continue indefinitely. He also wants to place more cameras around the city to add additional perspectives.

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