Time-Lapse Photography – Hit the gas and speed up life with some visual trickery!
If you’re a nature nerd like me, you are no stranger to time-lapse photography. This technique is a favorite on nature documentaries like Planet Earth or Frozen Planet to show the passage of time on the environment and make it fit in a 1-hour documentary. Leaves unfurling, plants blooming, sunrises and sunsets are all brought to life through time-lapse photography. But this technique isn’t just for the videographers. With minimal equipment and a little practice, you can employ some time-lapse photography and tell a visual story in a new and exciting way!
What is Time Lapse Photography? How does time lapse photography work?
Time-lapse photography is a bit of visual trickery. Essentially, we take individual shots of a scene over a period of time then stitch them together in a video to convey the passage of time. This fun and visually compelling technique lets us see changes in a way we can’t normally experience.
What types of scenes are good candidates for time-lapse photography?
Here are just a few ways you can use time-lapse photography!
- Sunrises and sunsets
- Storms and clouds
- Star trails
- Other weather like lightning or snow
- Light trails from traffic
- Set up or tear down of an event
- Displaying a room or property such as in real estate
- People enjoying an event
- To convey someone driving from point-to-point (drivelapse)
- Fast-growing plants
- Ice or snow melting
- Baking or cooking
You are really only limited by your imagination and creativity!
What equipment do I need for time-lapse photography?
You will need a camera with a fully charged battery, large memory card and a tripod. You may also need an intervalometer, which I’ll explain below.
Because we are what could be literally hundreds of shots and lumping them together to create a seamless shot, you’ll need to make sure your battery is charged. There’s nothing worse than going to all the work of setting up a gorgeous time-lapse session only to have your camera die. If you’ll be leaving your camera out in the elements for a bit, make sure it’s protected, either with a plastic bag or some other type of cover. GoPros and other adventure cameras are great for time-lapse photography because they tend to be less susceptible to the elements. However adventure cameras, smart phones and other basic cameras don’t often come with the tools to really tweak settings like you want, so there is a tradeoff.
Not only will you need a fairly large, clean memory card to record all those images, but you’re also going to want a fast memory card. If your memory card can’t keep up because it buffers too slowly, your final product will be choppy and have gaps where the card was buffering and you missed the shot. I prefer the San Disk Extreme Pro 64 GB cards for shooting video and time-lapse photography.
You’ll also need a tripod. First, you want to make sure the camera is completely steady and recording the scene with no changes from shot to shot. You simply can’t do that shooting handheld. And because we’ll be shooting at an interval from several minutes to possibly even several hours, a tripod allows you to set your camera and forget it. Make sure your tripod and camera are protected. Weigh your tripod or camera down, if necessary. In my sample video I just clipped my GoPro Hero 5 Black to the fence and the wind was shaking the fence slightly, which you can see in the video.
An intervalometer allows you to automate how many shots your camera takes and how often it takes them. Some cameras, such as my Nikon D750 and my GoPro Hero 5, have built-in intervalometers. If your camera doesn’t, you can purchase an external intervalometer that connects to your camera via the same port that connects your camera to a computer. As an added bonus, an intervalometer can also function as a simple shutter release if you ever find yourself wishing for one of those down the road.
If you plan on purchasing an intervalometer, make sure the one you buy is compatible with your camera make and model. They are not universal! I’ve also seen these called timer remote switch, remote commanders, interval timer and timer remote control. Most are corded but more expensive units can come in cordless models. Just make sure the intervalometer you purchase offers the functions you need: taking x number of frames every few seconds over a period of time you determine.
Neutral density filters, or ND filters, function like sunglasses for your lens. These filters screw on to the end of your lens and block light from entering your camera. You can block just a little light (1 stop) or a lot of light (10 stop). A ND filter is helpful when you want to achieve a longer shutter speed in very bright conditions, such as to smooth out water or clouds.
What is the time lapse interval? What is the best time lapse interval?
The time lapse interval is the amount of time we tell the camera to wait between exposures. Different intervals are required depending on how fast or how slowly the scene is changing. A sunrise will have a different time lapse interval than a shoot showing night-time traffic, for example.
Here are the general guidelines I learned. You may find after a few sessions that you need to increase or decrease your time lapse interval to achieve your desired affect. These just starting points, not hard and fast rules!
- Traffic or driving videos (called drivelapses)
- Farming videos
- Fast-moving clouds
- Sunrises, sunsets and slow moving clouds
- Crowds (people and animals)
- Anything photographed with a telephoto lens
15-30 seconds or longer
- Moving shadows
- Sun across the sky with no clouds
- Stars (up to 60 seconds)
- Fast-growing plants (up to 3 minutes)
- Construction demolition projects (sometimes even 5-15 minutes works!)
How many frames per second is good for time lapse?
The term frames per second has a different meaning in time-lapse photography. For our purposes, frames per second refers to how many frames, or individual images, your final video compilation will have per second. Note this is NOT how many frames per second you shoot the images. This was confusing to me at first because a tutorial I read was recommending shooting at 24 fps, and my poor little Nikon D80 was never going to match that number. So don’t make my mistake. Frames per second is for the rendered video, not raw shooting.
Time-lapse photography compilations are commonly rendered at 24 o4 30 fps.
How is time-lapse calculated?
To calculate your time lapse, you’ll need to know three things.
- How often will I take a shot? (Interval)
- How many frames per second will my final video be?
- How long will my final video be, including time for transitions? (Length of Video)
Once you have that information, you can design your time-lapse sequence and program your intervalometer accordingly.
For example, I wanted to create a video of our pheasants moving around their pens as an example for this tutorial. I decide I will shoot at 1-second intervals because they are animals. I want to have 30 frames per second in my final video, and I want that video to be 12 seconds long.
So knowing I want 30 frames per second for a 15-second video, I’ll need 450 images to build my final video (15×30=450). If I’m shooting 1 image every second, I’ll need to shoot for 6 minutes. I like to give myself a little more wiggle room, so I’ll usually shoot for just slightly longer than I need. You can either program your intervalometer for 6 minutes or just set it to infinity and watch the time.
If you don’t know how long the event will take, such as a sunrise or the development of a thunderstorm, you can begin your time-lapse program and set the intervalometer to infinity, then manually shut it off when you are done.
Don’t ignore good composition when setting up a time-lapse photography sequence. What makes for a compelling still image will also make for a compelling time-lapse series. Frame your scene with the same care and attention you would if you were shooting a series of still-landscapes or portraits. Framing, vectors, rule-of-thirds…all these elements of composition should all come into play for a time-lapse photography series.
How do you do time lapse on a DSLR? – Setting up your shot
To begin, compose your scene. Set your camera on your tripod, compose your scene and dial in your camera settings. You will want to shoot in manual mode and have auto-ISO turned off because you want every image to have the same settings. If you use auto mode or one of the other priority modes, the camera will change different settings to achieve what it perceives to be the correct exposure. This will affect the consistency of your images and ruin that seamless look you’re going for in the end product.
Be mindful of your depth of field. A good aperture to start with is f/8 to give you a mid-range depth of field. You
Start with your shutter at 1/100 of a second or slower. If you’re an action photog used to stopping action with really fast shutter speeds, this can feel counter-intuitive. But because we are playing these images back very rapidly, any motion blur realized in the individual image actually works to blend the images together in the end. Clouds, water and smoke might require a longer shutter speed to achieve that super dreamy look. This is where your ND filter might come in handy.
IS or VR
Turn off your image stability or vibration reduction technology. Because we are using a tripod, we don’t need it (and using it with a tripod actually introduces vibration into your images. Weird, I know.)
Shoot in the highest resolution format your card capacity, camera write speed and the time-lapse interval will allow.
If your digital camera has a nice long battery life or if your time-lapse interval is quite small, switch your camera to live view. This will lock your mirror up and eliminate any small camera movement that happens when your shutter fires.
Turn your camera to manual focus and select a focal point. I usually focus to infinity using a wide-angle lens. If you have a subject of interest in the foreground or middle ground of your scene you may want to consider making that subject your focal point.
Program your time-lapse interval
Program your internal or external intervalometer with the settings you determined above. Remember to ensure your shutter speed is LESS than your interval.
How do I compile a time-lapse photography video?
We have our images recorded and downloaded to our computer for processing. Now what?
There are a number of time-lapse editors you can use, including Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premier Pro, Photolapse, Quicktime Pro, iMovie and some online video editors. I suggest starting with one of the software packages you already own or subscribe to. If you don’t have access to any of the Adobe software, look into Photolapse or iMovie for you Mac users.
If you have Adobe Lightroom installed on your computer, you already have the power of a time-lapse photography editor at your fingertips!
To create a time-lapse photography video in Adobe Lightroom:
- Begin by importing your photos into your computer and into Lightroom.
- Using Lightroom, batch edit ALL the photos you’ll be using for the video to ensure consistency across the final product.
- Next, download these Adobe supplied time lapse photography templates here. These templates will work to render 15 fps, 24 fps and 30 fps final videos.
- Then, click on the Slideshow module at the top.
- Right-click User Templates in the Template Browser panel on the left and click Import.
- Locate the downloaded templates on your hard drive and click Import.
- Now you’re ready to actually create the video! Select the appropriate template for your fps rate from the User Templates at screen left.
- Click export video to save the video. Lightroom will start doing its thing and pull together a video for you!
A few notes:
- This can take several minutes, so don’t be concerned if your machine cranks on it a bit. The more images you’re putting into the video, the longer your video takes to render!
- To speed up the rendering process, close all the other tabs and programs you may have open on your computer. Go get some coffee, read a magazine…just resist the temptation to multi-task.
- Lightroom will render ALL the photos showing in the bottom panel when it makes the video. If you shot more frame then you’ll need, you’ll need to either delete those frames or use your preferred method for creating a group of only the images you want rendered (I flag the ones I want and then filter them off.)
- If your final video feels too “jumpy,” try increasing your shooting interval so that you are shooting images more often to create a more seamless look.
- Make sure your tripod is weighted down and there is no camera shake. Wind and road vibration can wreak havoc on your final video!
This video was taken using the settings described above on my GoPro Hero 5 black and compiled in Lightroom. The entire process took less than 15 minutes! While this video isn’t going to win any awards for composition or creativity, it should demonstrate how easy it can be to record and render a time-lapse video!
Dealing With “Flicker” in Time Lapse Photography
You might notice your final rendered video “flickers.” What you’re seeing is the change between dark and light frames sped up so that it looks like your video flickers.
There are several ways to overcome this, including shooting in manual, using a manual lens and tricking your camera into thinking it’s shooting a manual lens. Click here for a great article on flicker and how to overcome it!
Plan then Play!
The best way to learn how to create stunning time-lapse photography is simply to get out there and do it. Review the basics, then go play! Get a few simple projects under your belt to get the process down, then take on more visually exciting and interesting scenes. I’ve given you some basics but the fun of time-lapse photography is simply getting out there and trying it for yourself. Happy shooting!