So, you want to shoot time-lapse photography? Time-lapse is a deceptively difficult art form and even more difficult to master, but can certainly be learned with a little patience (or a lot of patience!), and is very rewarding. I will attempt to cover everything you need to know to get started in this article from shooting to processing! If you would like to see a video of me going over the entire editing process, please consider becoming a $10+ patron on my Patreon!
Time-lapse is a form of video that depicts the passage of time condensed into a very short video clip. Many of the time-lapses that I shoot typically cover a period of 2-4 hours that results in about 10 seconds of video. Time-lapse can be made simply from video sped up, or from static pictures taken over specified intervals. I use the latter method because this produces the highest quality sequence, allows greater control over the final product, and allows coverage over a long span of time from several minutes to months and even years. I will be covering the method used for static photos, and I will show you one low-cost method using just Lightroom and QuickTime Pro (you will also need to follow the instructions to register the program here) on a Windows PC that is good for beginners learning to process footage in part 2 of this article. Another, more advanced method of editing that I cover only in the video available to my Patrons uses Lightroom, LRTimelapse, and Adobe After Effects; a combination that will give us the most editing power and allows us to eliminate flicker in the final video, a problem you’ll quickly learn plagues every time-lapser.
I made this video to compare no editing (with flicker), editing with Lightroom and Quicktime Pro and editing with Lightroom + LRTimelapse and After Effects.
To start, here’s the required hardware:
- Camera and a wide-angle lens (a fully manual lens is optimal) – dSLR, mirrorless, or anything else capable of shooting in RAW and manual mode!
- High capacity memory card – enough to accommodate 300+ RAW files (16GB is plenty).
- Intervalometer – some cameras have this function built in.
- QuickTime Pro
Software (optional; more advanced):
- Adobe After Effects (preferable but optional)
- Adobe Premiere Pro (100% optional)
Lens Choice and Flicker
Before shooting, an important aspect to consider is lens choice.
A fully manual lens might be preferable. Most modern lenses are automatic, containing electronic nodes that connect to the camera body and allow the camera to control everything from focus to the aperture setting. With an automatic lens, the aperture physically closes and opens between each shot. There is some amount of variation in the diameter of the aperture between shots and this, in turn, creates a very slight variation in exposure from picture to picture. The difference in exposure is completely imperceptible if you were to do a side by side comparison of individual shots in a sequence. However, it will be very noticeable in a video sequence and result in quick flashes of light, referred to as flicker. Flicker and challenging light conditions are the bane of time-lapse photography!
There’s two ways we can eliminate flicker: use a manual lens or deal with in in post using software. I like the latter option, as it gives me the most versatility, but I will talk a little about using a manual lens.
A manual lens allows the user to set the aperture manually on the lens itself, which will remain open and constant throughout shooting and the exposure will not vary between shots. A manual lens can be limiting, unfortunately, because some cameras cannot, or may not be able to meter light correctly with a manual lens, so shooting in aperture priority mode may not be possible. Working in aperture priority mode isn’t necessary in changing light, you can also change the exposure settings manually throughout the shoot or use a ramper.
For use of automatic lenses, flicker can be dealt with in editing using programs like, LRTimelapse which essentially serves as an extension to Lightroom and can completely replace the need for a ramper. If you don’t want to invest in these programs, or you’re just beginning to get your feet wet in time-lapse photography, there’s a trick in Lightroom I’ll discuss that can mostly fix the problem in less severe cases.
Planning the shoot
Next, comes the planning phase. You need something interesting to shoot; think dynamic events that unfold over a long period of time. Clouds make great subjects as well as traffic and moving crowds of people. I’m going to focus on landscapes for this tutorial because they can be the most challenging to shoot and once mastered, everything else will be a cake walk.
For the first time-lapse, I suggest going against shooting at golden hour and instead shoot in the middle of the day, away from the direction of the sun. Sunrises and sunsets are a lot more challenging because the light changes are dramatic; whereas the light will be predictable in the middle of the day.
A boring, but important part of the planning stage involves some calculations. How long do you want the final video to be? How long do you want to shoot?
To answer these questions, we will need to have a frame rate in mind. Video is made at various frame rates. The most commonly used are 24fps (frames per second), 30fps and 60fps. 23.976fps has historically been the standard for film in the United States. We may begin to perceive individual still frames rather than moving images on the screen with anything shot slower than 24fps.
At 60fps, 60 photos are needed to cover 1 second of video. At 24fps, 24 photos are needed for 1 second. So, a higher frame rate means more memory card space, hard drive space, more shooting time, and wear on the shutter life of the camera (cameras are given an average shutter count before mechanical failures begin to occur, this tends to be around 250,000). For these reasons, I choose to make my videos at 24fps. Although if time and resources are not an issue, 60fps can give a different, surreal look!
Let’s settle on 24fps and 10 seconds of video for the purposes of this example, how long do we shoot and at what intervals? There’s no right or wrong here, the answer will depend on how you want the final video to look. If you want to cover a very large span of time, longer intervals may be desirable. Let’s say the goal is to cover about a 24-minute span of time. We know that we are going to encode our video at 24fps and we want the final video to run for 10 seconds, which means we need 240 photos (24fps x 10s = 240f). The only variable needed is the interval. The unit of time we are working with is seconds, so we need to convert minutes to seconds. 24mins x 60s = 1,440s. 24 minutes is 1,440 seconds and if we divide this number by 240, the total number of photos needed for our time-lapse, we get 6 seconds (1,440s/240photos = 6s).
We need to take one photo every 6 seconds for 24 minutes to achieve a final video of 10 seconds long encoded at 24fps. There are apps you can use on the phone, like Photopills, but I prefer to calculate everything by hand.
Here are some general guidelines based on subject matter that I follow when choosing an interval time, also with a few examples of videos I’ve made using these guidelines:
- Fast moving clouds – 6-8 second intervals
- Slow moving clouds – 12-20 second intervals
- Sun/moon – 15 second intervals
- Stars – 15-20 second intervals
- Fast moving interstate traffic – 3-4 second intervals
- Slow traffic – 5-8 second intervals
- Walking people/crowds – 4 second intervals
You will need to be shooting on a steady tripod in full manual mode, meaning the dial on the camera will be set to “M.” You will need a good understanding of how to shoot in manual mode before proceeding.
For time-lapse, I simply expose the way I normally would if taking a single picture. Take some test exposures to find out what settings will be needed. I like to meter on a mid-tone foreground object and underexpose by about 1.5 to 2 stops, depending on how bright it is. In photography, this is called “exposing to the left,” because the underexposure is meant to avoid clipped highlights. I expose to the left because I find it easier to recover detail in the shadows than highlights, and blown highlights are just ugly.
This is a good reason to shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG. It will require more storage space but having the flexibility to correct the exposure is essential.
I shoot with the Pentax K-3, it has a built in intervalometer called “Interval Shooting Mode,” which allows me to shoot a set number of images over a defined interval. Many mid-to-higher end dSLR’s have this built in, but you can buy an external intervalometer that connects to the camera body using the shutter port. Just google “Canon/Nikon intervalometer” to find one that will work with your camera. I suggest avoiding the cheap off brand versions. In my experience, they do not work well.
My camera has two variables that can be changed in interval mode, and yours should be similar, “Interval” and “Number of Shots.” The interval we arrived at in the planning stage is 6 seconds, so just plug this number in as the interval and 240 as the number of shots.
However, if the interval and shutter speed happen to be the same, or within 3 seconds apart, you will need to add 2 or 3 seconds to the interval. For example, if my interval is 30 seconds and I’m running 30 second exposures, the camera will skip every other interval because it takes a second or two for the camera to recover from the task of exposing and writing data to the memory card. If the camera is “busy” doing either of these two things, then it won’t be able to take a picture. In this case, I would set my interval to 33 seconds to be sure the camera has enough time to “recover” from the previous 30 second exposure and not skip the next interval.
For this reason, it’s also a good idea to disable all in-camera noise reduction as well because this adds time to the recovery period. For mid-day shooting, these points won’t matter as the interval and shutter are typically far enough apart that it will make no difference.
You may want to turn off the LCD screen previews in the camera’s preferences to save battery during the shoot. You can also use a battery grip while shooting to gain additional battery life. I can typically get around 4 hours of shooting time on two full batteries with the addition of the battery grip.
Otherwise, you are ready to shoot your sequence!
- Shoot in manual mode – underexpose slightly
- Save images in RAW format
- Disable High ISO and Long Exposure Noise Reduction
- Disable on screen previews
- Consider using a battery grip to extend battery life if shooting for long periods of time.
- Set the camera drive mode to interval shooting or use an intervalometer to set the interval time and number of shots.
That’s it for now!
Go on to part 2 for an overview on putting the time-lapse together in a video!