The definition of time-lapse photography is pretty simple: You play something back at a higher frame rate to create an effect that looks as though time is passing faster than normal. That is the simple part. Time-lapse gives us a better sense of what happens over a longer period of time. For instance, if you look at the clouds, they change so slowly it’s hard to even perceive what has changed. As the sun rises or sets, there are so many dynamics going on it can be easy to miss the big picture. Time-lapse puts all of this into perspective.
Beyond hitting the fast-forward button on your playback, how do the professionals produce the gorgeous time-lapse videos we love? These elegant timelapses are a combination of still photography, photo editing, video editing, and a lot of trial and error. Here are the basics.
Time-lapse can be captured using either a video camera with the right advanced features or a still camera with an intervalometer, which makes your camera take photos at specific intervals for a certain period of time. For best results the camera must have the ability to capture RAW files. The key factor is the ability to control the frame rate as your images are captured. As with any creative work, garbage in is garbage out, so this is the most important step.
How many frames do you need?
The first thing to consider is how long you want the time-lapse to last once you put it together. This is all math. Essentially, if your playback is 30 fps and you capture 1 frame every 10 seconds, you would need to capture your time-lapse for 5 minutes to get 1 second of playback (6 frames per minute x 5 minutes = 30 frames). This is not a simple formula, because you have to choose your interval of capture based on the action. For instance, clouds usually move pretty slow, so your interval might be 5 or 7 seconds. However, if you are trying to capture people putting together a big tent for an event, you may do one frame per second or more, because that action would likely move a lot faster.
Will my light change during the time-lapse?
Sunrises and sunsets can be some of the most compelling times for time-lapse photography. As the light changes, nature can produce dramatic results in color, shadow, and intensity. These times of day can also have great results in regards to human behavior. A harbor can be a pretty shot, but it is much more dynamic at sunset while the fishing boats are returning to the dock. It is easy to take one frame and get great exposure and white balance, but you must compensate with your camera. This is done with a feature called bulb ramping (essentially keeping the shutter on your camera open for shorter or longer periods of time). Newer cameras have bulb ramping built in, but you can still accomplish this with older cameras.
If you use Canon, Magic Lantern is an add-on software with all kinds of awesome features to help with this. It actually integrates with the built-in software on your DSLR to add hundreds of features beyond the stock Canon feature set. One of those features is excellent bulb ramping. Newer Nikons have some built-in features as well, but the best way to do this if you don’t have either option is through manual adjustments. For instance, as the sun is setting, every 5 minutes or so, quickly stop your time-lapse and reset the exposure for the different light conditions. The sun does not set all that fast, so you will be OK if you take 20 seconds to re-calibrate throughout. After you are finished, you can make small changes to link these different chunks together for a brilliant time-lapse from start to finish. And if you want to really tweak things, check out LR Timelapse. It is an ongoing project creating add-on software for lightroom to help the geekiest of geeks tweak until their hearts are content. Check out the example below from LR Timelapse:
The list goes on…
Starting out, the two snippets above are the most important, but as you learn more about everything you can do with timelapse, the sky’s the limit. Astro-lapse, hyper-lapse, time-lapse with motion dollies, telescope controllers connected to star maps—time-lapse is a rabbit hole of super geek if you want to go down it. Here are a few sites to get you started:
Once you have captured your images, the next step is to edit the RAW images to make them as beautiful as possible. Luckily, if you have a few thousand frames, software like Lightroom can help you quickly sync all the images with your finishing touches on exposure, color, and detail. There are other options like Aperture, but Lightroom has certainly secured the spot as the industry leader for time-lapse. This part of the process is really a matter of personal preference and style. Do you want to make the images more vivid or maybe put a retro touch on them? This is the point where you get to stamp your timelapse with your own personal style.
The awesome part about producing time-lapse with a DSLR in high resolution is that when you import into your video editing system you have the ability to zoom, pan, and add motion to your export. You will likely be exporting video to 16:9 to match the standard TV dimensions, but for your photo edits, you want to make sure that your photo capture and export is at the highest resolution possible. If your camera can shoot 50 MP photos, take advantage of the resolution. The motion you can produce in your final edit will make your time-lapses much more dynamic.
So you have your beautifully edited still images and now you need to string them together to make a video so that you can post it on Facebook, watch it go viral, and make a million bucks. Or maybe you will just put it together to show your friends and fellow time-lapse geeks. Either way, if you did your pre-planning, capture, and photo editing right, this step should be pretty easy.
Since all video editors work a bit differently, I will just go into the basics of how this last step works and, more importantly, how it correlates to your frame rate. There are plenty of tutorials out there for your specific video editing system; just do a quick Web search.
Once you get your project set up in your editing system, you will need to create a sequence that matches what you planned for your frame rate. If your larger project had other video, you will need to match up to that, but you will likely be choosing between 24 or 30 frames per second. Even if you planned for one, it is OK to switch. It will just make your overall playback a bit shorter or longer. Your sequence should be set at 1920×1080, allowing you to accomplish the pan and zoom mentioned above. When you import the photos into the editor, make sure your still image settings are set to a single frame duration by default.
Once you import the photos, drop them all into your sequence. Then embed that sequence into another sequence. You can then either speed up or slow down your time-lapse as you see fit using your effects panel. This is the most important link to your choice of frame rate in the beginning; as you choose to slow down or speed up the time-lapse, it is always better to have more frames than less. Always err on the side of shorter intervals than longer ones when you capture; it will give you much more flexibility in your final edit.
In a nutshell, this is the process for time-lapse. As you work out your own style, you can dig deeper into more precise techniques or faster ways to get awesome results. It is truly the fun side of photography and video. Time-lapse will teach you a great deal about exposure and composition. It is much more than just the new hot trend; it can help to take your understanding of light and exposure to the next level.