Timelapse photography is responsible for some of the most beautiful and engaging imagery in the world. It also lives at the intersection of photography and cinematography (cinephotography?), in that it’s made up of a series of snapshots taken over a long period of time and edited together at a cinematic frame rate (often 24, 30, or 60 fps). If you’ve never shot a timelapse before, this post should be a helpful beginner’s guide. If you’re a seasoned veteran, perhaps you’ll find a useful reminder or leave a comment with further insight!
As with any camera kit, the more options and accessories you want for your timelapse setup, the more you’ll be paying for it. You can spend several hundred or several thousand on a basic timelapse kit — you just have to decide how much you’re willing to spend and what options are most important. Below are three different kits — a low end, a mid-range, and a marquee, high-end system — for which I’m going to try to hit the targets of $750, $3,000, and $7,500, respectively.
Budget Timelapse Kit
Camera: DSLRs are your best bet for a timelapse camera. The cheapest Canon and Nikon DSLRs on the market are about $300-$400. GoPros have great image quality and an internal intervalometer, but their automatic features and fixed wide-angle lens deprive the user of options offered by a DSLR. You can also use your iPhone or Android device, but again, the automatic features aren’t in your favor — and what if you get an important phone call during your shoot?
Here’s a nice Canon T5 starter kit with a couple of lenses that goes for $499. (Cheaper than a new unlocked iPhone, same price as the GoPro Hero 4 black edition)
If you insist on using your smartphone, here’s a timelapse app for Android and an app for iPhone. (I personally can’t endorse this practice, though.)
Intervalometer: If you have a Nikon, you’re in luck — they all have internal intervalometers. The new Canon DSLRs — the 7D MK II and the 5DS and 5DR — also have them built in, but for the rest of the Canon line, you’ll have to purchase an external intervalometer. Canon makes one, or a cheaper option is one of several from third-party providers, from around $25. This is such an incredibly simple product — it’s a very basic timer — that even cheap ones are pretty reliable, and you might never have to change the battery.
Another option is to install the Magic Lantern firmware on your Canon DSLR. I’ve run this software primarily for its advanced video features, but it also has an intervalometer. Note: Magic Lantern will provide a host of new features for your Canon DSLR, but it will also void your manufacturer warranty, so make sure to read all the fine print and install it carefully. I’ve never heard of an instance where Magic Lantern has ever damaged a camera, and it can be uninstalled very easily. Lonelyspeck.com also publishes a list of large-sensor cameras that have an internal intervalomenter.
Tripod System: If you’re on a budget, you’ll want a portable and lightweight tripod system. You’ve got hundreds of options for tripods with 3-6 lbs. of payload capacity. Carbon0fiber legs will be lighter and stronger than aluminium, but you’ll be paying 10-20% more for them. I trust Manfrotto — it’s well built and cheaper than some competitors.
Manfrotto MT190X3 3-Section Tripod with 700RC2 Mini Fluid Video Head: $239.
This tripod head is only rated for 3 lbs., so DSLR camera only! No knickknacks or accessories allowed. And it may be the video shooter in me, but even if the tripod is used primarily for timelapse, I would get a fluid video head rather than a still photo head. You might want to knock off a few dynamic video shots while in the field, which is nearly impossible with a photo head.
Budget Kit Totals:
Camera: Canon T5 starter kit with 2 zoom lenses, $499
Intervalometer: Magic Lantern is free, but if you like your warranty… $25
Tripod: Manfrotto MT190X3 w/ 700RC2 head, $239
Total for Budget Timelapse Kit: $763 USD
Timelapse of Los Angeles City Traffic Shot on Sony EX3 by MountAiryFilms
Mid-Range Timelapse Kit
This is where the majority of people interested in shooting timelapses will land. You’ll shoot with a high-end consumer DSLR, some sturdy sticks, and possibly a slider, but nothing too fancy in that regard.
Camera: There are enough mid-range DSLR options out there to make your head spin. This Canon 70D kit is a great, versatile place to start – $1,199
Make sure your tripod is sturdy and rated for a heavier capacity than what you’ve got on it. That said, you’ll often be walking or hiking a bit to your shooting location, so you may eventually want a couple of tripods: a lightweight and highly portable one, and a heavier-duty one that provides added stability. Any movement in the shot can be disastrous, so plan on having the right tripod for the location and weather. Beware of seemingly stable locations, like bridges or docks that can move subtly beneath your feet and ruin a shot.
For mid-range DSLRs, I like my Manfrotto 502 head and 546 legs as a heavy-duty tripod setup. The 502 head has a max payload of 9 lbs., and the 546 legs are sturdy and adaptable.
Tripod system: $579
Intervalometer: Again, if you’ve got a Nikon, no need to purchase, and if you do need one, go for the off-brand. As I said before, it’s such a cheap and simple device, they rarely break and the third-party ones have the exact same functions of a much-pricier Canon one.
Slider: Quality inexpensive motorized sliders have become very common in the last few years, including options from Rhino, Dynamic Perceptions, ShooTools, and Kessler, to name a few. I personally have worked with Dynamic Perceptions Stage One, which I find to be of high build quality, but I think the MX2 controller module is a fairly arcane unit with a temperamental power port and outdated display. Another popular unit is the Syrp Genie and Magic Carpet. The cheapest motorized solution I’ve found is the Revolve Automated Motion slider bundle, which retails for $499. It’s got the slider, motor, cart, and RAM, and offers free shipping and returns with a 90-day money-back guarantee, so it might be worth seeing what all the low-priced fuss is about. Let’s add the optional fast and slow motors so we can slide at a wide range of speeds (an extra $80).
Mid-Range Kit Totals:
Camera: Canon 70D with 18-55 EF-S and 55-250mm EF-S lenses, $1,199
Tripod: Manfrotto 502A fluid head and 546GB legs, $579
Slider: RAM Slider bundle with extra motors, $579
Total for Mid-Range Timelapse Kit: $2,372
Timelapse Shot in Nothern Caucasus Mountains by Viktar_Malyshchyts
High-End Timelapse Kit
Marquee Camera: The readers who can afford the best should get themselves the best. Canon recently released a DSLR with a whopping 50.6 megapixels. Nikon’s D810 is a beautiful device with unmatched latitude at low ISO. You likely aren’t buying your first DSLR at this point, and the brand (and lenses) you’ve been using up until now will play a large part in determining the age-old Canon vs. Nikon debate for you. Or maybe you want the medium-format Pentax DSLR (but in that case, you’re likely the rare bird too exotic for the common themes of an article like this). I’m a Canon guy, and I’d love to get my hands on all 50.6 megapixels of the 5DS R.
Canon 5DS R w/ 24-105 f/4 lens kit: $4,620
As much as I’m against it from a value standpoint, if you want the very best, don’t hold back.
Canon intervalometer: $129
Marquee Tripod: Here we have another marquee matchup: Sachtler vs. Manfrotto. Sachtler wins the fluid-head dynamics competition, hands down. You will get smoother moves, guaranteed. However, it has a lower load capacity (16.5 lb. for the Manfrotto 504 head vs. 13.2 lb. for the Sachtler Ace L). And although for timelapsing you aren’t necessarily doing moves, you will be if you plan on shooting any video. Sachtlers just feel so solid and silky smooth.
Sachtler Ace L GS CF Tripod System w/ Ground Spreader: $1,035
Slider: If you want to be the best, you’ll need the most dynamic timelapses, which means you’ll need a slider and a three-axis head. Quality motorized sliders have become very common in the last few years, again including options from Rhino, Dynamic Perceptions, ShooTools, Syrp Magic Carpet, and Kessler, to name a few.
I would say go long with the slider track — there a lot of 20-24″ tracks out there, but I recommend at least 40-60″ in order to get a nice long slide. Usually the tracks break down into sections, so it’s not much bulkier to carry, and totally worth it to get that longer, more dynamic slide.
I’m going with the Dynamic Perceptions Stage One Plus system with three-axis head, 60″ of slide rail, and the extra-life battery, because about the worst thing that can happen is running out of juice mid-slide.
Slider and three-axis head complete motorized system: $2,780
Marquee Timelapse Kit Totals:
Camera: Canon 5DSR w/ 24-105mm f/4 lens kit, $4,620
Tripod: Sachtler Ace L GS CF Tripod System, $1,035
Slider: Dynamic Perceptions Stage One Plus System w/ 3-axis head, $2,780
Total for Marquee Timelapse Kit: $8,564
Timelapse shot in Nothern Caucasus Mountains by Viktar_Malyshchyts
Well, there you have it — three distinctly different options for building the timelapse rig that’s right for you. Remember also that, as you step up in price, you also step up in the amount of gear you have to lug around. I came pretty close to my target for the budget kit, skimped a bit perhaps on the mid-range, and went all the way on the marquee kit, but assembling these kits is more about personal preferences and what makes sense than dollars and… cents. It’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of crossover in this Venn diagram; the cheapest package in the hands of a master will produce a better timelapse than the marquee kit in the hands of a novice.
Do you have additional recommendations or questions about shooting timelapses? Let us know in the comments!