Timelapse photography/videography has come a long way since the invention of the camera over a century ago. Today, our smartphones even have built-in timelapse capabilities, making it easier than ever to create a sped-up version of real life. The real key lies in your style as a storyteller, because as the tools change and evolve, the basic fundamentals and techniques stay the same. Once you master the technique, all you have to do is experiment with your compositions and go! So, let’s talk technique.
Shooting a timelapse is really easy, believe it or not. You’re basically shooting a ton of frames and pushing them all together and/or speeding them up to show the passage of time more quickly. Here are the basics of the technical part, first for calculating the number of frames you want, then for calculating how long your interval should be:
- You need 240 still images to get 10 seconds of footage on a 24 frames-per-second (fps) project, and 300 images to get 10 seconds of footage on a 30 fps project.
- You can use the formula (desired framerate) X (clip duration desired, in seconds) = (# of total frames needed) to find out how many images your timelapse requires.
- If you know your shooting duration, take that time in minutes and multiply by 60 to get the number of total seconds. Then take that number of seconds and divide by how many frames you want (240, 300, etc). That number is the interval, or how long the duration needs to be between photos to capture your desired number of frames. (shooting time in minutes) X (60) ÷ (desired # of frames) = (interval duration).
International Space Station ISS Aurora Australis Pacific Ocean, Timelapse 4K by Kamrul2005
- 10 minutes of non-stop video needs to be sped up 6000% to be 10 seconds long, while 20 minutes of footage is 12000%, and 40 minutes is 32000%, etc.
- With video timelapses, just experiment with percentages and see what you like best.
So you’ve gotten the broad strokes of the math behind timelapses; now it’s time for the gear. There are many different timelapsing kits for various budgets, but the only thing you really need is a camera and some way to get the video seen. (I say that you only need a camera because, technically, you can still manually press the shutter button a few hundred times, and you can simply set the camera on a solid structure, like a tree or a window sill, if you don’t have the basics like an intervalometer or tripod. You may need to do more work in post to stabilize, however.)
Camera: The camera can be a point-and-shoot, a DSLR, a smartphone, or an action camera, but anything that captures stills or video and is easy for you to use will work.
Tripod: The most fundamental way to make your life easier when shooting a timelapse is by having a solid base for your camera. If one of the keys to a timelapse is having the same frame repeating over and over again to show the passage of time, then any compositional changes from unstable or shaky bases will definitely affect the quality of your video.
Intervalometer: An intervalometer is not entirely necessary if your camera has a built-in time lapse function, but if your camera requires one, it’s essential. It will activate your camera’s shutter at a certain interval over a certain period of time. There are also plenty of apps that perform the same function, so check if your camera is compatible before spending any money. There is also the Magic Lantern firmware that will allow you to record timelapses internally if you’re using a Canon camera, so check that out as well (install at your own risk!). If you’re doing a video timelapse, you don’t need an intervalometer unless you want hands-free control of your camera.
Storage: A long continuous video (especially if it’s 4K) or several hundred photos takes up a lot of space. If you’re using a camera that writes to removable storage, make sure you have cards that are big enough to hold all of that data and, in the case of photos, are fast enough to not bog down your camera between exposures. Write speed and storage requirements are always changing from camera to camera, but check around before buying and see what you need. Don’t just buy the cheapest, most basic cards out there, because your performance can suffer. But you also don’t necessarily need the fastest card on the market for most of your productions. That said, if you find a great deal on high-performance cards, buy them!
Others: A Neutral Density (ND) Filter is great for bright scenes and to help you drag your shutter; extra batteries or charge cords are always good to have on hand for powering your device; and you should also check out star/sky/astrology mapping software for phone, tablet, or computer if you’re doing star timelapses or want to know sun position.
Setting Up Your Shot
When you’re ready to shoot, charge your batteries and go to your location. Pick out the best angle of your subject. You should pick a frame that will give viewers the most information and the most interesting/consistent action. People want to see things changing in the frame, which is really the whole point. And remember, you don’t have to go far to get a great shot — even if it’s just in your room, shooting a timelapse of a lava lamp, or a shot of yourself at the computer, editing a timelapse. (A timelapse of a timelapse? Oh no, I’ve Incepted myself!)
Time-Lapse of a Lava Lamp by nickgraalman
The most common mistake that ruins a good timelapse is a flickering image, whether it’s from the white balance or the exposure automatically changing with the scene. It can be fixed, but requires more work in post. The good news is you can cut down on the flickering by shooting in manual mode. Since there are likely to be many changes taking place in your scene that can be out of your control, the one thing you can control is the camera’s exposure. Avoid all automatic modes* — having 100% manual control over the exposure (or as much control as your camera allows) is best to keep your exposure consistent while the scene’s lighting or action changes. Set your camera to manual mode, double-check your white balance, and take a few test images to get your desired look.
* In certain cases you can use the aperture priority mode (Av), which keeps the aperture the same and adjusts the shutter and ISO to compensate for visual changes, but it can still lead to a “flickering” image.
Timelapse Video Of Svartifoss, Black Waterfall, Iceland by javarman
Dragging the Shutter
To drag your shutter or to not drag your shutter, that is the question. And the answer is… it depends on the situation and your preference. For scenes like traffic, waterfalls, building a sandcastle — basically anything where there are a lot of subjects moving quickly in the frame — you may want to drag your shutter (slowing down the shutter speed enough to create a motion blur) to smooth out the movements and make it really feel like time is lapsing. Without the shutter drag, the action jumps around and lacks fluidity.
As a contrast, slower-moving scenes like clouds, flowers opening up, or the moon rising don’t need to have the shutter dragged. You will most likely need an ND filter to drag the shutter in bright scenes as I mentioned above, since you won’t be able to open your aperture wide enough when it’s bright.
Garden Snail by Colloidal
All this said, you can choose to drag your shutter or not based on what you like; just understand the differences and adjust them accordingly.
Night and Day
Your timelapse will require less work if your lighting is consistent, such as on a clear sunny day, at night, or in a controlled setting like a studio. It’s a little more tricky if you’re going from day to night or night to day, because the lighting changes so much. You’ll need to make adjustments as the timelapse is shooting to compensate for the changes, so between photos make your adjustments and step back. Continue doing this as long as you need to until the lighting becomes consistent and no more adjustments are necessary (as long as the interval duration is long enough — you may need to make micro-adjustments if you don’t have much time).
4K Timelapse Video Of Residential Apartment Buildings From Day to Night by ymgerman
The best thing you can do is make proper adjustments without moving the camera and take the time in post production to ensure you have good transitions between the changing frames.
Shoot for the Stars
If you’re planning on shooting a timelapse of the stars, then everything you need to know is right here in this video:
But if you don’t want to watch me tell you how to do it, you can read it instead:
- Find the darkest area you can at the time of a new moon. The less ambient light coming from city lights, the moon, or campfires, the better.
- Set up your camera with the fastest lens (biggest aperture possible) you have and open the aperture all the way.
- Set your focus by using the brightest star you can see with your current camera position, and put your ISO at the lowest possible setting you can while still getting enough light to make a full exposure and avoid image noise.
- Finally, set your shutter speed. Take 500 and divide it by your lens’ focal length for the exposure duration, or for a basic starting point, make it 20 seconds. This will give you dots instead of streaks (if you want streaks, slow your shutter down and see what you like best!).
(Motion) Control Freak
There are dolly, crane, and slider systems on the market that can add movements like tilts, pans, and tracking to your timelapses. They can add depth and dynamic, three-dimensional movements to your video with very little extra effort, and are relatively easy to use. Motion-control systems have wildly different costs, so there is something for every budget. Some are simple servo boxes that are affixed between your camera and your tripod, and some are complete crane systems with all-terrain legs and multiple track extensions. In the star timelapse video above, you can see that the guys are using both (they are masters at this technique, so check out their portfolios on Pond5 for inspiration).
It’s really up to you and your budget, but with most basic systems you set a starting point, move the camera where you want it to end (manually or with the controls), set the ending point, set the move duration, and hit go. More advanced systems will allow you to set these basics, as well as give you finer control over the move speed — for instance, ramping up or down at the beginning or end of the move — and will let you change virtually every aspect of the movement. Some systems are actually controlled via bluetooth on a phone or tablet, where you can visually draw your own movements and keyframes!
Fix It in Post
There are myriad ways to edit your photos. If your phone or camera pushes them all together itself, then congratulations, you’re done! If not, or if you want to have more control over the look of your image, you’ll need to have some sort of editing software. Go through the photos and make your color adjustments and apply them to all similar photos. Minimize any drastic differences between photos if you have lighting or color changes to avoid a flickering video result.
Video Editing Time-Lapse by IdeasLab
Failure Is Always an Option
A large part of the entire timelapse experience is failing. Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once famously said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” — so keep that in mind if you come out with an unusable timelapse. You learn infinitely more by experimentation and failure, and it will ultimately lead you to hone your craft and become a better artist in the long run. Try out as many different angles, shooting settings, and subjects as possible, and see what’s best for your workflow and style. Check your progress as you go, too — if you’ve got enough time between exposures, preview your last photo and make sure you’re seeing what you want to see and adjust accordingly.
For more inspiration for shooting timelapses, check out our full timelapse collection on Pond5 »