How To Easily Shoot A Time Lapse

Something fun every photographer should try at least once is shooting and creating a time lapse video. It’s wonderful to see things happening at faster than life speed. Time lapses also help bring perspective to time and movement.

Here’s a short time lapse Lauren and I did for a silent auction for a local charity this past weekend.

It’s super easy for photographers to create time lapses as art, business promotion, or for clients. While I was planning on doing a bit of a tutorial, I found a great tutorial that quickly goes over most of what you need to know. You can check out the video at the following link.

The author of that video didn’t have much in terms of text instructions so here’s the skinny along with a few tips.

1. You’ll need an intervalometer, which plugs into the shutter release port on your SLR. An intervalometer allows you to set how frequently a photo is taken (i.e. once every 5 seconds). Some cameras have them built in, but if not you’ll need to pick one up. Canon makes a pretty pricey one which you can pick up at B&H or you can save yourself a ton and pick up a generic brand model here (thats what I use). Make sure you get one that’s compatible with your camera!

2. Set your interval. Keep in mind that you’ll be playing back these photos a lot faster than you’ll be taking them. It helps to do a little math here. For example if you’re doing a time lapse of an event that is 3 hours long, and you want to create a time lapse that is 2 minutes long played back at 15 fps, then you’ll need to take a shot every 6 seconds in order to produce the correct length video. You can obviously experiment here.

3. Drag your shutter. As the tutorial points out, dragging your shutter helps create the illusion of people actually moving really fast but smoothly, instead of “blips” where people move more erratically. A shutter speed of 1-2 seconds is great, but again, experiment. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to make out faces, or stop the video at different points to get a perfect picture of who is where.

4. Set your camera to record jpeg. No need to shoot RAW here (though again you can experiment!). If you were shooting something for super high quality output then you might want to consider RAW (and the processing that goes with it) but jpeg will usually suffice. The smaller files sizes will mean you can fit longer time lapses onto a single card, without needing to change cards.

5. Shoot in manual. Get your exposure settings down for the shot and then leave them there. If you’re shooting in aperture priority the changing metering values of your camera are going to look funny in your time lapse (probably manifesting as flickering).

6. Switch to manual focus. Use autofocus to lock focus and then switch it to manual. If you don’t your camera will search for focus with each shot, which may not work out that well.

7. Shoot in manual white balance. You don’t want to white balance 3000 images for this time lapse so it’s best to get things right in camera. Not too tricky to do, just adjust the white balance to the proper shooting condition!

8. Once you’ve got all the above settings, set up your shot and leave the camera be. It’s also kind of fun to experiment with a variety of angles and shots. It creates a more interesting time lapse.

9. After you’ve finished shooting upload all the images to single folder. Then open Quicktime Pro and select File/Image Sequence and select the first image in the folder you just uploaded. A dialog box will then pop up asking you what frame rate you would like to display the time lapse at. I usually stick with 15, but you can experiment with anything between 15-30 fps. (Note: If you’re using Snow Leopard you’ll need to put the Snow Leopard disk in and install Quicktime pro from said disk. For some reason they’ve removed the image sequence feature from the latest version of Quicktime 10)

10. Export from Quicktime. Because you’re shooting still images you’re actually able to capture resolutions much much higher than high definition (think 4000p – though it’s not called that at all, I just made it up – I think it’s called 4K). Anyways the point is that you probably don’t need to save it at that resolution. Instead you might want to export to a more accessible size like 720p. I export as 720p and I preserve the aspect ratio using letterbox. I’m not sure these are the best export settings, I just couldn’t clearly find what anyone else does so I thought I would mention what I do here.

11. Once exported you’ll want to bring the time lapse into something like iMovie or Movie Maker (if on a PC) so that you can add some music to the video. 

12. Export with music, and then upload to Vimeo to share your time lapse creation!

How you could experiment with this:

  • Change the interval
  • Change your shutter speed
  • Batch processing your images in Photoshop or Lightroom to give them a different look
  • Try exporting at different sizes (you can technically create videos of incredibly high quality since each frame is composed from a still SLR image)
  • Try multiple camera angles. A fantastic technique I’m seeing a lot more of is cameras on dolly’s; moving the camera a small amount with each shot to create a panning effect in the final time lapse.
  • Play back at different frame rates

When you might use this:

Finally a few awesome time lapses you should definitely check out

The Sandpit from Sam O’Hare on Vimeo.

Notte Sento (English subtitles) from Daniele Napolitano on Vimeo.

Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull – May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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8 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. This is so funny that you posted this today – we started doing a time lapse of building a playyard in our backyard last week! Great minds think alike… ;) Great tips, and lots of fun.

  2. Wow. Thats Pretty Sweet!
    Q: Is a time lapse the same thing as stop motion?

  3. Hey Natasha! Time Lapse and stop motion are very similar. The second Vimeo video at the bottom of this post would technically be a stop motion clip (Notte Sento). Basically, with stop motion, you're taking lots of photos and slowly moving elements in the photos to make it look like there is motion among typically stationary objects (e.g. Nightmare before Christmas). Whereas time lapses typically cover changes over time. They can of course be combined a little bit ☺ Check out the wikipedia articles for both time lapse and stop motion for more info. Thanks for the question!

  4. Nice tutorial!! Just wanted to add that after searching online for a way to time lapse on an NEX-3, i found that there is a device launching next month that claims to be compatible with all cameras (even point and shoot, apparently).
    Definitely worth checking out if you don't have IR!! the link is :)

  5. Thanks so much for the tip Kunal!

  6. Hi Rob,

    Excellent tutorial!

    You mentioned that its better to use Manual Mode as opposed to the AV Mode.

    Does the rules still apply if I am doing sunset/sunrise/astro time lapses?

  7. Hi Aidil!

    Thanks for commenting! Good question. After doing a quick search of Google it doesn't seem like there's a straight answer. The biggest thing is the light changing at sunrise and sunset, in those instances you may need to adjust your settings. For night astro time lapses where the light level remains relatively constant you should be fine in manual mode. Hope this helps!

  8. Thanks for the link to the off-brand intervalometer! Google didn't have a good clear answer for me, but then I remebered: "didn't Rob & Lauren do a post on time-lapse a while ago?", and sure enough, here was all the info I needed. Thanks guys, this site is such a great resource! :D

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