Shooting Time-Lapse Photography
Time-lapse photography has increased in popularity over recent years. From being a niche profession to a default camera option on our phones. It is a cinematic photography technique that allows us to speed up time to such an extent, that we can show something that we would not normally notice unfold before our eyes.
It begins with a series of still photographs taken on a camera at a fixed interval, these are then assembled and compressed together from hours or days of footage, into a greatly sped up short clip. The subject can range from flowers blooming to sunsets or even a building under construction. If executed well, the technique is capable of delivering some fantastic results!
Camera and Lens
To get started with time-lapse photography, you will need a camera and lens. I use the Nikon D850 with a 14-24mm lens. I have always used Nikon, even back in film days as it’s a brand that I am familiar with. It has a fold-out screen which is very useful for low angle shots and it has a built-in exposure smoothing feature. Very often in time-lapse, you’ll commonly see a flicker caused by the aperture from one frame to another (which I will discuss how to reduce further down). If you’re using the onboard time-lapse function of the D850, the smoothing feature means the sequence is usually flicker-free. Not to mention the camera also has 45.7 megapixels of power, high resolution and ISO capability.
You will need a reliable, sturdy tripod as this is key for keeping your camera as steady as possible, to ensure you get completely still footage. Even the smallest knock or gust of wind can be detected, which can detract from the overall look. As I am mainly travelling up hills or through valleys when doing my shoots, I will take my Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. This is because it’s lightweight, packs down small and has flip locks on the legs which gives the option of independent spread on uneven terrain. If I want extra stability, I will use a weighted sandbag that I hang in the centre of my tripod.
I use a memory card that has a high storage capacity and is fast writing for my long shoots. I always use the Sandisk cards like the 128GB Extreme PRO. This is because it is shockproof, waterproof and can operate in temperatures ranging from -25 to 85 degrees celsius. It also stores a minimum of around 3000 images for a scene, like the full sunset to sunrise I did below. I ended up capturing the Milky Way and a surprise Aurora Australis.
Another product I recommend is an intervalometer. It is a device that triggers your camera’s shutter at regular set intervals. Some DSLR or mirrorless cameras may have one included internally, so check to see if it has an interval timing function. Some cameras will also have a dedicated time-lapse feature. I do however recommend having an external one as it generally offers more functionality like going beyond 999 frames. The camera function also may not have the full range of options that an external device may offer.
There are ones like the Canon Timer Remote Controller which is a remote switch that functions as an intervalometer. It also serves as a self-timer, interval timer, long-exposure timer and exposure-count setting feature. The timer can be set anywhere from 1 second to 99 hours which is something you may not get with the internal function of a camera. You can also use the Vello LW-500 Extenda Camera Controller which can only be used with select Nikon, Canon and Sony products.
You connect the device to your camera via a USB cable and it creates an ad-hoc Wi-fi network. This allows you to connect to your computer or mobile and allows you to remotely control a camera using an application available on IOS, Android, Mac, or Windows device. You can create timed exposure images or use the intervalometer for time-lapse photography.
Something similar to an intervalometer, but helps to change the exposure at the same time as the light changes, that I use is a ‘ramper’. The change in light during sunset and sunrise is what many people want to shoot but can be a challenge. This is referred to as the ‘Holy Grail’ of time-lapse given the difficulty to get it looking perfect. The only downfall is that it is quite a specialised piece of equipment and is not generally available off the shelf. However, some cameras like the Sony A7R IV can do this for you internally and present a great result.
Motion Control Devices
If you want to get fancy with your equipment, you can utilise motion control products. You can use a pan and tilt or a slide to add interest and movement to your time-lapses. A pan and tilt time-lapse can be done with your camera with a pan and tilt head attachment. Some that I recommend are the Edelkrone HeadPlus Pro or the Syrp Genie Mini Motion Control Device. Both of these products can be controlled by a smartphone app and can also be programmed for time-lapse shoots by creating motions and smooth panning.
You can add an extra dimension to your time-lapse with the use of a slider or rail. This can provide a parallax effect which serves to create depth as well as make the shot more dynamic. A product like the Syrp Magic Carpet Carbon Fibre Short Track would be a great option. It’s a durable slider that creates silky smooth tracking movements for time-lapse videos. You can mount the track straight onto your tripod legs or tripod head and you can combine it with the Syrp Genie to achieve a smooth upward/downward motion.
Once you have all your gear set up, you can now play around with your settings. Firstly, you want to choose a suitable interval between each shot. If the action you’re wanting to capture is quick like a moving car or fast-moving clouds then have a short interval of 1 to 4 seconds. If the movement is going to be slow like a sunrise then you might have an interval of 4 to 7 seconds and a blooming flower could be 30 minutes to an hour. The important thing to remember is to ensure your exposure is not longer than the interval. The interval will depend on the subject you want to shoot. Some cameras have a time-lapse function and generate time-lapses straight out of the camera. I personally wouldn’t recommend making one this way as you don’t have any control of the finished video.
I’ll talk more about post-production further down the page. If you do want to check out how to use the time-lapse settings in the Nikon D850, click here for a walkthrough.
Choose an aperture that will keep your subject in focus and produce enough light.
Test out your aperture to achieve the correct depth of field for your subject.
Choosing the best shutter speed depends on the look you want to achieve.
If you want each shot to look sharp and clearly capture moving subjects, a fast aperture (1/100 or faster) will achieve that. If you’re in a busy area with lots of fast-moving subjects (e.g., a road or a crowd), the video can end up looking jumpy. This is because the subjects will be captured every few seconds in a different position.
If you are wanting a smoother-looking video, experiment with slower apertures (1/50 or slower), which will capture moving subjects in motion and add a motion blur to their path.
A good standard shutter speed for time-lapse photography is double your frame rate (e.g., if you’re shooting at 25 FPS, your shutter speed should be 1/50).
The best ISO setting will depend on your light. For time-lapse photography, a low ISO is best, since it will reduce photographic noise and graininess. A low ISO requires a higher-light setting.
If you want to shoot time-lapses in low-light settings, you’ll need a higher ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light, but your video will come out grainier.
Set your camera and lens to manual focus, as opposed to autofocus. This will maintain a consistent focus for each shot.
If your camera were in autofocus, it would try to refocus on a new subject between each shot. This could be problematic in a fast-moving time-lapse like a crowd or busy street.
Many challenges occur while shooting time-lapse photography. It’s easy taking one photograph, but a sequence of images can give rise to several issues. Particularly if they are to go over a long period. These can range from batteries going flat, raindrops or condensation building up on your lens or even insects that land on the glass optics.
One way to combat these challenges is to make sure you purchase additional batteries for your camera. You can get a battery grip to put on the bottom of your camera to extend your battery life without having to change it or a dummy battery to connect to a power bank. You can also use a rain cover like the one shell cover from Peak Design for your camera to shields your camera and lens from harsh conditions.
One common issue that arises for many time-lapse photographers including myself is flicker. This is where the aperture inside the lens doesn’t always rest in the same position after each exposure. This causes uneven changes in light when the clip is played back. Many of us strive to make these transitions as smooth and seamless as possible so that flicker does not detract from the overall production. Flicker can easily be overcome by using software like LRTimelapse.
Post Production Process
Editing a time-lapse can sometimes be more challenging than capturing the time-lapse itself. Many time-lapse photographers use Adobe software to produce the best results. You will need a good computer to render out the file. Remember there are many different ways to render a time-lapse.
Below is my basic workflow:
1. Load and categorise the images onto your hard drive.
2. Import the images using a photo editing program such as Adobe Lightroom.
3. Adjust the image for exposure, colour, highlights and tones.
4. Apply these edits across all frames.
5. Export them as a finished image sequence
6. If you’re ramping at sunset or sunrise, use LRTimelapse software in conjunction with Lightroom.
7. Use software like Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, or Da Vinci Resolve. Import the finished images and render out a high-resolution movie clip
8. Find an appropriate piece of music that fits the scenes.
9. Edit the clips to keep the best bits of each time-lapse. Then speed up or slow down the individual clips to match the music
10. Upload to movie channel sites and share on social media. You could go so far as to load them onto stock photography websites and make some pocket money
To a get more in-depth understanding of workflow to edit your timelapse, I’d recommend watching this YouTube video by well-known landscape photographer, Michael Shainblum.
About Stephen Patience
Stephen Patience is an award-winning time-lapse photographer. He’s been doing it for nearly ten years and has twice been a finalist in the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year competition. Stephen’s work has been published in various forms, seen on TV, and used in other international film media.