From the time I bought my very first camera I was fascinated by the concept of timelapses. Sitting on a mountain top waiting for a sunset I would often take hundreds of photos, each one different from the one before. A photo is an attempt to capture a moment in time: the lighting changes, the clouds move, and each photo preserves that instant as a frozen moment. I would think about how that lighting changed and wish there was a way to demonstrate those dramatic variations. By taking hundreds of these 'frozen moments' and playing them sequentially, I was finally able to take events unfolding over several hours and condense them into a continuous video - and with that, my obsession with timelapses was born.
Videos are just a sequence of individual photos, played in such rapid succession that our brains cannot process each frame individually, and therefore blends the images together, causing us to view them as a continuous stream of motion. Timelapse photography capitalizes on this inherent brain-lag, allowing us to capture individual photos over a very extended period of time, and play them back at video frame rates in order to condense several hours of real-life into a short clip.
Unlike other subsets of photography, there is no one single 'recipe' that will yield a quality timelapse. Creating a good timelapse is not a function of simply following the steps from A to B in mindless procession, because each timelapse will vary based on dozens of different inputs from weather conditions and lighting, to the desired length of the final video. Understanding these inputs will help you make informed decisions, guaranteeing quality timelapses on the fly.
A timelapse is, by definition, condensing the passage of time into a video clip. Since this is more or less just a fancy way of hitting "fast forward" on life, we need to first decide how much faster we want the real life progression to go. In order to make this decision, we need to think about video frame rates, as well as the length of our final video.
Standard videos play back at either 24 frames or 30 frames per second, meaning that watching a single second of video is equivalent to seeing 30 sequential still images. For the purposes of making math easier, I always output my timelapses at 30 frames per second. Since there's 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour, using 30 frames/sec for the final video makes the math easy to calculate on the fly. I always aim for at least 10 seconds of finished timelapse, because anything less is just a tease. This means I'll need a minimum of 300 frames.
For example, if you were to take one photo every second, then a full minute of shooting would yield you 60 frames. Compiled into a timelapse, that's 2 seconds of completed video (because 60 frames ÷ 30 frames/sec = 2 sec). Using this same math, it would only take us 5 minutes to shoot the 300 frames needed to create our 10 second timelapse. It's pretty unlikely that events are unfolding in front of you so fast that 5 minutes is sufficient to capture the action, so let's look at some longer intervals.
Using a 3 second interval we can calculate that 30 frames will take us 90 seconds to capture, and extrapolating from there, 30 minutes of shooting yields us 600 frames, and a 20 second finished timelapse. For things like people moving through a busy intersection, or fast moving clouds this may be perfect, but these are specialty circumstances. Most sunrises and sunsets (my personal favorite subjects for timelapses) generally last an hour or two - 30-ish minutes of golden light before sunset, 20 minutes of gold and pink clouds, and then another 20 or so minutes of twilight into blue hour. Working backwards, we can calculate that one full hour of shooting time is comprised of 3,600 seconds. 3600/300 frames (for a 10 second timelapse) means a 12 second interval will yield us the desired result. For me personally I like to slow things down a bit when there's exciting color changes and cloud motion, so I've had fantastic luck shooting my sunset timelapses with a 7 second interval. This means a full hour of shooting yields approximately 17 seconds of finished timelapse, which is nice because that gives us some leeway for speed-ramping or trimming the finished video.
It's a good idea to think about the expected timeframe of the subject you're shooting and work backwards from there. Traffic patterns? 15 minutes may be sufficient. Storm clouds moving across the landscape could only take half an hour. Sunset could be an hour or two, depending on your latitude. Once you have that target set, you can figure out how many frames you want to capture, and work backwards to pick an interval that makes sense.
In general, exposing for a timelapse is no different than exposing for a standard still photo, but with a few caveats. In descending order of importance:
- Manual Focus
- Manual White Balance
- Manual Exposure
Manual focus is absolutely mandatory, because having the camera reacquire focus between every exposure guarantees that there will be slight variances. No camera is 100% consistent, so there will be slight variations between frames. When compiled into a video this yields a very unsightly "breathing" look and a completely unsalvageable timelapse.
White Balance. I've had timelapses where auto white balance functions perfectly, and timelapses that have been ruined by it. If you're not shooting a highly dynamic scene (such as a sunset) or a scenario where cameras generally struggle (such as astrophotography) then you can probably get away with AWB.
Exposure. Newer generation Sony cameras have a built in intervalometer that tracks and adjusts exposure automatically. For the vast majority of cases this works beautifully, and I trust it. However, for so-called "holy grail" timelapses (transitioning from day to night, or night to day), the changes are so extreme that I prefer to take matters into my own hands. Since a full holy-grail timelapse requires a time commitment of 8 hours or more, I don't want to risk a slight exposure reading ruining my entire project, and instead I prefer to handle the exposure ramping manually. There is a LOT of travel between daylight settings of [ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec] and [ISO 3200, f/1.8, 15.0 sec], and trusting the camera to transition those settings cleanly is a bit more of a gamble than I'm interested in. If you've ever tried to shoot the night sky using the auto settings on your camera you'll know that they tend to ramp ISO to unreasonably high levels, and compensate shutter speed less than optimal. Your camera isn't aware of things like the 500-Rule, so you run the risk of improper exposure calculations for extreme shooting scenarios.
In The Field
First off, make sure you have a fully charged battery in your camera (or connect an external power source like this one), and an empty memory card! Feels like a no-brainer, but it's also one of the most common errors for photographers of all skill levels.
Once your tripod is set up and your composition is established, set your camera according to the guidelines above: manual focus, white balance and exposure. Then, using the math outlined in section one you'll want to determine the interval and scene length.
After this, it's really just a function of taking your time and waiting patiently for the scene to unfold.
Do's and Don'ts
- Do make sure your tripod is stable and sheltered from wind. This seems obvious, but a moving tripod during a timelapse looks super weird. You don't want this.
- Do bring snacks, a book, and more warm clothes than you think you need.
- Do remember to look around and appreciate all the beauty surrounding you.
- DON'T continually pause the timelapse to review the photos and see if they're exposed properly. Trust your histogram. There is a very high likelihood that you bump your tripod, or interrupt the interval doing this, and the whole timelapse will be ruined.
- DON'T stress out about beautiful clouds or exciting that are just outside the frame. You can't move your camera anyway, so practice some zen.
- DON'T forget that your camera exists. There have been times when I've practiced too much zen in the past and then the light changed beyond what was salvageable!
- DON'T stop the timelapse early! It's easy to think "oh well the action finished 5 minutes ago so I'm done" but those 5 minutes might only equate to a single second of timelapse video. You want the action to feel concluded, and if your video ends 0.5 seconds after the climax then it's going to be very uncomfortable to watch. You've already spent 3 hours sitting on a log waiting, what's another 30 minutes to make sure that the previous 3 hours weren't for naught?
Ok so you're finally back at home with a memory card full of images, wondering what's next. There are several great options for assembling a timelapse: Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, After Effects, Filmora, iMovie and dozens more. Since I'm already proficient in Adobe Lightroom, I personally use LRTimelapse, and absolutely swear by it for my timelapse processing workflow.
Walking through each individual editing software would make for an extraordinarily lengthy and boring article, so instead I'm just going to link you to several of the better tutorials I've found online.
And that's it, folks! Now that you've got the basics down, remember that practice makes perfect!