The Time-Lapse Photography Guide
Time-lapse photography, the art of speeding up time, is a favorite activity here at Untamed Science. The reasons for this are multifaceted. A good time-lapse looks beautiful and it tells a great story as you increase the speed of time. This guide is aimed to show the amateur how to start taking stunning time-lapses. If you’ve already done a few time-lapses you may also benefit by reading about the techniques we’ve used to make some of our films. We’ve taken well over 500 time-lapses and made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately, we’ve learned from them, so we plan on giving you some techniques so that you can avoid the pitfalls we’ve run into over the years.
Finding a Camera
Video cameras with interval recording
The first camera we used to take time-lapses was a standard video camera with interval recording. Many camcorders today have the ability to change the rate of recording. When you’re shooting a time-lapse you are doing what’s called under-cranking (the term comes from the days of film when you hand-cranked a film camera – essentially cranking it slower). The camera we’ve used the most is the Panasonic HVX200. This fully digital video camera helped revolutionize the way video media was captured. With this camera you can change the frame rate in the menu to take a single frame anywhere from once every 16 frames to once ever 10 minutes. This method worked amazingly well for short time-lapses. The only problems came when the length of the time-lapses started to become longer than the length of a battery. In this case you can definately plug the camera in to a power source. The problem is that you often loose the entire sequence if you loose power even briefly. This can be problematic with longer timelapses like growing plants. For these long sequences we use digital still cameras.
Our favorite method of shooting time-lapses is with a digital SLR hooked up a remote trigger. Most of this article will focus on this method of time-lapse so we’re only briefly mentioning the benefits. We currently have a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 30D hooked up with their matching Canon Remote.
Point and Shoot Cameras
Our suggestion for point-and-shoot time-lapse cameras is the Canon SD4000. It is a compact camera that shoots HD video (which you don’t use for time-lapses) and has a built in intervalometer. If you want to do long time-lapses with it, you’ll need the CHDK canon hack to shoot more than 100 frames (I know this is silly, but it works). Overall, this camera seems to be a great option for just around 349 dollars!
Believe it or not, you can actually take a decent time-lapse with a simple web camera. Classroom teachers that want to show a growing plant on the class desk, will love this setup. There are several programs that allow you to take a web camera and make it into a time-lapse camera for movies. My personal favorite is the new Boinx iStopMotion, which allows you to plug in a huge variety of cameras into your computer and program them to start taking time-lapses. You can time-lapse a plant on the desk next to your computer, or do claymations. The options are endless.
Things to Think About
Get a Tripod
The simple fact that you need a solid, stable tripod might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Flimsy tripods tend to shake slightly on days with even a small amount of wind, causing the final video to jitter. I like to go one step further and weigh the tripod down by hanging my backpack under the main head. Even this small amount of weight goes a long way in stabilizing the shots.
If you don’t have a tripod, you can set the camera on the ground or on a bean bag. It’s a bit trickier to get the right framing, but if you’re creative and don’t have a tripod with you, this will suffice.
Unless you’re trying something artsy, you’re better off not trying to do anything handheld.
Setting the interval:
Clouds look great sped up in time-lapse form. I like to shoot clouds at either 1 frame every 2 seconds or 1 frame every 5 seconds. The 2 second interval is great for fast-moving cumulus clouds. I use the longer frame-rate when taking cirrus clouds, but even that is often not fast enough. Fortunately, you can always speed it up in post.
Plants can really come to life when you speed them up. I use one frame every 10 minutes for most plants. This seems to work well for growing seedlings. However, it really depends what you want to show. I have found that seedlings will dance as the growth hormones cycle around the stem of the plant. This will cause the plant to move in a cyclical motion once every 20 minutes or so.
Stars are fun to shoot, but require even more advanced time-lapse skills. First, you need to have a camera that will let you keep the aperture open as long as possible. I set it manually to stay open for about 45 seconds (I do this on the intervalometer while the camera is set to bulb mode). Too much longer and you blur the stars, less and you don’t get enough light to pick up much. Then, I set the interval at about 3-5 seconds longer than the camera is open – maybe 50 second intervals. In this way, the camera is basically only taking very short breaks in a much longer time-lapse. The results are fantastic though if you’re patient!
Pregnancy is one of the longest time-lapses I’ve taken. It lasts about 8 months (given that you don’t realize you’re pregnant until a month in), and requires you keep the camera as still as possible. My problem was that I travel a lot and my camera had to come with me. I found a way to mount the camera on the wall so that we could take pictures once a day for the entire pregnancy. Sometimes we missed days, but it didn’t matter so much.
The other thing I love taking in time-lapse are moving people. You might even consider this a form of stop-motion. I set the camera so that I can move in-between intervals – something like 2 seconds. If you go longer, it makes the whole process extremely tedious. If you’re close enough to hear the time-lapse, you can move in-between shots.
Exposure and ISO
There are a few exceptions to this role, but for the most part you want to lock the ISO and lock the exposure settings. If your camera is automatically determining the exposure at any given time, it may be slightly different with each frame. This flicker-effect makes for a poor time-lapse. It occurs mostly on cloudy days.
The only time you need the camera to automatically adjust exposure (and the other manual settings) is when you’re trying to capture the day-night transition on a clear day. This should be a fairly smooth transition for the camera to make and the end result is really kind of neat.
Make everything manual. Lock the aperature and shutter speed. Usually I set the aperature to F11 or smaller (F22 etc), just so that everything is in focus, and I set the shutter speed fairly slow. This blurs some of the movement, which gives a nice little sequence.
The Panning / Dolly Time-lapse
There are few things cooler than a moving time-lapse. The BBC employed them in their Planet Earth series with stunning results. To do something like this you’ll need a bit of fancy machinery. Basically you need a long dolly hooked up to an intervalometer. I’ve attempted to build this myself and failed miserably. Recently I found the Dynamic Perception, a timelapse dolly used by the filmmaker that produced the following video:
Tilt-shift: Making your scene look like a miniature
A new, artsy technique out today to create a time-lapse is to make it look like a miniature. The technique is called tilt-shift and it basically adds a blur to the video so that it looks as though there is a small depth-of-field. This shallow depth of field happens naturally when you shoot small things, simply because its hard for large lenses to get everything in focus. While you can do it with several programs, Boinx software’s iStopMotion also allows you to quickly add this filter to your time-lapses. Here is a short sample clip.
An extension of time-lapse is claymation. This article isn’t the place for an in-depth look at claymations. However, if you’re interested in this form of time-lapse photography, I suggest starting with something like the iStopMotion software. It’s super easy to use and will allow you to branch into more advanced techniques in the future.
Putting it all together
Making the movie in Quicktime player
One of the easiest ways we’ve found to create time-lapse sequences out of still photos is in Quicktime 7 Pro. All you have to do is go to File>Open Image Sequence. It ends up being really easy to do. You can export it as large as you like. I generally make the video Apple ProRes 1080p. I also save the raw files so that I can make larger quality movies in the future.
Making a TL with After Effects
Creating a time-lapse using After Effects allows you to have a lot more control over the final output. You can apply filters, you can pan across a large picture, and you can manipulate individual frames, if they need it. Without going into too much detail, all you do is choose File>Import>File… Then, select the first image in the sequence and choose the option for JPEG Sequence (if you’re using a different format, an alternative button will appear). AE then imports all the images into one clip in the Library. Here is a quick summary I put together from AE CS4.