• Filmmaking Post Advanced Filmmaking The Time-Lapse Photography Guide
  • The Time-Lapse Photography Guide

    An Introduction

    Time-lapse photography is the opposite of slow-motion; you capture a bunch of photos of the same thing over a period of time then play them back in sequence in a shorter amount of time. It is a favorite technique here at Untamed Science; if done properly, it can look beautiful and tell a great story. We’ve taken well over 500 time-lapses and made a lot of mistakes. Here are techniques to avoid the pitfalls we’ve run into over the years.

    Finding a Camera 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 when film cameras were hand-cranked). The camera we’ve used 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 every 10 minutes. This method worked amazingly well for short time-lapses. The only problems came when the length of the time-lapses exceeded the length of battery life. If you don’t have a power source for the camera and lose power even briefly, you can lose the entire sequence. This can be problematic with longer time-lapses like growing plants, so, for long sequences, we use digital still cameras.


    Digital SLRs

    Our favorite method of shooting time-lapses is with a digital SLR hooked up a remote trigger. We currently have a Canon 5D Mark III hooked up with a matching Canon Remote.


    Point and Shoot Cameras

    Canon-powershotTThere are several point-and-shoot cameras on the market today that have intervalometers built in which count intervals for you and simplify the process. But you’ll need to become familiar with manipulating the camera’s manual functions.

    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.

    Web cameras

    Believe it or not, you can actually take a decent time-lapse with a simple desktop web camera. Classroom teachers will love this setup. Using a program like Boinx iStopMotion, which allows you to plug in a huge variety of cameras into your computer and program them, you could time-lapse a plant on the desk next to your computer or do claymations.


    Things to Think About

    Use a Tripod

    The fact that you need a solid, stable tripod might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Flimsy tripods tend to shake slightly, even with a small amount of wind, causing a jitter in the final video. To secure the camera, weigh the tripod down by hanging a backpack under the main head. 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 camera bean bag. It’s a bit trickier to get the right framing, but it can work. Generally, hand-holding a camera does not lead to great results.

    Set the interval according to your subject

    Clouds look great in time-lapse. I like to shoot clouds at either one frame every two seconds or one frame every 5 seconds. The two second interval is great for fast-moving cumulus clouds. I use the longer frame-rate for cirrus clouds, but even that is often not fast enough. Fortunately, you can speed it up in post-production.


    Plants can really come to life when you use time-lapse to capture their growth. I use one frame every 10 minutes for most plants. This seems to work well for growing seedlings.


    Stars are fun to shoot but require 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 my camera 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 blurs the stars and shorter doesn’t allow for enough light. Then, I set the interval at three to five seconds longer than the camera is open, maybe 50-second intervals. The camera is basically only taking very short breaks in a much longer time-lapse. The results are fantastic if you’re patient!

    pregnant-haley Pregnancy is one of the longest time-lapses I’ve taken. It was about an 8-month project and required keeping 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 my wife and I could get 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 people in motion. You might even consider this a form of stop-motion. I set the camera so that I can move between intervals, about two seconds. If you go longer, it makes the process extremely tedious. If you’re close enough to hear the camera taking pictures, you can move in-between shots.


    Exposure and ISO

    For the most part you want to lock the ISO and exposure settings on the camera. If your camera is automatically determining the exposure at any given time, it may cause noticeable differences in each frame, creating an unwanted flicker effect.

    The only time you need the camera to automatically adjust exposure (and other manual settings) is if you’re trying to capture the transition from day to night on a clear day. This should be a fairly smooth transition for the camera to make.

    Fancy Stuff

    The Panning / Dolly Time-lapse

    stagezero2There are few things cooler than a moving time-lapse. The BBC employed this technique in their Planet Earth series with stunning results. It requires 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, but Dynamic Perception sells great time-lapse dollies.

    Tilt-shift: Making your scene look like a miniature

    A new, artsy technique in time-lapse is tilt shift, which makes the scene look miniature. It basically adds a blur to the video so that it seems as though there is a shallow depth of field. This effect happens naturally when you shoot small things because its hard for large lenses to get everything in focus. While you can achieve it with several programs, Boinx software’s iStopMotion allows you to quickly add this filter to your time-lapses. Here is a short sample clip.

    Putting it all together

    Making the movie in Quicktime player

    quicktime-tlOne of the easiest ways we’ve found to create time-lapse sequences out of still photos is in Quicktime 7 Pro. Use the “Open Image Sequence” command under “File.” It ends up being really easy to do, and you can export video as large as you like. I generally choose Apple ProRes 1080p. I also save the raw files so that I can make larger quality movies in the future.

    Using After Effects

    Creating a time-lapse using After Effects (AE) allows you to have more control over the final output. You can apply filters, pan across a large picture, and manipulate individual frames, if needed. Here is a quick summary we put together from AE CS4.


    Written by Rob Nelson

    Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is also an award winning filmmaker. As principle director of the Untamed Science productions his goal is to create videos and content that are both entertaining and educational. When he's not making science content, he races slalom kayaks and skydives.

    You can follow Rob Nelson

    2 thoughts on “The Time-Lapse Photography Guide

    1. Hey Rob,

      Great info here. I actually came specifically looking for information about capturing plant growth. I’ve done time lapses of landscapes, traffic and stars… mostly stuff outdoors. I’m currently trying out some studio, long form, time lapses. I’m interested in trying to get some plants growing but was looking for recommendations on why type of lights to use to control the environment better. Do you need a growing light? Does light flicker come in to play? Does the 180 degree rule with the shutter go out the window when you have exposures and capture windows that literally last for days? Sorry if I’m spamming you with questions. Your guide is very well put together.

      1. Rob Nelson says:

        Jeffrey, Thanks for the note. Sorry about the delayed response here. Trying to figure out these comments on the site. Plants are very different, you’re right. I’ve done a lot in the past. First, I use grow-lights for seeds, and things that grow. You don’t need it for flower blooms, etc. To avoid flicker, set your exposure to a tad longer than normal. It’s a plant and in the studio it shouldn’t move. Even a second is workable. Now, the one problem is that you can’t capture natural growth well if you have the lights on 24/7. But, you can use a flash. Set up one or more flashes and you’re golden! The only trick is making sure you change the flash batteries before they get low enough. You will get a flicker from those near the end.

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