How I shoot my time-lapse movies

I started shooting time-lapse when working in the High Arctic on Expedition Cruises. I was producing promo movies for each expedition cruise and the time-lapse was a more engaging view for when the ship was just at sea or cruising through a fjord. Time-lapse movies are just cool. I really should do more. Whether it’s fair-weather clouds sweeping over the Downs, flowers opening in the sunlight, or the Milky Way ascending through the night sky. Thankfully, the standard time-lapse is relatively simple to achieve.

Equipment for Time-lapse

I keep things as simple and as idiot-proof as possible. I haven’t invested in motion control rigs or anything flashy. Essentially, all you need for time-lapse photography is a camera and an intervalometer – the gadget or camera feature that can trigger the shutter release at set time intervals.

Fortunately, my Nikon DSLR cameras have built-in intervalometers, which simplifies things enormously, but you can buy external units (for example, the Nikon’s MC-36 remote shutter release has a built in intervalometer) that plugs directly into your camera’s shutter release remote socket. The only limiting factor with my DSLR setup is the total number of frames that I can shoot in any one movie, which is 9999. This is largely determined by the file numbering system and capacity within each automatically generated folder.

All the movies below were all shot the same way, with my DSLR bolted to a tripod head which was either mounted on a tripod or clamped to a fixed point using the Manfrotto 035 SuperClamp. I cannot emphasis strongly enough the importance of rock solid support. The frame must remain perfectly still.

Focussing

The focus is set manually with the AF switched off on both the camera and lens, just to make sure. The focus distance will depend entirely on your situation and the depth of field that you can capture. For my ‘bow view’ movies, I focussed on the flag mast and shot at 𝑓/8-𝑓/11.

I take several test exposures on my selected aperture, before changing the programme mode to Manual and setting the exposure. Manual exposure helps reduce ‘flickering’ in the movie as the exposure changes to cope with the available light. I much prefer the effect that when the sun goes behind a cloud, the image is darker until it appears once again – an effect best shown in the time-lapse below, shot in the Magdalen Islands, Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Frame interval times between exposures

After some trial and error, I usually set my interval to 5 sec and the exposure to 2½ sec. This equation produced the best result for this particular application is great for clouds rolling over a landscape too. Interval times will vary according to what you want to capture. Here are some interval time examples from Patenteux.com – a great resource for learning time-lapse:

  • People walking: 1-3 seconds
  • Traffic: 1-1.5 seconds
  • Clouds: 5-30 seconds
  • Cityscapes: 15 seconds – 1 minute
  • Stars: 30 seconds to 1 minute

During my general research into shooting time-lapse movies, I read about the need for blur (dragging the shutter) in each frame to create a more fluid effect. The example given is that when you pause TV, the image is never razor-sharp as it moves between frames. The recommendation is for the exposure to be half the interval time. In my view, it definitely worked! It removes that jittery movement. For example, on one time-lapse I used a 10 sec interval with a 5 sec shutter speed and the effect is extremely silky!

Now for a little math

Some figures to bear in mind… If your image numbering system or camera folder capacity is 9999 like mine, then this is the maximum number of frames you can shoot per movie. PAL motion pictures run at 25fps, traditional movie cinema is 24fps, whereas NTSC is 30fps. I’m British, so I’m using PAL. 9999 images ÷ 25 frames per sec = c.400. In other words, if I shoot all 9999 frames and sequence them into a PAL 25fps time-lapse, I’ll have 400 seconds or 6.66 minutes of movie.

But what about the effect of speeding up time? OK, let’s say you want to capture an entire day, from sunrise to sunset (or 12 hours to keep it simple) and condense it into a a few minutes (or less) of run time. First work out the duration then your interval: 12hrs × 60mins × 60secs = 43,200 seconds ∴

  • @ 5 second interval: Over 12 hours you would shoot 8,640 frames, which compiles down to 345.6 seconds of PAL movie at 25fps.
  • @ 10 second interval: Over 12 hours you would shoot 4,320 frames, which compiles down to 172.8 seconds of PAL movie at 25fps.
  • @ 20 second interval: Over 12 hours you would shoot 2,160 frames, which compiles down to 86.4 seconds of PAL movie at 25fps. 
  • @ 30 second interval: Over 12 hours you would shoot 1440 frames, which compiles down to 57.6 seconds of PAL movie at 25fps. In essence, if you want to condense 12 hours into a minute, you need to take one frame every 30 seconds.

Not big on math? Here’s the cheat

PhotoPills AppIf all that math seems too much, there is a much simpler way. It comes in the form of an app. I use PhotoPills for many applications including night-time camera trap exposures, lining up the sun for silhouettes, plus it also has a very good time-lapse interval calculator. Simply enter your Clip Length, followed by the Event Duration, the Frame per Second of the compiled video sequence, and the image size you are capturing – just to make sure you have a large enough memory card for your shoot.

 

Slowing down the exposure

Obviously to have such slow shutter-speeds in broad daylight requires an ND filter, otherwise you would have to use f/32 and your lowest ISO, producing a ghastly frame full of dust spots! I purchased a B+W 77mm 3.0/1000x (110) Neutral Density Filter from WEX just for this task. It certainly does the job, dropping the shutter so far, I sometimes need to up the ISO. Probably worth investing in a couple of these filters at varying densities.

Image file size & Image Sequencing

One other key ingredient… High-capacity memory cards! Time-lapse movies may require thousands of frames and you don’t want to run out of space. Just the ‘normal quality’ Jpegs from my Nikon D800 are over 9Mb. If I shoot all 9999 frames, that’s over 87Gb! Imagine if you shoot that in RAW? That’ll be around 360Gb on my cameras. The thing is, you’re only ever going to display these images as part of an HD movie, so your DSLR’s minimum jpeg file is more than large enough. Unless you’re preparing for 4k, 8k, etc. you only need an image size of 1920x1080px for HD.

Putting it all together

Click for Adobe LightroomI import all my time-lapse jpegs into Lightroom for batch adjustment of exposure, white balance, contrast, and cropping. Remember, all images must be treated the same to preserve the unifying feel to the movie. In Lightroom, you can adjust one image and then synchronise the adjustments to all others.

QuickTimeOnce the adjustments are made, everything is then exported as 1920×1080 jpegs at Quality 90 to a new folder. I use a higher quality than you might expect as I want to avoid tonal banding and moiré. Using QuickTime Player 7 Pro, I import the entire folder as an image sequence and PING! It’s all done. Simple, quick, no faff. Just the way I like it.

Once Quicktime has sequenced the images and compiled the movie, you can export/save it as a usable file, ready for inserting in your iMovie project or slideshow presentation. Or upload it to YouTube or Vimeo as a H.264/MPEG-4 and share it with the world. Quick. Easy. Simple.

12 essential points for time-lapse

  1. Use manual focus – turn off auto-focus on both lens and camera
  2. Set manual exposure – avoid flickering as light levels change
  3. Set white balance to daylight or 5200K – avoid using auto-white balance
  4. Mount camera to tripod, clamp, or in a housing – avoid camera movement at all costs
  5. Set the correct exposure and interval
  6. Use high-capacity formatted memory cards
  7. Use fully-charged batteries
  8. Use weather-proofing for camera body and something to shield the lens
  9. Turn off all in-camera image enhancements – uses power and image processor
  10. Turn off in-camera noise reduction – will interrupt interval timing, use power and image processor
  11. Turn off LCD – drains power and attracts attention if you’re not there
  12. Close or cover viewfinder eyepiece – avoids light entering through the prism on long exposures

“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed my guide to creating time-lapse movies. Admittedly, the technique is basic, but it’s a good foundation. I’ll be posting more photo stories, seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the form below. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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