Time Lapse Photography [tutorial]

Time lapse photography (TLP) is the technique of filming very slow-moving objects and then playing them back as a high-speed video. There are two parts to it: setting up and shooting your scene, and editing the output as a video. This tutorial focuses on the first part, and only briefly mentions the latter since it requires a familiarity with video editing software.

Background Info: I’ve been playing with TLP for the first time, and I’m lovin’ it! I’m sure you’ve seen the effect on tv before –it’s really big on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series right now. In the smallest of nutshells, it is the technique of filming something for several hours (and sometimes days or weeks!) and then speeding up the footage. Common examples include: cloud formations, sunsets, and flowers blossoming; basically anything that happens so slowly that we don’t typically think of it as something that moves.

Most people assume these shots are done with a video camera, but that is simply not the case. For all intents and purposes, video cameras record at 30 frames per second. That’s great when you need to film something that is moving at a normal speed, but it is nothing short of excessive if you’re filming, say, the movement of a sunset. Instead, a still camera is used.

A big advantage of using a still camera is that the resolution is typically much higher than the resolution of a video camera. Standard Definition video is 720 X 480; that comes out to about 0.3 megapixels. High Definition video is 1920 X 1080; even though it looks impressive on a big screen tv, it is still less than 2.1 megapixels. If you’re “only” using a three megapixel camera you can still output it to an HD video and have some pixels left over. That is very good news!

How To: First of all, you’ll need a camera that is capable of doing TLP. Now would be a good time to dust off your camera’s instruction manual to find out. Most digital SLRs are capable, but I doubt the point-and-shooters can do it. Note that some cameras call this the “Interval” feature. Also, you’ll need a tripod; the bigger and heavier, the better. I used my lightweight $40 tripod for the examples below, but they were shot indoors where there is no wind.

The hardest part is setting up the shot. Well, to some degree, that’s the only part, but… As expected, different camera models offer differing levels of control for setting up TLP. Each camera should allow you to set the following key features: number of shots, time between shots, and when to start. Depending on your environment (and if you have any control over it) you will also want to check the following settings; these will be explained in detail shortly: Focus, Drive Mode, White Balance, ISO, Instant Playback, battery life, and memory card space.

Examples: The video below shows my first two attempts at TLP. Full description following.

Having never done this before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. For the first shot, I told my camera to take a picture every 30 seconds for an hour, then I set it on my tripod and pointed it out the window. I set the focus to manual and adjusted it accordingly. Additionally, I turned off the image playback because that will wear down the battery much more quickly. It’s best to use a fully charged battery and a memory card with plenty of space.

Ideally, the only thing changing between shots should be the subject. You don’t want the camera settings (e.g. the focus) to be different from one shot to the next. For that reason, the more things you can set to manual mode, the better.

On my second attempt I set the time between photos to a full minute to get more variance from one frame to the next. All the other settings were the same as the first setup. If you look closely, you can see airplanes flash in a few frames. This is because they flew by as my camera took the picture. It serves as a good reminder of the sort of thing you can use TLP for. Planes are fast-moving objects, thus they don’t work well in time lapse.

After those two, I decided to do one that looks more professional. I wanted to do it in a controlled environment –something where there would be no variables. For that, I turned to my closet. Very “professional” indeed =) Cue the video…

I spent about half an hour setting up this shot. The clock is on a cardboard box, the camera on a tripod next to it. I turned on the overhead light, and I also set up a clip-on light. Once I closed the door to my closet the lighting would be consistent; that’s exactly what I wanted. Since the lighting wouldn’t change, I set everything on my camera to manual. Focus, drive mode, white balance, and ISO. This means that every picture will have the exact same exposure. That also raises the stakes because if one picture has a bad exposure, they all do.

Once everything was set, I hit start, closed the door, and went to bed (makes for a long night’s work =) Eight hours and 480 pictures later, it was time to upload them. As I mentioned above, the editing part of TLP is beyond the scope of this tutorial. In short, you will need to use a video editing or motion graphics program to string all the photos together as a video. I used Adobe After Effects in my examples. Refer to your software’s Help files to find out if it can do this sort of thing.

There is one thing that has left me baffled. A few frames in the video appear brighter than others –a subtle flare if you will. This is most noticeable right around the 10 second mark. Despite everything being on manual in a controlled environment, I still found these minor variations in a handful of the pictures. It’s nothing I couldn’t fix easily in Photoshop, but still, I have no idea why it did that. My only guess is that it is some random fluctuation somewhere in the process. Either inside the camera, or perhaps a voltage change in the outlets powering the lights.

Advanced Techniques: For a truly amazing shot, you can set your camera on a very slow-moving motion control device. This will show not only the motion of the subject, but add interest by having the camera angle change throughout the shot. Motion control devices are ridiculously expensive (several Ks), by the way.

Fortunately, you can fake the effect of of a motion control device without spending so much as a dime. Once you have strung your video together, use the video software to zoom in as the sequence plays. If you’re working with large images, you can pan/scroll through the video as well. Simply set a Scale or Position keyframe at the beginning of the video, and then a different one at the end. Granted, the effect is somewhat limited, and it won’t change the perspective as a true motion control shot would. It’s still fun to play with. This effect was used in the clock example above.

For the literally out-of-this-world shot, you can team up with the guys at NASA and do a time lapse shot of the earth from a satellite. =) I saw this effect on the Planet Earth series. They showed Antarctica from space as it doubles in size in the winter (because the surrounding water freezes). How they pulled the shot off simply blows my mind! They had to have a satellite snap a photo from the exact same position every day for several weeks. If you’ve seen the shot you know what I’m talking about. It’s simply a-mazing!

Lessons Learned: Have fun with it! Fortunately, that comes easily. The most important thing here is just to make sure you spend enough time setting up the shot. If you do that right, you shouldn’t have any surprises in the end. Don’t rely solely on the motion to make it look cool, do your best to frame the shot just like you would with any other photo. Just because it’s processed differently doesn’t mean you can’t apply everything you know about photography –it all works together!

That’s what I know. Now show me what you’ve got! =)

2 thoughts on “Time Lapse Photography [tutorial]

  1. I’m very interested in the subject. Have you ever tried some DIY slow moving kit? I agree the real stuffs are ridiculously expensive. I have heard some $300 star telescope can be rigged to house DSLR and becase their automatic star navigation moves ever so slowly, it can be “tricked” as slow moving time lapse photos…

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