How to make Time-lapse videos | Chris Bray Photography
phone chris bray photography email chris bray photography
chris bray photography on instagram chris bray photography on facebook
jonathan ives
Tutorial by Jonathan Ives

How To Take Time-lapse Videos


Ever wished you could speed up time? Well now you can, thanks to the endless creative possibilities of 'time-lapse' photography. A time-lapse is a short video created by stitching together a sequence of still photos taken one after another, using movie creation software. Each individual still photo becomes the equivalent of a 'frame' in the movie. When these frames are put together, usually at a rate of around 24 frames per second, the collection of still images appears transformed into a moving scene.
what you need to shoot time lapse videos
This technique has been utilised by documentary makers for years to display dramatic cloud movements, sunsets or the opening of a flower, all 'sped up' into just a few seconds. This tutorial will help you create your own in five easy steps!

What you need:
  • DSLR Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote Timer (VERY helpful!)
  • Movie making software (such as the free download 'time-lapse assembler')

1) SELECT YOUR SUBJECT

Ask yourself what your resulting video is trying to show. Are you shooting a wide scene or a tight scene? If you're shooting a wide scene, for example a sunset or the movement of the stars, think about what particular elements of the scene interests you, which bits are going to move or change, where are they going to go etc. Try and compose your photo with these elements in mind, and give space for things to move into.

2) SET UP AND COMPOSE YOUR SHOT

In order for a time-lapse to work, your camera must remain completely stationary for the entirety of the shoot. This ensures your composition is absolutely identical frame by frame and the only movement captured is the movement that occurs over time within the scene itself. Setting your camera on a tripod is therefore a must.

time lapse scene
Ensure nice composition
Composition: Make sure you pay attention to basic composition considerations, like a straight horizon. This will save you literally hours in post processing. Since a time-lapse is a movie resulting from lots of (nearly) identical still frames, if your horizon isn't straight you will have to straighten hundreds of images on the computer. Think of all those creative time-lapses you could be out shooting in the time it takes you to fix crooked horizons! It's definitely worth taking an extra 30 seconds to level your tripod at the time!

In terms of composition and framing, try to construct your still image as you would if you were taking a stand-alone photograph of the scene. For example include something in the foreground to give the scene some depth and use helpful composition techniques like the 'rule of thirds'. Good composition will ensure your final movie is pleasing to the eye. If shooting a landscape scene, align the horizon along one horizontal third and try and have your point of interest, such as a setting sun or a boat coming into port, moving across another third of the image. Positioning the camera so that something forms a 'leading-line' entering from a corner of the shot, guiding the viewers eye into the scene also helps aesthetics.

Having something solid in the foreground that will remain stationary for the entirety of the shoot will help contrast and accentuate the movement of the scene in the final video. Buildings, structures and rocks are good options to include in the foreground. Objects which move a lot, such as bushes or trees, don't often look as pleasing when sped up into a short movie as their jerky movement often distracts from the main focus. That said, we all know rules are made to be broken and having a moving object such as a tree in the foreground can sometimes be used creatively to capture the concept of movement or breeze.
mf for time lapse photos
Lock Focus with MF

CHOOSE YOUR CAMERA SETTINGS

The scene and the subject should ultimately determine which settings you use for your camera. However, I've included some essential non-negotiables below, as well as a few basic tips on selecting settings. The goal is to blend together a series of similar still frames into a movie, with the only change frame to frame being the movement of your subject or the gradual evolution of light. It's therefore absolutely essential that your camera settings remain the same throughout the entire shoot, not suddenly glitching to a brighter camera setting etc.

The drive mode doesn't matter much as your remote timer will tell the camera to take one photo at a time at your desired interval. You may as well leave this on 'Single-shooting'.

Set your camera to shoot JPEG images, rather than RAW files, for ease of post processing in video software and for smaller file sizes - remember you'll be taking possibly hundreds of photos.

Lock your lens focus by selecting manual focus. This will prevent your camera from continually searching for a new focus point each image it takes and therefore ensures each image is identical. The best way to do this is to start with your camera on Auto Focus (AF) then half press the shutter button to autofocus on something about 1/3 of the way into the shot (as this will maximise your depth of field). Once your camera finds focus, you can release your finger and flick the AF/MF switch on your lens to MF. Providing you don't twist the focus ring, the lens will now stay locked at that focus.

manual mode might be handy for time lapse
Use Manual Mode
Shooting in Manual (M) Mode. Generally speaking, Manual mode is reserved for occasions such as this, when you (the photographer) want 100% control over how the photo is taken and don't want any help from the light-meter to set exposure etc. As mentioned above, in time-lapse photography you want your camera's settings to be stable and consistent, even as available light gradually changes. This ensures the movie created at the end appears smooth and consistent. Without taking this approach, part way through your sequence, the camera may dramatically change its calculated settings to cope with changing light and the resulting time-lapse will have a sudden shift in brightness and look glitchy. For this reason other shooting modes such as Aperture mode (Av or A) or Shutter mode (Tv or S) are not suitable. Keeping the settings stable in Manual mode allows the viewer to see interesting patterns emerging in the resulting video, such as the brightening of the scene as the moon emerges, or subtle darkness which falls as a cloud drifts across the sun. The only downside to locking your settings like this is that it may not be able to cope if the scene brightness changes too dramatically (ie from bright daylight to full-on night-time) - you'd find that the ends of the sequence become too over or under-exposed. More on this later.

To get to Manual mode, turn the mode dial on the top of your camera to 'M'. You (the photographer) will now need to select the aperture (f-stop) value, the shutter speed and the ISO all by yourself. The good news is that the camera can help you select the right settings! Read on...

How do I know which settings to choose? The amount and type of available light will ultimately determine your choice of settings. The settings required to correctly expose a night scene, for example, will differ dramatically from a midday scene.

The easiest way to select your manual settings is to take some test shots using your camera in Aperture mode (Av). Point at the scene using a high f-value, somewhere over f/16 (see below) if shooting a wide scene. Have your ISO relatively low, somewhere around 400 (see below) and take a quick note of the shutter speed settings subsequently calculated by the camera. You can try adjusting your exposure compensation to 'over expose' and 'under expose' the scene to your liking, making a quick note of the final settings you're happy with. This will give you a great starting point for selecting your own manual settings.

Larger f-number (for large depth of field). More often than not, a time-lapse is of a large, wide 'landscape' scene. A large depth of field (making everything is in focus) is usually desirable when shooting such a scene. In order to achieve a large depth of field, a large f-number (aperture value) is required. A value above f16 on a wide-angle lens generally means the majority of scene will be in focus. The added bonus of a larger f-number is that point-lights, such as the sun or street lights, will often turn out with a 'starburst' effect, which can be pleasing to the eye.

Lower ISO (for better image quality). The higher the ISO value, the more 'noise' or graininess the image will contain. Try and minimise this if possible. Since you're shooting on a tripod, your shutter speed can be a little slower than if you were attempting to hand-hold the shot so there usually isn't a great need to use high ISO values when shooting a time-lapse. Aim for something around ISO400 or lower ideally.

wb setting
Lock in White Balance
Set your white balance: Using automatic White Balance is convenient for most shooting occasions. However, as discussed previously, when shooting a time-lapse we want each frame to be absolutely consistent and each photo to have exactly the same look and feel. Therefore you will want to nail down a single, consistent White Balance setting which is appropriate to the scene, so that the Whit Balance doesn't change by itself part way through. Have a little play around with some sample shots first, using different White Balance settings, and choose one you like. Generally speaking 'sunlight' works well for daytime scenes, or if shooting a sunset/sunrise, selecting 'cloudy' or 'shade' makes the image extra warm / red which can be pleasing.

Shutter Speed: You don't want your shutter speed to be too slow (unless you're going for a smooth blurry movement effect perhaps), but as mentioned you can get away with a bit slower than normal because you're shooting on a tripod and movement blur (when you join all your images together in a movie) will be far less noticeable than when viewing each individual still photo as a stand alone.

What if the scene is going to change? If you're shooting a sunrise or sunset the available light will change dramatically in a short time, meaning you will only get 'correct' exposure for part of your time-lapse sequence. That's totally acceptable as everyone knows sunset gets darker over time and the viewer will be expecting it. It actually creates great effects and draws the viewer in, as if they were standing watching the sunset right beside you. The trick is to try and anticipate 'correct' exposure when the sunset is at its most colourful. Simply by trial and error I've worked out that if I start to shoot a sunset time-lapse using the settings [ISO400, f/20, 1/25] more often than not 'correct' exposure for the scene will coincide with the sun being at its lowest. Getting this exactly right is partly luck, but if you're super keen to get it exactly right, go out the evening before, point your camera at the sunset and make note of which settings it calculates for you. Write these down ready for setting your manual mode the following evening. Of course the minutes prior to this time of day, when the sun is higher and brighter, will probably give you slightly over exposed photos. Don't be put off by this, what you're trying to capture is the obvious change in light and colour in the sky over time. If you used anything other than Manual mode, the camera would automatically shift settings every so often as the scene darkened to try and always bump the photo up to 'correct exposure' / 'mid-brightness', which isn't natural and creates these sudden brightness changes in the final video.
time lapse series

4) SHOOT YOUR STILLS

So, with all this in mind (likely using the help of your camera in Av or Tv mode first), switch over to Manual (M) mode and dial in your selected f/#, shutter speed, ISO and white balance to 'correctly' expose a still photo. Note that while in manual mode you can still have a look at what used to be your 'exposure compensation indicator' but which now basically shows you how under, correct or over exposed the camera thinks the shot will be at the moment using the settings you've dialled in. Take a few sample shots to double check you're happy with the composition and the exposure. Perhaps take a second to have a look at your histogram, just to double check. Now you're just about ready to start shooting your stills.

Some quick calculations: Depending on the scene you've decided to shoot, you need to decide how regularly you want the camera to take the still images and how many images you wish to capture in total. This will also impact how long your final time-lapse movie will be.

Most movies run at about 24 still frames per second. If you wish to have your time-lapse video go for say 10 seconds (don't make it drag on too long and slow), you will therefore need to take a total of 240 still photos (24 stills multiplied by 10 seconds of video = 240 still photos).

Now calculate how regularly you wish your camera to shoot the individual still frames. If you'd like your time-lapse to show an hour of real time in that 10 second video, you simply divide 1 hour (3600 seconds) by 240 frames/second = 15 second intervals between stills. This means you will need to take a photo every 15 seconds for a whole hour, giving you 240 individual photos, and thus 10 seconds of video.

The alternative option is to choose your own shooting interval. The shorter the interval between the still photos, the smoother the resulting video. This is sometimes desirable, particularly if you're trying to capture a dramatic and quickly moving scene like a thunderstorm. Taking a photo every 10 seconds, for example, means you will shoot a total of 360 frames in an hour of real time (3600 seconds of real time divided by 10). At 24 frames per second, these 360 frames will result in 15 seconds of time-lapse video. (360 / 24 = 15).

One final example: My time-lapse videos below were all shot at an interval of 5 seconds to ensure cloud movement was smooth. Taking a photo every 5 seconds meant that I shot 720 still photos in one hour of real time (3600 real time seconds divided by 5 = 720 stills). 1 hour of real time would therefore be compressed into 30 seconds of time-lapse video (720 still frames divided by 24 frames per second = 30 seconds of video).

time lapse timer
A timer helps.
Do I need to keep pressing my shutter button? Well yes, you would, if you didn't have a remote timer control, which I'd almost consider essential for shooting time-lapses. These devices allow you to choose how often your camera takes a photo, and means once set up and started, you can go grab yourself a drink or have dinner while the camera does its thing. These really are great to have in your kit anyway as they are very helpful for low light shooting when you want to ensure your camera stays absolutely still even when pressing the shutter. They are also really helpful for shooting creative photos like star trails. Each camera brand has its own form of remote, and the plugs sometimes differ between different models of the same brand of camera, so ensure you're getting one that fits your camera.
michron
Or, program a tiny 'Michron' box!
You could either get a full-on remote timer with all the bells and whistles that fits many Canon DSLR's, or you can find cheaper knock-offs on E-Bay, or a 'Triggertrap' that lets you connect your camera to your smartphone with a free app that handles timelapses for you (but you need to leave your smartphone connected), or best of all, consider getting a 'Michron' instead! These amazing little $59 boxes can be pre-programmed using your smartphone to do all kinds of photo series, then disconnected from your smartphone, and just left connected to your camera, neatly slotting into your camera's hot-shoe. Pretty cool! We've actually supported these guys ever since their product was under development, helping fund their kickstarter project!

It is still possible to shoot a time-lapse without a timer, but you would then need to stand by your camera for about an hour, pressing the button manually, unless the scene is dark enough such that you can manage to get correct exposure using a sufficiently long shutter speed (such as 5 or 10 seconds). This can be helped by using the lowest possible ISO and largest f/#. Then you don't 'need' a timer and could instead switch your camera's 'drive mode' to 'continuous shooting' and wedge the shutter button down with a pencil held down by a rubber band. This will make the camera take the photos immediately one after another, but due to the shutter speed they will already be sufficiently separated in time.
using time lapse programs
A free, simple program!

5) MAKE YOUR MOVIE!

Various movie editing software programs allows you to import a series of still photos and blend them together into a smooth flowing movie. iMovie, Quicktime Pro and Premiere are all good options, however purely for speed and ease of use we recommend a very simple FREE Time-lapse creator, called 'Time-lapse Assembler' which can be quickly downloaded.

You simply provide this program with a folder containing sequentially named JPEG images (remember to remove any initial test-shots first) and it will output a Quicktime movie. You can choose the dimensions of the video, the picture quality and the frame rate (how many frames per second). You can then import this video into whatever movie software you have and edit as you wish to create titles, etc.

Adobe Lightroom can actually put together a time-lapse video from your still photos via the 'slideshow' module. To do this, you'll first need to download a template/preset like this one and add it to Lightroom. Then make a 'collection' in Lightroom of the images you'd like to use for your time-lapse. Select the first one in the series and in the 'develop' module, edit it as you'd like. Make sure you apply the same settings to all the images in the sequence (by clicking the edited one, then shift-click the last in the sequence to select them all and click the 'sync settings' option in the develop module). Now open all the images in the series in the 'Slideshow' module. Having imported the templates (eg 24fps template) into the 'template' toolbar on the left hand side, you can now view the time-lapse and even add things like an 'identity template' (your name), music, borders etc. Once you're happy with your slideshow, 'Export Video', selecting the desired frame rate (24fps usually) and your time lapse is complete!

THAT'S IT!

Have fun! There's all kinds of creative ways people have made incredible time-lapses. One cool trick is to shoot the scene from above using a tilt-shift lens (or you can actually apply the same super-small depth of field effect later on in post-production) which makes the image (and thus your movie) look uncannily like it's all in miniature, such as this fantastic time-lapse video of Sydney (right)! The video to the left shows some of my recent time-lapses. Have a go at creating one yourself, and please show us how it turned out by uploading the video to our Facebook Page for me and others to see! That'd be awesome! Good luck, and enjoy!


Example time-lapse videos.

Toy Boats from Nathan Kaso


Chris Bray's New Year's Eve firework Timelapse

Did you find this tutorial helpful?


If so, please click the 'G+' and Facebook 'Like' buttons below to help others find it, then enjoy other free tutorials here.

Thanks!





Our Customers