An Introduction to Time-Lapse Photography - Digital Photography School

An Introduction to Time-Lapse Photography

We have talked about time-lapse photography a couple times here on DPS. First here, and then last year we featured a photographer named Ross Ching who showcased some of his amazing time-lapse photography work. This unique use of DSLR cameras was something I’ve wanted to try, but until now, I hadn’t got around to playing with this feature. When I stumbled upon a completely new and updated version of his original project Eclectic 2.0, I decided it was time to end the procrastination and give this a shot (or many many shots).

I’ll talk more on the latest project that Ross has been working on below (video of it is below) as well as some other amazing works that can be found around the web, but first, let’s give those new to the concept a brief background on time-lapse photography.


Eclectic 3.0: The Roads Less Traveled from Ross Ching on Vimeo.

The beginnings

When did the technique originate? Many of you may have heard of Eadweard Muybridge or seen his work of a horse captured frame by frame in motion. His work preceded the celluloid film-strip we use today. Rumor has it that in order to settle a wager of whether a running horse is briefly mid-air with all four hooves losing contact with the ground, Muybridge setup a complicated rigging of 24 cameras. He used trip wires to trigger the shutters of the cameras as it strode by. Once strung together, of course, a “moving picture” was created which revealed that all the hooves do, in fact, actually leave the ground.

Today, film is typically captured at 24 or, in some HD applications, even 60 frames per second. By stringing the images together rapidly of course, you get the feeling of seamless motion. When we talk about time lapse, in contrast to what Muybridge was attempting, slowing down a real event, we are more interested in speeding up an event. Although you still string multiple images together, as in the Muybridge experiment, the difference is that you program the camera to pause slightly between each photo. You then run these frames together at a common speed, i.e. 24 frames per second. By doing this, you create the illusion of watching an event occur many times faster than it did. The first recorded use of this technique was done by the cinemagician Georges Méliès in a feature film called Carrefour De L’Opera in 1897. Of course many others soon followed.

Set your settings

To save you from hours of sitting and pushing the shutter release, many of today’s DSLRs come with interval features built right in. If your camera is missing this feature, external shutter release cables with built-in timers are also available. Better yet, you can build your own “intervalometer” for about $20.

On to the shooting… First thing you should consider is what camera settings are best for time-lapsing. It is extremely important that every image setting be exactly identical to the previous in order to avoid a seizure inducing flicker or strobe effect. No matter how smart your camera is, each frame my come out with a slightly different setting than the last. Solution? Ditch every auto setting your camera has, from auto ISO, to auto white balance, to auto exposure.

If you’re not used to the daunting M mode, don’t fret. Simply use your camera as a basic light meter. Switch to aperture priority, choose your desired aperture (for landscapes use a smaller aperture, such as f16 to provide a greater depth of field), then make a mental note of what the camera assigned as the corresponding shutter speed. Flip back to manual M mode and duplicate the settings. If you are hoping to capture the blurred movement of cars, streams or any type of motion, you might start with shutter priority and then go back to M mode. Interestingly, having images with a slight motion blur can actually increase the smoothness of your final film. If you were to view a single frame of an action film, you may be surprised to see it isn’t as crisp as a still frame from a high speed DSLR would be. For a brief explanation of why blurring simulates fluidity, sharpness simulates a stuttering effect look here.

If you are shooting a sunset or sunrise, remember to weight your exposure on the bright or dark side so that as the environment changes, your final images are still acceptable. Lastly, if you are shooting a camera with a high megapixel count, you might be better off using a lower quality jpeg setting. The highest quality setting probably exceeds any HD format and the smaller images will help ease the load on your computer when arranging your images as a sequence.

Time is on your side

Next up is deciding how many frames to take each second. A little bit of math is involved here. The guys over at Time Science explain it this way: “Consider a movie in the cinema which is normally recorded at 24 frames per second. You could create a time-lapse by recording one frame every second. When you play the movie, the frames recorded over a period of 24 seconds are played back in one second. So the recorded scene moves 24 times as fast as the real scene. One hour of recording would play back in (60/24 = ) 2.5 minutes.” The math can get tricky depending on what you’re trying to capture, so they’ve built a simple time-lapse calculator on their site here to help us out. Simply put, you may have to shoot a few hours for just a few minutes of footage, so bring a book and pack a lunch.

First time for time-lapse

Heading down to D.C., I decided to try my hand with this technique. For my first attempt, I decided to go 1 image for every 4 seconds. I found some slow moving paddle boaters that would be good test subjects. Unfortunately I didn’t lug my tripod along so I found a nearby wall to set the camera on. I tried a few different angles before turning the camera around to capture some of the passerby’s.

As mentioned above, a slower shutter speed will smooth out the final results, but I wanted to keep my shutter speed fast so as to create a chaotic feel that I find appealing. After seeing the final result, and thinking it needed a little spice, I decided to try running each image through a filter before arranging them into a sequence. I recently reviewed PhotoTools 2 and I knew that it had a built in batch tool. I chose a vintage “Holga” filter, pointed it to the entire folder of images and let it go to work. About thirty minutes later each image had a black frame and blurry smear added. If you decide to apply a filter on your images, you don’t need Phototools, of course, since there are batch features built into Photoshop as well.

Now the good stuff

Ok, I know you wanted to see how things should really be done and there are some amazing example around the web. First up is Ross Ching’s new creation “Eclectic 3.0: The Road Less Traveled“. Not only did he create a stunning film, he used some unique twists in the process. Some of his secrets are in his how-to video here. I found his technique of extremely slow panning especially interesting, as well as his use of a tilt-shift lens to give the illusion that you are viewing miniatures. If you aren’t familiar with tilt-shifting, a future DPS article is in the works.

Next up is another very cool tilt-shift time-lapse featuring the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, done by Sydney-based photographer Keith Loutit. Make sure to view this in full screen HD and it will blow your mind.

Next are some very cool videos by 599 Productions. They have some interesting shots of late night city scenes and highways.

Lastly we have a humorous video done with a slightly different stop motion technique, but it’s funny enough to include here.

Hope you enjoyed this short journey into the possibilities of time-lapse photography. Share your own finds or better yet, your own attempts at time-lapse photography.

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

  • http://lmexposures.com Leo

    thanks a million! finally an affordable solution :)

    I’m with you. I go hiking and such and can’t take a laptop with me everywhere I go.

  • http://www.vividphotovisual.com Vivid Photo Visual

    Great article, like you said there are so many subjects that work great using time-laspe. For anyone interested here is one we did over 15 days of a Virgin Atlantic 747-400 being given a complete re-spray with new livery.

    http://www.vividphotovisual.com/Clients/Virgin-AirLivery/Time-Lapse.aspx

    Vivid Photo Visual

  • cj

    check out my hurricane irene time lapse of NYC
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiuXgurYyLw&feature=channel_video_title

  • monica

    Hi, im very late to this conversation indeed – but..I have a plan and dont know how to get there..im a visual artist who usually uses hands and body…not technology… to get where im going. However I would like to create a short piece that illustrates the action painting im doing at the moment. I want to have a blurred image so that it is about movement and colour with little detail. My movement usually last only around 30 minutes or so..is there a way I can create something like this with my Panasonic DMGTZ6 and mac? A challenge for you guys – ps lovelove all the examples some great stuff (:

  • Phantastic

    I find sunsets are the hardest to shoot and learned a great deal trying to shoot them with Av settings.

    Here’s my time lapse I did and used a flicker removal filter to fix some of the problems and it worked out great.

    http://youtu.be/PR0VeYZ6k-Q

  • Doug

    great article Chas

    For all you lightroom 3 users I found a real cool slideshow preset. You can install it into lightroom that allows you to put your time lapse video with sound together in the slideshow module. you can find the plug-in at http://lightroom-news.com/2009/10/28/direct-timelapse-video-export-from-lightroom/

  • Sally

    I’m really inspired to create some time lapse movies. In fact I have done a couple already, but I still don’t know how to convert the jpg files to a movie. I have Premiere and Photoshop Elements 9 and cannot see where this is possible. I read somewhere that Quick Time Pro 7 could be used. What are most people using?
    Images shot on Canon 7D
    Hope someone can send me a reply soon.

  • tykosol

    Sally – there are ample tutorials on youtube – just plug in the search words ‘premiere time lapse tutorial’ and you’ll get results.

    I used to use premiere to assemble time lapse footage but I have since migrated to Lightroom – very nice workflow.

Some older comments

  • tykosol

    February 20, 2012 02:40 pm

    Sally - there are ample tutorials on youtube - just plug in the search words 'premiere time lapse tutorial' and you'll get results.

    I used to use premiere to assemble time lapse footage but I have since migrated to Lightroom - very nice workflow.

  • Sally

    February 19, 2012 03:19 pm

    I'm really inspired to create some time lapse movies. In fact I have done a couple already, but I still don't know how to convert the jpg files to a movie. I have Premiere and Photoshop Elements 9 and cannot see where this is possible. I read somewhere that Quick Time Pro 7 could be used. What are most people using?
    Images shot on Canon 7D
    Hope someone can send me a reply soon.

  • Doug

    January 24, 2012 08:10 am

    great article Chas

    For all you lightroom 3 users I found a real cool slideshow preset. You can install it into lightroom that allows you to put your time lapse video with sound together in the slideshow module. you can find the plug-in at http://lightroom-news.com/2009/10/28/direct-timelapse-video-export-from-lightroom/

  • Phantastic

    January 3, 2012 05:38 am

    I find sunsets are the hardest to shoot and learned a great deal trying to shoot them with Av settings.

    Here's my time lapse I did and used a flicker removal filter to fix some of the problems and it worked out great.

    http://youtu.be/PR0VeYZ6k-Q

  • monica

    November 14, 2011 01:20 pm

    Hi, im very late to this conversation indeed - but..I have a plan and dont know how to get there..im a visual artist who usually uses hands and body...not technology... to get where im going. However I would like to create a short piece that illustrates the action painting im doing at the moment. I want to have a blurred image so that it is about movement and colour with little detail. My movement usually last only around 30 minutes or so..is there a way I can create something like this with my Panasonic DMGTZ6 and mac? A challenge for you guys - ps lovelove all the examples some great stuff (:

  • cj

    September 15, 2011 12:08 am

    check out my hurricane irene time lapse of NYC
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiuXgurYyLw&feature=channel_video_title

  • Vivid Photo Visual

    October 12, 2010 02:08 am

    Great article, like you said there are so many subjects that work great using time-laspe. For anyone interested here is one we did over 15 days of a Virgin Atlantic 747-400 being given a complete re-spray with new livery.

    http://www.vividphotovisual.com/Clients/Virgin-AirLivery/Time-Lapse.aspx

    Vivid Photo Visual

  • Leo

    May 4, 2010 02:11 pm

    thanks a million! finally an affordable solution :)

    I'm with you. I go hiking and such and can't take a laptop with me everywhere I go.

  • tykosol

    May 4, 2010 01:38 pm

    I bought mine from photo-rev (http://myworld.ebay.com/photo-rev/) on EBay. I just did a search and they are still selling it for $29.00. I think it is the same for other camera models, but can't be certain of that. Although they are based in HK, shipping was surprisingly fast (about a week or so).

  • Leo

    May 4, 2010 12:41 pm

    @tykosol

    where did you get it for that low a price? phottix is showing a slightly higher price

  • TYKOSOL

    May 4, 2010 03:47 am

    Well, coming late into the discussion here, but I only paid $29.00 + free shipping for a TR-90 N10 intervalometer that works with my D90. It has worked flawlessly. I can't speak for longevity since I've only had it for 2 months, but, I have no complaints thus far. Tethering is unsuitable for my purposes since I go into the mountains and carrying a laptop or even a netbook is extra weight I can do without.

  • Gareth Harris

    January 25, 2010 05:51 am

    FREE TETHERING APP: for Nikon cameras, there is a free tethering app for macs:

    http://www.sofortbildapp.com/

  • James

    December 17, 2009 07:28 am

    A project that a friend and I worked on (Washington Huskies Football game, Tiltshiift lens time-lapse) in a 13-hour day.

    http://bit.ly/8dXx7D

    and if you'd like to comment: http://www.flickr.com/hjhart

    :)

  • Scott

    May 30, 2009 02:18 am

    most of these comments are nuts.
    Just go out and BUY a camera that has the function
    built in. There are MANY !

  • Yazid

    May 30, 2009 12:56 am

    Those wary of pulling out the circuit boards and soldering iron can try and dig up their TI-83 graphing calculators and program them to work as an intervalometer.

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Turn-a-TI-Graphing-Calculator-into-an-Intervalomet/

  • Gbenga Loveeyes Images

    May 24, 2009 03:45 am

    This is magical. I cant wait to try it. DPS good one.

  • debt improvement

    May 15, 2009 05:24 am

    This is cool. Creating movies with time lapse photography.

  • ppc keyword research

    May 12, 2009 06:18 pm

    And if you can afford it, get a tiltshift lens. Please. I am addicted to tiltshift lensrecorded videos.

  • Ian S

    May 11, 2009 05:29 am

    Yeah, I was. Thank you for that, I really love the music.

    Cheers
    Ian

  • Layo

    May 10, 2009 01:19 pm

    I'm assuming that you are asking about the music for the first video and not the third.

    Ennio Morricone - L'Estasi Dell'Oro (Bandini Remix)

  • Ian S

    May 10, 2009 04:48 am

    Cracking tutorial, I really enjoyed the video. I love the music from it, does anyone know what it is?

  • Parko58

    May 9, 2009 02:12 am

    Re DCCLARKs D40 problem. The link below will show you how to make an intervolometer. It definitely works I was out this morning with my D40 testing it out.
    You can use quicktime pro to make your film or (the one I use) istop motion both fairly inexpensive and work on macs.
    All the best

    http://timescapes.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=335

  • Scitt

    May 4, 2009 09:28 pm

    I have been researching which cameras have the time lapse function built in and
    So far I have come up with the Pentax Optio W-60 which will allow setting intervals from 10 seconds
    to 99 minutes and up to 1000 photos.
    Also Nikon Coolpix 6000, S60, and P90 offer a 30 sec minimum interval timer and up to and hour max
    I think.
    I am looking for even shorter intervals and I think Ricoh has some cameras with 5 sec built in
    interval timer but I have to confirm.
    If anyone finds out about any more compact cameras with this function built in please send me an
    email and tell me about it. 2scott@bellsouth.net repeat--- 2scott at bellsouth dot net

  • Layo

    May 1, 2009 10:44 pm

    Tarek, no it doesn't, not right out of the box.

  • Tarek

    May 1, 2009 07:02 pm

    does a sony alpha 350d allow timelapse, cse am gonna buy one soon, and i find this work really interesting

  • Rebekah

    May 1, 2009 10:17 am

    I think it was a typo when it said ditch the manual setting because that doesn't make sense. I assume it was meant to say ditch all the auto settings.

  • jtb

    May 1, 2009 05:54 am

    bd, use virtualdub to piece together your jpgs. yes, it's free and it does more than piece together images.
    time lapse is great. i didn't start playing with them until I hacked my canon with CHDK. For those canon spoint and shoot owners out there, CHDK adds more functions to your camera and it's non-destructive. you just have to put the "enhancement" on your SD card. you can do bracketing and more on it too.

  • ziad chatila

    May 1, 2009 01:47 am

    Not sure about ditching manual settings. But here are some tutorials on time lapse, as well as the two main time lapse forum sites I know.

    http://timelapseforum.com/tutorials-f17.html
    http://timescapes.org/phpBB3/index.php

  • BD

    April 30, 2009 06:00 pm

    Nice article!
    But how do you convert the series of JPGs into a video? So far I have not found a suitable (free) solution for that. Any proposals?

  • Jeremy Green

    April 30, 2009 02:12 pm

    Almost a year ago I did a little experiment in trying to combine time lapse photography with HDR.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhythmandcode/2504055527/

  • Victor Augusteo

    April 30, 2009 11:55 am

    wow, nice tutorial. can't wait to try it.

    I've read somewhere before, that auto white balance is a sure way to destroy your time lapse, as it changes the colour from frame to frame. so be careful with that (as the article says)

  • william sawyers

    April 30, 2009 11:16 am

    Thanks for the tips.

    I would rather get in to high speed photo's than elapsed time.

    But, I need a much better camera than my Kodak Z650 with 6.1 M.P

    from a children author

  • Layo

    April 29, 2009 07:57 am

    why isn't there a program for the iPhone that you can hook up to your camera and use it as an intervalometer...it certainly has the required power and capabilities in the SDK!

    anyone ever thought of this?

    I know about the program TimeLapse but it only uses the built-in camera. We need a program that could send a pulse through the sound cable ;)

  • Nathan deGargoyle

    April 29, 2009 06:09 am

    Thanks rodbotic. Just downloaded diyphotobitscom-camera-control/ and I am going to have so much fun with this. I looked at Nikons version but couldn't justify spending £1C+ so a free version that does most of what I want is a great compromise!

  • outofside

    April 28, 2009 10:46 pm

    I understand the shooting process, but what type of software is used to play back the images? I have ProShow Gold slide show software but I dont think I can adjust the speed. I have also just purchased a new Imac 24. Any software on their that would work?

  • Tysonthephotog

    April 28, 2009 10:23 pm

    hmm interesting ideas. Would there be anything technique-wise to consider for long-term time-lapse? I just planted a tomatoe plant and figure I could take a picture around the same time of day at least once or twice a week and watch it grow.

  • ehp

    April 28, 2009 08:51 pm

    Another awesome video using sort of time lapse (similar to tony vs. paul) : http://www.pinktentacle.com/2009/04/video-a-wolf-loves-pork/

  • Travel and Landscape Photography

    April 28, 2009 06:42 pm

    Just checked the Ross Ching's web-site: http://rossching.com/eclectic30/
    He was using tilt-shift lens as I said above.

  • Travel and Landscape Photography

    April 28, 2009 06:32 pm

    picklingjeff, That's actually quite easy. There are two options:
    1. Use tilt-shift lens.
    2. Blur an image using mask in Photoshop. Like in this tutorial: http://www.dimagemaker.com/2007/01/20/fake-miniature-macro-photography-in-photoshop/

    Not sure what exactly he used but definitely one of these two options.

  • picklingjeff

    April 28, 2009 12:37 pm

    Amazing videos!

    In the first video by Ross Ching, how does the photographer create the "model village" effect? This can be particularly seen about 1.30 in.

  • dcclark

    April 28, 2009 12:17 pm

    @rodbotic: Thanks, but that appears to be Windows-only -- I use OS X, but I'm quite happy with gphoto2. Now I just need to get out there with my laptop and start taking some photos! :)

  • rodbotic

    April 28, 2009 10:40 am

    @ dcclark, here is a free software version.
    I like the nikon software better, but free is always good too.

    http://www.diyphotobits.com/download-diyphotobitscom-camera-control/

  • dcclark

    April 28, 2009 10:18 am

    I actually found a solution! :)

    The solution is called gphoto2, and will run on linux/unix and Mac OS X at least -- perhaps windows as well. It takes a bit of twiddling, but will gladly control my D40 remotely. I just had some fun with shadows lengthening!

  • Earth and Sky blog

    April 28, 2009 09:10 am

    This is an excellent article. I use a Canon EOS 450D and this has given me some great ideas for time lapse photography.

  • Andie

    April 28, 2009 08:15 am

    I came across some great time lapse photography recently:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmkLlVzUBn4 - 1300 photos used

  • Travel and Landscape Photography

    April 28, 2009 07:56 am

    dcclark, try to use a USB cable and Nikon Camera Control software. With NCC you can control your camera and shoot remotely using your computer. May be you can setup a series of shots somehow, but I'm not 100% sure about that - I wasn't using NCC for quite a while but it's worth to try.

  • Ian Redan

    April 28, 2009 07:07 am

    Nice Article. Though you can use aperture priority to shoot time lapses. It's what I always use when shooting sunsets. By using Av, you keep a constant depth of field, and always get a proper exposure. I've never had any flickering in my videos by doing this. By using full manual in a time lapse of a sunset you will get a few frames before everything is underexposed.

  • dcclark

    April 28, 2009 06:40 am

    Thanks! The Pclix looks exactly right... and is also expensive. I know photography is an expensive hobby, but sadly that is a toy I can't justify buying.

    However, I am curious about hooking up my D40 to a computer. I have never seen someone run a camera like that. Anyone have any clues how?

  • Travel and Landscape Photography

    April 28, 2009 06:15 am

    dcclark, I've got a solution for you and other people with IR remote controls.

    You need to use Pclix (intervelometer device). It has IR cable that you can attach to your camera. After that you just need to program the device with intervals that you need. Voilà

    Check my photo I made with Nikon D70 (IR only) and this device.
    http://www.genkin.org/blog/index.php/2009/02/17/sydney-time-lapse-photo/
    Shot about 150 photos in between 30 mins before sunrise and 30 mins after sunrise with Pclix device.

  • Photogaps

    April 28, 2009 05:06 am

    Really need to try this out, I've seen many videos and all of them look simply cool...

  • Stephen Elliot

    April 28, 2009 04:40 am

    Great article. I appreciate the history of moving pictures that you have covered here. I wrote a similar tutorial about Time Lapse Photography here. Hopefully somebody will find it helpful.

  • alfeel

    April 28, 2009 04:23 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alfeel/3451007885/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alfeel/3450980427/

    these are my tries, hope you enjoy them! :)

  • Aamer

    April 28, 2009 03:41 am

    How should I setup my camera if the light will change during the course of shooting the pictures? for example, if i am shooting open sky just before sunset , the light reading will be at a certain level. but when the sun sets, it will be different.
    should i leave it to automatic or shutter priority?

  • A.B.C. Photography

    April 28, 2009 02:31 am

    dcclark, I'm afraid you are stuck. Almost. The only way to do timelapse with a d40 is to attach it to a computer and use a in-computer timer release.

  • Danferno

    April 28, 2009 01:54 am

    I definitely need to try out the last one lol. Even if only to convince my friends I can fly! Look extremely hard to do though.

  • Eric Mesa

    April 28, 2009 01:54 am

    awesome - I'll have to tether up my camera to the compputer and try this with the moon.

  • Will

    April 28, 2009 12:47 am

    Great post. I love the time-lapse effect. I haven't had time to do as many as I would like but here is a fun one we made last year: http://www.vimeo.com/1581690

  • dcclark

    April 28, 2009 12:46 am

    Cool article. However, I'm wondering if my Nikon D40 is stuck with regards to doing this. Not only does it not have an interval setting, but it also doesn't have a cable release -- only an IR remote. Perhaps somebody handy with electronics could whip up an "intervalometer" for that situation as well, but am I stuck?

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