10 Pro Motion Control Time-Lapse Tips

10 Pro Motion Control Time-Lapse Tips

As I’ve been documenting landscapes and cityscapes with time-lapse photography the past several years I’ve learned some key lessons, many times the hard way. If you’re new to time-lapse here’s a quick definition from my eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension – Time that discusses slow shutter & video techniques:

Time-lapse videos are produced when hundreds of sequential images are displayed in rapid succession. The line between still photo and video is directly tied to how the human visual system works. Images are retained in our visual memory for roughly one-fifteenth of a second.1 As a result we can differentiate still photos when they’re played to us at a frequency of 10-12 images per second (video lingo being frames per second or fps). Standard video playback frequencies are 24 and 30 frames per second, both of which easily fool our visual system, via the Phi phenomenon, into seeing continuous motion versus still images.

To save you the hardship of enduring the same mistakes I’ve made over the years here are 10 motion control time-lapse tips to get you shooting like a pro including some gear recommendations.


1. Setup Early
To avoid a last minute rush or worse yet missing fleeting lighting conditions be sure to setup early.  If you’re rushed you’re bound to make careless errors and even put your gear at risk of falling. It pays to take your time, arrive early, carefully setup, review your setup and take a test sequence if time permits. This is a sure fire way to make sure that your actual shoot goes to plan.

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2. Compose Anticipating Subject Movement
Anticipate the movement of your subject(s). Time-lapse subjects really shine when you take the time to anticipate not only where your camera will move, but where elements in your frame will move during a sequence. Clouds, water, traffic, people, etc. will have a line of movement if you take the time to carefully observe the scene you’re going to photograph you can compose your frame to maximize the impact of this movement. Here again having the necessary time on hand, not rushing, will be advantageous for you to properly evaluate your subject(s).

3. Know Your Move
“The move” is the line of movement your camera will take on a motion control system as your time-lapse sequence runs. As you setup a shot be sure you evaluate the scene and your surroundings to find a move that will highlight your subject best. At the same time be sure that during the sequence your setup won’t be put in harms way during the move either by passing pedestrians, vehicles, losing balance & falling, etc.

_MG_9494-600c4. Variation
Vary the direction of your moves (left to right, right to left, down to up & up to down) and even consider capturing video at a normal 24 or 30 fps. Having a variety of footage will allow you to edit together different sequences with enough variation that your audience won’t find the editing predictable while providing opportunity for smooth transitions between scenes.

5. Know & Read The Weather
As with still photography the most interesting conditions often come about from bad weather (see Make the Best of Bad Weather). Capturing sequences of bad or changing weather can be quite dramatic. To do this the first step is to monitor the weather in the area of your shoot. Time your shot when transitioning weather is most likely to happen. On the flip side since many motion control rigs contain metal, monitoring the weather can also help you say safe by avoiding conditions where lightning might be a possibility.

6. Be Organized Don’t Forget Anything
One best practice I like to follow is to carry the little things that can make or break a shoot. Murphy’s Law always has a way of tripping up a photographer so I like to travel very well prepared even if it costs me in having a heavier bag. Items I carry with me include tools (ex small hex wrench set), extra batteries, extra screws, backup equipment such as an extra camera body & lens, lens clothes, levels, rain covers, filters, etc. There are some very versatile bags out there to help carry these “little” things.  See In Pursuit of the Ideal Time-lapse Camera Bag: Gura Gear Bataflae 32L for the bag I’ve chosen.

7. Choose the Right Equipment & Lenses
Trial and error with gear can be costly both in time and money if you’re not careful. In most instances I shoot with lenses of a focal length ranging from 15mm to 50mm, but for some shots I’ve been known to use a 70-200 or 300mm lens… it all depends on the subject. (see What lens do you use for your Landscape photographs?) When it comes to hardware and software specific to motion control time-lapse my choices are below:

eMotimo & Dynamic Perceptions Examples

8. Don’t Forget Narrative
While it’s great to highlight cool time-lapse sequences always keep in mind how your sequences will piece together to tell a story. Narrative is always important to achieve a deeper connection with your audience. A series of time-lapse sequences without narrative is merely a demo reel.

9. Faster & Higher Capacity CF/SD Cards
When it comes to CF/SD cards faster is always better. As your camera snaps off sequential images you’ll want media that will allow for the fastest write speeds possible. If your CF/SD cards are too slow then your camera’s buffer might fill up and you’ll experience lag in your sequences as your camera tries to empty its cache & write files to your card(s) before taking another photo. Note: A 300X card = 45MB/s write speed. 1X = 150KB/sec Higher capacity cards (ex. 32GB, 64GB and 128GB) will also allow you to capture numerous sequences on the same card.  Use of such cards will also allow you to focus on your subject and less on juggling cards. While some worry use of high capacity cards puts you at greater risk for data loss I’ve yet to experience an issue and chalk this up to regular formatting after downloading images off the card(s).

10. Know Your Time
Don’t lose track of time or mis-calculate sequence times as it can result in the loss of a sequence or keep you tied up for extremely long periods of time. There are now several time-lapse apps for mobile phones to help even the most fatigued photographer get the right sequence calculations. When all else fails once can always revert to the simple use of a calculator

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

Some Older Comments

  • David June 4, 2013 02:57 am

    Hi there,
    I am hoping to purchase a good timelapse rail and controller though I am unsure which product/s to go for in the UK. I have looked at the dynamicperception bundle which looks amazing though getting this all shipped from the US and any technical problems or replacements could be a nightmare. Could you guys recommend something equally as good within the UK market that you may know or have heard of.
    Any feedback would be greatly unappreciated.

  • Nick April 23, 2013 05:00 am

    Great Article! I'd also like to let people know about the camBLOCK Adventure motion control system. We're launching it this summer and have already gained a lot of attention via Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/camblock/camblock-adventure-timelapse-with-pan-tilt-dolly

    One of the really cool features we have is interleaved time-lapse mode: You can shoot multiple time-lapse sequences at the same time thanks to our true motion control!

  • Paul Plak April 20, 2013 06:30 pm

    I think you should tell a little more about how we can do time lapse photography with simple equipment, like just a fixed tripod and a DSLR. I'm willing try, but will not invest in equipment before being convinced I like this kind of video-photography. I already do a lot of panaoramas and some HDR, and this may be a next step. So what would be recommended settings for the camera : recommended timing interval, recommended duration, recommended settings (manual exposure ?, camera speed ?). How many pictures do we really need ?Do you go for full resolution of save some memory space by going smaller ? How do we go about in Lightroom (or other software) to ensure they all get the same result (is synchronizing the developement settings sufficient or do we need to do more steps) ? How do we assemble the images into one video file ?

    I find your comments excellent, but they do not give an easy startup for those who haven't done any time lapse yet. OK that was'nt exactly the subject you announce in your title, but I'm curious by now having read you ! Thank you for your article, if you can answer some of my questions, that would be great ! Maybe you have some links to a beginner time-laps page ?

  • aaanouel April 20, 2013 02:48 am

    Very nice article, now I know how they/you make so wonderful scenes.

  • Jeff E Jensen April 19, 2013 11:24 pm

    I love my Stage Zero from Dynamic Perception. Would love to add the emotiomo to the collection!

    Here's one of my most recent.


    Time to get out and shoot some more.

  • David Sargent April 19, 2013 10:59 pm

    I just got my Glidetrack and can't wait to test it out with a timelapse!

  • Kevin April 19, 2013 01:07 pm

    I love watching timelapse videos especially night time ones, it really gives you a different perspective on our wonderful world. I've only tried one making one so far but when I have time I would like to try more. These seem to be tips for more professional types of videos but still great ideas.


  • Jim Patterson April 19, 2013 11:13 am

    Great article, Jim! And thanks for the links to your recommended gear. I've dabbled with timelapse, but haven't stepped up on the motion gear. I especially liked the tip about having a narrative and thinking about how a specific clip will fit into the bigger picture.

    Jim Patterson