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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

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Jim Goldstein
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

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