Drones can capture images and footage you might have only dreamed of in the past. Now that ability is easily extended to time lapse photography.
I prefer to refer to my drone as a flying camera. While there is certainly some fun to be had in the simple joy of flying around and looking at stuff from high up, I use my drone primarily to create images and footage with an eye toward cinematic appeal. Time lapse imagery can convey a sense of place that still images and videos lack.
This post is written based on experience with the latest model DJI Mavic 2 Pro. While manufacturers differ how they handle time-lapse creation, the tips below are meant to introduce you to what’s available. Some tips will be specific for this model but I will also offer more tips for aerial time-lapse creation in general.
Some drone manufacturers will compile the time lapse video for you while others simply record each individual photo, allowing you to compile the video yourself.
It’s important to note that all experimentation and practice should be done in an open space, away from people, buildings, pets and in accordance with all laws and regulations for your location. I practiced over land many, many times before I felt confident using the automatic modes for time lapses over water.
Tips Before Getting Started
Check exposure and anticipate
Changing exposure during a timelapse shoot, be it on land or in the air, is often a tricky endeavor. I suggest, when getting started, to anticipate your lighting situation and not attempt to change exposure during a timelapse shoot if your drone allows it.
It can be difficult to make exposure adjustments depending on your brand of drone (and some don’t allow it at all) – it’s hard enough to safely fly a drone while shooting. Try not to add too much complexity on top of that.
Try different interval timings and drone speed, 2 seconds is a lot different than 10 seconds
The speed of your drone, distance to objects and the length of your interval will have a large impact on your time lapse. There’s a reason DJI limits the speed of the drone in certain modes (explained below) to 4.5MPH. Anything faster than that and the video shows way too much motion to be palatable.
But if you’re flying slow, a 10-second interval might be ideal for helping show the movement of slow-moving clouds or shadows.
Let me show you the difference between a 2-second interval (at 1.6MPH) and a 5-second interval (at 4.5MPH) while a drone circles me.
It’s going to take some experimenting to get it right.
Look at your total time to create
DPS writer, Ryan Chylinski, explains the importance of shoot length in this helpful post. When flying a drone, it’s even more important to make sure you don’t run out of card space and that you judge the movement of your drone compared to the total time it will take to shoot your time lapse.
Will you cover too much ground? Will your drone still be in line-of-sight (which most countries require as part of drone flying regulations)? What obstacles might your drone encounter when flying that long?
Plan ahead to avoid simple mistakes.
Point one way, film another
Facing one direction while flying another can offer a dynamic look to your video, rather than simply flying straight ahead. You can use a backward facing drone to get a typical pull-back shot or point slightly off of perpendicular for a dolly shot, such as the sunrise below.
Leave yourself time to return home
Do you have enough battery to shoot and return?
This is one of the most important question to ask. Some drones will warn you, but some won’t.
I had a frightening experience when I misjudged distance and return time while shooting a time lapse over water and nearly lost my drone (and polluted the environment). Midway through the flight I aborted the shoot and returned with a safe margin of battery, but I lost the shot.
Work altitude shifts into your scene
Altitude shifts are a like using a typical slider, but on steroids. You’re not limited to the four or 10 feet of a ground-based slider so the changes can be over a much larger distance. You also don’t need to stay moving parallel to the ground the whole time.
Here’s a simple example of a pullback that covered about 1000ft over land/water while steadily climbing 140ft in altitude.
Using a pre-built, computer-controlled mode, like the ones mentioned below, help ensure smooth flight and operation. If you are controlling your drone manually while shooting a time lapse, ensure that your movements are slow and steady, allowing for your camera to shoot enough photos for a smooth video.
Here’s an example of what happens when I panned down then up too fast while shooting.
Result: Ruined video. Also, to my liking, the pan left and right are too fast.
DJI’s different methods – What do they mean?
DJI fits all of their time lapse modes into a section it calls Hyperlapse. Hyperlapse is just a cool sounding phrase meaning a moving time lapse. The Hyperlapse modes will all shoot and compile the video for you, typically in 1080p and 25 frames per second. You can also choose to save the individual RAW files if you wish to use your own time lapse software.
Safety Note: While the drone uses its side, front, rear, top and bottom sensors to detect objects, it still requires your attention at all times. If it finds an object in its path, it will stop shooting. It is very important to remain in control of the drone and ready to intervene. In Course Lock and Waypoints modes, if you make any adjustment to the controls of the drone, it will exit those modes and stop shooting.
Course lock is the mode I use most often and it’s the one I’m going to start with. It allows you to aim the drone in one direction for flight and then either point the camera any way you like, or choose a subject to be tracked.
You start by setting course and then the interval, video length and speed. Each item is set by first tapping it and then moving the slider accordingly.
Setting the course is as simple as pointing the drone in the direction you wish to go and tapping the lock icon next to interval, video length and speed. In this case, I pointed the drone directly at the sun. The little image of a lock means my course is locked.
Next, you’ll want to point the drone’s camera in the direction you want to film. Then adjust the shooting settings.
In this example, I left the interval at 2 seconds but then set the video length to 15 seconds.
With that change to video length and interval, the app shows me how many photos it will take and the length of shooting.
After that I set the speed to 3.4MPH.
All that is left is to hit GO and watch the scene unfold! (Notice the course lock section still shows the drone’s intended direction toward the sun.)
Free Mode is straight forward and gives you the most control. After setting the shooting interval and video length as you would in Course Lock Mode, you are free to fly any which way you please. Up, down, backward, forward, left and right.
But be warned: fast course changes or high speeds will cause your video to be anything less than smooth.
At any time you can press the C1 button (on the underside of the controller) to lock course and speed.
As Free Mode can be used while the drone is on the ground, you can actually use it as a still camera for time lapse.
As you saw in the videos up top, choosing your speed and interval is important for Circle Mode.
Start by setting the distance from your subject for your drone. Ensure the circle your drone will subscribe in the sky does not encounter any obstacles. If need be, adjust your drone’s height or distance from your subject to achieve the framing you desire.
Next, select Circle Mode from the Hyperlapse options.
Now set your interval, video length and speed as described in the Course Lock Mode. Then select the direction your drone will fly; either clockwise or counterclockwise.
Above these settings, the program will tell you how long the shoot will take and how many frames will be shot. In the example, that will be 5 minutes and 48 seconds to take 175 frames.
Most importantly, choose your subject! You do this by drawing a box on the screen by pressing and dragging until it highlights your subject.
Press GO and your drone will start snapping and moving. When it is finished, you will see a screen as the drone creates (synthesizes in DJI speak) the video.
In the example above, you will notice the path the drone took, which is a very pretty circle (with my initial flight path to get the drone in place mixed in). All Hyperlapse modes require this video synthesizing and the length of time depends on the number of shots. Until video creation is complete, you cannot take any photos or video, but you can fly the drone as normal.
Waypoints Mode is a bit trickier to work than the others, but offers a lot of control and unique results.
After selecting Waypoints Mode you will set your interval and video length as the other modes. You will then set the waypoints your drone will fly. You can set up to five waypoints and a minimum of two.
To do this, fly to the first waypoint, orient your view as you like and press the + symbol in the Hyperlapse tray at the bottom of the screen to lock that waypoint. Continue this method, flying to each waypoint and pressing +.
In this example, I have set two of my five waypoints and will continue adding until all five are set. The map on the left side shows each waypoint with a number and the direction the camera will face.
When you are finished plotting each waypoint, you have the choice to fly the waypoints in order marked or in reverse. If you choose “In Order”, the drone will fly itself to the first waypoint and begin. Otherwise, the drone will begin at the last waypoint selected and fly backwards (but will pay attention to your selected camera orientation for each waypoint).
While the drone flies, you will see the waypoints on the map along with a timer showing how long the drone has been flying and the total time it will fly the route. Next to that is the number of images taken followed by the total images to be shot.
Course Lock while facing perpendicular to flight path
Course Lock while flying backward
Course Lock while flying backward with an upward pan for clouds
Time Lapse videos from a drone offer a unique and sometimes challenging option. They take planning not only to consider the subject matter and lighting, but also for the safe operation of your drone while it is taking photos.
Each mode offers different options and it’s best to play with them in a safe environment to get the hang of what you can accomplish.
Have fun and post some examples as you try out this technique. I’d love to see them!