Timelapse Photography Tutorial: An Overview of Shooting, Processing and Rendering Timelapse Movies

Timelapse Photography Tutorial: An Overview of Shooting, Processing and Rendering Timelapse Movies


You’ve probably stumbled upon an incredible work of time-lapse where you just couldn’t get the images and the feelings out of your head. Possibly you are fascinated by nature and the slow changes that occur over a period of time. A flower blooming, a sunset or a moonrise. Maybe it was a construction project or a cityscape at night, full of activity and production. I’m a big fan of time-lapse photography and I love seeing the amazing work that people create from all over the world.

I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned over the years as well as touch on the basics for new and intermediate DSLR photographers who might want to try time-lapse. Since there have been some great written introductions here on DPS I decided to use a few videos and screenshots from the eBook Time-Lapse Photography: A Complete Introduction (currently 20% off) instead and focus on creating a launchpad for your experiments.

We know that time-lapse is all about the capture of change in a way that we can’t normally see. But what’s really going on in the background?
Let’s take a closer look:

What is Time-lapse Photography?

Time-lapse photography is a cinematography technique whereby the frequency at which film frames are captured (aka the frame rate) is much lower than that which will be used to play the sequence back. Put simply: We are manipulating time. Objects and events that would normally take several minutes, days, or even months can be viewed to completion in seconds having been sped up by factors of tens to millions.

The best way to get a greater feel for the power of time-lapse is to watch a few. Now I know you have seen some before, (especially if you watch reality TV) but I’m not really talking about those short clips between tribal counsel elimination decisions, it can go a little deeper if we let it. What I am talking about are the compilations that really grab your attention and make you think about the world around you. The ones that give you a better understanding about how nature changes and cities work.

Timelapse – The City Limits from Dominic on Vimeo.

It’s so much more than a gee whiz editing effect. It can be used to tell a story.

The Gear You Need To Tell Your Own Time-lapse Story:

Chances are if you’ve been shooting with a DSLR camera you probably have just about everything you need to get started in time-lapse photography. Phew!

Here are the minimum gear requirements for a new shooter.

Timelapse gear

Since a stable shooting platform of anykind is so important I wanted to include a page on tripod stability.

Timelapse tripods

If you are really looking to push the limits of your creativity we’ll introduce some advanced gear to build and buy in the eBook and I wanted to be sure to include an example video a little later in this post.

Balancing Time-lapse Image Settings: Size, Quality, Space and Speed

Size, quality, space and speed; It’s nothing new if you’ve worked with digital images before but with time-lapse sequences poor planning can quickly cut a scene too short or leave you with a blinking “Card Full” message just as the sun peaks out over the mountains. There’s a lot to discuss here but if I were to boil all this down into a simple recommendation it would be this: Shoot in the highest resolution (actual image dimension) RAW format your card capacity, camera write speed and time-lapse planning will allow. RAW images will allow for non-destructive tweaking and correcting in post production (using standard or transitional editing). High resolution images will provide the freedom to crop as well as program in movement by panning, tilting or zooming into a sequence in post. Here’s a page to help you gauge the file size implications of your decision:

Timelapse file sizes

The Basics of Shooting Time-lapse

I can’t stress this enough: If you are new to time-lapse, review these basics then get out there and play. Your first few tests should focus more on experimenting with different changing subjects and a little less stress about creating a technically perfect rendered sequence (there’s plenty of time for that later). Get a few fun tests under your belt and the time-lapse bug is sure to carry you through to the next steps. After you’ve had a chance to survey the basics, we’ll walk through some specific scenarios and advanced topics.This section is obviously pretty big and pretty important but if I had to pull out only a few pages on the fundamentals of shooting DSLR time-lapse it would be this:

Composition, a.k.a. the art of walking around. Time to polish your crystal ball, look into the future and find interesting change and a dynamic scene.

Timelapse composition

Select a time-lapse interval to balance speed and flow.

Timelapse interval

Control your exposure to minimize and eliminate time-lapse flicker. The best way to explain this is a short video.

The most important concept here is full manual control. Now no worries if you are a little rusty on manual exposure. Take a look at this time-lapse exposure triangle as a refresher and be sure to lean on some other great DPS posts to hone in your skills.

Timelapse exposure triangle

The second most important exposure consideration is motion blur. Since our time-lapse images are played back-to-back very rapidly, the slight blurring in each individual photo blends together creating an added smoothness to the entire sequence. As a rule of thumb, try to keep your shutter speed under ~1/100th of a second. In order to get such a low shutter speed in daylight conditions we will probably need to use an ND filter (Like sunglasses for your camera, neutral density or ND filters reduce the intensity of light without altering its color).

Creating the Time-lapse

Compiling the images is where it all pays off. Creating your time-lapse movie from hundreds of still images isn’t very complicated, however approaching the rendering process without a set workflow can make things seem more complex than they actually are. I assure you once it’s built and you’ve run through it a few times you’ll be able to cruise through the time-lapse process. Here is the basic process in two nutshells: the first being the basic process.

Timelapse workflow

and the second being several basic rendering software workflows.

Timelapse software

Unfortunately I don’t have enough space in this post to launch into each workflow specifically but a quick time-lapse rendering tutorial search on Youtube/Vimeo or a glance through Chapter 5 for your specific software preference should take you the rest of the way.

Where to go from here?

You now have a firm understanding of the basics of time-lapse shooting, flicker prevention, and rendering. I encourage you to get out there and practice. Experience will be your best guide and the best way to gain experience is to test the limits of your understanding. In Chapter 6 of Time-lapse Photography: A Compete Introduction I’ve organized four challenges to test our planning, shooting, and processing skills. It is my hope these scenarios spark questions and a fascination on how these techniques can be applied to different situations.

We attempt:

  • An Astrolapse
  • The Time-lapse Holy Grail
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR) Time-lapse
  • We’ll also take the first step in considering how motion control devices can be used to create amazing time-lapse effects.
  • Here’s another example of some of the amzing work thats been done combining advanced time-lapse motion and exposure control.

DEUS EX HOMINE – San Francisco 3D Moco Time-lapse by Golden Gate 3D (GG3D) from Peter H. Chang on Vimeo.

With all this information under your belt are you ready to head out and capture the changing world, or is there still a little skepticism inside that you can really create something great?

Eric Warren of Matadornetwork.com posed a related question:

Do you think time-lapse should be left to the pros?

“Pros are the guys you call when you want to put a time-lapse in your car commercial. And while we tend to put pros up on a pedestal, they are often bogged down by their clients’ needs. Most commercial advertising doesn’t push the envelope of an art form.

That job often falls to the independent artists, building their own equipment, and often not giving a rat’s ass about whether their work is going to sell. Not that I want to be too demanding here, but I want to see something mind-blowing. Either something I’ve never seen before or something familiar, shown in a new way (one thing time-lapse excels at.) ….

Consider this a call to all you independent filmmakers out there ready to push the limits of one of the most striking visual art forms.”

Take some of the stuff shared here and in the book and invest it in your next clip but also throw some of it away, do your own tests and rewrite sections how you please. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are doing things the wrong way. If you are getting the results you want then that’s all that matters. Never forget that you are the artist and it’s your story.

If you need help or have further questions on anything, or just want to share some feedback or shoot the breeze, e-mail me at ryan@learntimelapse.com

It has been a pleasure sharing this information with you and I can’t thank you enough for your feedback. I would love to hear some of your stories and see some of your work and again I hope this resource has been helpful. If you are interested in learning a little more about exactly what is in my eBook take a look at this overview video.

Get Time-Lapse Photography: a Complete Introduction for 20% off at SnapnDeals (limited time offer).

Thanks again.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite time-lapse resources for continued learning:

Time-lapse and related forums:

Time-lapse Motion Control Equipment:

Astronomical data and guides to our sky:

Read more from our category

Ryan Chylinski is the author of Time-lapse Photography: A Complete Introduction and founder of LearnTimelapse.com. His philosophy centers on teaching, sharing and a continual drive to never stop learning. Ryan is also involved in promoting the open source development of photography and time-lapse motion control devices with Dynamic Perception. Their new smartphone enabled 3-axis motion control project for time-lapse and film is unlocking creative freedom like never before. With add on kits starting at $350 motion control has never been easier or more affordable.

Some Older Comments

  • David June 25, 2013 04:13 am

    This is a great article! Really good advice switching everything to manual mode. Does anyone know where I can find free stock footage, particularly timelapses for my own projects? I found this clip Cloud Timelapse from http://www.videvo.net but I can't find any more!

  • Michael April 18, 2013 09:41 pm

    I am very new to time lapse photography and my biggest problem are "hot pixels". It's a huge problem that I can't figure how to resolve :(

    I am familiar with Photoshop and working with a single raw file and especially with a JPEG, but not with After Effects or Light Room (which I don't have unfortunately).
    Before i start investing into any new software... does anyone know a simple and/or good way of removing hot pixels for time lapses?

  • Ryan Chylinski March 12, 2013 06:38 am

    Hi Richard, Sorry for the delay. Since you've got CS6 creative suite on Adobe creative cloud look into LRTimelapse for use with lightroom. Otherwise GBDeflicker as a plugin for aftereffects is amazing too. Got some new post production tutorial out soon but there are some good ones on youtube currently.

  • Richard March 4, 2013 04:09 am

    Hi Ryan thanks very much for the tutorial , and have ordered the book,I have light room and also cs6,I prefer to use cs6, would you recommend a deflicker programme or does cs6 already have it incorporated , as I am new to this I'm still looking at tutorials for post production , many thanks

  • ProjectBox December 17, 2012 06:24 pm


  • Francois G. November 2, 2012 09:04 am

    Very interesting article.

    Something rarely discussed though is long-term timelapses technics, and ways to capture pictures from a DSLR cameras during weeks/months/years without interruptions. This is mostly used to capture construction sites.

    If you would like more details on this topic or interested to write an article about it just let me know, I'll be happy to help.

    We built a product to help photographers to achieve such projects so we have quite some experience in this niche area.


  • Ryan Chylinski August 24, 2012 05:21 am

    Exactly John, I hear you. It was a noob mistake and I've learned a lot on what to include and (sometimes more importantly) what not to include in an educational video. Sorry about that. Better videos to come, I promise : )

  • John B. August 24, 2012 05:07 am

    I don't know why anyone has to put music and/or drum beats into a video when they are narrating it. It is so annoying and distracting. It added nothing to an otherwise excellent instruction.

  • Ryan Chylinski August 24, 2012 04:14 am

    Thanks for the feedback!

    It's this mesh between calm/excitement/innovation that keeps me going. When I'm out shooting time-lapse a strange thing happens: I can disconnect from my normal everyday busyness and stress, but at the same time I can connect with my surroundings in meaningful ways.

    Gooeyness aside I like slowing down, watching and taking-in a place.

    Check out this new collection from Michael Shainblum. Absolutely incredible http://vimeo.com/47911018

    @Matt The book is a downloadable PDF file and can be viewed on any device. You'll get a download link in your e-mail.

  • Matt August 24, 2012 03:52 am

    Great article. If I wanted to buy his E-book, what format do I receive it in? I've only ever bought Ebooks through Amazon and Google Play.

  • raghavendra August 23, 2012 12:32 pm

    Nice tips with the tripod and stuff
    I have seen a couple of pictures on speed lights, sunset.


  • Jeff E Jensen August 23, 2012 09:24 am

    There are some great pointers in this article. I have been working on my time lapse skills for the past few months and though I've learned a lot, I still have much to learn. It has been a fun journey.


  • Jai Catalano August 23, 2012 09:22 am

    I tried to time lapse my son's first year on this earth. From the day he was born I tried to prop him up and take a photo. Every time I ran back to the camera to snap a photo the poor little guy was slumped over on the floor. I gave up after 3 months. :)

  • Zack Jones August 23, 2012 05:23 am

    Bought the book before I finished the article. Very timely. I'm looking forward to reading the book and trying to create some timelapse sequences myself. I think I'll start with a sunrise this coming weekend.

  • Tanguero Chino August 23, 2012 05:08 am

    Great post.

    I just started experimenting with time-lapse videos. This one was done with some long exposure photos. Unfortunately, the video was down sampled and does not look as good as the original, but the idea is there.


    I need some video editing software, especially for adding titles/credits. Please add a comment to the video if you have any suggestions. Thanks for reading.

  • Ryan Chylinski August 23, 2012 04:52 am

    Great star trails photo and a cool time lapse of your night sky. +1 on the guitar work too. I'm glad the post was helpful and thanks so much for the comment.

  • John Davenport August 23, 2012 01:56 am

    Thanks for this post! I recently did my first time-lapse video as a side effect of my first star-trails photograph. Both of which you can see in this post on my site - http://www.phogropathy.com/the-stars-are-falling/

    I really enjoyed the time-lapse creation process even though my video is really pretty short I did add some of my own guitar playing as well as some iMovie fun to it.

    There are two other ones as well on my site or Youtube channel another one of the stars and a sunrise, but my favorite is probably the one I linked above.

    Anyways, thanks for the post, it's got a lot of great information here!

  • Time Lapse Italia August 23, 2012 01:13 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this article, Ryan!

    We are trying as well to spread the love for the time-lapse photography among the Italians by spreading the name of our project, Time Lapse Italia.

    We'll download your E-Book and maybe have you get a review of it on our site, for those friends who do speak English obviously!

    Take good care and good luck with it!

    Marco Famà
    Project Founder - Time Lapse Italia