Accelerate Time

“NEVER SAY NEVER.”

I absolutely love still photography. In fact, my family probably would tell you I’m obsessed with taking photographs. There’s something almost indescribable about the magic, power and expression a still photograph can convey. Every day I grab my camera and seek out an image that moves me and, hopefully, others. A few years ago, a colleague asked me if I was going to start shooting video. My initial response was, “No, I’m just not interested in video.” But one thing I’ve learned through the years as a self-employed photographer is “Never say never.” Times change, technology advances, and it’s important to evolve with the times to stay current—which is the reason why I fell in love with shooting time-lapse.

I think of time-lapse as the best of both worlds—still and video. You shoot a series of still images, which individually can be used for a powerful photograph. But you also can seam together the same sequence of still images into a powerful video, recording dramatic changes in the scene over time.

I can already hear the die-hard still shooters (like me) saying why would I ever shoot a time-lapse? What am I going to do with it? Almost every photographer likes to share slideshows of their work with friends or maybe the local photo club. Imagine starting off your Italy presentation with a dramatic sunrise over the Duomo in Florence set to a classic Italian violin score. I guarantee the audience will be engaged and anxiously waiting to see the rest of your slides from the trip.

But aren’t time-lapse movies difficult to create? And don’t you need special equipment? Time-lapse is easier than ever to create, and for many photographer, all you need is a camera and a tripod to start shooting and creating sequences.

WHAT IS TIME-LAPSE?

Time-lapse is recording frames at a very slow rate and playing back the same frames at a much faster rate. In other words, long stretches of time are played back in mere seconds. Imagine shooting photos of clouds passing overhead every 10 seconds. If you shoot 300 images, it will take you 50 minutes to capture all the stills. If you play back at a standard video frame rate of 30 frames per second (fps), those 50 minutes of stills will be shown in a 10-second video clip. The cloud movement will be vastly accelerated in the final video.

WHAT GEAR DO I NEED?

Time-lapse photography requires a camera, a solid tripod and an intervalometer. An intervalometer is a device that programs the camera to take images at certain intervals over a set amount of time. Here’s the good news for photographers today. More and more cameras are coming out with intervalometers built into the camera. Cameras from a tiny GoPro (use sequence shooting) to a full-frame Nikon have an intervalometer setting option in the menu. If you don’t have an intervalometer, then you need to buy one. Many cable releases have this function, including ones from Canon, Nikon and Vello. Once you have an intervalometer, you’re ready to calculate your time-lapse exposure.

The Dynamic Perception Stage Zero rail system set to do a time-lapse sequence of petroglyphs on a boulder near Moab, Utah.

HOW DO I CALCULATE INTERVAL TIMES?

To create compelling time-lapse movies, first you need to consider the interval time between images. Fast-moving subjects might have an interval of 1 to 2 seconds, while slow-moving subjects may require one frame every 10 minutes. Here are sample intervals to get you started.

1-3 seconds: fast-moving traffic, driving shots, crowds, busy city scenes

5 seconds: sunrise, sunset, clouds, slow-moving herds of animals

10 seconds: behind the scenes of a photo shoot

30 seconds: stars, shadows

5-10 minutes and longer: flowers blooming

Remember, these are just guidelines, and intervals should be based on how fast the subjects are moving in a scene. If you have too long an interval for fast-moving subjects, they will look jerky and erratic in the final time-lapse.

Once you’ve figured out your interval, you need to calculate the length of your time-lapse. Since I normally create time-lapse videos at 30 fps, I need 300 frames to create a 10-second clip. If my interval is every five seconds, my final exposure time would be 300 frames x 5 (interval), or 1500 seconds. Divided by 60 (seconds in one minute), this equals 25 minutes to capture this shot. For this time-lapse, I would set my intervalometer to 300 frames at 5-second intervals to create a 10-second clip played back at 30 fps.

WHAT CAMERA MODE DO I USE?

With your intervalometer set, the next step is to set your camera to take the correct exposure. For the best results, use manual mode. A common problem shooting time-lapse is flicker. Cameras often have a very minimal variance when they close down to an aperture setting, which results in a slight blinking or flickering in a time-lapse video. Eliminating flicker at the camera is much easier than trying to eliminate flicker later in postproduction. I normally choose the widest aperture I have, such as ƒ/2.8. Shooting wide open eliminates the aperture having to close down for each image and prevents flicker. Try to use a shutter speed of 1/60 or slower. Slower shutter speeds also eliminate flicker and produce a smoother video than using fast shutter speeds. I often use Singh-Ray ND filters to slow down my shutter when I’m shooting in bright conditions. I’ll use a 2-stop and even a 10-stop filter if it’s bright outside. One very important point to remember is that your interval must be longer than your exposure time. If you have a 5-second interval, but you’re shooting 8-second exposures, you’ll clip frames out of the time-lapse sequence.

Here’s how I set up my camera for a shot.

1. I program my intervalometer (in the camera or using a cable release).

2. Setting my camera to manual mode, I choose the widest aperture I have, generally, ƒ/2.8. I turn off auto settings (white balance, vignette control, etc.) and any other settings that would cause frames to differ from one another. I also turn off long-exposure noise reduction to prevent clipping images while the camera performs the noise reduction. It’s important to keep all your sequence shots consistent.

3. I focus on the subject using autofocus and then turn it off. You don’t want your camera trying to focus every frame; you might miss a few shots while the camera is trying to autofocus.

4. Using my built-in camera meter, I choose the right shutter speed and take a sample shot to check exposure. When I have the right exposure, I’m ready to start the time-lapse sequence.

Once you’ve shot a few easy daylight scenes like clouds passing overhead, the natural progression is to create a time-lapse sequence of a sunset. Or, for those who are really ambitious, try capturing a Holy Grail sequence, starting during the day and shooting until the stars are spinning above your head at night. But how do you compensate for the 15 stops or more of light change during these long sequences?

For slight changes in exposure such as during a sunset, try using auto ISO. This keeps your shutter speed and aperture consistent in manual mode, but allows the camera to change exposure using ISO. For extreme-exposure time-lapse sequences, try using a bulb ramping device such as Promote Control (promote-control.com). A bulb ramp device can be programmed to change shutter speed over time to compensate for changing light, such as going from day to night. What’s important is that the device changes exposure consistently over time, different than setting your camera to a
perture mode and letting the camera choose the shutter speed (which may vary slightly with each shot depending on conditions). Creating a time-lapse sequence of day to night will require more advanced postproduction techniques. But creating a time-lapse from a normal daylight scene is simple!

HOW DO I CREATE A TIME-LAPSE VIDEO?

Creating time-lapse sequences is easy, and you may not even need a computer to do it. I’m a Nikon shooter, and many Nikon bodies have a Time-Lapse Movie mode in the shooting menu. Similar to the intervalometer setting, this mode goes one step further and actually creates the time-lapse movie in your camera. You can watch your finished movie on your LCD as soon as you’re done shooting it. Very cool! This is the easiest way to produce a time-lapse movie. The only downside is that the file produced is a movie file, so you won’t have access to your still images if you wanted a still from the sequence.

Neutral-density filters allow you to slow down shutter speeds when shooting in bright conditions.

Another option for simple time-lapse movie creation is QuickTime Pro. This program only costs $30, and works with both Mac and Windows. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to create a time-lapse using this program. Here’s how:

1. Put all of your images in their original sequence in a folder on your desktop. If you rename your images, make sure to keep them in the original sequence. Also, if you shot in RAW, you’ll need to convert your images to JPEG or TIFF.

2. Open QuickTime Pro, and choose File > Open Image Sequence.

3. Navigate to the folder of time-lapse images on your desktop, and choose the first shot in the sequence. A popup window will ask you what frame rate you want to use in creating your video. I normally use 30 fps for my videos. Once you choose the frame rate, your video will be created. Don’t worry if the playback is a little jerky when it’s rendered.

4. Choose File > Export, and hit the Save button. The default is for your video to be saved in QuickTime Movie format, and it should look smooth once it’s saved to your desktop.

My favorite way of creating time-lapse videos is using LRTimelapse, powerful software that works in conjunction with Lightroom and offers many advantages. LRTimelapse allows you to shoot in RAW (a big plus) and do edits on the images, like increasing saturation and vibrance. Then the software applies those edits and evens out transitions, creating stunning videos. LRTimelapse also has some powerful video filters, including a blur filter to smooth out jerky time-lapse sequences. And, if you have flicker, no problem—LRTimelapse has a deflicker sequence to eliminate this nasty problem. For those photographers who want to create a Holy Grail sequence, LRTimelapse offers a workflow to create smooth day-to-night time-lapse videos. Check out their software and tutorials at lrtimelapse.com, or watch my time-lapse training video at kelbyone.com.

CAN I ADD MOVEMENT TO THE VIDEO?

Once you’ve mastered creating time-lapse videos, you may want to add a little more spice to your final video. How about adding a moving shot to your time-lapse sequence? Here are two of my favorite ways.

Radian. This device is a small circular disk that attaches between your camera and tripod. Radian is connected to your camera via a dedicated cable, and it’s programmed to slowly rotate while your camera is shooting images for your time-lapse sequence. The end result is a rotating time-lapse sequence revealing a huge panorama to your audience. Using an accessory bracket, you also can do vertical time-lapse sequences. Radian is very compact, weighs less than a pound and costs $280
(alpinelaboratories.com).

Dynamic Perception Stage Zero System. Have you ever watched a time-lapse where trees and rocks slowly drift across the screen while clouds race overhead? These time-lapses are created using a rail system where the camera physically moves during the time-lapse sequence. I use the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero rail system to create these shots. This system works by mounting a camera on a six-foot rail and programming the controller (the latest version uses an app on your phone) to slowly move the camera while the sequence is being shot. You can set the rail horizontally or with a tilted angle for more creative effects. I like to use my 14-24mm wide-angle lens and set up the rail with some rocks really close to the front of my lens. Close foreground objects move past quickly while distant subjects like clouds move at a different speed. The Stage Zero system sells for $695 (dynamicperception.com).

REMEMBER, NEVER SAY NEVER

You may not think time-lapse is for you, but once you see how amazing it looks, you just may get hooked. Time-lapse sequences are easier than ever to create, and they make a great addition to a photographer’s slideshow and social-media posts. 

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography and learn about his workshop opportunities, visit his website at tombolphoto.com.

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