If you recently went to the movies, watched TV or surfed YouTube videos, chances are good you’ve seen some time-lapse photography. Time-lapse photography is all the rage right now.
Feature films and documentaries have long used time-lapse photography to wow viewers. Remember watching the flower grow from seedling to mature plant in mere seconds in a film at school or watching the stars rotate in the night sky over a jagged Himalayan peak in a TV commercial?
Time-lapse photography used to be a complex process reserved for high-end productions, but not anymore. Today, this dazzling technique is available for any photographer, and it has never been easier. Some DSLRs even create the movie in-camera. It’s time to get out and shoot some time-lapse!
HOW IT WORKS
Time-lapse photography involves shooting a large number of frames over a long period of time and then merging them into a movie. Two hours of shooting time and hundreds of frames can be merged into a 10-second movie clip, in essence, speeding up time from hours to seconds. On the extreme end, some time-lapse photography involves shooting over the course of weeks and months, and then merging the sequence into a few brief minutes of footage.
The possibilities are very exciting. Imagine watching your next two-hour photo shoot from start to finish in a 10-second movie or seeing the transformation of light from a rosy sunset to a starry night in 30 seconds of video. See interesting clouds passing overhead? Some of the best time-lapse sequences include passing storms and interesting clouds streaking through the sky.
The gear needed for time-lapse sequences is minimal. Depending on your camera system, you may only need a camera and tripod. The third item needed is an intervalometer, which allows you to set up the time-lapse sequence. First, you determine your exposure, and then you set the intervalometer for the delay between shots and the total sequence duration. Once the intervalometer is programmed, you start the sequence and come back minutes or hours later when the time-lapse is finished.
There are two popular options for intervalometers, either in-camera or an intervalometer cable release. Camera manufacturers took note of the popularity of time-lapse photography, and a number of cameras have intervalometers built right into the camera.
I use a Nikon D4 for most of my time-lapse photography, and the camera has an intervalometer option in the shooting menu. All I have to do is set up my sequence and hit the shutter button. Nikon takes this a step further, and even offers a time-lapse movie option where the camera actually creates the movie once the sequence is complete.
Don’t fret if your camera doesn’t have an intervalometer. The other option is to buy a cable release for your camera that has an intervalometer. Similar to an in-camera intervalometer, these cable releases let you program the delay between frames and the overall time of the sequence.
SHOOTING THE SEQUENCE
Once you have the gear needed, it’s time to shoot your time-lapse sequence. Start simple; don’t go for the three-hour, sunset-to-stars sequence over El Capitan on your first attempt. Better to try a midday shot of passing cumulus clouds over your house.
The first consideration is which camera mode to use. It makes sense to use an automatic mode like aperture priority to adjust for any differences in exposure during the time-lapse. But this can cause a lot of headaches when you seam all the frames together after the shot. Flicker is a common problem in time-lapse movies, and is often caused by different exposures during the sequence.
A better choice is to use manual mode. When I shoot a time-lapse, I go manual on everything with my camera. First, I determine my exposure using manual mode so my exposure stays consistent for every shot. The ambient light in the scene may change during the sequence, but today’s cameras have great dynamic range and can handle slight exposure shifts.
Next, I focus on my subject and then turn off my autofocus. If your camera is autofocusing for each shot, it may miss frames as the camera focuses back and forth. I shoot on a tripod to keep each frame identical in composition, critical when you make your final movie. I also turn off my vibration reduction since the camera is stable on my tripod. I also set my white balance to a fixed value. Don’t use auto white balance and risk a color shift between exposures.
Once the camera is ready to go, it’s time to set your intervalometer. This can be daunting at first. What’s the right amount of time and delay between frames for your subject?
Try this formula with simple daylight scenes like passing clouds or flowing water. Set your shooting delay for five seconds between frames and an overall time of 25 minutes. You’ll capture 300 frames in 25 minutes, which will produce a 24 fps movie clip approximately 12 seconds long.
For rotating stars at night, try using ISO 3200, a 20-second exposure at ƒ/4 and a delay between shots of five seconds. Focusing at night can be difficult. Try setting your camera to infinity focus or using live view to help focus on stars. Make sure you have a fresh battery in your camera.
These shooting formulas are only the beginning. Experiment with your time between shots depending on the speed of your subject. Busy street scenes with people walking and cars driving past can be shot with a quick interval like one or two seconds. Slow-moving subjects will require a longer interval between shots.
Another consideration is what image quality to use—and your flash card capacity. If I shoot in RAW, I’ll need a bigger capacity card than if I’m shooting in JPEG. RAW images will give you better options to adjust images after the sequence, but take a lot of processing power and more hard drive space.
CREATING THE TIME-LAPSE MOVIE
Now that you have the frames shot, it’s time to make the movie. If you have an in-camera movie option, try that first. I’m amazed at the quality of the finished time-lapse movies my D4 creates. I choose the movie quality settings before shooting the sequence, and the camera creates the movie after all the frames are shot. I simply download the movie off my flash card, and it’s ready to go.
Most time-lapse sequences are created in the computer using image-editing software. There are many ways to create time-lapse movies, including advanced workflows using Final Cut Pro X and Adobe After Effects. But if you’re just starting out, two of the easiest methods are using QuickTime 7 Pro or Lightroom 4.
The quickest and easiest way to create a time-lapse movie in the computer is using QuickTime 7 Pro. This inexpensive software provides you simple control of the movie creation. To start, put all your sequence images into one folder on your desktop. Open QuickTime 7 Pro, and choose File > Open Image Sequence.
Navigate to your folder of images, and select the first image in the sequence. Click Open, and choose the frame rate for your movie. I like to use 24 fps for smooth video clips, but you can choose any frame rate you like. QuickTime 7 Pro doesn’t work with RAW images, so you’ll need to convert your shots to JPEG or TIFF. Once your time-lapse is created, you can edit and export th
e movie according to your end use.
Lightroom 4 also offers an easy way to create a time-lapse sequence, but with that added benefit of being able to batch-process RAW files to create the movie. RAW files will produce the best end result, especially if you need to adjust exposure, saturation, sharpening, etc.
My normal time-lapse workflow involves shooting the images in RAW, then importing the shots into Lightroom in a separate folder. Next, I choose one image in the sequence and do adjustments to optimize the shot. Then I select the rest of the images and "sync" these adjustments to all the shots in the sequence. Now the files are ready to be made into a movie.
To create the time-lapse movie, you’ll first need to download some presets. Sean McCormack at Pixiq (www.pixiq.com) has developed some time-lapse movie presets you can download for free. Once this is done, go to the Slideshow module in Lightroom 4. Under User presets, choose the frame rate you would like to use. Next, hit the Export Video button, which will prompt you to choose the frame rate again. Choose the same frame rate as you chose in the User presets, and hit the Save button. Now Lightroom will render your time-lapse movie, which may take a while depending on your file size.
USING ADVANCED TIME-LAPSE TECHNIQUES
Once you’ve mastered simple time-lapse movies, you may want to explore more advanced techniques. Here are two that will really spice up your time-lapse moviemaking.
The Panning Time-Lapse Shot. Have you ever watched a time-lapse movie that slowly pans sideways past rocks and flowers as the clouds whiz past overhead? The lateral movement in the shot adds a very professional look. How do you create this panning motion over hours of shooting a time-lapse sequence? You need a special motorized dolly system.
When I first saw a panning time-lapse sequence, I knew I needed to shoot one. For that task, I purchased a motorized dolly system from Dynamic Perception (www.dynamicperception.com). This company offers the Stage Zero system, which includes a six-foot track, a motorized slider and a controller with an intervalometer.
Dynamic Perception has excellent tutorials on their website, and I was up and shooting in minutes with their system. The Stage Zero not only can be set up horizontally, but you also can create vertical panning movement, as well. Imagine slowly panning past the trunk of a bristlecone pine tree as the stars rotate above. Adding movement to your time-lapse movies opens up endless creative possibilities.
The Sunset/Sunrise Time-Lapse Shot. Some of the most dramatic time-lapse movies record sunrise and sunsets. Visualize warm light slowly illuminating snowy mountains and crystalline lakes as the sun rises into the clear sky. But this scene presents a big challenge. How do you set your exposure for this dramatic shift in lighting?
REMOTE + INTERVALOMETER
Affordable and useful, the Hähnel Giga T Pro II is not only a fully programmable intervalometer for time-lapse photography with delay, exposure-count and exposure-length settings, but it’s also a wireless remote with a 300-foot range with bulb and self-timer capabilities, nice for triggering your shutter from a distance or avoiding camera shake with long exposures. List Price: $129. Contact: Hähnel (R.T.S. Inc.), www.rtsphoto.com.
Affordable and useful, the Hähnel Giga T Pro II is not only a fully programmable intervalometer for time-lapse photography with delay, exposure-count and exposure-length settings, but it’s also a wireless remote with a 300-foot range with bulb and self-timer capabilities, nice for triggering your shutter from a distance or avoiding camera shake with long exposures. List Price: $129. Contact: Hähnel (R.T.S. Inc.), www.rtsphoto.com. One option would be to use shutter priority or auto ISO mode. But anytime the camera changes the exposure during a time-lapse sequence, the result is choppy video. The easiest option is to use the Lightroom technique mentioned above, but with a few different adjustments.
For a sunrise sequence, try using this technique. When you process your images in Lightroom, choose the first frame in the sunrise sequence and set the exposure to approximately one stop underexposed. When you apply these Develop settings to the rest of the sequence images, the final overexposed images after the sun has risen should be about the right exposure, with few blown-out highlights.
Your movie will start out a little underexposed, but should have detail in the shadow areas. The movie will quickly transition into brighter scenes, and the final shots shouldn’t be overexposed.
You can adjust the underexposure depending on how bright the last scene is. For sunsets, start with the brightest shot and add more light to it, just to the point of being overexposed. Then apply this bump in exposure to all the images in the sequence, and the final shots after the sun goes down shouldn’t be too dark.
Time-lapse photography is a quick and easy way to liven up your photography. The next time you’re watching clouds race overhead, grab your camera and shoot a time-lapse sequence. You won’t believe how good accelerated time can look.