Shooting a Time Lapse

Suggested equipment (I say ‘suggested’ because they are not entirely necessary; you can set your camera up on any stable surface and manually press the shutter for each exposure. You will encounter problems creating a stable composition that way):

  • Tripod
  • Remote cable

If possible, use the same manual settings for the entire duration of the time lapse. Using any programmed mode (aperture value, time value) will create a flicker in the final product. If however, your time lapse will encounter variable lighting conditions, use the aperture value mode. This way there is a wider range of exposures available; usually cameras can shoot from 1/8000th of a second to 30 seconds. Remember that your lens is the sharpest at the middle aperture value. Use manual white balance so that there is no extreme color shift in the final movie.

Since your camera will be continuously shooting for a long period of time, the battery is prone to run out quickly. It would be best to have a battery adaptor that could be plugged in. If you are going to be sitting near your camera while it is shooting, you could replace the battery as soon as it runs out, with little or no noticeable break in continuity.

You will want to use as large of a memory card as you have available. Again, you can replace it when it runs out if you will be sitting near the camera. To save space, shoot it in a JPEG mode, since the final movie won’t be larger than 1920×1080 anyway (usually).

If your remote is programmable, you can dial in the delay between shots or the number of shots you want to shoot. If you cannot program the remote, it should be able to lock; that is, shoot continually without having to keep hitting the button. In this case, turn the cameras self-timer onto a 2 or 10 second delay, or none at all. This will cause a higher rate of shooting, and in turn, a battery that will exhaust faster. If you are shooting an event that is considerably long (a night sky, a 7 hour drive) you can have a longer interval between shots; somewhere from 10 to 30 seconds. If the event is shorter (a football game or clouds during a storm) you will want a shorter interval between images; somewhere between 2 and 10 seconds. If the interval is too long, the resulting movie will be chunky and not fluid because of the amount of movement.

You will need to shoot a lot of photos; to have a smooth time-lapse movie, you will want it to be at least 24 frames per second. This means there will be 24 images in one second of movie. If you want a 10 second time lapse, you will need to shoot at least 240 images. If you want a 30 second time lapse, you will need 720 images.

There are a couple different ways to compile the images into a video format. The easiest way is to use QuickTime Pro. Place all of the images into a single folder. Using QuickTime, go to File > Open Image Sequence. Find the folder of images and select it. A window will come up giving you options of frame rates; choose 24 fps or faster for a fluid image. QuickTime will then arrange the images (based on the file numbers) into a single window. Hit play to check it out. Then save it. Be careful with image sizes though; the final product could be too big to use practically.

The second way to compile the images into a movie is to use editing software. Somewhere in your program settings, there should be an option for still image durations (In Final Cut, User Preferences > Editing > Still/Freeze Duration). Put in a small number, a single frame (0:00:00:01) if possible. Import all of the images and drag them onto the timeline. Export and save.

One of my favorite time-lapses is this one shot by Michel Gondry of a 5-day drive from LA to NYC-

I made this video in 2007 using a bunch of different cameras-