Time Lapse Photography Tutorial – The Do’s and Dont’s

After several months of practice and trying to perfect my technique I thought it was time to share what I’ve learnt. Hopefully with the help of this tutorial you’ll all be creating beautiful timelapse movies in no time!


What is time-lapse photography?

Basically, time lapse photography is the process by which multiple photographs are taken, at fixed intervals over a certain period of time. Normally the idea behind time lapse photography is that you can capture something that normally happens over a large time frame, and compress it into a short, high speed movie. In this way long term changes are much easier to see! Plus it’s a really cool effect. Examples are sunsets/sunrises, cloud movement, milkyway movement across the sky, flowers opening, night time photography, to name just a few.

Here’s an example of a time lapse of Casemates square in Gibraltar


What do I need to create time lapse movie?

  • DSLR / Digital Camera – You’ll need a DSLR camera, or any camera that allows you manual control over ISO, Shutter speed and aperture.
  • A tripod – The camera needs to remain completely still while taking snaps. Any movement of the camera will become really obvious when you try to create your final movie. So steadyness is key!
  • Intervalometer – An interva wha? This is a nifty little device that lets you program your camera into taking pictures at certain intervals. For example, I can use my intervalometer to tell my camera to take a picture every 5 seconds, and to use a shutter speed of say 2 seconds. I can also specify how many times I want it to do this i.e. 100, 500, 1000. There are certain DSLR cameras and digital cameras that have one of these babies built in! Like my trusty D700. So check first you might not need one.
  • A computer – Sounds obvious but you will need to transfer all your pictures onto your computer afterwards.
  • Software – There are many software solutions out there that allow you to create time lapse movies. A quick google should reveal a few good ones. Personally? I find the quickest and easiest way to create these movies to be using QuickTime Pro (Thanks to my good buddy Tony Loewen for this recommendation! Such a simple program to make time lapses got me started in no time!) Another good solution is a program called VideoMach which not only lets you create time-lapses but allows you to add video effects, transitions, music and watermarks. I’ll walk you through the simple steps for both programs later in this tutorial. Finally, theres a third alternative, VirtualDub (I like this one too as it has a deflicker plugin you can use)

And that’s it! If you’ve got all of the above you’re ready to go.

What’s my first step?

NB – Before we get into specifics, its very important that you have your camera set to Manual mode so you have control over apertureISO and shutter speed. Otherwise your camera will start making it’s own adjustments to the environment and it’ll just mess stuff right up. Also set your White Balance manually  (anything that looks good to you here, just don’t leave White Balance on AUTO as it’ll also cause fluctuations in our final video).

Ok so you’ve got all of the above and you’re ready to go. You might be thinking, I’ve no idea what shutter speed, interval, ISO settings to use for my timelapse arrrgh!

Worry not =) There are good generalised guidelines as to what settings to use for certain scenarios. Good news is, these guidelines produce pretty nice results! You can always tweak them yourselves once you get the hang of it. Trust me, after your first time lapse things will really start to make sense and you’ll get a feel for all of this and will adjust settings accordingly. So here are some general guidelines for certain scenarios you might wish to capture:

Night Time Photography (Shutter Speed – 2-5 seconds, ISO 400-800, Interval 5-10 seconds)

This could be anything from the movement or vehicles and people during the typical night, or the passage of the moon across the sky. It’s quite a fun subject as you can get those cool car light trails that you see in long exposure night time photography, or the blurry movement of people on a night out.

Daytime crowds, slow moving clouds, city life etc (Shutter Speed – 2-5 seconds, ISO 100-400, Interval 1-5 seconds)

Crowd movement is always a pretty awesome timelapse subject. This could be the London underground, the streets surrounding you, local market. The movement of clouds in the sky over a landscape is also lovely to watch, in fact I always prefer when its a little cloudy for time lapse photography, it makes it all look so much more interesting.

Star / Milky way movement  (Shutter Speed – 10-30 seconds, ISO 800-1600, Interval 15-30 seconds)

A personal favourite of mine. It is so amazing to actually be able to see the movement of our universe. This type of time lapse requires much higher shutter speeds and ISO’s, since we’re trying to get the camera to take in as much light as possible from the stars. We can’t go over 30 seconds shutter speed or each photo will begin to show star trails, we need each photo to have stars look as pinpoint as possible. Nice and sharp =)

Plants flourishing (Shutter Speed – 1-5 seconds, ISO 100-400, Interval 90-120 seconds)

Possibly one of the coolest time lapses! Time lapses have an amazing way of showing us movement where we don’t normally see it. This is more obvious in the movement of the moon, or clouds, but never obvious with the opening and closing of petals lets say. We need a larger interval time here so that there is a difference in position of the petals.

How do I program my camera to take these timed shots?

So to get into the specifics of any of these subjects, we may decide we want to capture a typical night of activity on our local streets, so we decide on a shutter speed of 3 seconds, an interval of 5 seconds, and an ISO of 800, we’re basically taking a 3 second exposure photo, every 8 seconds (8 seconds? Why 8 seconds?) Basically, the interval is the time between the camera finishing one shot, and taking the next one, so if the interval is 5 seconds…and the camera is taking a 3 second exposure, you’re looking at a photo every 8 seconds.

NB – If using an external intervalometer, you must match the shutter speed on your camera, to the set shutter speed on the interval, or they wont match up. On most intervalometers the shutter speed is the ‘Long’ setting.

Bear in mind, all of the above settings can be tweaked to your requirements. Later on in this tutorial there are examples of the common pitfalls and/or visual imperfections that can occur in timelapse…and how to tweak your settings to sort them out.

So there are two ways to actually program these settings.

My camera has a built in intervalometer

If this is the case great =) You should be able to find the Intervalometer settings in your camera’s menu. It should look something like the first image below.

For my Nikon D700 it’s in the Shooting menu and is called Interval Timer Shooting. Press OK.

 

The next screen (or the second image below) is where you tell your camera how often you want it to take a picture. The time format is HH:MM:SS where H is hours, M is minutes and S is seconds. So if you’d like it to take a shot every 5 seconds, just change the last 2 digits to 05. Or if you’d like your camera to take a shot every minute, change the middle 2 digits to 01 etc etc.

On the last screen you just tell you camera how many shots you actually want it to take. My camera gives me the option to take upto 999. You’re all set! As soon as you enable this time your camera will get started.

I have an external intervalometer

These little things are pretty similar to the settings on your DSLR’s menu, theres just a few small differences. On most Intervalometers you’ll notice the words Long, Interval and possibly also Delay on there. All of the below are in the format HH:MM:SS

  1. Long – The shutter speed of each shot (This must match the shutter speed setting on your camera)
  2. Interval – The amount of time inbetween shots NB – This is the time between a completed photo, and the start of the next one. So if the interval is set to 5 seconds, when the camera completes each shot, a 5 second timer is started before the next photo is taken.
  3. Delay – This is just a timer you can use to delay the start of the whole time lapse procedure. I normally set this to 5/10 seconds to eliminate any camera shake that might have occured from me touching the camera or tripod. Really just to give the setup a chance to stablize.
  4. There will be a fourth setting, on my Nikon intervalometer its the letter N, and it’s how you set the number of photos you want taking.

Photos taken…now what?

Ok great! So you’ve got all of your photos ready. Could be 200, 500, 1000 or many more! Next step is to connect your camera to your computer. I normally prefer to copy all of the images files off the camera to a folder on my PC. The computer will read it faster that way.

For the purposes of this tutorial I’ll be creating time-lapses in both Quicktime Pro and VideoMach so you can decide which program you prefer. Quicktime really has everything you need for a quick and simple timelapse, VideoMach has a few extras that let you customize the timelapse afterwards.

Getting your images ready for time lapse software

NB – Before we use any software, here’s a nifty little trick to stop you running into problems when trying to load all your lovely new images. All of the time lapse software requires images to be named sequentially, i.e. image001, image002, image003 you get the idea =) Unfortunately cameras don’t always do this for you and this could result in the time lapse program not knowing which the next image is!

  1. In the folder where you’ve saved all your time lapse images (I normally stick them on a folder on desktop), select all of your images, right click on any one of them, and click Rename.
  2. Type anything you want that represents the timelapse i.e. sunset, or busstop. Anything will do. The moment you press enter with all the images selected, all of the images will automatically be assigned numbers. Presto!

Creating Time Lapse videos with Quicktime

  1. Click on the File Menu, then click on Open Image Sequence.
  2. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo.
  3. Select a framerate from the dropdown in that same window. You want it looking as smooth as possible so around 24/25fps will look good.

Quicktime will automatically move on from the first image sequentially and create a movie, this might take a few minutes but once the next Quicktime popup opens, you’ve got your video!

Press play check it out 😀 This is the best bit!!

Now all you need to do is Save the video and hey presto you’re done.

Creating time lapse movies with VideoMach

Once you’ve downloaded this free program, open it up and you’ll be presented with the window shown below:

VideoMach Screenshot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here do the following:

  1. Click on the File menu, then click on Open Media Files.
  2. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo.
  3. Make sure to select ‘Open entire sequence starting with this image‘ when prompted. Then press OK.
  4. Now you should notice on the bottom left window, 1 line that should have in brackets (sequence of xxx images). xxx being the number of images in your sequence. Right click on this line, and then select Speed and Direction.
  5. Now you can set the frame-rate of your movie, 25 fps is a good value to use for PAL devices.
  6. Click on the floppy disk icon which is the Save button.
  7. A new window will open up, with 3 tables, Files, Video and Audio. Most of the time we don’t need to bother with the Audio tab so for the purposes of this tutorial we can ignore this. In the Files tab, select a video format (i.e. MPEG, Avi) and select where you want to save your video.
  8. Then click on the Video tab on top, and in there click on Final Resize. In here, underneath the Output heading, change the height to 1080 and press enter. There is no point going anymore high rest than this as 1080i is pretty much the highest TV’s go at the moment.
  9. Press Start. You’re done!

Creating Time lapse movies with VirtualDub

VirtualDub has the added benefit of a deflicker plugin that you can download. So if you really wanted to capture a sunset or sunrise (more info on how to do this here), and wanted to use Aperture priority mode, then you could create your time lapse here, and apply the deflicker filter to sort any shutter discrepencies.
  1. After downloading VirtualDub, extract the contents anywhere you like. I like to keep it simple and extract to somewhere like C:\VirtualDub
  2. Open up VirtualDub. You’ll be presented by an ugly bare grey screen. Don’t be put off, it’s pretty easy 🙂
  3. Click on File, then Open Video File
  4. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo. Make sure the ‘Automatically load linked segments’ checkbox is ticked.
  5. Now we’ll change the frame rate, click on the Video menu on the top then click Frame Rate. Set this to 25 fps (or whatever fps you’d like to have in your time-lapse).
  6. We now need to resize the images. Click on the Video menu, then on Filters. When the new window pops up, click on the Add button. Navigate for the resize filter and press OK.
  7. Where it says New Size, click on the Absolute (pixels) radio button, and set the height to 1080. Then press OK, and OK again to close the Filters window.
  8. Save your video! Click on the File menu, then Save as Avi, give your file a name and save. You’re done.


Common Problems

Why is my video flickering?

So you grab all your shots, stitch them together and when you play the video you notice there’s some sort of flicker effect. There are 2 main reasons for timelapse flickr:

  1. Aperture is too high – The fixed aperture used to take all the photos was too high (e.g. f22 being high, f2.8 being low). Basically, when at rest the cameras shutters are wide open. If you choose an aperture that is too high, the shutters have to move a greater physical distance for each shot. This results in minor fluctuations of the shutter blades each time a shot is taken, and can result in time lapse flickr. To avoid this, stick to wide apertures i.e. apertures less then f8. Basically lower f numbers are better.
  2. Shutter speed is too short – Being a mechanical device, there are small fluctuations in the exact amount of time it takes for a cameras shutters to complete one shot, even when set to a fixed shuterspeed, there will always be little teeny differences.  These are much more noticeable when using a fast shutter speed. So generally, any shutter of 1/100th or longer will reduce the effects of shutter speed flickr.

A camera that is left on Automatic mode will also almost surely result in time-lapse flicker as the camera will attempt to make light compensations in the scene. For best results always ensure you are working on Manual mode, or at worst Aperture mode if you really want to capture scenes where there are light changes i.e. Sunset, Sunrise.

My video appears to stutter, objects appear to move too randomly

This could be because your interval time is too high. If you’re timelapsing moving traffic, and you leave too long in between shots, the vehicles will have moved too great a distance inbetween shots and when watching the movie will appear to just appear in different parts of the viewing area.

To avoid this, play around with your interval settings. Try lowering it a little maybe from 10 seconds to 5 seconds for example.

NB –  For time lapse photography, since there are always gaps in motion between shots, it really helps to add a little blur to your photos. This is why shutter speed in time lapse photography generally isnt any quicker than 1/100th of a second. The slight movement blur in your shots does a really good job of giving the impression of fluidity in your final video.

I just don’t have enough space on my memory card for so many shots.

A pretty common problem with time lapse photography is that it can require many shots, depending on the subject. You’ve got 2 options…either get a bigger memory card, or more practically, don’t shoot in RAW (change to JPEG Fine). You could further increase the amount of photos your camera can take by reducing the resolution of each shot in your cameras menu. This should help a ton! Also relieves your computers Hard drive a little, those RAW files can get pretty cumbersome!

My camera seems to run out of battery before I’ve finished my timelapse! 

Time lapses can be pretty power intensive and a real battery drain on your camera. Especially if the weathers cold (the bane of all Aurora photographers!)

A piece of equipment called a battery grip can help out with this. It allows you to add a second battery to your camera, effectively doubling your shooting time!

Or, if you’re feeling lucky, you could always replace the battery in your camera for a newly charged one in between shots! But that runs the risk of moving the camera, so steady hands people!

What if I want to timelapse a Sunset or Sunrise?

Due to the changes in light during both of these scenarios, using full manual mode on your camera will result in either underexposed, or overexposed shots are some point in your video.

The way around this is to use your cameras Aperture priority mode. This way, the cameras aperture remains fixed, but the shutter speed will change accordingly. Therefore, the camera will make the necessary adjustments so that your shots are always correctly exposed. Make sure your cameras ISO is set to manual though! You don’t want that changing too. You might have guessed by now, variations in shutter speeds may result in time-lapse flicker, and you would be right. However, there really is no way around this for scenes where the light changes so drastically, and fortunately, you can always fix this type of time-lapse flicker later.

What if I want to create a fixed duration time-lapse?

Say you want to make a time-lapse movie that’s 1 minute, or 60 seconds long.We need to do a little mathematics here, don’t worry it’s not too bad 🙂

First thing to consider is what frame rate your time-lapse movie will have. The average time-lapse should be around 24fps (or 24 frames per second). So if you want a 60 second video, and each second of video footage has 24 frames, then you need a total of:

24 frames x 60 = 1440 frames (or 1440 photos)

Quite a lot of photos in there. You’ll notice if you browse around, time-lapses don’t tend to be that long, unless they are a mesh of several different time-lapses  My average timelapses last around 10-30 seconds. This if of course entirely up to you and how fast you want events to unfold in your video.

If you increase the interval between shots, you lessen the amount of shots required to capture an event, but dont increase the interval too much, or you risk jumpy movement in your videos.

You could lower the frame rate to 15fps, therefore you’d need only 900 shots instead of 1440, but the video will be a little less smooth than the 24fps version.

Or you could just have as many frames as you wanted 🙂 You’re only limited by the space on your memory card really…

It’s all playing around with settings to see what works for you =)

I hope you’ve found this tutorial helpful and are on your way to making your own time lapse videos. Please feel free to leave constructive criticism on how this can be better structured.  Any questions just ask 🙂