I write a monthly column for the MENSA Photography Special Interest Groups newsletter and there was some talk in the related Facebook Group a while back regarding time-lapse photography and I found myself agreeing to share my thoughts on the subject in a future column which I did in their November 2017 edition. I’m no expert, and looking at the MENSA Facebook group there are people there with more knowledge than myself but I had promised so I sat down and wrote the piece. I had planned on illustrating it but other things got in the way so it was eventually published with some “stock” images supplied by the Editor.
Firstly, don’t be misled by people who say that time-lapse photography can be achieved simply by shooting a 20-minute video and speeding it up to play back in ten seconds. To my mind that is not a time-lapse, it is simply time sped up and without the lapses. A true time-lapse is a sequence of images taken at regular intervals to record changes that take place slowly over time. When the frames are shown at normal speed the action seems much faster. They have a distinctive look and feel too, indeed you will have seen them used a lot in TV shows or films even if the technique isn’t known to you and they are often used to denote the passage of time.
If you own a camera and a tripod then you pretty much have everything needed to take a time-lapse, however one tool that I wouldn’t be without is an intervalometer, which is basically a shutter release that can be programmed to take a series of images at a set interval apart. Before you rush off to buy one though it’s worth checking your camera manual as many cameras have them built in without the need for additional purchases. My Fuji X-T20 for example has one as does the Canon 7DII and many Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. I found a partial list on the Lonely Speck website (link below) but your camera manual is the best place to check, you are looking for interval timer or similar.
Consistency and patience are also key with shooting time-lapses. For consistency, I always place the camera on a tripod and use manual settings for focus, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and ISO to ensure consistency between frames. Many enthusiasts will tell you that a slower shutter speed can create smoother footage and I certainly try to keep the shutter speed below 1/60th second where possible although this can be problematic outdoors on a very bright and sunny day so you may need to use a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. I also shoot RAW files although many proponents of time-lapse would recommend shooting JPEGs, as ever you pays your money you makes your choice. For what it’s worth I usually use the JPEGs to quickly see if it’s going to work before batch processing the RAW files.
I prefer to set a low ISO setting as this usually gives better image quality and should help prevent unwanted noise in your images. It is also important to move the camera off of the Auto White Balance setting. Choose an appropriate preset and leave it there, especially if you’re shooting JPEGs.
Even with fully manual settings, one frame can expose slightly differently from the next frame, especially with rapid or constant changes in the light levels, which can sometimes result in a flickering effect in the final output but I have found that wider apertures can sometimes minimise this although a shallower depth-of-field is not necessarily the look that you are wanting so pragmatism has to rule and there are commercial software options to help reduce any flicker in post-production if desired although I’ve not yet found the need for them in the simple sequences that I produce. If you use filters, such as a graduated filter to hold back the exposure in the sky, then these should be in place and not touched again until you’ve taken the required number of images.
I always take a test shot before I start to make sure I am happy with the composition and exposure. Once I’m happy I take a final test shot but with my thumb in front of the lens so I know where my sequence starts. I do the same when I’ve finished shooting, with the thumb pointing down, to quickly identify the end of a sequence. Sounds daft but believe me if you’ve been out shooting for several days before getting back to the computer it really does save time!
So, compose the scene, focus and then lock it down and switch your lens to manual mode and leave it there – don’t touch it again until you captured all the images for your sequence. Which brings us to how many shots do you need. Well, that’s the typical “how long is a piece of string” question so as this article is intended to get you started I’m going to create a typical scenario and work with that.
So, a sunny afternoon sat alongside a stream in the Forest of Bowland, the sheep are grazing in the field below you and a gentle breeze is slowly wafting the white, fluffy clouds across a gentle blue sky. My first thought is how long do I want the finished time-lapse to run for – let’s say ten seconds will be enough. So now I need to decide how many frames I need, which is simpler than you think. We are essentially going to be creating a short video sequence and a typical video displays 24 frames per second (24fps) to give a smooth look to the footage. Which means that for every one second of finished time-lapse I am going to need twenty four images. I don’t need to tell this audience therefore that ten seconds of video needs 10 x 24 = 240 individual images.
Now, remember I mentioned patience above? The essence of time-lapse is the lapses, the gaps between each frame and for the scenario described here I would typically leave a five second gap between each frame. Different subjects and conditions call for different intervals but five seconds serves me well for clouds on a typical day. Which means that in a minute we will only be taking twelve frames so our ten second video is going to need 240 x 5 seconds = 1200 seconds or twenty minutes! I did say patience was important and when shooting time-lapses I’m normally grateful for a second camera (or a flask and a packed lunch).
So, we have set the camera up on a tripod. We have composed the scene, focused and locked off the lens and camera. We have set our exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) manually and we have chosen an appropriate white balance in preference to the auto setting. We now need to shoot our 240 images (I would usually shoot more than I need to give me a little bit of wiggle room later if needed but it’s not essential) and for this we really do need an intervalometer. If your camera has a built-in intervalometer then it’s a matter of telling it how many frames and how long to wait between each frame, I can’t really cover the precise how-to here as all cameras are different. My Fuji X-T20 has a much more intuitive built-in intervalometer than those I have used on a Nikon for example. Without a built-in intervalometer you will need to purchase one that plugs into the camera and there are plenty of these available to purchase online.
Some cameras I believe will also create the time-lapse automatically in-camera for you but I prefer to do it myself so having captured my two hundred and forty-plus images I then head for my computer to do the next stage. There are many different ways to create the time-lapse and in a general article such as this it doesn’t make sense to focus on just the one I use, Adobe Lightroom, as many other options are available including Photoshop and Elements. Just type “timelapse with [insert name of your software]” into your search engine of choice and you’ll get plenty of options to choose from. There are lots of videos and tutorials available online for this aspect and even more opinions on the best way of doing it but for what it’s worth this is my typical work flow for a simple time-lapse.
I import all the RAW files into Lightroom, find the sequence (remember my “thumbs up” above?) and select them all and then process the first file, copying and pasting these tweaks to all the other images in the selection. I feel it’s important to be as consistent as possible across the entire sequence, we did that by shooting manually and should continue this by giving every frame the same post-processing treatment. I then move to the Slideshow module in Lightroom where I use a preset to combine my 240 single images into a single ten second time-lapse video. I have provided a few links below, including one for the Lightroom preset, to get you started
I hope this has whetted your appetite, be warned though, time-lapse is addictive especially once you start adding movement into the capture of the images!
To finish a time-lapse shot from the bedroom window …
Some useful links
An interesting discussion on flickering: https://timelapsenetwork.com/mini-tutorials/what-is-flickering-how-to-avoid-correct-it/
Creating a time-lapse in Lightroom: http://lightroom-blog.com/2013/09/17/timelapse-again-in-lightroom-5-2/
Create a simple time-lapse using Lightroom: https://fstoppers.com/education/create-simple-time-lapse-using-lightroom-160813 (this is also where I downloaded the timelapse templates from)
A beginners guide: https://petapixel.com/2017/04/05/make-timelapse-video-beginners-guide/
Lonely Speck website: https://www.lonelyspeck.com/list-of-large-sensor-cameras-with-built-in-intervalometers/