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Time-Lapse Photography - Speeding up time!

As a photographer I've always been fascinated with how the camera can help to expand our vision and freeze a moment in time. But today's cameras can do far more than that. They can capture a long sequence of 'moments' that would be difficult for the human eye to really notice.

Time lapse photography has a long cinematic history. As a child I was always enthralled by the time lapse sequences that I would see produced by Walt Disney. Now, with your camera, some patience and a computer, anyone can capture a sequence taken over minutes, hours, days or weeks and speed up time.

One of the easiest time-lapse sequences to capture is the movement of clouds. They move slowly enough that the casual observer doesn't really notice them moving at all, but fast enough that a 20 - 30 minute sequence can lead to impressive results. The composite above illustrates that well.

Shooting the Time-Lapse Sequence

Let's start with a qualifier. Although several camera manufacturers have built-in time lapse capabilities or have the capacity to attach an intervalometer, my steps are specific to Sony Mirrorless A7 series cameras but you should be able to follow along with any camera setup. Let's also assume that you have your subject all picked out (remember, composition is everything) and you are ready to start the time-lapse sequence.

  1. Tripod, Test Shots and Battery. For most time-lapse scenarios a tripod is an absolute must. Make sure it is on solid footing. It can be very frustrating to find out that your tripod has shifted position 15 minutes into your sequence. Take a few test shots as well. Check overall exposure, composition and make sure your horizon is level. Also make sure that you have enough battery life for the duration of your shooting. Manual exposure is best, but also think about your focus point - set that to manual too. Oh, and white balance. Very important if you want a consistent look throughout your sequence.

  2. Set up the time-lapse sequence. Sony cameras have a built-in intervalometer that allows shots taken at intervals from 1 second to 24 hours. Four decisions have to be made within the time lapse menu.

  • When do you want your time lapse sequence to start? You can start the time-lapse the instant you press the shutter release or select a time-delay from 1 second to 24 hours.

  • How many shots do you want to take? You can select from 1 to 999 shots. NOTE: If you choose more images than your memory card can record you will get an error, "Card Full". If that is the case, you will have to re-enter the time-lapse menu and select a fewer number of shots.

  • How often do you want the camera to take a shot? This is probably the most important setting. Too small an interval and you may run out of memory space. Too large a time interval and your end result may be rather choppy when played back. When in doubt choose a smaller time interval. This will guarantee smoother playback. But it also has to be longer than your shutter speed. For example, if you have a shutter speed of 1 second and an interval of 1 second, you will miss shots. As your camera will need time to process the image before you can move on to the next shot. The rule of thumb, is keep it [at least] double your shutter speed.

  • Do you want the time-lapse movie to be created in-camera? Within the time-lapse menu of some cameras, there is the option to have the camera create the time-lapse movie for you. NOTE: Internal processing of the time-lapse movie can take several minutes, during which time you are not able to do anymore shooting.

3. Press the Shutter Release. Once you start the time lapse, the camera takes over and engages the various settings you have chosen. The sequence will stop once the set number of shots is reached. You can also stop the process at any time by pressing the 'shutter' button.

Image Processing

If you choose to create the time-lapse movie in camera then this next section might be moot. For myself however, I rarely have the camera create the actual time lapse movie since I usually like to do a bit of post-processing work in Adobe Lightroom. Unless I am looking for a particular effect, I typically make minor adjustments that might include the following;

  • Adjust Basic settings (exposure, shadows, highlights, etc.).

  • Adjust Tone Curve. A slight 'S' curve helps add a bit of contrast and makes the image pop.

  • Crop the image to 16:9. This is the typical letterbox aspect ratio that we are accustomed to seeing on YouTube.

Once you have adjusted one image, select them all (Ctrl-A for Windows, or Cmd-A for Mac) and apply those adjustments to all of your images by selecting Sync.

Lightroom is non-destructive which means that it records the adjustments you've made to your images, but doesn't permanently change the photos. As such, to use the photos with the changes you've made, you will have to export them. With all of your photos still selected, right-click on one of them and select 'Export'. Typically I only make two changes within the Export dialogue box - Export Location and File Naming.

Creating the Time Lapse Movie

Several software packages exist that allow the user to compile all of the time lapse images into a single movie file.

Traditionally, movies were played at a rate of 24 frames per second. This presents a natural, smooth flow to the scene.

As mentioned, several time lapse movie packages are available online. Most allow various special effects to be added to your movies. A quick search will yield lots of results.

Using a Movie Editor

To create a more polished look to my time lapse movies I will often use a movie editor as my final step. I use Final Cut Pro. But for a long time I used iMovie. It's cheap simple to use and powerful enough for the type of editing that I do. Once the time lapse images have been exported from Lightroom, I import them into iMovie where you can ​add titles, transitions, tweak final exposure, add sound and other effects. Make sure each image is set to 1 frame, and play it back at 24 frames a second, and you will have a time lapse movie.

And Finally...

Here are two more thoughts on time lapse photography.

Shoot video instead.

If you are only capturing a relatively short event (less than an hour), you might want to shoot video and use your editing software to speed it up. There are advantages and disadvantages to this;

Advantages: You get very smooth playback since you are capturing every moment of the event. As well, it is easy to adjust playback speed to condense a 30-minute video, down to 30 seconds.

Disadvantages: Video can be a memory hog, and you won't be capturing individual shots that you might want to use on their own.

​Use the time lapse feature to be in two places at the same time.

When I am out photographing landscapes I will often shoot with two or three cameras. The first I will set up in one location, engage the time lapse settings and leave it there. Then I'm off to another spot to do some regular shooting. Once finished, I can decide whether to use the entire sequence of shots to build a time lapse or just one or two individual shots from the series. Most of the time, I am shooting in locations where I am not worried about someone finding the camera that I've left behind and taking it. However, be sure not to loose your kit.

I hate wasting good light, so I will often shoot with multiple cameras and use the time lapse feature even if I have no intention of creating a time lapse movie.

I hope you enjoyed this blog - please leave a comment bellow. And if you want to learn this technique, I do a workshop on the fundamentals of Time Lapse Photography - Check my website for details.

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