The key element to a stunning time-lapse is the presentation of movement that would otherwise go unnoticed or underappreciated, but with the increase in perceived time, can be observed in splendid detail and at a pace which allows the movement to be fully understood.
Thanks to the use of a sequence of still images, the resolution, color depth and dynamic range of the time-lapse can be of a higher quality that would otherwise likely be available, meaning the final video will be down-res’d to fit the dimensions of HD, or 4k (4k is roughly the equivalent of 8MP/frame), with outstanding clarity and vibrancy if carried out correctly. If high resolution is something you really require, you could even output in some ultra-high resolution dimensions like 5K for viewing on very large media (5K is roughly 15MP), or when zooming into the final product may be desirable. Your typical time-lapse will not warrant such capability, however, if you are doing a time-lapse to capture scientific phenomena, it may be advantageous.
If you are anxious to try out time-lapse, but you haven’t a subject determined yet, here are some ideas that often result in great successes to use as inspiration. Keep in mind that exposure times can be significant – if there is motion it may serve the time-lapse to freeze it in place, however, it is often a good idea to allow some motion blur, as it will transition between frames more fluidly. This depends on the speed of the motion versus the number of frames per second you have, and the nature of the motion as it relates to the composition of the time-lapse, but it is something you should consider when planning and executing your time-lapse.
Flowers and plants
Flowers and plants can be beautiful to behold, but their transformation from seed to adult plant is often absolutely breathtaking. If you have an indoor plant that you are about to start to grow, you can set up a camera on a mount of tripod at the angle with which you want to capture. As you water, groom or fertilize on a regular schedule, you can incorporate taking a photograph at the same time. You aren’t going to want to allow the camera to move, so it would be best if it weren’t touched at all. Use a remote shutter and a wall outlet to keep the camera powered and the lighting is consistent.
Whether it is day or night, the sky can provide a whole host of phenomena that will both enlighten the observer to the complexities of the atmosphere or cosmos but will also provide a beautiful spectacle. In the daytime, the movement of clouds can be quite spell-binding, and the rolling in of rain or a thunderstorm can be particularly interesting. At night, if the sky is clear and you are in an area dark enough, the stars in the sky can provide a beautiful time-lapse as the stars move in relationship to the observer due to Earth’s rotation. Our list of top astrophotography locations may give some helpful suggestions.
Sunrise or sunset
The transition from day to night or night to day can be spectacular. Often the color changes are beautiful, but can only be appreciated in a video format, but where video often fails to capture the splendor adequately and results in a video which would ideally be increased in speed, time-lapse allows you to take high-resolution, high-bitrate and high-dynamic range images using your DSLR or mirrorless and use each image as a frame rather than dropping frames in order to speed the motion in video. These are called “holy-grail” sequences in time-lapse parlance. This will result in splendid views of the sun and the transition to or from nighttime that would just not be possible with most video equipment out there. I highly suggest taking such shots in a desert, on a mountain, or on a coast in order to get the full effect of the sun’s set or rise. Other locations which might serve well include forests, city-scapes and prairie or farmland, especially those with rolling hills. If you are considering shooting a sunrise or sunset, you should look into software and techniques to help you overcome the challenges of creating a “holy grail” time-lapse.
Show the hustle and bustle of the city street throughout the workday. Show cars and people in motion, working like the blood cells of the city. These types of time-lapse can work especially from higher vantage points, showing a grand-scheme of the movement in the city. It is a good idea to get some variation, for example sunrise to sunset, to allow for the workday to play out and the difference in traffic to reveal itself. Often the majority of traffic will walk in one direction to start a workday and the opposite when it concludes, with less dense and less directional traffic in between and the pre and post-workday lull afterward. There are all sorts of patterns you may find, however, and it is very interesting to see a large volume of people moving en masse. In this case, it might be wise to use relatively longer exposures to allow for some motion blur, which will soften the movement in the frames and often results in a more fluid transition from frame to frame when you have dramatic motion during the course of the time-lapse.
Tides are interesting and beautiful, and most often bring with them some form of crustaceans, birds, people or fish. Seeing the tide go out will reveal the hidden gems beneath the water and allow the viewer to experience this phenomenon quite quickly. I would scope out locations on the seashore with interesting activities going on immediately following the tide – where crabs may shuffle about leaving trails in their path, or where birds walk along the exposed areas scanning for mollusks – the activity will be quite captivating for time-lapse. Try to make sure the number of frames you are shooting is appropriate to capture activity on the beach with adequate time between each frame for the right effect, but not too much to lose a lot of the activity following the tide.
DIY and construction
Something that utilizes the benefits of time-lapse to the highest effect is construction, DIY, or other projects that are progressively built or taken down. This includes home improvement projects and new constructions to major urban construction but is not limited to the grandiose. time-lapse works for any building, assembling, disassembling or similar project. The process of building something in Legos can be well translated with time-lapse. Replacing car parts, assembling a model aircraft, anything which requires stepwise procedures to achieve a greater goal can be well-served by time-lapse. Not only can time-lapse serve as a record of the accomplishment, but it can also record the steps, how to carry them out, and when. It can serve as a valuable teaching tool when applied to projects such as these, not to mention being quite visually satisfying.
Similar to construction and assembly projects, time-lapse really stands out as an asset to capturing the labor and evolution of art projects. Not only can the viewer (of the final time-lapse) see the steps and transformation of the work from mere materials, they can also gain an appreciation of the craft, or discover a technique, or further their comprehension of the medium itself. This is another example of an application that would serve education well, but it isn’t a necessity. The time-lapse can be a piece of art all by itself!