A Beginner’s Guide to Time Lapse Photography, Part 1

If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at the incredible art of crafting reality-bending time-lapse photography, you’ve come to the right place. In part one of our guide, we’ll walk you through everything from what gear you need to have to how to frame, setup, and capture your shots. Let’s begin!

What Exactly Is Time-Lapse Photography?

Put incredibly simply, time-lapse photography is the subtle art of manipulating the progression of time. By taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of images and stitching them together, you’re able to trick the eye into seeing motion played back much faster than it happens in reality. This effect is exactly what we’re talking about today, but why talk about when you can see it in action?

The Motivation: This is what you’ll be able to create after learning the techniques described in this guide:

Recommended Gear

While time-lapses can be taken on just about any camera nowadays (even your smartphone!), we recommend having a few essential pieces of gear if you’re looking to get even moderately serious about the craft.

Camera Body

Your camera body is one of the most vital components in your time-lapse gear bag. Not only is it going to affect what settings and features you have access to, it will also contribute to determining the final quality of the video as a whole. A full-frame camera, for example, is going to give you much better low-light performance and detail, which is crucial for something like astrophotography and other low-light scenarios.

The Bottom Line: Your camera body is the beating heart of your time-lapse system. Consider a full-frame sensor if possible, but almost anything will do to start with.

Lenses

Your choice of lenses will dramatically alter both the quality and composition of your shots. You have a few things to consider when selecting the right lens for the job; shot composition, lighting, distance from your subject(s), and more. All of this can quickly start to feel overwhelming, but remember to start slow. Any lens that you currently own is more than capable of taking time-lapse shots.

The Bottom Line: Bring the lenses you have. Shallow depth-of-field glass is helpful for low-light situations, but not required.

Tripod

Your tripod will act as your support platform over the entire time you are capturing shots for your video. Its job is to keep the camera in the exact same spot from shutter to shutter, ensuring that there is no jarring, unnatural motion in the frame once you line everything up. A cheaper tripod can still work, but we’d recommend investing in something decent here to avoid frustrations, especially if you’d like to shoot in windy weather.

The Bottom Line: Your tripod is essential to capturing stable time-lapse shots. Get the highest build quality you can afford.

Intervalometer

Also known as a “controller”, these devices act as a command center of sorts, communicating with your camera and telling it how frequently to take photos during the shoot. There are many different brands available online, though you have to be sure to choose one that is compatible with your specific camera body. There are tons of extra features found in the more expensive controllers that really aren’t necessary when getting started, so you don’t need to go all out at first.

The Bottom Line: Intervalometers allow you to dictate how frequently your camera captures an exposure, and as such, they are essential to your time-lapse kit. That said, you don’t need anything too fancy to start.

Neutral Density Filter

A neutral density filter lowers the exposure of your camera by anywhere from 1-10+ stops, depending upon which model you choose. While these aren’t technically required, they will allow you to shoot in lower shutter speeds during the day than would otherwise be possible. This will help you achieve, the smooth, dreamy blur that so many time-lapses are known for.

The Bottom Line: Neutral density filters aren’t 100% necessary, but they will give you much more flexibility when planning your shot, and they aren’t terribly expensive.

 

A Step-by-Step Time-Lapse Photography Field Guide

So, this is it. You’ve got your gear-bag packed, and you’re ready to head out into the wild to tackle your first time-lapse project. Using this step-by-step field guide, you should be armed with everything you’ll need to capture something extraordinary. Ready to dive in? Let’s do it.

1. Setting Up The Shot

This is a crucial, often-overlooked part of the process when capturing your time-lapse shots. Is the final product going to be captivating for those watching? Nowadays, there are literally thousands of different time-lapse videos available online, so how will yours be different? Most of this will hinge on a few creative considerations:

  • The framing and composition of your shots
  • The settings you use to take them
  • How you edit the video in post-production

Right now, we’re focused on that first point. When you’re afield, you should consider the framing of your shots in much the same way if you were taking a single photograph. This means taking into account basic compositional techniques such as the Rule of Thirds, while also taking into account how the scene may ebb and flow throughout the day.

As an example, one of the most striking elements in any time-lapse video is the motion of your subjects themselves–this could be clouds passing by over a gorgeous, mountain-laden scene, or perhaps the cars and pedestrians making their way through a busy city center. Playing these images back at roughly 25 frames per second produces the ethereal, detached, dream-like feeling that so many videos in this realm of photography are known for. It’s up to you to harness your inner creativity to innovate on this well-established convention.

Once you’ve found a shot that you’re inspired by, you’ll need to ensure that you’re good to setup there for the long haul. Making a time-lapse film often involves hours upon hours of, well, sitting still, listening to your camera snap shutter after shutter. An optimal spot to setup should be as comfortable and safe as possible. With all of this take into consideration, you’re ready to move onto the next step; establishing your exposure settings.

2. Dialing In Your Settings

The exposure settings you choose for your time-lapse photos will have a significant effect on the outcome of the finished product. For instance, many time-lapse photographers prefer using slower shutter speeds, due to the inherent “smoothness” they add to the video once all of the shots are lined up. In addition, you’ll also find dozens of different recommendations when it comes to how frequently you should take the photos themselves, otherwise known as shutter interval.

It’s vitally important to keep in mind, however, that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this style of photography. As with any creative endeavor, the rules are put in place in order to act as guidelines, primarily for those just starting out. Just as a highly experienced composer does not always stick to the foundational principles of music theory, so too are you not bound by any “recommended” settings when capturing your shots. All the same, they play a valuable part in helping familiarize yourself with the common practices used to achieve the result you’re looking for.

So, back to your shot. You should aim to expose your photos like you normally would, balancing them so that the highlights are not blown out, while also ensuring that shadow details are preserved. When shooting in direct daylight, many photographers make use of neutral density filters, sometimes referred to simply as ND filters. These lower the exposure of the entire frame by anywhere from 1 to 10+ stops, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds without completely overexposing the scene.

Pro Tip: Consider shooting your photos in RAW instead of JPG, if you have the storage capacity for it. You’ll need to ensure that you don’t run out of storage space halfway through, so a high-capacity card is a must, but the additional detail and flexibility you get with RAW is well-worth it, if you ask us.

Next up is your shutter interval. As mentioned above, there isn’t really a go-to number that will work for every video, but as a good rule of thumb, consider the fact that most content online plays back at about 25 frames per second, or FPS. Logically, this would mean that for every second of footage you hope to create, you’ll need 25 different images. Here’s a quick visual guide to reference for length:

  • 30 Seconds: 750 photos
  • 1 Minute: 1,500 photos
  • 3 Minutes: 4,500 photos

Once you’ve determined how many photos you’ll need in total, you can then decide how to set your intervalometer based on how long you’d like to capture the scene for. For instance, if you’re going to stay for 2 hours total, and you hope to make a 1-minute-long video, you’ll need 1440 photos, and your interval should be set to 5 seconds. Now, if all this math seems unnecessary, that’s because it is. There are a number of excellent Time-Lapse photography calculators out there in the wild, including this one from PhotoPills:

https://www.photopills.com/calculators/timelapse#embed

 

Typical Settings At-A-Glance:

Shutter Speed: Slower, around 1” to 3” to produce a smooth, dream-like effect. Use ND filters.
Aputure: Whatever is needed to keep your subjects in focus. Usually f/7.1 or greater.
ISO: 100-500, or as low as possible. Keep in mind that higher ISO = more noise, and less sharpness. May need to be updated as conditions change.
Image Format: JPG = smaller file sizes but less detail. RAW = the best choice overall, but more crowded SD cards.
White Balance: Whatever is required to produce a natural-looking scene. May need to be updated as conditions change.
Shutter Interval: See the calculator above, or download the PhotoPills app.

3. Capturing The Scene

Your framing is impeccable. Your settings are rock-solid. It’s time to start the machine! This is the part where you get to relax, take a load off, and enjoy the scene laid out before you. Remember to glance at your exposure settings every now and then, especially if you’re shooting in changing lighting conditions (golden hour, for instance). You may even need to switch things up as you go, but don’t make significant changes to what you already have dialed in. This will produce unnatural, jarring results. Instead, simply lower your shutter speed or raise your ISO by just one stop every few minutes. This way, the effects will be much less noticeable once all is said and done.

Once you feel that you’ve captured the number of photos you need, you can go ahead and pack things up. Be sure to grab everything you brought with you, including any trash or other debris you happened to pack in.

What’s Next: Producing Your Time-Lapse Film

Next up, you’ll need to organize, edit, and sequence your photos down into their final form. We’ll cover this extensively in part two of this guide, which you can read right here.

In the meantime, happy shooting!

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