Choosing a Camera Lens For Time-Lapse

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Whether you’re just beginning to explore the art of time-lapse photography, or you’ve been doing it for years and are looking to take things to the next level, one of the most consistently-asked questions by our readers has to do with which lens they should use out on their shoots. In this guide, we’ll go over why your choice of lens matters, what to look for in a time-lapse lens, and ultimately, how to choose one. Let’s get straight to it, shall we?

A Note On Creative Freedom

When first approaching this guide, we wanted to make it clear right up front that for the most part, any lens will work when it comes to creating time-lapse videos. Sure, some may be better than others in specific instances (which we’ll cover below), but the classic saying “the best camera is the one you have with you” can be extended to lenses as well. If you only have a few lenses to choose from when starting out, just bring what you have and try them all. You never know which combination will end up being your favorite till you experiment!

Now, with that said, let’s take a look at some of the practical ways your choice of lens can influence your shots.

Why Lens Choice Matters

This may seem like a direct contradiction of what we just wrote above, but hear us out; though you can use any and every lens you’d like for your time-lapse work, there are situations where one lens may be better equipped to help you achieve a certain effect. For instance, if you are trying to capture an epic sunset sequence of Manhatten from the vantage point of the Brooklyn Promenade across the water, using a wide lens (something in the 12-28mm range) will help you get more of the skyline in-frame, leading to a more interesting final product.

Conversely, say you are wanting to get a tight shot of the Statue of Liberty and all of the boat traffic around it, shot from the very same spot? In this case, you’d want a big, stable telephoto lens, perhaps a 200mm, or maybe even a 300mm or 400mm if you’re feeling crazy. This will give you a far more interesting, isolated shot of Lady Liberty and her surroundings.

Hopefully, you can see where we’re going with this. In short, the lenses we choose help to inform the framing and style of the sequences we capture. Sometimes, this choice can only marginally affect a video, while other times it can completely change the “feel” of the final product itself.

Choosing Your Lens

So, now that we have a better high-level understanding of why our lens choices matter, let’s break down how to actually select the lenses you’d like to use. This process can be as simple or as in-depth as you’d like it to be, but for now, let’s briefly explore a few crucial elements that should factor into your decision.

Know Your Subject Matter

When planning out your time-lapse shoot, you should be thinking about the location that you’ll be shooting, as well as what you’d like to capture there. In fact, many of us like to visit shoot locations in advance to scout out the situation, taking note of potential framing options ahead of time. By doing so, you can test out the lenses you own to see if they provide the type of shot you’re looking for.

Pro Tip: If they don’t consider renting a lens for the day of your shoot. Obviously, this is more expensive than just using what you have, but it can be much more reasonable than going out and purchasing a new $1000+ lens every time you have a shoot idea. Just something to keep in mind!

The key takeaway here is to have a vision in place for your time-lapse video. The clearer the end result is in your mind’s eye, the better it’ll turn out in the end.

Understand What Makes a Good Time-Lapse Lens

Though any lens can work for time-lapse photography, certain ones are going to give you more freedom to tackle advanced shots and lighting situations. These lenses will be more flexible or powerful than others and can unlock new shooting opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to you otherwise.

For example, a shallow lens, say something with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is going to allow you to capture stunning footage in very dark conditions. This would be crucial if, for instance, you were trying to capture a mountainside at night as the Milky Way rises above its peak. Try getting the same shots on a kit lens that only goes to f/3.5, and you aren’t likely to be as thrilled with the result.

To lean on an example we used earlier above, the focal length of the lens can also have a practical impact on determining which is right for your shoot. Ideally, you want the frame size to fully encompass your subject, and you want to present it from as unique an angle as possible.

All in all, it’s important to remember that while the camera you use is important, the glass you choose will actually have a more substantial impact on the final quality of your images than anything else. After all, there’s a reason you’ll see a basic kit lens listed for $150 while a dedicated Prime or high-quality zoom lens will commonly run $1500+. When it comes to lenses, you get what you pay for.

The Bottom Line: Don’t Overthink It, But Don’t Limit Yourself Either

When it comes to choosing a lens for time-lapse photography, it’s important to realize that in the end, even a cell phone can capture amazing images and videos. You can get as in-depth and invested in this type of art as you’d like to, and that’s one of our favorite things about photography as a whole. It’s accessible for anyone to enjoy, but deep enough to provide years and years of challenge and fun for those who want to go further.

So just jump in. Start experimenting with what you have, and if you run into any roadblocks, maybe look into renting a lens, or borrowing one from a friend. Chances, are, however, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish with what’s already sitting in your gear bag.

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