What is Time-Lapse Photography?

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet at all, chances are you’ve seen some pretty amazing nature videos. Particularly, you may have been drawn to videos of beautiful landscapes where time seems to be “fast-forwarded” like an old VHS tape, often to dramatic effect. These videos utilize the technique of time-lapse photography, and today, we’ll explore the basics of this exciting and unique visual trend that has exploded over the last 15 years.

An Overview

At its core, time-lapse photography simply involves taking a series of images in sequence over an extended period of time, and then displaying them at a rapid frame rate, giving the appearance that the world (and time itself) is “lapsing” before your eyes. This often produces moody, ethereal results, giving many of these videos their trademark awe-inspiring feel. Wikipedia has a great introductory page on the subject.

Making a time-lapse video requires patience and a great amount of care. To make a three-minute-long video, for instance, you may need to capture several hours worth of footage, and this process can be a slow, painstaking labor of love. There are a number of special, purpose-built pieces of equipment often used to help photographers capture cinematic time-lapse footage, but today, even something as simple as your smartphone has the capability to produce exciting results. We’ll explore the equipment that goes into making these videos in greater depth below.

Examples of Time-Lapse Photography in Action

There are countless examples of incredible time-lapse photography around the web, and we thought it would be a good idea to include a few of our favorites here, for reference.

NORWAY – By Morten Rustad
This incredible collection of stunning vistas showcases exactly what makes this sort of photography so special.

30 Days At Sea – By JeffHK
In one of the more unique applications of the technique, videographer JeffHK shows us what life on the open sea is like on one of the world’s largest megaships.

Earth From Space – By Up, Into Space!
This is time-lapse work taken to the extreme. Using shots from the ISS itself, this video provides an insane perspective that is well worth a watch.

History of Time-Lapse Photography

The very first examples of time-lapse photography date back to Eadweard Muybridge (yes, that is how he spelled it). Muybridge was hired by the then-governor of California to prove that his racehorse had tripped several wires attached to still cameras. Though the governor was wrong and ultimately lost a bet because of it, Muybridge is often credited with creating the base technique still used today in time-lapse footage all over the world.

The first commercial use of this photographic method was by Alan Fanck, in a series of motion pictures he called Bergfilms. Over the next several decades, the technique would be applied to a number of subjects, from plant life to city development and beyond. Today, just about anyone has access to some form of time-lapse-capable equipment, making the barrier to entry lower than at any other point in history. The same can be said of photography in general, actually.

Basic Equipment Needed

The barrier to entry with time-lapse photography has been shrinking for over a decade, and though some special equipment is still required if you’re looking to get serious, it’s now possible to capture basic time-lapses on something as simple as your smartphone. Moreover, advanced gear that used to cost thousands and thousands of dollars can now be found for a fraction of that, allowing you to truly unlock your creativity in more ways than ever before.

So, here’s a list of the three basic components that we feel are essential to capturing a quality time-lapse video:

Camera

Chances are, you probably already have a decent DSLR camera if you’re reading this guide. If you don’t there’s more good news; there are literally hundreds of models variable to choose from today, all at varying price points, and all compatible with a full range of time-lapse equipment. We’d recommend something with a high ISO range, especially if you’re planning on doing any night-sky time-lapse photography.

Tripod

A quality, sturdy tripod is a foundational piece of your new time-lapse arsenal. This is how you will steady your footage and ensure that each shot is precisely framed. While many entry-level options are available, we’d recommend opting for something with enough weight to steady your camera even on uneven, rocky terrain, especially if you’re interested in taking time-lapse shots out in remote areas where conditions can be constantly changing.

Intervalometer

An intervalometer acts as the beating heart to your time-lapse setup, helping you take hundreds of photos with precision timing. Some of these devices can be quite expensive, while other, more basic models can be found for much less. In fact, many modern cameras have much of this functionality built directly into the camera body. Regardless of which model you choose, the intervalometer plays an essential role in helping you put together a compelling time-lapse reel.

There are many other, more advanced pieces of gear that go into the art of capturing time-lapse footage, and we’ll be getting into these in much greater depth in future posts, so be sure to stick around. In the meantime, if you have any questions about time-lapse photography in general, be sure to leave a comment below, and we’ll do our best to help you out.

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