How to do time lapse photography step-by-step

| September 29, 2014

Making time-lapse videos isn’t hard and it can be a fun way to add to your enjoyment of the outdoors. You can do time-lapse photography while taking a break for lunch on a hike. I made the following example early on a Saturday at the top of a popular hiking destination in Northern California.

In this article I’ll show you how to make your own video like this. Although there are a lot of steps it’s not difficult and the result is worth the effort.

What is a time-lapse video

Although a time-lapse video is a video, you use a digital camera to record the images. The camera takes hundreds of photographs with a set time interval between each one. These images are then combined together into a movie using software. When the movie is played back at normal speed time appears to be moving faster. For this reason, time-lapse photography is often used to speed up events that happen slowly, such as clouds moving and flowers opening. Obviously, there’s not enough time to take a time-lapse video of a flower opening while you’re having lunch on a hike, but there are some faster-moving subjects that you can record, such as the people moving in my example.

What you’ll need

To make a time-lapse video you will need:

  • A camera with a built-in interval timer or one that supports separate interval timers.
  • Software to make the video – Adobe Lightroom is used for this example.
  • A sturdy tripod for your camera.
  • An optional neutral density filter for your camera lens.

Choosing a camera

It’s not practical to stand there and press your camera shutter button hundreds of times with the same time interval between each press. This task is automated by a device called an interval timer also known as an intervalometer. You need to choose a camera with either:

  • A built-in ability to do time-lapse photography.
  • An ability to support the use of firmware add-ons that can be installed on a memory card.
  • An ability to use a separate hardware interval timer that can be connected to your camera.

Check your camera’s manual or do some internet research to see if your camera has one of these capabilities.

Another option is to use a GoPro video camera, which can also take photos and has a built-in interval timer. And Apple’s iOS 8 enables completely automated time-lapse photography on the new iPhone 6, although the video quality isn’t going to match that of a stand-alone camera with a larger lens and the ability to use filters and choose the optimal settings.

If you’re going to buy a separate interval timer, just make sure that the connector will fit your model of camera as they do vary. This is the option that I used, shown below, which cost about $30.

intervalometerFinal-1

Choosing software

There are many options for software products that can convert your photos into a time-lapse video. Some basic software is free. Other software products, such as Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut X, and LR Timelapse are more expensive but have more features. I used Adobe Lightroom, which is a popular software application for managing collections of photos and doing photo editing.

Choosing a tripod

For optimal results, you will need a quality tripod for your camera that’s going to be stable in the wind. Many tripods have hooks at the bottom of the central column for tying the tripod down to something heavy, further reducing any vibration. The heavier a tripod is the more stable it is, but if you’re hiking or biking, you’ll want to opt for a lighter one. If you’re interested in developing your photography skills, cheaper plastic tripods are not a good investment so you should consider an aluminum or carbon fiber one. Carbon fiber tripods are expensive, but they are durable, lightweight, and corrosion resistant. Small tripods are great for packing into a backpack, but they will limit your photography options as you’ll often need to find a large rock to stand them on to get the appropriate height.

Using an optional neutral density filter

Time-lapse videos look a little smoother (and better) if faster motion is blurred a little in each photograph, as shown in the example below. That means using a slower shutter speed than you would normally use for day-time photos, which in turn means using a neutral density filter for your camera lens.

blur-1

The use of neutral density filters becomes a little technical and requires some knowledge of photography to understand it, so skip this section if you’re not ready for it. If you don’t already use neutral density filters and want to grow your skills, buying one and experimenting with it will increase your range of creativity and you’ll probably get good use out of it.

When you take photos, you may keep your camera on automatic so that it selects the shutter speed for you. If your skills are more advanced and if your camera supports it, you may use a camera mode where you select the shutter speed yourself. In this case, you’ll know that a shutter speed of less than 1/250th of a second will prevent blurring motion when a person is walking. To create a smooth blurring effect for time-lapse videos of people, a shutter speed of around 1/2 to 1/4 of a second is ideal. However, with this shutter speed the camera’s shutter will be open for a relatively long time meaning that a lot of light will come into the camera and make the photo too bright. To achieve a slower shutter speed while still having the photo correctly exposed (the right brightness), you’ll need to lower the amount of light coming in to your camera with a neutral density filter. Remember that this blurring effect is optional and you can certainly have fun making time-lapse videos without it.

Neutral density filters are just like gray sunglasses for your camera. They can be square in shape and slide into an adapter that accepts different types of filters or they can be round and directly screw on to your camera lens. The round type function a little better because the square ones can leak light in from the sides, but the square type are part of a more flexible system. And glass is better than plastic. Do your research and select a filter of the style and in the price range that you’re comfortable with. If you’re going to use a round filter and think that in the future you may buy additional larger-diameter lenses for your camera, consider buying a larger filter plus one or more low-cost adapter rings.

FilterSet600

After deciding on a type of neutral density filter, you need to decide how dark the filter should be. You can use the sunny 16 rule to estimate this.

On a sunny day, with the sun behind you and your camera set at 100 ISO, a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second combined with an aperture of f/16 will give you a roughly correct exposure. Slowing the shutter to 1/4th of a second, will create motion blur, but it also lets in four stops more light (jumping four positions on the shutter speed series from 1/125 to 1/4).

1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/4

Letting in this much more light will make the image very over-exposed. To correct for a shutter speed that’s slower by four stops you’ll need to make the aperture smaller by four stops, by jumping four positions on the f-stop series from f/16 to f/64. However, your camera probably doesn’t go beyond f/32, so it won’t work.

f/16, f/22, f/32, f/45, f/64

Unless you’re photographing on a very dark overcast day, in which case you’ll only need to slow the shutter speed by around one or two stops, your only option is to use a neutral density filter that reduces the amount of light entering your camera. For my video, I combined a 3-stop neutral density filter with a polarizing filter (to give the sky a darker blue color), which reduces the light by around 1.5 stops, giving me a total of about 4.5 stops of light reduction.

So, now we’ve covered the basics, let’s get on with how to make a video.

Setting up your camera

Before you can take any photos, you’ll need to set up your camera. This might all seem a bit complicated, but if you’re already familiar with the operation of your camera, it should only take 10 minutes to set everything up.

First, set your camera on the tripod, attach the interval meter if it’s an external one, and then frame your picture.

Next, you need to set up your camera’s interval meter. Every camera and interval meter will be a little different, but the general ideas are the same. You may have four main settings to think about on your interval meter:

  • Delay
  • Long
  • Interval
  • N (number)

Delay

The delay is how long you want to wait before the first photo is taken. Leave this at zero if you’re going to manually push the start button.

Long

The Long setting is how long the shutter will be open for each photo if you have your camera shutter set on B (bulb). You have two options for determining the shutter speed for your photo.

  • Set your camera on B (bulb) mode and let the interval meter determine the shutter speed.
  • Set your camera on M (manual) mode and let the camera determine the shutter speed.

Most of the time, the shutter speed you’ll want will lie within the range supported by your camera, in which case it’s best to set your camera on the M mode. If you need a longer shutter speed than that, you’ll need to set your camera to the B mode.

The longest shutter speed that my camera supports is 30 seconds, so if I want to make a time-lapse video of stars moving across the sky, a 30-second shutter speed may not be enough so I might have to use the B option.

I wanted the people moving in each photo to be a little blurred, as explained above, so I set my camera to the M mode and set the shutter speed on my camera to 1/4th of a second.

On my interval meter, I just made sure that the Long setting was 1 to be longer than the camera shutter speed.

Interval

The interval setting is the time between the start of one photo being taken and the start of the next, although on some interval meters it could be defined as the time between the end of one photo being taken and the start of the next.

The time interval you choose will depend on how fast the motion in your scene is. Here are some guidelines:

Cars: 1 second
People: 2 seconds
Clouds: 2 seconds
Stars: 1 minute
Plants: 2 minutes

The longer the time interval is, the more jerky the motion in your video will look. For my time-lapse of people, I chose an interval of 2 seconds.

Number

The number setting determines the number of photos that will be taken before the camera stops taking photos. If you’re going to be present to push the stop button, you can put this on a no-ending setting.

Having set up your interval meter, you next need to set an appropriate picture quality in your camera and then make sure you have the correct exposure for your photos.

Picture quality

You’re going to be taking a lot of photos so you need to consider how much storage space you’ll need on your camera’s flash card as well as how much time it will take to process your photos into a video. If you set your camera to very high-resolution photos, each picture will take longer to write to your card, which could cause buffering problems, you may run out of storage space, and it will take a lot longer to process your movie. Your goal is to take the smallest pictures that will give you a good quality video.

To make a good quality video for distribution on the internet, a 720p video output is a good compromise between file size and quality. To achieve this, I set my camera’s quality setting to SRAW2, giving images of 2784 x 1856 pixels, a total of about 5.2 megapixels.

If your camera supports it, use a RAW image quality setting because, compared to using a JPEG setting, it will allow you to make adjustments to your photos before you make your video.

Exposure

With time-lapse photography, just as with any photography, you have to get the exposure of your photographs right so they don’t come out too light or too dark.

The exposure is determined by the combination of shutter speed, aperture setting, and ISO setting, as well as whether you have any filters on your camera lens.

You’ve already determined the shutter speed you need. For an outdoor scene, where you want a longer shutter speed, like my 1/4th of a second, you’ll typically need to lower the amount of light coming into the camera and will therefore use the lowest ISO setting, which is often 100.

The aperture you select will be determined by how much depth you want to have in focus in your photos. For a time-lapse of people, you’ll typically want a lot of the scene from front to back in sharp focus, so you don’t want a really wide aperture, such as f/2.8. An aperture of f/8 to f/11 would give you a good compromise between reasonable depth of field and good lens sharpness. For an outdoor scene, however, if you’re not using any lens filters, you may have no choice other than to use a really small aperture, such as f/32 in order to reduce the light entering your camera enough to get a good exposure.

At this point, you’ll just need to juggle the ISO, aperture settings, and optional neutral-density filters until you get a correct exposure.

This is not the place to explain how to tell whether you have a correct exposure, other than to say take a test photo and check your histogram. In general, you don’t want any peaks to touch the right side of the graph, but you want the right-most peak to be close to it, as the following image shows.

histogram

Now, with everything set up, start your interval meter and enjoy watching the world go by. If you’re impatient, you’ll only end up with a few seconds of video, so be prepared to wait.

A typical time-lapse video will play back at 24 frames per second, so, for 1 second of video, 24 photos are needed. If the interval between each photo is 2 seconds, it will take 48 seconds to get 1 second of video. That’s close enough to 1 minute. So, a 1-minute video will need about 1 hour of photographing.

After enough time has elapsed, stop your interval meter.

Making your video

There are numerous software packages capable of converting photographs into time-lapse videos. For this video, I used Adobe Lightroom as it’s a standard for photographers who need to manage their images and perform bulk image editing.

The overall workflow is to:

  1. Import your images into the software.
  2. Crop your images to the typical video proportion of 16 x 9.
  3. Make any desired image enhancements.
  4. Render the collection of images into a video.
  5. Add sound.

Importing your images

The method for importing your images into the video creation software will vary with the software that you’re using and whether you use a USB cable or card reader for the transfer. Consult your camera and software documentation for the details.

Cropping your images

A typical video has an image proportion of 16 x 9.

  1. In Lightroom, select the Develop module.
  2. Select the first image in your video.
  3. Click the crop tool to select it.
  4. TL_croptool

  5. In the Aspect area, select a ratio of 16 x 9.
  6. TL_crop

  7. Click and drag the image around within the crop rectangle until you have the framing you want.
  8. Click the crop tool icon again to crop the image and leave the crop mode.

Making any desired image enhancements

Lightroom allows you to make enhancements to one image and copy them to the other images in a set. Depending on your skill level with Lightroom, you might want to consider enhancing the sharpness, exposure, and color saturation, as well as other more advanced options. If the light changed while you were taking the photos, you might also want to adjust the exposure for the selection of the images that have a different brightness.

  1. While still in the Develop module, make the enhancements you want to the first image using the controls in the right pane.
  2. TL_DevelopSliders

  3. When finished, type G to return to the grid view.
  4. With the first photo still selected, type CTRL + SHIFT+ C to bring up a dialog box that allows you to select which adjustments to copy.
  5. TL-CopyDialog

  6. Click Check All and then click Copy.
  7. Click CTRL A to select all images.
  8. Type CTRL + SHIFT+ V to paste the settings to all photos.

Rendering the collection of images into a video

To render the video, you’ll use Lightroom’s Slideshow module. But first, you’ll need a plug-in provided by Lightroom Blog at http://lightroom-blog.com/.

  1. Download the plug-in at http://lightroom-blog.com/presets/lrtimelapse.zip.
  2. Move the ZIP file to your desktop and right-click it to extract the files into a new folder on your desktop. I named my folder “timelapse”.
  3. In Lightroom, click Slideshow to enter the Slideshow module.
  4. TL_slideshow

  5. In the left pane, right-click User templates, and select Import.
  6. Navigate to your desktop and select the file for 24 frames per second at this path:
    <your folder name>/LRB Timelapse/Slideshow Templates/User Templates.
  7. TL-plugin

    The plug-in is now installed.

  8. Click CTRL A to select all images.
  9. Click Export Video, navigate to the folder in which you want to save the video, and enter a name for the video.
  10. TL-navigate

  11. In the Video Preset list, select the size of the video that you want to make, which in my case was 720p.
  12. Click Save, and wait for the video to render.
  13. This could take some time.

Adding sound

Having made your video, review it and make any further adjustments to the images in Lightroom if needed. Finally, you’ll probably want to add some sound. I used a royalty-free sound clip from purple-planet.com.

  1. Locate the .mp3 music clip you want, making sure that the duration is longer than your video.
  2. Download it to your computer.
  3. In the Playback area on the right pane of Lightroom, click Select Music, navigate to the .mp3 file, and click Open.
  4. TL-music

    The music track will automatically fade out when your video ends.

  5. Export the video one more time to create a version with the soundtrack.

That’s it. It is a long process, but once you’ve done it once, it isn’t difficult. The only thing left is to WOW your friends and family by uploading your video to a sharing site!

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Photo credits: Mark Beresford

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Category: Trail Life

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