Time Lapse Tips & Tricks

First Steps In Time Lapse... What You must Know!

My passion for photography leads me naturally towards Time Lapse. Time Lapse consists in taking a series of photos at different time frame over a period of time in order to create a cinematic effect..

The main difference in between a real "video" is how each frame is exposed.  Video is typically exposed at a shutter speed which is 2x the frame rate, so if the camera or subject is moving there will be motion blur in each frame.  
A timelapse taken with a still camera allows you to adjust shutter speed as needed, which means that one option (typical) is having a shutter speed sufficiently fast to freeze motion, resulting in a situation where each frame might be sharp and without motion blur.

Indeed, for specific effect (such as car trails for instance), you can adjust you shutter speed to have motion blur or silky water in case of long exposure, it is therefore a creative choice you made when you are shooting a time lapse. There are no real rights or wrongs!!!

Taking Time Lapse needs some photography technical background and most important... lot of patience! Taking into account that the typical number of frame par seconds (fps) in time lapse is 24fps, it therefore means you require 240 frames (i.e. photos) for only 10 seconds of video!! 

 

The "Must Do" Before You Get Started

Time lapse requires many care whether you want to get the best of it. Before going in details on the equipments and how to set them up, I will first focus on the main important things to prepare your shooting upfront heading out. Strangely, it is a step which is quite frequently missed in the different tutorials I saw. So, I will try to deliver my own workflow.

 

 Weather Forecasting Check Out

What makes your time lapse breathtaking?.... Simple or tricky question?... Well, I must say both! Some simple check(s) will ensure the best time lapse sequence. One of the most important pillar in time lapse is (indeed) the weather during your shooting! A landscape time lapse without any clouds will be quickly bothering. When you are shooting landscape,  you seek for dramatic or epic weather/light to do so and the weather forecast can help you to be predictive and will ensure your shooting will be worth doing. So I recommend to check out systematically the weather forecast before heading out, and don't hesitate to do it through different phone apps or website(s) as you probably know how the weather forecast can be differently interpreted...

The weather forecast will also help you to do the "right" choice before heading out regarding the clothes you will have. Remember you will stand up for a couple of hours with very limited movement.... so you must wear suitable clothes to face any kind of weather. Your photography bag must be therefore filled in with appropriate items such as raincoat, wooly hat, gloves, warm cloth and so on...

 

 Predicting Sun, Moon, Stars Positionning Over a Period of Time

Within the numerous phone apps and software available on the web, it is right now easy to be extremely accurate on the shooting conditions. I used a lot one of this app to prepare and be predictive on the sun or moon / stars position over a period of time, which will be very useful to ensure your composition will work afterwards all along the time lapse sequence. Missing the sun passing because your orientate your camera on the wrong way will be very frustrated!!!

I use the following free desktop web app The Photographer Ephemeris (TPE).  It is a fantastic tool for any photographer. As a short video is always better than a long speech, I recommend you to check out the below video for more depth-in review...

 

Visiting the Spot Upfront The Shooting

One of the best practice in photography (indeed suitable for Time Lapse!), is to visit the spot before your shooting. If you do so, you will then manage to prepare your composition, ensure the crowds around will or will not interfere in your composition, be sure there are no distracting and unwanted element in the frame (I experiment it last summer while a boat stuck in the Vancouver's harbor for several days in a row, just "perfectly" aligned with the skyline.... it ruins all my chance to do a time lapse over there!!! I can let your know I appreciate to visit the spot upfront my scheduled shooting as I avoid to wake up very earlier!!!).

Maybe, the most important tip is the following: checking out the orientation of your "fixed" subject(s) (mountain, pier, field...) versus your "moving" subject(s) (sun, moon...). I use a simple compass to do so, and it is worth doing!!!. Since I know the exact positioning of my "fixed" subject(s), I can then check out through the app where and when the "moving" subject(s) (moon, sun...) will be all along my time lapse sequence. This last check is therefore extremely important whether you want to be predictive and accurate. It can then completely switch your mind in your composition as you will be able to imagine exactly how your time lapse will turn out and it will probably save your time and effort!!! 

 

Prepare Your Trip Upfront The Shooting

If you can't manage to visit the spot before heading out for the time lapse, I highly recommend to check out at least the duration of your trip to reach the spot. Use any of the phone apps or desktop apps to simulate the traffic jam situation and take it into consideration in order to be at the right time on the spot! It will be very pity to miss a gorgeous sunset because you was stuck in the traffic jam!!!! 

 

Ensure Your Photography Bags  Is "Ready" For Your Time Lapse

What can ruin your time lapse?... a simple memory lapse regarding one of the "must have" gear to handle while doing a time lapse!!! The following check list can be obvious but be sure it is extremely worth doing!! So here you are all of the items you must carry:

  • Camera(s) (including any lens adapter if you are using it) : clean it before going out to limit any dust spots by using for instance a rocket blower,
  • Memory card: at least one (empty) memory card of 4Go or several if you can,
  • Lens(es): take all the necessary lens and clean them up to avoid again any dust spots,
  • Camera batteries: doing time lapse is battery consuming, so be sure to take several full loaded batteries,
  • Intervalometer: absolutely needed to perform you time lapse sequence,
  • Back up batteries: keep some additional batteries for your intervalometer in case of the ones inside the intervalometer go down!
  • Wipes: in some case, you should probably need to clean the front side of your lens during the time lapse (water splash, dust, humidity...),
  • Filters: as you read later on in this article, using filter(s) can help you a lot to manage your exposure...
  • Tripod: without tripod...no time lapse ;-)

Sum UP of the "Must Do" before Get Started

  • Check out the weather forecast before heading out, 
  • Bring warm clothes, raincoat, gloves, wooly hat or any suitable clothes to face hours of outdoor shooting,
  • Visit the spot upfront the shooting to prepare your composition, 
  • Use an apps to be predictive regarding the "moving" subject(s) (sun, moon, stars...) versus your "fixed" subject(s) (field, pier, mountain..)
  • Take several full loaded camera batteries and back up batteries for your intervalometer.
  • Ensure your photography bags includes all the needed equipments (camera, lens(es), batteries....)
  • Check out your travel trip before going out.

 

Equipments Required

Time lapse requires a minimum set of equipment and maximum preparation to do it correctly. There is nothing more bothering that spending hours on the spot and realize when getting back home you did it on the wrong way! 

Tripod

A tripod is a must have when you expect to do a time lapse. Your tripod must be steady and very well fix to overcome any shake during the shooting due to the wind or other external element. "Heavy" tripod can therefore be a good way to limit the external source of shake during the sequence. If your tripod is a light weight one, then you can for instance roll around the tripods legs some bags filled in with rocks or ground in order to maintain it very steady over the entire period of time.

Since your tripod is  well positioned to prevent any shake issue, place the camera on it and define properly your composition (and don't forget the above tips to do so!!).

Camera Set Up

You are right now more or the less ready to get started but some specific care must be taken into account regarding your camera setup. I will go through the main points to check and adjust along your time lapse sequence and more important according to the type of time lapse you are doing (i.e. sunset/sunrise, day time, night time....).

Shooting Raw Makes the Difference!

If your camera allows to you shoot in RAW, then switch to RAW and avoid JPEG. Shooting RAW allows you to get the best of your image as RAW file includes much more details and are more flexible during the post processing (meaning you can recover more easily the shadows or highlights, change the white balance etc...). The only potential "issue" you may think about shooting RAW is the file size. Shooting RAW means bigger file than JPEG file, in other words, your camera must be loaded within a minimum 4Go memory card  to ensure sufficient memory space for the full time lapse.

Use Manual Mode (M) and Manual Focusing

Unfortunately, not all the cameras are suitable to perform a time lapse.... your camera must be able to set up in MANUAL mode (M). It is absolutely mandatory to avoid any big difference between shots regarding the exposure, white balance and so on... The Automatic mode is therefore your worst enemy in time lapse!!!! Forget as well the Auto Focus (AF) as you will get out crispy images while shooting with manual focusing. Shooting with the Aperture mode (A) is sometimes done as well (even of it is not the best practice...). In that case, you will set up manually the Aperture and ISO but you will not handle the shutter speed as it will be changed along the shots whether the conditions are changing over the time (light fades out, clouds passing and so on...). It can therefore be an issue whether your aim was to "freeze" all motion within a scene.... You probably therefore understand than shooting in Manual Mode is the best way to manage your time lapse.

Set Up the Aperture and ISO

Now, you have to determine which aperture and ISO to set up and both will be done in regards to the type of time lapse you are doing. For day time lapse, use f11 or either f9 as it will give you the best sharpness along the entire image. Adjust the ISO to the lowest value available on your camera (50, 100 or 200 work well). This setting will allow you to avoid any motion blur as the shutter speed should be pretty "high" during day time. If you aim to have all in focus, without any blur, then play with both aperture and ISO to ensure a minimum shutter speed around 1/100sec or higher should be even better to avoid any motion blur!

If you are aiming to do a sunset/sunrise time lapse, your camera setting should be more of the less similar to the one described above but...... you probably have to increase the ISO for the same aperture whether you want to limit any motion blur. Increasing the ISO will lead to higher noise and will alter the image quality. Nevertheless, it is highly dependent of your camera as each camera has its own performance in higher ISO... Anyway, you have to make a choice of maintaining the highest image quality (so playing at lower ISO while working at lower shutter speed and potential blurry image of the moving subject(s)) or increasing the ISO to limit any blur).

Since you are doing a night time lapse, your camera setting will be fully different to face the low light conditions. In most of the case, you have to open as much as possible your aperture to catch up the maximum light, which means playing with "fast" lens at maximum f4 or lower whether your lens can do it (f2.8, f1.8 for instance). As you can imagine, in such low light conditions, you must work at pretty high ISO as well! An example of typical setting for milky way time lapse is for instance f2.8 at ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 or f4 at ISO 3200 or ISO 6400. You may probably understand that you need as well to work with long exposure, with a minimum of 20 - 30sec exposure typically. If you are shooting a city by night, your scenery will be indeed more enlighten, so then you will probably not go with so high ISO and maybe have more flexibility with you aperture and/or exposure time....

Anyway, night time lapse is synonym of long exposure! Check out your camera menu and ensure the option "Noise Reduction" is activated in case of long exposure to limit the noise on your image. I will not explain what's the technical background behind, but you must just know that your camera take the shot during a couple of seconds and will stay not usable during the same time gap afterwards... In other words, if your shutter speed is set up to 20sec, you camera will take the photo during 20sec and then will treat the image during 20sec afterwards, so in total 40sec along your camera will be busy!!

Fix out The White Balance, 

For any kind of time lapse (night, day, sunrise/sunset),  you must take care about your white balance. Don't use the Automatic White Balance (AWB) but fix out manually the white balance using pre-set (daylight/sunny, cloudy etc...) or define a custom white balance (see here after for a depth-in review of "How to setup custom the white balance?, Youtube video by Marlene Hielema).

It is even more important since your plan is to do a time lapse at sunset or sunrise as the light will change drastically from the first shot until the last one, your camera will analysis each shot separately in regards to the highlights and shadows which come out of the scene. The result is different white balance across the scene which can be tough to process afterwards.... Since your white balance is maintained along the time lapse sequence, you will ensure an homogenous color casting on the overall images.

Ensure You Expose Correctly!

One of the biggest difficulty regarding the camera setting is how to expose the scenery and more specifically, how to maintain the exposure across the full time lapse sequence. Unfortunately, there is not just one reply.... it is highly dependent on the type of time lapse you are doing. The least challenging is shooting during the day time or night time, when the light doesn't change so much over a period of time. Since your first shot is well exposed, then the entire sequence should be exposed correctly.

First, do a test shot and look at the luminosity histogram of the image. The  luminosity histogram is the best way to check out whether your exposure is done correctly as you will see the full spectrum distribution of light coming out of the scenery.

See this article for depth-in review of Understanding Histogram in Photography by photography life and How to Read and Use Histogram, by Digital Photography School).

The secret is to avoid any clipping in the shadows and highlights, so then you can get the entire dynamic range of the scene. Clipping means you will lost all the pixels find out in highlights and shadows on the extreme part of the histogram distribution (pure white or pure black pixels, without any information inside... see charts for better understanding).

Using filters will help a lot to manage properly the exposure of your image, especially when the dynamic range is high (i.e. bright highlights and deep shadows within a scene), typically when you are shooting sunrise or sunset or facing the sun while shooting.  I typically use GND filters (Graduated Neutral Density) to overcome any exposure issue.

More explanation regarding the filters benefit up there: How and Why Using Filters?, jump to "My Filters" section for more depth-in review.

 

Once your test shot is done and you set up adjusted to get a "proper" exposure, you are more or the less ready to start your time lapse. But you must realize that you will probably need to adjust your camera settings during the time lapse sequence whether the light conditions change drastically.

It is clearly the most tricky steps to handle while shooting a sunrise/sunset time lapse for instance. In that specific case, it is a creative decision you may do.... Do you want to avoid any motion blur? If yes, then you will tend to increase the shutter speed of your camera by increasing the ISO for instance. There is no rights or wrongs, it is just a matter of taste and creativity....

Shooting during day time or night time will (in most of the case) prevent you to act on your camera setting across the full time lapse sequence. It is therefore less challenging than shooting sunset or sunrise time lapse. If you are a beginner, you should maybe start by such kind of time lapse!

We have covered the main camera setup for both sunset/sunrise, night and day time lapse. At that stage the next step is to know how make your sequence, or how to set up the number of frames and the gap in between.  

 

Intervalometer

We will know discuss the different ways to set up your time lapse sequence. It is another essential step in the process as it will drive sometimes the camera settings we just talk about... As introduced in the beginning of this article, the "classical" Frame per Second (fps) is 24 to get a nice cinematic effect. It therefore means that you need 24 shots for only 1 second and indeed 240 shots for only 10sec of a movie!

Before heading out for your time lapse, you must already calculate the number of shots you will require to make your time lapse and it will lead to define the number of hours spent on the spot! Remember that the shutter speed of your image will be drastically different since your are shooting during daytime (1/200sec for instance) or night time (20-30sec)...

Here below some example of typical sequence in regards to the subject(s) or conditions:

  • 1 second: day time lapse (clouds moving "quickly", city traffic...)
  • 1 - 3 seconds: sunrise/sunset time lapse or day time (slow clouds motion)
  • 15 - 30 seconds: night time lapse (milky way or stars, traffic trails)

So, how to do this sequence? What does I need for?... Several options are available but in any case you will play with an intervalometer. The intervalometer is in most of case an external device which trigger your camera and drive it along the time lapse. You can set up the exposure time, the gap between the shots and the number of shots.

Some camera has the intervalometer function internally, so then you will not need to buy any device for and you can manage your time lapse setting directly from your camera. Check out your operating manual before go shopping ;-)) You can either use a desktop and phone apps but it is clear not my personal favorite way.... it is sometimes meaningful for an indoor time-lapse but it doesn't make sense to me for any outdoor one!!! 

I personally use the following intervalometer: XXXXXX. Very cheap (only X Euros) and easy to handle.

See here below 2 examples of how handling the intervalometer:


Sum UP of the Equipment Setting

  • Shooting RAW will give you more flexibility and image quality BUT increase a lot the file size,
  • Use Manual Mode (M) and manual focusing, 
  • Set UP the Aperture and ISO in regards to the kind of time lapse you are doing (night, day, sunset/sunrise....),
  • Fix out the White Balance,
  • Ensure you expose correctly, 
  • Define the sequence with your intervalometer.

 

 

How to Process Your Time Lapse Sequence?

 

You have now all the shots required to process your time lapse. We will see one of the way to pre-edit the image on Lightroom and afterwards how to make the movie.

There are a plenty of time lapse desktop software available on the marker. Some of then are free to use while some are more or the less expensive.