A time lapse is a video compiled of hundreds, even thousands, of individual images, taken of the same subject at intervals, then stitched together to show the progression of time. Although the two are often confused, long exposure photography and time lapse photography are not the same thing.
Essentially, a time lapse video speeds time up, showing a scene that unfolded over a lengthy period of time in often just a few seconds. When done well, the results are often stunning and add a whole new dimension to the field of still photography—motion.
Time lapse photography essentials
You can honestly take a time lapse video of any subject matter. People have created time lapses of everything from an Ant Colony Inside of a Scanner to the movement of stars behind steel dinosaurs in Galleta Meadows, California.
But what the best, most dynamic time lapses have in common are substantial change and movement—either with light patters and drifting clouds, or in the case of my video, cars and people shuffling in and out of the market place. The combination of stationary objects with sweeping, progressive change creates unforgettable time lapses.
What you’ll need
Although there have been many advanced and complicated setups for time lapse photography—like the “Bullet Time” set up made famous by the Matrix—there are only a couple of tools needed to successfully create a time lapse. Besides the obvious (a camera), you’ll also need a tripod and an intervalometer. An intervalometer is an automated camera trigger that allows you to take thousands of frames at exact, specified intervals.
These devices come in a wide range of styles and prices—from the $16 Linkdelight to the $125 Nikon MC-36 Multi-Fuction Timer Remote to the $250-$300 Promote—each one suited to different cameras and different purposes.
How I did it
I was sitting in my hotel room in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, suffering from food poisoning (the result of a mystery meat experience in one of the outdoor restaurants). The rest of the group had traveled onward to a famous monastery in the Balkan mountains, I was left behind with hours to kill and a western facing window.
The spot hadn’t initially struck me as interesting, until I noticed the pack of dogs that kept roaming through the parking lot and the setting sun beginning to warm the face of the Soviet style building.
So, I figured, why not? In lieu of a tripod I used a shoebox to prop my Canon 6D against the iron window bars, positioning the lens (a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4) so that it was through the bars at 24mm.
On manual (this is extremely important, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment) I put my settings as follows:
I then set my intervalometer at 5 seconds. I used a basic LCD timer that I would recommend to no one as it broke halfway through the trip and I have since ordered Polaroid’s version. I set my timer for 35 minutes, and then took a nap. I wouldn’t recommend napping while your camera is recording the images, as any number of technical disasters could occur while you dozed, but this temporary exertion had been a bit much for my frail condition and I needed the rest.
At the end of 35 minutes, I should have had 420 frames if the intervalometer did what it was supposed to, which it did. At a playback time of 24 frames per second, that would mean 17.5 seconds of footage. As you can see, the video is only 13 seconds—I cut out the last bit because it simply wasn’t as interesting.
Everyone has a slightly different post processing workflow; I shot in RAW and created a sequence using after effects.
- Always use manual mode. If you automate any of the settings, you will lose the seamless look that is essential for a good time lapse video. Continuity is key.
- Use 24 frames per second. This is the classic number of frames in video. Since you want it to look as clean as possible, this is how many still shots you need for a single second of video. Consequently, how long your video will last depends on the number of frames. The more frames you take, the better, because you will have more to work with in post production.