Time-Lapse Photography Tips

We at AvidVisions have long been interested in star photography, and as most photographers do when they’re out shooting the stars, we like to take time lapse videos. Don’t be fooled however, the term ‘video’ is being used loosely here, because the reality is that we are actually just taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures in succession. We then take these pictures into a program such as Lightroom, and use an automated process to create 24 FPS – 30 FPS clips that we then edit together in a separate program as a timelapse video. If you’re looking to delve into timelapse photography yourself, then hopefully you’ll find this post useful!

Getting Started:

You’ll first need to figure out what equipment you’ll be using. It sounds like an obvious task, and it is, but don’t think that an expensive DSLR is your only option in timelapse photography. While a nice DSLR might help give you more control in your photographs — and probably better low-light performance — it’s not essential. Point and shoot cameras often have pre-installed timelapse software that allow you to take pictures at specific intervals. An example of such a camera would be the GoPro Hero 3. For more information go to the tools of the trade section below.

First and foremost, you want to get started thinking about what would look good in a time lapse. For example, moving clouds look slow to the human eye, but in a fast paced time lapse these clouds will sail across a landscape casting moving shadows that will make for a very dynamic, nicely paced scene. On the other hand, taking a time lapse of people walking around briskly on a city street will end up looking very jumpy and not like a coherent movie because people would move too much in between each photograph. The other possible issue is that nothing will move from frame to frame and your time lapse sadly starts to look like a still frame. The trick is in finding events that happen at a speed that translates well into time lapse videography/photography and building up an intuition for time intervals to shoot with (i.e. taking a picture once every 4 seconds versus once every 30 seconds). Some of our personal favorites are moonrises, sunrises, sunsets, moonsets, moving clouds, shadows moving across a scene as the sun sets, clouds, and last but not least stars. As you can see, these are all natural events that can play out over many minutes to hours and entire nights. Time lapse videos play with the viewer’s sense of time and end up looking awesome, so try and think of cool things near you to try to take time lapses of!

Tools of the Trade

  • A sturdy tripod
  • A camera (preferably with an intervalometer)
  • A remote shutter release (optional, but preferred)
  • Waterproof fabric (optional)
  • Hand warmers (optional)
  • Lots of time

Setup

Canon Cameras

  1. Change your exposure mode to manual – expose your picture correctly (more on this later)
  2. Focus your frame and switch over to manual focus (you don’t want your camera changing autofocus in the middle of the video)
  3. Set your white balance because you wont want to correct it on every single picture later
  4. Change your image quality to Medium JPEG
  5. Change your drive mode to continuous and set your remote/intervalometer to locked on
  6. Wait for a long time while your camera takes pictures

Nikon Cameras

  1. Change your exposure mode to manual
  2. Focus your frame and switch over to manual focus (you don’t want your camera changing autofocus in the midle of the video)
  3. Set your white balance because you wont want to correct it on every single picture later
  4. Change your image quality to Medium JPEG
  5. Go into your shooting menu (the one with the picture of the camera as its icon) and go into the interval timer shooting menu
  6. Set the interval for shots to be taken on
  7. Set the number of pictures you want your camera to take (I recommend overestimating how many pictures you want because you can always just shut off your camera to cut the time lapse short)
  8. Start the timer on the interval shooting mode
  9. Wait for a long time while your camera takes pictures

GoPro and Point&Shoots

Prepping Your Shot

Initial setup is key because you are dedicating a lot of time to each time lapse. Make sure your composition and focus are dead on before you start anything to avoid issues when you get home and are disappointed by the video. Exposing your first frame is also key because the exposure you set initially will carry over onto all of your future frames of the video. This is especially important when you are photographing events that have variable lighting, like a sunrise or sunset. To make sure that you get the most usable footage possible, you should start by purposely over or underexposing your footage by a stop or two depending on what you are shooting. Personally, I like to start with a near-black frame (without losing details to clipping) for a sunrise, and then have the sun gradually light up my scene. This is something that comes from experience and a lot of practive.

Selecting Your Interval

There isn’t much to say here other than that this is something that you will build up an intuition for the more you take time lapses. The more that is changing in your frame, the shorter you want your interval to be. For sunrises, where there is a lot of changing light (and possibly movement depending on what focal length you are using) I like to use a 4″ interval. However, when photographing stars I only take pictures roughly once every 20″ or 30″. Moving clouds are somewhere in between and it will depend on how quickly the wind is moving etc… As you can see, this just takes time and practice to get right.

The only other advice that I can give on this matter is to use an interval that is shorter than you think necessary because you can always drop frames or speed up the video in post processing to make the clip stay nice and smooth, whereas slowing down the video or using a low frame rate will make your time lapse look worse.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • Stay steady – shaky tripods and moving cameras are the bane of any good time lapse video! “Nudged” footage almost never looks good.
  • Save battery for long time lapses by turning down LCD brightness, turning off silent shooting modes, and turning off image review
  • Use battery packs that can hold more than one battery so that your camera can shoot for longer
  • Put hand warmers in breathable socks and then wrap them around your lens with rubber bands while shooting overnight to prevent condensation from forming on your lens (which is rather bad for your lens and camera)
  • Bring a deck of cards or a good book with you
  • Bring a flashlight with you (we almost always end up staying until it’s dark)
  • Check the weather before you drive for hours to get to a cool location
  • Have fun!

Recommended Equipment:

Benro Digital Tripod
Canon Remote Switch RS60 E3

Hopefully you found this post helpful! Keep an eye out for our latest time-lapse video! (Scheduled to be released towards the end of summer.)

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