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Time Lapse Photography - A Beginners Guide

Updated on September 11, 2014

Disclaimer

I do not profess to be a professional in any way when it comes to timelapsing. I created this article to share my knowledge regarding my experience creating many timelapses.

Introduction

Timelapse photography is a wonderful way to showcase time passing. It is particular technique which enables the photographer to show objects or landscapes changing and moving over time. They can be used to create amazing visuals which many have or will never see in the flesh. This is a wonderfully professional video technique which anyone can do at really cheap prices. In this article I will cover the equipment needed to begin timelapsing as cheaply as possible and will also give some more expensive options for further down the track if you decide to pursue it. Then I will talk about the basics behind timelapsing and how to create some static timelapses. Finally I will discuss motion timelapses, what they are and then a cheap way of achieving this.

**Please note the video below is not my work. I am just using it as an example of what a professional timelapse looks like**

Example of a Timelapse

Equipment

The following list is the equipment I started timelapsing with. This equipment is reliable but does have some limitations which I will explain after the list.

  • Canon DSLR Camera (The reason I say Canon is because another piece of equipment is the Canon EOS Utility. Nikon does have a paid equivalent but I believe it does not do timelapsing. If you want to use another brand of camera you will need to purchase an intervalometer or some kind of camera hack such as Magic Lantern or Driftwood)
  • Laptop computer (desktop computer also works but is less practical
  • Canon EOS Utility
  • USB cable for your camera
  • Tripod

This is exactly the gear I used to get started with timelapsing and it was more that suitable. This equipment list does not include the post production software as I will explain this later. This gear does however have its downsides, the most notable being the computer. This means that if I wanted to go elsewhere I would have had to have taken my computer with me, making it quite impractical. It also adds another battery to go flat and in my experience with computers, they never work 100% all the time. Below is an example of my first timelapse with this setup taken through my window looking out at the horizon.

My First Timelapse

This setup however, is not the only option for timelapsing on a tight budget. There are two cheap options still available.

  • Canon DSLR Camera
  • Tripod
  • Magic Lantern

This second setup is my current setup, one which is incredibly cheap (assuming you have the camera). Magic Lantern has an intervalometer (timelapse) function which becomes very useful as Magic Lantern is completely free (magiclantern.fm). This is the easiest setup in the field but this method does not come with its downsides. The only major problem which people may see with this method is that Magic Lantern, if not installed correctly (as the included instructions recommend) then you can turn your camera into a very expensive paper weight. I have only had good experiences with Magic Lantern and as long as you follow the instructions for installation very carefully it should be fine.

The final cheap equipment list is as follows.

  • Canon DSLR Camera
  • Tripod
  • Intervalometer (Canon model or no-name model)

This is the most common setup and is still relatively cheap. Intervalometers can range in price greatly with the good Canon ones costing upwards of $100 but no-name models can also be purchased for under $20 from Amazon or Ebay. This is a very practical setup (as is the Magic Lantern setup) which is very portable and gives you the ability to travel or go hiking and still create wonderful timelapses.

Example of a Canon intervalometer
Example of a Canon intervalometer

Static Timelapsing

This form of timelapsing is the most basic and easiest to accomplish type of timelapse. It is a timelapse without movement of the camera. This can be accomplished with any of the aforementioned gear combinations. The most important thing about static timelapsing is the tripod, the camera needs a very solid platform on which to rest so the timelapse is not shaky. Below is a video demonstrating what i mean by shaky footage and what to avoide (**Again I do not claim any credit for this video, I am merely sharing as a means of demonstration**)

The above video accurately demonstrates two things. Firstly it demonstrates the need for a nice tripod which will stay grounded and give the camera a solid and unmoving platform for it to rest on. The second thing this video demonstrates is the importance of leaving your camera be as it is taking the photos. This is evident in some of my earlier timelapse videos where I accidentally knock the tripod detracting from the final result.

The actual act of timelapsing is quite simple and straight forward and can (if you want to know how long the final result will be and how long the camera will be taking photos for) involve some maths. Lets start with the process and I will talk about the maths afterwards.

  1. Before setting out to shoot a timelapse make sure your battery/s are fully charged and all your gear is packed.
  2. Set up the tripod and the camera in the desired location. Frame up the shot and make sure the tripod is stable and won't shake as the timelapse is being shot. Take a few test photos to see if the shot is what you want it to be and to check if the exposure is correct.
  3. Set the camera to fully manual mode and make sure auto white balance is not on and iso is not set to auto. This avoids any lighting changes as the light of the environment changes. (The first timelapse I ever did I didn't do this and as the sun set the camera kept on compensating yielding a horrible result.) Also make sure the camera is in manual focus mode so it doesn't try to refocus every photo.
  4. Set up the method of capturing the timelapse whether it be a computer, magic lantern or an intervalometer and set it to take the desired amount of photos with the desired time between photos.
  5. When everything is setup, get the timelapse going and sit back as the camera works its wonders.
  6. Once the timelapse is shot, pack up and go home or alternativley, take another!

Now for the maths. If you want to work out how long the final timelapse will be you will first need to work out how long you want your timelapse to last. For instance if you are shooting a sunset or sunrise you may only want to be shooting for 30 minutes to an hour whereas if you are doing some astrophotography you may want to shoot for 2+ hours. Once I work out how long I want to shoot for I set my exposure and how long I want between shots (make sure the time in between shots is always more than the exposure time). I then change the number of shots to suit the length I want to shoot for. Once I know how many shots I will take I can work out the time of the final result at 24fps (frames per second)

For Example:
I want to shoot a sunset and I want the timelapse to span 45 minutes. I set the time between shots to be 15 seconds. First I convert 45 minutes into seconds as it is easier to work out the number of shots:
45 minutes x 60 = 2700 seconds
Then to work out the number of shots I divide 2700 by 15
2700/15 = 180 shots
Therefore i need 180 shots to get 45 minutes of timelapse with 15 seconds between shots.

Post Production

The post production process for assembling all of your photos into a timelapse is relativley easy. To process all of the photos I use Adobe Lightroom 4 and also use it to export the image sequence. The below video shows the process for exporting a timelapse in Lightroom.

**I did not create this video nor did I intend to infringe on any copyright**

Motion Timelapsing

This form of timelapsing adds a certain sense of professionalism to the shot. These are commonly taken on motorized sliders which can become extremely expensive. At the pinnacle of motion controlled timelapsing you can pay upwards of $10,000. This can however be done on a budget and still yield very professional results. The motion timelapsing process is much the same as the static timelapse process only instead of a tripod you have motion control gear. Below is an example of a motion timelapse with expensive equipment (**Again I did not make this video, only for educational purposes**).

Cheap DIY Solution?

Of course there is! I used a knex motor and geared it down using knex parts and gears and was able to make the final shaft spin so slowly that the slider moved 1.5 metres in about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Anyone can create a cheap and easy way of doing this by undertaking some research about some systems people have made and then using your imagination.Below are some photos of my setup and then a very simple (and not overly stunning) motion timelapse to merely show how smoothly it moves.

Knex Motion Dolly Timelapse

Knex Timelapse Dolly

The footage above is the first timelapse I made with this dolly. It is not the most visually interesting shot but it demonstrates this cheap DIY solution in action. I found that it worked very well but there were a few teething problems which detracted from the quality of the final result but were fixable.

Bumps on the 'track' and on the wheels show up in the final result. You will notice in the footage, that it seems to move up and down ever so slightly. This is due to the fact that I used the 'Warp Stabiliser' effect in Adobe After Effects to try to eliminate the bumps from shooting. I have found that even the most minute of imperfections in the wheels or the surface its running on show up to be very obvious in the final result. Therefore it is important to have the smoothest surface possible for the dolly to run on and imperative that the wheels are kept in good condition. This can be remedied with some post production work but it won't look as good as doing it correctly in the production phase.

Another important aspect of this process is making sure the surface used for the dolly to run on (in my case a sheet of wood) is not warped. In the final result the field of view moves up and down a little. This is due to the aforementioned bumps and also the warp in the wood the dolly was moving on. While this is not so bad, it does look somewhat strange and the final result would look much more professional if the wood weren't warped.

Tips

  • Think very carefully before going on a 'shoot' to make sure you have all the gear
  • Make sure all batteries are fully charged beforehand
  • Framing up the subject matter for the timelapse is still very important. Just because it is a timelapse doesn't mean it will look good. Invest some time in getting just the right shot.
  • Backup all photos once they are on the computer so they don't randomly disappear.
  • Think creatively when it comes to a DIY motion timelapse solution.
  • HAVE FUN of course!

Comments

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    • profile image

      slosha 3 years ago

      You forgot to include the timelapse video from the knex DIY dolly. I was wondering how it turned out

    • mickeymug profile image
      Author

      mickeymug 3 years ago from Australia

      Aaahh, very good point. I will try and update it in a few days with a video and my experience using it. Thanks for the feedback!

    • profile image

      dariyal 2 years ago

      In static timelapse point number 3 you say to leave autofocus on so that it doesn't change during the shoot, but I think u meant turn autofocus off...

    • mickeymug profile image
      Author

      mickeymug 2 years ago from Australia

      @dariyal you are very correct, thankyou for pointing that out.

    • profile image

      anon 2 years ago

      did you use any software for the first equipment list?

    • mickeymug profile image
      Author

      mickeymug 2 years ago from Australia

      The Canon EOS utility is the software used to capture the timelapse. In terms of editing I used lightroom which is demonstrated in the 'Post Production' section of this hub.

    • PhoenixV profile image

      PhoenixV 2 years ago from USA

      This is really excellent information on timelapse photography, thanks.

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