January 10, 2011 /

Time Lapse Videos: How-To & Tips

Time-Lapse video tips and techniques

Fun with Time Lapse Videos

Winter is upon us here in Atlanta, and wedding season for a photographer is slowing down. Sure, you could take a break and enjoy the holidays indoors with a nice cup of hot coffee, or you could explore some fun personal projects!

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Time Lapse from Zac & Betty FengLong Photography on Vimeo.

If you hang out on enough photography websites long enough, eventually you will see someone post a link to a really stunning time lapse video over on Vimeo or YouTube. Some of these simply blow your mind, as time lapse is definitely a unique presentation method to tell a story that isn’t too overdone (yet). Though some may argue that Time Lapse is the “new HDR” and definitely a hot topic at the moment…

The Equipment

Camera and Interval Timer

Sturdy Tripod

Editing Software of Choice

That’s about it, which is part of the beauty of time lapse, you don’t necessarily need a ton of equipment. Sure if you are Vince LaForet and have money to burn on a project maybe you are shooting with a motorized dolly for something truly cinematic, but for most of us mortals that’s all you need.

Camera selection is not entirely important as long as you buy an interval timer which is made by most camera manufacturers or 3rd party suppliers. Our Nikon D700 has an interval timer built into the camera that can take up to 999 photos, while our Canon gears (5D Mark II and 7D’s) required us to buy an external controller, though you can get away with a $20 one found on eBay versus the “official” Canon brand which runs $100+. Lens selection depends on your vision, from a wide angle lens for shooting a landscape or sunrise to a macro lens to capture a flower opening.

Your tripod is probably your most important piece of gear (well, maybe after the interval timer unless you like pressing buttons), as you want to make sure you have something sturdy that will not move around during the sequence as you are shooting photos. A quick fix that helps this even if you have a solid tripod is to throw a beanbag on top of your camera to help minimize vibrations and add stability.

You can see in this video that even on a tripod the wind was whipping around Atlanta, and the third sequence really shakes too much:

[Time-Lapse] Oakland Cemetery in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia from Zac & Betty FengLong Photography on Vimeo.

Editing software is a personal preference, I am familiar with Adobe Premiere Pro for doing my video work, so the workflow for time lapse is intuitive for me. Other cheaper options include Quicktime Pro ($30) which allows you to string together the time lapse with ease but not the deep video editing that a program like Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro would allow.

The Process

We have talked about previsualization before as it applies to wedding photography, though actually this applies to all photography and especially video or time lapse work. Essentially you are going to “set it and forget it” which is part of the beauty of time lapse, once you have your settings dialed in, you click a button and talk away, a couple minutes or hours later you have your video! You really need to think about what you are going to shoot and what the scene is going to look like a couple of hours later as the time lapse progresses. Ask yourself the questions “what am I trying to show?” and the obvious “is it interesting?” Just because you can time lapse doesn’t mean you have to! Clouds moving across the sky over a field? Not super interesting. Thunderstorm moving across the field with a barn in the shot? Much more so. Remember your basic rules of composition and start thinking about the basics of videography to show motion.

Atlanta Time Lapse Preview: Centennial Olympic Park from Zac & Betty FengLong Photography on Vimeo.

Technical Camera Settings

Manual Mode is your preferred setting if at all possible, however for a scene like a sunset you are going to want to stay with Aperture Priority Mode due to the changing light conditions. The key here is to limit as many variables as possible so that there is little variation between shots. If you are shooting at night, also take into consideration the exposure length relative to the timer. If you want to take a shot every 5 seconds, make sure you choose an appropriate Aperture and ISO setting to allow for 5 second photos! f/11 at ISO100 probably won’t cut it at night, so choose a lower f/stop or increase your ISO to compensate. Photography is a game of compromises!

One last piece of advice is to also choose your file settings at this time, before the first shot is fired. You can always shoot in RAW, but this will add to your processing time as you will need to export all of your RAW photos to JPEGs before combining them into a movie and also increase the hard disk space required. 1000 photos at 15 MB adds up space quickly, whereas you can squeeze 1000’s of JPEGs onto the same card. Also, you can choose the smaller pixel area relative to playback. Movies in widescreen are only 1920×1080 pixels wide, which for most cameras is only the “Small” resolution setting. Keep the quality at maximum still for that HD look, but play around with using a smaller pixel area. If you choose to go down the JPEG route, you will need to make sure you nail your white balance and picture style beforehand since you essentially won’t be modifying them much afterwards. Here is one instance when you definitely want to get it right in camera! I have been experimenting with both and can’t say I have a definitive workflow just yet, wait for my next blog post on time-lapse for that one 🙂

[Time-Lapse] Snowing in Atlanta at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Christmas 2010 from Zac & Betty FengLong Photography on Vimeo.

As for the actual interval, my recommendation is one shot at a minimum every 5 or 6 seconds to give the smoothest look, more photos means more frames for the video file later. Daylight shots with quick moving action you can go as fast as 1 second between intervals, it is hard to nail down a definitive recommendation that can be applied to every scene. Here’s an example, 300 photos taken every 5 seconds equals 25 minutes of “real world” time (300 shots x 5seconds / 60seconds = 25minutes). Choose an appropriate interval to cover the event in it’s entirety or don’t go too far away so you can restart your timer! A sunrise may only last 25 minutes which could be fine, but if you want to capture more ambient time before and after the sunrise be ready to quickly restart your timer to ensure a flawless recording later.

This should give you the basics mechanics to work with and start shooting your own time-lapses. A lot goes into the planning aspect and previsualizing the scene, but I highly encourage you to just get out there and shoot! As of this posting I won’t say that my time-lapse videos are great by any stretch of the imagination, but they are certainly slowly getting better with the more I learn and the more I practice. Have fun!

Camera equipment for these videos was provided by Camera Concierge which includes the Nikon D700, Canon 5D Mark II, and Canon 7D. Wide angle shots were mostly made using the Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 and Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L.

Zachary Long is a wedding photographer based in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Together with his wife Betty Feng they form . Zac and Betty are available for weddings in the Metro Atlanta, GA area and destination weddings throughout the United States and China.

All images (c) FengLong Photography

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