How it works
You can think of time lapse photography as the opposite of slow motion. Where slow motion video slows down time so that you can see fast-moving events more clearly, time lapse photography speeds time up so that things that normally take minutes or hours can be played back over just a few seconds.
But where you need a video camera for regular video or slow motion, you can make time lapse videos with a stills camera, a bit of patience and your computer.
Essentially, what you're doing is shooting individual still images at set intervals, then turning them into the frames of a video on your computer.
Step 1: Check your camera
Cameras vary in their features. Some advanced models have interval timers built in, so that once you've chosen your settings you can start the camera off and it'll shoot the whole sequence automatically.
• If your camera doesn't have an interval timer you'll need to shoot the frames manually, which is a bit of a drag but perfectly possible if you've got the patience and you don't mind counting in your head or using the second hand on your wristwatch to time the intervals.
• But it's also possible to get third-party remotes for many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras from makers like Hähnel or Phottix, which have interval timers built in, and this makes the process much easier.
• There's one more option. If you're photographing fast-moving subjects like cars on the freeway, try using your camera's continuous shooting mode at its lowest speed – usually anywhere from 1-3 fps. When you set the camera to capture only small or medium sized images, it should be able to take dozens or even hundreds before it finally slows down, and the interval should be just about right for faster subjects.
Step 2: Get a tripod
You need your camera to be absolutely rock steady throughout the whole sequence, otherwise your movie is going to shake and jitter so much it's unwatchable. You don't need a specific type, just one with good, sturdy legs and a well-made head.
Normal tripod rules apply here. Tripods with fewer leg sections tend to be sturdier, and you should always extend the legs fully before raising the centre column, since the column adds much more wobble. Tripods from known brands like Manfrotto are going to be more stable than budget specials.
When you're setting up your camera on the tripod, make sure it's level before you start because straightening a video can be a lot more difficult than straightening a still image.
Step 3: Aspect ratio and image size
Most cameras shoot photos in a 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio, but HD movies are conventionally in the 16:9 ratio. So, if your camera lets you swap aspect ratios, choose the 16:9 ratio now and save yourself some trouble later.
And you'll save your camera and computer a whole lot of processing effort if you shoot at a smaller file size. Your camera may shoot 20-megapixel stills or more, but you only need 2 megapixels for 1920 x 1080 movies.
So set the camera to shoot JPEGs not raw files and switch to the Small or Medium size – check the manual to pick the one closest to 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is the resolution for full HD movies. (You could try shooting a 4K time lapse movie at a higher resolution, but there's no guarantee that it'll play back smoothly on the average digital device.)
Step 4: Lock down your camera settings
It's not just the camera body that has to be locked down tight, but its settings too. You don't want any variation at all from one frame to the next, so everything needs to be set to manual. Otherwise, there's a risk the camera will make tiny adjustments between frames that gives your movie a 'flickery' effect.
• The first job is to set the camera to manual exposure mode and carefully adjust the shutter speed and lens aperture to produce the right exposure. You need to plan an exposure suitable for the whole sequence, not just what look right at the start.
• Next, set the camera to a preset white balance setting ('direct sun', for most outdoor shots) rather than auto white balance.
• Finally, it's a good idea to use manual focus too. Otherwise, the camera may change its mind about what to focus on when things move around the frame – and even if it doesn't, allowing it to 'refocus' between frames can produce tiny shifts in magnification.
Step 5: Now do the maths
OK, so let's say we want a movie that plays back at 30fps (a typical default) and lasts for 20 seconds. This means we'll need 20 seconds times 30 frames per second, or 600 stills. Yes, that's a lot of stills, which is why an automated interval timer makes life a lot simpler!
If that sounds like it's going to take too long, you could shoot 300 stills instead to get a 10-second time lapse, or 150 stills for a 5-second time lapse.
There's just one more thing to think about: the interval. Each subject is different so it's hard to give precise figures, but here are some starting points.
- Relatively fast-moving subjects like cars or people: 1/8 to 1/2 sec, depending on speed distance. This is where you may need to switch from an interval timer to the camera's continuous shooting mode.
- Slow moving subjects like clouds or waves: 1-5 seconds.
- Very slow subjects like star trails: 10 seconds and upwards.
Step 6: Make your time lapse with Picasa
It's tempting to head straight to your movie software to turn your stills into a movie, but this may not be the best route. Most movie editors are designed to turn stills into 5-second movie clips (or thereabouts) and adding them at an individual frame level may not be so easy (we gave up with iMovie).
But there are regular still image editors which make it much simpler, and Google's free Picasa photo organizer and editing tool is the simplest of the lot.
You select all the frames for your time lapse and then click Picasa's 'Create Movie Presentation button. This opens the Movie Maker window where you choose Time Lapse for the transition style, set the slide duration to the frame rate you want, e.g. 1/30sec, and then check the image dimensions – 1920 x 1080 (1080p) for our examples. When you hit the 'Create Movie' button Picasa will create the movie file.
Step 7: Time lapse movies with Photoshop
Making a time lapse in Photoshop is more complicated but gives you a lot more control.
- You can start by creating a new document in the correct dimensions – HDTV 1080p/29.97. This sets both the movie resolution and the frame rate.
- Now you need to display the Timeline window (Window > Timeline). This opens at the bottom of the screen, where you click the Create Video Timeline button.
- Now you need the Layer > Video Layers > New Video Layer from File command. This prompts you to locate the first still image in the timelapse series, and provided the rest have the same filename and incremental numbering (cameras do this by default), Photoshop will be able to load the rest.
- Now you could just go ahead and use the File > Export > Render Video command at this point, but that's wasting a lot of Photoshop's power.
- Instead, use the Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object command. This means you can now resize the image you see on the screen and add adjustment and filter effects, and these will be applied to all the subsequent frames when Photoshop renders the video.
Step 8: Time lapse tips
Get the interval right
You need to choose an interval time that matches the speed of your subject. This first sequence was shot using the camera's interval timer set to 1-second intervals (you'll have trouble finding an interval timers offering shorter intervals than this) and the traffic is speeded up too much, losing all sense of continuity.
This second sequences was shot using the camera's low-speed continuous shooting mode of 3 frames per second and by holding down the shutter button (not ideal – a remote release will reduce the risk of shake). This interval (around 0.3 seconds) is much better.
Think about the exposure
Judging the exposure for most scenes isn't hard, but if you want to capture the changing light of a sunset or dusk falling on city streets it's trickier.
Here, the exposure is about right – The sun is overexposed at the start and the sky is very dark at the end, but overall it works pretty well. Auto exposure can work, but you'll get exposure 'jumps' at certain points in the video or, if clouds roll over and change the light for a few seconds, you'll get a 'flickery' effect.
Use the power of Photoshop
If you use Photoshop for your time lapse photography you can create all sorts of moody effects. This first scene was taken facing out to sea in bright sunshine with no adjustments.
But this second one was taken from the same spot on the next day and facing away from the sea. This time, we used Photoshop's Camera raw filter, Clarity control and Gradient filter tool to produce this moody effect.