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photo by jamesteohart via iStock
Time-lapse photography has been around since near the beginning of photography and cinematography.
The genesis of time-lapse photography could arguably be the motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. Motion picture pioneers showed time-lapse photography in films like those by Georges Méliès showing street scenes in 1898 and Percy Smith in 1910 which chronicled a flower’s blooming cycle.
Digital photography has made the process much more accessible to us without the need to purchase specialty time-lapse photography gear such as clockwork based intervalometers. We will discuss some time-lapse photography tips that will help you get started using this amazing technique.
Time-Lapse Photography Gear
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To begin, what gear do we need to have in order to make good time-lapse photography sequences?
First item is a good camera. With many of the newer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, you may have all the essential controls already built into the camera’s features. Check within your camera’s deep menu for a control labeled “Time-Lapse” or “Intervalometer” which is probably in the video menu, though it may be under remotes or self timer.
Since you’re likely using an interchangeable lens camera, choose the lens that works best for the subject matter. A city street view time-lapse would probably need a wide angle while a blooming flower might require a macro lens.
My time-lapse photography tips include a word on camera and lens settings for time-lapse photography. You will get more consistent results if you set focus and exposure controls manually. Aperture priority may work for automation, but you should probably have a test run to decide those issues.
A sturdy tripod or other completely stationary camera mount is essential for most time-lapse photography subjects. An alternative to the static point of view is a time-lapse of some form of travel like a car or motorbike trip, but you will still need to have a secure mount for that, too.
Neutral density (ND) filters, especially the variable type, can really be useful, too. Variable ND filters can help even out exposure issues throughout the day and then there is also a specific style of time-lapse photography that is done with variable ND filters like the H&Y K-Series Variable ND filter.
How To Do Time-Lapse Photography
Now that you have gear chosen and ready, here is a condensed version of a time-lapse photography tutorial. Some of the steps are very similar to other genres of photography you are already mastering. For a more detailed explanation of some of these steps, you can search our huge database of photography articles.
Choose Location/Subject and Research
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Not every idea we have for time-lapse photography will actually work out for us. Some spots are simply too busy or have certain restrictions for visitors or photographers. The way you find out if a location or subject will be workable for you is to research it.
Obviously, Google is a good place to start since you can find links to maps, websites, and even other photographer’s previous photos. Another good place to research online is through the various online photography forums like our own.
Once you have the basic information about a place, a field trip may be in order. You can scout out for yourself some good spots to set up and take note of the lighting conditions at various times of day. You might as well make some time-lapse photography test runs, too.
Be observant and take note of all the variables. A notebook, an electronic or paper version, will come in very handy for this step, as there are lots of variables to track.
Secure Your Equipment
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By secure your equipment, I mean two things. One, have it mounted on a sturdy tripod or other style of camera mount such as clamps or a stand, something that won’t move even a micron throughout your time-lapse photography shoot.
The second meaning is to make sure it doesn’t get stolen, run over, or swept away by a lava flow. This may require constant monitoring, a lock, or placing it in a spot accessible only by you. Be careful! Some remote spots may be somewhat hazardous, involving heights, slopes, or tight quarters.
Set Focus and Exposure
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For most time-lapse photography sessions, you will want to set both the focus and the exposure manually. In the days of film, we relied on the exposure latitude of color negative and black and white films to help us out, now we rely on RAW files for the same reasons.
This may seem counterintuitive to some, but leaving focus and exposure up to automation generally results in quite a few unsable frames, more so than setting manually and using good judgement does. Especially will the autofocus tend to mess things up for you.
Therefore, with the time-lapse photography gear most of us will be using, it’s a good idea to set up our equipment during a time period when the exposure settings aren’t likely to vary much. The full daylight hour from a couple of hours before Noon to several hours after seems to work well in many situations. The more experienced you become, the more latitude you will be able to handle.
Use Blur Motion Technique
photo by JohnnyGreig via iStock
This is another idea that sounds counterintuitive at first. However, when you play back the finished video of your time-lapse photography at regular speed, sharply recorded moving objects will create a jarring stop motion effect. This is usable for some subjects, but for many others it just looks odd.
Using shutter speeds that let the subjects in motion blur out a little bit results in a video that feels more natural and is comfortable to view. Part of the reason is because we know the scene is changing due to things being in motion, seeing the apparent motion of slow shutter speed blur makes the brain react better than the jerky stop motion effect of clearly defined moving objects.
Sounds weird, but it really does work. A great way to be able to ensure a slow enough shutter speed for the exposures is to use a variable ND filter to attenuate the light intensity of the scene. I like a variable version of ND filters for this because it allows for more control options.
A filter like the H&Y K-Series Variable ND filter is perfect for this use, plus it adds into our set up being a very good circular polarizer as well, helping tame reflections and really drawing attention to cloud detail in the sky as the movie progresses.
photo by scanrail via iStock
Since we are shooting in RAW for more latitude in exposure, we are going to need to post process the files. Time-lapse photography produces a lot of files, depending on the interval chosen between each exposure. Remember, each individual frame captured will only be seen for a fraction of a second at a time during playback.
Batch processing, especially with a non destructive program like Lightroom, will save you a whole lot of time in finishing your time-lapse photography project.
Batch means you can do the same operation to several files at once. Non destructive means your computer processor can work less, so the entire multi file operation can proceed relatively quickly.
The end result will be a whole lot fun to watch and share. Plus, each time you make a time-lapse, you will learn something to make your next time-lapse photography project even better.