Time Lapse Photography

Everyone has seen time lapse photos, perhaps of clouds going across the sky, fog rolling in over the Golden Gate Bridge, a flower opening, or the stars rotating against a stationary background. Most people enjoy seeing these, as our surroundings appear stationary to us, and this type of imagery brings a seemingly static object to life. This type of imagery is like anything else in photography, there are masters of this art form, but the average person can also be creative and make their own time lapse photographic videos, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of expensive equipment.

Basic Concepts

Images are captured at regular intervals from a stationary point such as a camera tripod. For this to produce the desired effect, almost any camera can be used, as long as it produces images of reasonable quality, and that it allows the connection of a remote shutter release. A remote shutter release allows a person to take an image without touching the camera, with a minimum of movement, except for that which is caused by the shutter mechanism. It is not required for some one to be with the camera, manually pressing the shutter release, when there is a device called an intervalometer which will take images automatically. The intervalometer plugs into the remote shutter location and is programmable. This can be set to take an image every so many seconds, until a certain number of images is reached, or a set amount of time has elapsed, and of course the photographer can intervene at any time and resume manual control.

For the images to be consistent in view, the camera should be mounted on a sturdy tripod, which could have weights hung from the center of it to ensure that wind or movement does not rock it. It is important that the view does not move for the finished product to look professional. But apart from the tripod there are other concerns that need to be looked at. The camera settings, in particular the white balance, are of great importance. The white balance ensures that the colors look good depending upon the time of day, or the type of light. Light is measured in Kelvins and it changes throughout the day, and of course most noticeably at dusk. If a camera is set to ‘auto’ white balance it will assess the quality of light and compensate for it each and every shot, and the resulting images will differ slightly which will not yield the greatest result. Assuming that you are taking your time lapse sequence in either daylight, starlight, or under artificial light, the white balance should be manually set to the appropriate type of light. This will ensure that each image is consistent in warmth and color.

If you are going to take a time lapse sequence of a sunset or sunrise, it will require a lot more work, as you will be dealing with a quality and intensity of light that will be changing, and which could require individual adjustment of every image. For the beginner it is easier and safer to set the white balance and ISO (light sensitivity) before you start, and view the resulting video to see what worked, and what could be improved on. The very first video you do will impress you, but as with everything else, practice and experience will allow you to take on larger projects with a higher success rate.

Advanced time lapse photographers often use rails, which are tracks that the camera is mounted on, so in addition to capturing images at regular intervals, the viewpoint changes ever so slightly with each shot, giving the effect of a person walking and the time lapse happening in front of them. A boom could also be employed which swings the camera through an arc while maintaining a fixed angle of view. The photographers employing these tactics are quite dedicated and will work days on end for one finished five or ten minute video.

However for the individual wishing to experiment, that has a tripod and an intervalometer, satisfactory results can be captured from the first attempt.

Effects

The interval between shots can be varied depending upon the type of video you wish to create. For the beginner you can try setting the intervalometer to take an image every 30 seconds, which would give you 120 shots in an hour. For the video to flow properly, you will need to feed the images through at about 20 images per second, and it could look a bit choppy even then depending upon your subject material. That would mean that one hour of time would be condensed into 4 seconds. Realizing this gives a stronger impression of time lapse videos you might have seen in the past. You could change this to one image every 15 seconds and you would then have 8 seconds of footage per hour. If you did this for 8 hours you would have just over a one minute video. Of course you could take images more frequently, and/or feed the images in the video at a slower rate, but you do risk it becoming choppy to the eye.

If you are doing city shots with vehicular or pedestrian traffic you might find that changing your camera settings to make each image a little longer will allow for a pleasing blurred effect. So in place of a person or car being static in an image, and the resulting video being somewhat choppy, you could set your camera to use a 2 second shutter speed, which would make the cars and/or people blurry. As the camera is stationary, all static objects such as your landscape or a temporarily parked vehicle would be clear, while everything else is in motion around them. This is a good effect to experiment with and can yield some satisfying video clips.

Night shots are harder as digital cameras have to process the images. For night images the ISO (light sensitivity) should be set higher so that a minimum shutter time is used. However a higher ISO allows more digital noise, particularly purple and green speckles, to appear in the image. Most cameras have noise reduction settings to combat this, and they are quite effective at lower ISO’s, however the big problem that a night photographer faces is that they have to strike a balance between the number of images they desire, the time they have available, and the amount of time it takes to capture and process an image. For instance if a one off night photo of presentation quality is desired, the ISO would be set low, and the shutter speed could well be 30 seconds. This again stresses the need for the tripod to be firmly mounted against wind or accidental knocks. But for an image that took 30 seconds for the camera to capture, the camera might take another 30 seconds to process it, so it soon becomes apparent that the night photographer doing time lapse work must have quality equipment. In addition to this, with the battery energy consumed on long shots, the batteries will drain faster. This throws in additional risk to the photographer as he will have to stop the sequence occasionally to replace the batteries, in a minimum of time to avoid choppiness, and without changing the angle of view. A quality tripod head allows the camera to be removed easily, but one knock of the tripod when attaching or removing the camera will ruin a time lapse sequence.

Other Concerns

If you are doing a time lapse sequence and it is from a building you are in, the amount of effort you put into it is minimal. You can work or pursue other activities, and check back on your camera occasionally. This is not the case if you are outdoors though. If you are outdoors you have to be present near the camera so it doesn’t get stolen, hit by a car, or fall off a cliff. There are also other risks such as rain which will ruin most cameras in short order. Even a few drops can accumulate on the lens which will ruin your efforts. You might also have to deal with wildlife, whether it be animals in the bush or drunks in the city. Photography often takes people to remote locations and personal safety should always be in the back of a persons mind.

You should look at the location you are considering and look at different angles, which objects you would like to be stationary in your video, and distortion that can be caused by having your camera pointed upwards or downwards. Distortion caused by camera angle, or cropping, can be done in batches after the fact, but everything you can right from the start will reduce your time in processing and provide you a finished product that is closer to what you envision at the beginning.

If you are doing this you also have to be prepared and have some food and water, and preferably a comfortable chair, or some company to keep you focused. Falling asleep on the job will not do, and it is a real risk on night shoots, especially if alcohol is involved.

The sheer numbers of shots you will be taking require that you have spare batteries and memory cards. The images add up fast into GB’s and having adequate hard drives for the images and the back ups is required. If the resulting video isn’t required in high definition, you should consider using a lower image size (in megapixels) in your camera settings. You still might find that the resulting image is too large, and there is free software out there, such as Faststone Photo Resizer, which allows you to resize images in batches, or even just to add your name or a title to each shot, so that it displays throughout the finished video clip.

Putting it All Together

We’ll assume at this point that you have a sequence of several hundred images that you wish to place into a video. There are a number of programs that will do this, but one of the easiest is QuickTime Player Pro. The only reason you would ever buy the Pro version of QuickTime Player is for this feature. Open QuickTime Player and click on “File” and select “Open Image Sequence”.

quick_time.jpg

Browse to your folder where the images are and select the first one. Follow the prompts to load your images and you will shortly have your video to view. You can change the speed (the number of frames per second) until you have a video that isn’t choppy.

The final video can be massive in size as it is cumulative of each image, and a decent clip can be several gigabytes. You should look at the file formats available to you and balance up file size and video quality to come up with the end product. If you will be uploading this anywhere, file size is important.

Conclusion

At this point, if you have a half decent camera, a tripod, and an intervalometer, you should be able to produce your own time lapse video. Instruction and research is important but nothing beats experience. Time lapse films are very interesting and you can pick up things in them that you never notice at any other time, whether it be the movement of clouds or the night sky, or patterns in an urban environment. The creative process can be quite rewarding in and of itself, and just knowing how these videos are produced allows a deeper appreciation of the amount of work and experience that goes into a successful time lapse video.

References


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