Time Lapse Photography: Magic in Time

Time lapse photography is one of the most stunningly beautiful ways of revealing the hidden secrets of the passage of time. A good time lapse photographer will shoot and compile films which highlight the beauty of events which normally happen too slowly to have any significant effect on our visual experience.

The movement cycles of celestial bodies, of the natural world and of the artificial world are revealed in all their splendor by time lapse photography. Such photos leave us in awe over the hidden beauty of the world around us and over the inexorable passage of time.

Time lapse photography, however, is by definition something you cannot amateurishly pull off in your back yard. It requires careful preparation, some experience in photography, a rather extensive set of tools and skill at using specialized editing software.

In this article, we will take a look at what time lapse photography is and at some basic steps you should take in order to create a time lapse video.

What is Time Lapse Photography?

Time Lapse photography allows you to witness the passage of time at a faster speed than it actually occurs. For instance, it would allow you to see the construction of a building, from the laying of the foundation to its completion, in just over 2 minutes. That is amazing, since the actual building process lasting for years.

Here is a great example of time lapse photography, capturing the 11 years it took to build One World Trade Center in 2 minutes of compiled photos:

Of course, your project would certainly not last that long and can focus on a much shorter time span. You can start with one such as 5 night hours to capture the movement of the stars, for example.

The whole process, at a very basic level, means taking many photos of the same place a lot of times, at regular intervals. This needs to happen over a defined time period, and then putting everything together to create the time lapse video.

Time Lapse Photography: A Step-by-Step Walkthrough

Time lapse photography requires a meticulous approach to technique, equipment and also a good dose of creativity. For now, we will attempt to highlight the basic steps that making a time lapse video would entail:

1. Pick Your Photography Subject and Work the Details

Before you get started, make sure you pick your subject and shooting position very carefully. For truly great time lapse photography ideas, consider all the angles, the colors and any factors which might intervene with the shooting.

Some of the most popular time lapse photography themes are celestial bodies (i.e. stars, the Sun and Moon), plants growing and germinating, construction sites, or just the daily hassle of a crowded boulevard. Whenever choosing from any of these and trying to define your scope, it’s imperative to consider:

  • Event Duration. First of all, consider how much the event in question lasts, so as to properly create your shooting strategy. For instance, if an event only lasts for a short time (a sunset for example), you should consider taking more shots over a shorter period of time. Conversely, if an event lasts for a longer period of time (the passage of stars across the night sky), your shots can have longer time intervals between them. Choosing the correct number of shots to photographically document your event is crucial for high-quality time lapse photography.
  • Desired Time Lapse Video Appearance. To keep it basic, there are two extremes between which a time lapse video can oscillate: blocky appearance or smooth appearance. For blocky clips, the differences between individual frames are more pronounced and give out a fragmented impression when playing the final cut. This approach is used for long events which require more time between shots. The time lapse video of the construction of the One World Trade Center is a perfect example. By contrast, a smooth appearance implies shots being taken much more often, in order to highlight short time-span events. A good example is a plant growing, shown on YouTube here:

2. Do the Math

Grab your calculator for this one, because you need to precisely determine how often you need to take your shots. This depends on the desired length of the time lapse video and the number of frames per second (FPS) you are going to use (which is normally 24 in most movies). Of course, you should also consider the duration of the events per se. Let’s imagine, for instance, that you’re going to make a 4-minute video of the nighttime sky to see every individual star moving.

time lapse photography

Now, think about how long the event will actually last. Let’s say we will only stay up for 5 hours (18,000 seconds). Thus, it follows that:

time lapse photography

Now, you know exactly how many pictures you need to take and how many seconds must elapse between each shot. Of course, you might choose to make a shorter video with a slower FPS rate, which will result in less information to process. The smaller the time interval between photos the smoother your final video will be. However, remember that ‘smoothness’ is not a must, and is only desirable for some types of time lapse videos.

3. Shoot the Photographs

Now comes the really tricky part: shooting your photos. Regardless of what type of camera you use, you should definitely use a tripod. Perfect camera stability is paramount for a high-quality video. You should make sure your tripod is set on a smooth surface, as much as possible. Also verify that all cables and other props are well secured, to keep the camera still in windy conditions.

Finally, if you do this outside, you should definitely keep a close eye on the camera while it does its thing. Time lapse photography can be particularly attractive for individuals who fancy a free camera. There are three basic pieces of equipment you can use in order to do a time lapse: an SLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), a point-and-shoot camera or a webcam.

Using an SLR

This is the standard way of approaching time lapse photography, and perhaps the best. Modern SLR’s are quite performant and well able to handle massive photo shoots at quick time intervals. However, in order to get your time lapse video done by the book, you will also need an Intervalometer. This is a tool that helps you program your camera to take shots at exactly the required time interval. It doesn’t require any intervention on your behalf. Check out a great Canon version here.

A few tips – you will need to program your camera accordingly and prepare it for the photo shoot. The first thing you should do is set your camera to record in JPG format. Also, set a moderate picture size in order to save space. You should also have extra memory cards with you and keep a good track of which pictures are on each. Always charge your batteries and, if possible, take an extra one with you.

Finally, set your camera’s white balance and exposure to manual, especially if light conditions in the environment you plan on shooting in will fluctuate. You can check out a great tutorial on how to use your SLR camera and auxiliary gear here:

Using a Point-and-Shoot Camera

Using a Point-and-Shoot camera is much more difficult. You’ll have to manually take the pictures, which simply won’t work for most time lapse ideas. Though some cameras might have some hidden interval settings somewhere, it would still be a little awkward to use. However, this type of camera can work for some ideas, such as a daily portrait compilation like this one:

Using a Webcam

Surprisingly, using your laptop and/or a webcam (or even an iPhone) for time lapse photography is very easy. This is due to the large palette of apps available for directly editing your time lapse. Try Gawker for Mac, or Webcam Timer Shot app for Windows and Android.

4. Edit and Compile

Once you finished taking the photos, you can proceed to compile them into a time lapsed movie. You can use a software like QuickTime Pro. Before you do this, you might also consider using Photoshop to optimize your pictures and improve lighting or colors.

This can be a very tedious process. However, there are various tools in Photoshop which allow you to apply the same changes simultaneously to all your pictures. The new versions will be saved in separate folders.

Finally, you can add music and other effects for maximum effect, just like in this montage:

Time Lapse Photography – The Magic of Time

Time lapse photography can be truly magical if done properly, as the wonderful art put together by Lincoln Harrison shows. However, it requires a great deal of preparation, photography skill and the right tools. Once you have all these in order, the results can be truly fascinating. People will be reveling in what you have created, and your photos may become the talk of the web.

In the end, it’s really up to your ingenuity and hard work. If you want to join the select group of true time lapse photography artists, the way is open.

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