When you get down to it, video is just a series of frames—or more precisely, snapshots—strung together in chronological order. When we capture footage, our cameras are essentially taking a photograph (frame) every fraction of a second. Sift through the compilation of 24, 25, 30 or 60 of these frames in a second (your frame rate) and your photos come to life!
Time-lapse photography is really a shorthand version of that process, which allows us to distill down events that we’re filming to capture larger patterns or more subtle occurrences—like the movement of the stars in the sky at night as the earth turns, the life cycle of a flower, or traffic patterns in a city. For time-lapse, the frequency of frames captured is lowered (for example, one frame is captured every minute instead of every fraction of a second) but the frame rate stays the same—for example, 30 of those frames (or 24, or 60, etc) are strung together per second. That way, you can watch a day pass from sunrise to sunset in a matter of minutes, or even seconds.
This type of photography has a wide range of uses, from the artistic—time-lapse video can be stunning, or can add a believable sense of the passage of time to a film—to the scientific. Astronomers, meteorologists and other researchers have used it to study natural patterns or occurrences that aren’t directly observable by the human eye.
But you don’t really need high-tech gadgetry or equipment to try to capture your own time-lapse video. You just need time. Here are a few basic pointers to help you create a visually stunning piece using time-lapse.
Choose the right camera.
For this technique, a high-quality DSLR is your best choice. Some consumer cameras have some limited ability to adjust the frame rate for time-lapse, but it isn’t necessary—in fact, you’ll get more flexibility if you use an external trigger. You won’t be using the video setting on your camera for this (again, unless you camera has some kind of specialized time-lapse functionality), you will be taking actual still photos. Hundreds or thousands of them.
You absolutely need a tripod, or some kind of reliable stabilizing mechanism for your camera. Any movement between shots will disrupt the flow of your time-lapse. If you’re using a tripod, make sure the levers that pull the camera back and forth and up or down are greased for smooth movement, in case you have to or want to move the camera at any point while shooting. (This is a more advanced technique for time-lapse shooting.)
Prime your lens.
Generally, the best lens for this type of photography is a prime lens—i.e. one that doesn’t have zoom functionality. A fixed focal length will give you the best chance for a more stable image throughout your shooting. You can fool around with the focus if you want, but that’s an advanced technique.
Set it up.
Do not use any automatic settings on your camera (including ISO), as you don’t want anything to change between the shots—except for what’s happening in front of the camera! Also, make sure that your camera is in JPEG-mode rather than RAW, as taking a large number of raw images can overwhelm your memory card and camera buffer. JPEGs take up less space than raw images—you’re sacrificing a little bit of image quality, but that won’t matter as much, as the resolution of these shots will be more than enough for a good video.
If you can afford it, buy or rent an intervolameter. This handy gadget allows you not only to remotely trigger your camera shutter (reducing human error and the risk of bumping the camera), it lets you set the timing between shots—that is, you can set it to take a shot every minute, every ten minutes, etc. For the best time-lapse possible, you have to remember that you’re shooting over an extended period of time. Capturing the sunrise with 20 shots in a second isn’t going to really be that effective. One shot every minute will go a lot further than 20 shots in a second. So be generous with the time you allot between shots.
Put it all together.
The way you do this depends on what editing software you’re using, but the general idea is that you will be stringing together all the images you’ve taken (could be thousands, depending on your project!) into an “image sequence.” Quicktime, Final Cut and After Effects all have simple image sequence functionality.