For those who don’t know what Time-Lapse photography is, time lapse involves taking repeated images over a regular time-interval, then stringing those images together to make a moving picture which runs at high speed. Pretty much anyone who’s ever watched a nature documentary will have seen time-lapse at work. Those really cool shots of sweeping landscapes with fluffy clouds building and sweeping across the horizon looking like waves on a sea-shore: That’s time-lapse.
And you can do that with your camera and some simple software, and it’s a lot of fun.
Some digital compact cameras have a time-lapse function built-in. My Canon Powershot G9, for example, does. It’s a bit restrictive, in that the camera only has two default time-settings (2-second interval and 10-second interval). And it’s on a Powershot G9. Which, while pretty decent for a compact, doesn’t produce the most high-quality images. In fact it exports at 640×480, which isn’t that exciting at all.
The real fun is in using a nifty piece of optics. Like a Canon EOS 5D and some top-range Canon glassware, so you can get some really nice images coming off the sensor. So, using a Canon TC80N3 remote control, I decided to give it a go.
There’s a few different things to think about setting up a shoot for time-lapse. The obvious one, is time. It can take a while, depending on what you want to shoot. You start by thinking about the output. If you’re wanting to create a movie, how long do you want it to be? Remember that if you’re looking at playing it back, you’re probably wanting to run it at about 20 frames per second to get a nice smooth playback. That means, for every second of playback, you’ll need at least 20 shots (more if you want to increase the fps rate). A movie less than 5 seconds long is a bit on the short side. So you’ll be needing somewhere in the vicinity of at least 100 frames, even for a little movie.
From there, and linked to that, you need to consider your interval rate. It can be whatever you want it to be, from 1 second to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. For this, you need to consider a) what you’re wanting to shoot, and b) practicality. For example, capturing motion on a busy street, you will probably want a fairly short interval. One or two seconds between images will let you capture lots of bustle and motion. You’re capturing objects that will move across your frame in a few seconds- probably no more than 10. So if you extend your interval rate to longer than ten seconds, the person or vehicle who appears in the first frame, will have vanished by the second. If you want to track their motion across the frame, you want a shorter interval. However if you like the idea of having people randomly pop up and disappear, you can also get some fun effects that way, though maybe a bit more chaotic.
Other objects you might want to consider a shorter interval for are things like waves, and other smaller subjects that move quickly.
By contrast, if shooting landscapes and clouds, longer intervals may work better. The incremental change in the shape of a cloud from one second to the next is fairly minimal, so if you shoot cloud formations on a one-second interval, you’ll end up with a LOT of footage to go through to see the changes happening- either needing a redundantly-high fps rate, or quite a slow, uninteresting movie. Shooting every 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or even minute (probably dependant on wind-speed or convection on the day) will capture incremental changes more clearly. Likewise, changes in light over a patch of scenery or landscape, as the clouds’ shadows move or shafts or sunlight come through, is equally dramatic and occurs on a similar timescale.
Remember that the shorter the interval, the ‘slower’ the image will appear to move on playback, while the longer the interval, the more there will appear to be a fast-forward effect going on.
And so, coming back to time, depending on what you want to shoot, how long you want your movie to be, and what interval you’re going to use, you’ll have to budget time accordingly. If you want to capture bustle on a street, five minutes’ worth of shooting at a 2-second interval will net you 150 frames, which you can play back at 20fps to give you 7 1/2 seconds of movie. Capturing clouds building over a city skyline on a sunny afternoon, you may want to use a 20-second interval, so to get the same 150 frames for a 7 1/2 second movie, you’ll need an hour and a quarter. Simple maths. But getting time-lapse is a pretty time-consuming business!
Another thing to consider is your shooting location. A couple of things to think about here. First off, and this is a challenge I’ve faced every time I’ve shot, make sure your camera and tripod (yes, you need a tripod unless you want your time-lapse to have that handycam shake) are in a sheltered location. Sheltered, primarily, from wind.
This is problematic, because time-lapse is generally (not exclusively) an outdoor process. And so is wind. But also, some of the most enjoyable time-lapse subjects include things that move, particularly, clouds. And for clouds to move, you usually need wind. So there’s often a bit of a clash of interests here. Because when wind hits your tripod and the camera shakes, so does your time-lapse video, ruining the effect. You’ll see if you look at a couple of mine.
Ways to deal with this:
a) Use a heavy tripod (if you have one)
b) Try and put yourself in a sheltered location
Neither one foolproof, so you’ll have to do the best you can, but be prepared to come back another day if the wind is stiff and your camera’s rocking around, because it’ll probably ruin your output.
Another piece to consider here is anything else that might make your camera shake over time. If you’re in a busy area, is someone likely to knock into your tripod? Can you protect it? And vibrations from passing vehicles can also be captured- particularly on bridges and overpasses- ideal shooting vantages otherwise.
Finally, when thinking about placement, think about the passage of the sun. If you’re doing a shoot that’s going to last 3 hours, how will the sun transit across the sky? What will this do to your image? Will the sun move into your lens, and do you want this? Will it create flare, and do you want this as well? How will it affect your settings, and do you want to have your camera set on an automatic exposure setting so that it adjusts to changes in light, or do you want it fixed so that as light changes, drama may increase?
Different sorts of things to think about compared to your normal run-of-the-mill photoshoot.
At any rate, I’m pretty new to the whole time-lapse thing, but I hope to put more movies up soon. These will have to do in the meantime- and you can see some of the lessons I’m learning through them. I might make some comments on some of them at some stage, from a learning perspective, and try and find more time to actually do some more shooting!
Finally, to see some of the gorgeous things that cleverer people than I have done with time-lapse photography, see these two links, one of the Southern Ocean sky at night from southern Australia, and the other of a stand of trees in Norway changing with the seasons over the course of a year.
1. View of Halls Gap from a nearby shoulder of the Grampians. VIC, Australia.
2. Windmills near Ararat, country VIC.
3. Bustling street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
4. Silverband Falls, Grampians National Park, VIC. This one is composed of long-exposure (2-second long) frames to give the water a silky appearance and blur out people, too.
5. View from our bedroom window over several hours one spring afternoon/evening. Melbourne.