Time-lapse photography – A tutorial for beginners

While I was in Kiev over the long weekend I decided to play around with something different.  Now that I have a DSLR that is video capable, I’m beginning the slow process to learn more about how to take quality video and also how to take the occasional time-lapse set.  The example above is my first attempt, and if you’d like to find out how I did it please read the tutorial below and learn about what I did well and where I can improve!

First things first, and I know this is silly but it falls in my philosophy of making sure we’re all grounded in the basics – what is time-lapse photography?  It’s basically the idea of taking a series of photos in a stable environment (i.e. with a tripod or stationary camera) of a subject that is somehow changing.  That subject might be a room that’s being painted, a street scene, a growing plant, setting sun or any other event you can think of.  So there’s no real rules as to what makes something “time-lapse worthy” but I’m sure you get the idea.  To be clear though, it’s not a video – at least at first.  It’s really a series of still photos that you blend together later to create a changing set of images.

For me, this was something that I wanted to try, just to get an idea of how it works and understand how I could use it later.  So I took two different time-lapses while in Kiev just to have a play and begin the learning process.  First let’s talk about equipment.

  • Tripod – you’ve gotta have a tripod to do time-lapse photography.  Actually I take that back.  What I should really say is that your camera needs to be in a stable environment – it must be sitting somewhere so it won’t move, shake or rumble.  You can use a beanbag, a wall, or a very steady fence will do the trick.
  • Remote interval timer – this is a new purchase that I made, cost me a whopping 15 pounds on Amazon.  If you look around you can find models from Asia that do the job and are infinitely cheaper than the name brand versions.  For example, Canon makes a version of this (TC 80N3) for 115 pounds.  Definitely not required, save yourself the cash and get a generic version.
  • Time – yep, you’ll need some time.  On average it takes anywhere between 10-20 minutes to get a quality time lapse, but of course this depends on what it is you’re taking a time lapse of, how quickly you want to run the frames, etc.  It does require a bit of math, which we’ll go through below.
  • Software – I used Lightroom to edit my photos, but I then used iPhoto and iMovie to create the finished time-lapse.  If you don’t have a Mac, the two programs that most people use are either Quicktime Pro or Windows Movie Maker.

So, how does it all come together?

Step 1) Mount the camera on a tripod and get set

The camera should be in Manual mode.  Expose for the scene on hand at the moment you’re taking the picture, and you want to remove any chance for a shift in the exposure.  Everything should be locked down;  you don’t want to have the camera in P, Av or Tv mode because the exposure could potentially change as the light changes, creating a time-lapse that looks strange once you put things together.  You should also shoot your time-lapse in a constant White Balance instead of choosing Auto.  Again, Auto has the potential to change the White Balance while you’re shooting.  Focus should also be manual (this is a precaution more than anything else).

There are different schools of thought on what format of photo you should take – this is practically a holy war to some people (out of the context of time-lapse) but suffice it to say the choice is yours.  You don’t need enormous, high quality files so if you do choose to shoot in RAW shoot in the smallest RAW you can; same for jpeg.  I chose RAW solely so I could easily adjust the white balance afterwards, but again it’s up to you.

Step 2) Plug in the interval timer and figure out how many pictures you need to take

Interval timers vary but essentially you need to setup two things.  How many pictures are you taking?  (Mine can be set to unlimited or a countdown from 400.)  And how much time do you want between each picture?  Note that this isn’t the actual shutter time, but rather the delay between each picture.  I set mine to 5 seconds; this means that every 5 seconds the camera is taking a new photo.

Now for some math.  Most people will use either 24 or 30 FPS (Frames Per Second) for their time-lapse.  You’ll need to decide for how many frames you want each picture to be on the screen?  In using iMovie, I found that 4 was a good choice.  So each still photo is shown for 4 frames, and I will go through about 6 still photos in one second.  From my research, this is the best that iMovie can “easily” do.  The other thing to think about is how long do you want your time-lapse to be?  Are you going to put it to music?  How long is the music?  Based on the FPS and the final time of the photo, you’ll figure out how many pictures you need.  24 FPS * a 30 second time-lapse = 720 frames required.  For me, each of my photos is shown for 4 frames.  720 frames / 4 frames per photo = 180 photos required.

If you take a picture every second you can then determine how long you’ll be standing around to get the required amount of photos.  180 pictures * 1 photo / sec = 3 minutes of standing around taking pictures.  But keep in mind if you take a photo every 2 seconds or every 5 seconds that will change significantly.  Capturing a photo every 5 seconds means in one minute I can take 12 photos.  So to take 180 photos it will take me 15 minutes.  Quite a difference.

Step 3) Upload to your computer, crop and edit

Now of course everyone has different software, etc.  I use Lightroom 4 at home.  I uploaded my photos and did some basic editing.  I used one photo, chose a white balance that was appropriate for sunset, did some general sharpening, bumped clarity a bit and cropped the image.  When this was done I did the same series of settings to each image in the group, so that they’re all cropped the same, have the same white balance, etc.

When the editing is done, I export the photos to a folder on my desktop and then get ready for the next stage.

Step 4) Import to iPhoto

Now I gotta vent – I’m not a fan of iPhoto.  For the number of files I deal with regularly I try to steer clear of it as much as possible.  However, since I’m using iMovie and it really only allows you to easily import pictures from iPhoto, I had to use it.  Open iPhoto and simply import the photos (File -> Import to Library) that you just put on your desktop.

That’s it – we’re done with iPhoto.

Step 5) iMovie import and time-lapse creation

Next we will import the still images to iMovie.  Once iMovie is open you create a new project, and import photos by clicking on the camera icon to the right side of the screen.  This will show all of the photos in iPhoto, any of which can be imported (this is really the only reason you port the photos over to your iPhoto library).  Select the images that make up your time-lapse and drag them to the project.

The only thing to do now is to adjust the timing for the still images.  This can be done by clicking on the little blue drop down icon in your first image of the set.

Using the Clip Adjustments menu item will take you to the next screen.

This is where things got a little tricky.  First check your options in iMovie (iMovie -> Preferences) and make sure you have the “Display time as HH:MM:SS:Frames” option selected.

The fastest that iMovie will allow you to put together the time-lapse is 4 frames per second.  This would be done by entering :04 in the Clip Inspector box as I’ve shown above.  If you put 24 in there (for example) each photo will be on the screen for one second (assuming that you’re running at 24 FPS).

The other thing you need to do is turn off the Ken Burns effect.  To do this use the little blue icon again but instead of going to Clip Adjustments go to Cropping, Ken Burns and Rotation.  When this comes up simply click “Fit” and “Done” – this effectively disables the Ken Burns effect.  Believe me, you don’t want that effect in a time-lapse!  I made that mistake in my video below and you can see it pretty much makes you nauseous.

As you can see, not turning off the Ken Burns effect is a recipe for disaster.  When I first looked at this initial try when I came home I thought it was a result of the pedestrian bridge being unstable.  Umm…maybe in a category 5 hurricane!  The Ken Burns effect killed this time-lapse and I wanted to share it with you so you can learn from my mistakes.

Step 6)  Finishing touches and lessons learned

I’m not going to get into too much more detail on iMovie.  I’m no expert but it’s a pretty intuitive program to play around with.  You can add text and music to introduce the scene if you so choose, and of course add some music.  I chose to add a little bit of music to mine just to give a bit of life; I found them a bit boring if there’s no music.

I learned a very significant lesson from my time-lapse efforts that I wanted to share with you.  I didn’t have any focus or concern over the actual settings for my camera; I knew it needed to be manual so as not to shift exposure, locked white balance, etc.  What I didn’t understand is that the shutter speed will actually have a huge impact on the quality of the time-lapse.  My movies look jerky because I didn’t know.  So when you try this, think about having a longer shutter speed to allow movement to “bleed” a little.  This way people will still appear in the images but the movement will be noticeable and not frozen in time, as you can see from my tutorial on shutter speed.  This is a lesson learned that I’ll fix the next time I put a time-lapse together.

As an example, looking at my first time-lapse above and focusing on the setting sun, the movement looks good because it’s very gradual and not terribly jerky.  But the people moving in the square look very jerky – they are in one place and in the next picture they’re in another.  This is not ideal and something for you to think about.  Using an ND filter and a very small aperture (like f/22 or similar) will help in achieving a slower shutter speed.

Hopefully this gives you a rough idea of how to create a time-lapse from a collection of still photos.  In the future if I play with this some more I may expand on this, particularly if I get some better software.  From my research I think an easier way to do this is to use QuickTime Pro, but for just playing around the iMovie method worked fine for me.

For more information:

This is just a taste of what you can do with time-lapse.  As with anything else in this burgeoning age of communication you can find a million tutorials on this.  Below I’ve included a few that I found particularly helpful in my learning, and hopefully you’ll get something out of them as well.

Photojojo – The Ultimate Guide to Time-Lapse photography

Timelapse on Vimeo Video

Below you can see the other finished project, taken from the bell tower of St. Michaels in Kiev during a rainy Sunday afternoon…

5 Responses to Time-lapse photography – A tutorial for beginners

  1. This tutorial is very nice and time-snap photography is something completely new for me! I particularly like that you explained (not only on this post) which settings you used for each picture and the screen-shots of the imovie windows :-) Can I suggest one tutorial that I really would like to learn from your posts? Panoramic photography! This is something I saw before on your flickr, if I am not mistaken, and I don’t know how to make it. I recently updated from a compact camera to a 60D, but there is still so much to learn. Thank you for your amazing posts!

    • Aaron says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! Great that you’re finding the tutorial useful! I’ll keep in mind the request for panoramic photography, I agree it’s a great area to get into and I’ll try to get a tutorial together on how I go about doing it. In the meantime, enjoy your 60D and keep on shooting, it’s the best way to learn!

  2. This tutorial is very nice and time-lapse photography is something completely new for me! I particularly like that you explained (not only on this post) which settings you used for each picture and the screen-shots of the imovie windows Can I suggest one tutorial that I really would like to learn from your posts? Panoramic photography! This is something I saw before on your flickr, if I am not mistaken, and I don’t know how to make it. I recently updated from a compact camera to a 60D, but there is still so much to learn. Thank you for your amazing posts!

  3. Another wonderful tutorial Aaron, they are a pleasure to read and explaned very well ,

  4. just getting into this, thanks for the tutorial, gonna need to work on my maths though!!!

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