Have you ever wanted to make your own time lapse video montage? Maybe you want to capture something that happens slowly over time such as a flower opening or the sun setting and compress the time into just a few moments of video. Or perhaps you’d like to create a feeling of hyper-motion: for example scenes where the buildings remain sharp and steady while the hustling cars and pedestrians form a blur at their base. It’s actually pretty easy to get into time lapse and it doesn’t take a ton of special equipment.
Shooting a series of still images that will later be stitched together to create a time lapse video is a great example of a project where good planning meets creativity. A good place to start is in deciding what the subject will be. Any scene that has motion is a possibility. For a first attempt, try to settle on a scene that isn’t too ambitious and a location that provides safe continuous shooting for up to several hours.
Use the Right Camera
While just about any camera will work there are advantages to using a DSLR. First, we need a camera that offers both manual exposure and manual focus. Next the capability to set and use a custom white balance is a big plus. Last, DSLR cameras can use cabled or wireless remote releases to trip the shutter button.
Have a Sturdy Camera Support
It can take hours to capture enough still images to create even a few minutes of video. A sturdy tripod will keep a camera locked into the same position for hours on end. It is important that the tripod chosen is able to hold the camera and lens firmly locked in place without any tendency to creep under the combined weight.
A Remote Release
Even with the camera firmly locked onto a tripod using a finger to trip the shutter button can cause vibrations. Using a cabled or wireless remote to trip the shutter prevents this kind of jostling. While it is possible to use a standard remote release and a stop watch to time the individual exposures, a remote release with an intervalometer built-in is desirable.
After assembling all of the parts and pieces the next step is to decide on the subject or scene to capture. A busy street corner shot from above can provide some fast moving subjects while a rosebud that opens over the course of a day offers a chance to explore slow action. Based on the subject or scene the photographer can begin to make camera settings.
This first attempt at time lapse was made using a Canon EOS DSLR and the steps outlined below. It was a snowy day so the still images were captured indoors. After 2 hours of shooting and another 20 minutes compiling the video it became evident that the interval between shots was too long!
#1 Camera Settings - Before mounting the camera to the tripod it is best to make some basic settings.
- Before doing anything else make sure that the camera’s batteries are fully charged!
- For the first attempts at time lapse montage I suggest setting the camera to Large / Fine .jpg file type. If the camera is 16MP or more then Medium / Fine could be sufficient.
- Set the camera’s lens to manual focus. This prevents the camera from focus hunting before each exposure where it could possibly lock onto an unintended subject in the scene.
- Take the camera off of auto white balance (AWB). Either use a specific white balance selection from the camera’s menu or create a custom white balance setting. If the camera is mistakenly left in AWB it will analyze the scene before each exposure and possibly change scene color for every frame. Not a great outcome.
- Set the camera in manual exposure and use aperture and shutter values as read by a handheld light meter or use the camera’s built-in meter. Choosing the shutter speed that will render the moving subjects in the video as intended is an important decision point: Use a fast shutter speed to show sharper moving subjects in the scene with less motion blur. Select a slower shutter speed so that moving subjects in each frame show more motion blur. Use the camera’s meter or a handheld light meter to select an aperture value that provides balanced exposure for the shutter speed selected
- If the scene is anticipated to have constant, even illumination throughout the duration of shooting some photographers will use Shutter Priority (Tv) auto exposure mode.
- Attach the remote cable release or wireless remote release receiver to the camera.
#2 Frame The Scene – Since the camera will be anchored to a specific point for perhaps several hours it is important to frame the scene properly.
- Setup the tripod in the desired location. Keep in mind that it may need to stay in place for hours. Avoid locations that are in the path of foot traffic, doors or vehicles.
- Consider creating a time lapse travel video. Use a Fat Gecko mount and fix the camera to a car’s dashboard.
- Mount the camera to the tripod. Make sure that the mounting plate is firmly snugged to the camera’s base plate.
- Using the viewfinder frame the scene. Zoom in and out, adjust tripod attitude until the scene is as you want to frame it. If it is available, a small piece of gaffer’s tape across the zoom ring will prevent the lens from creeping to a new zoom settting over the long capture time.
- Make sure that focus is sharp and on the main elements of the scene.
#3 Setting The Interval – One of the most difficult settings to suggest is the interval between exposures.
- For the opening rosebud mentioned above, maybe one exposure every minute for several hours will get the job done. For foot traffic on a street perhaps an exposure every 10 to 15 seconds will create the sense of motion the photographer seeks.
- Once the interval is chosen program it into the intervalometer if one is being used.
- Initiate the intervalometer or begin to manually trip the remote release based on a stop watch reading.
- If the remote shutter release is activated manually try to be as accurate as possible with the intervals.
- How long to keep shooting? Depending on the framing rate that will be used in the finished video, each 100 images captured equals between 3 and 10 seconds of video. In the example setting discussed below, 350 still images created a video of about 45 seconds. Shoot long enough to collect several hundred still frames at a minimum.
#4 Compositing The Time Lapse Video – After capturing the hundreds of still images needed it’s time to composite them into a video.
- Use either Windows Movie Maker or iMovie. Both are usually found preinstalled on most computers. This tutorial will use Windows Movie Maker. (After the first few time lapse projects many photographers will move on to more advanced video editing software.)
- Open Movie Maker and click on Tools in the menu bar, select Options at the bottom of the drop down list.
- These settings have to be made BEFORE importing the images into Movie Maker
- Under Advanced change the Picture duration setting to the lowest number – 0.125 and alter the Transition duration to 0.25. Click OK to confirm and save the settings.
- Experimentation may lead you to choosing longer Picture duration times.
- Choose File / Import into Collections and drill down to your captured image files. Select all and import them into Movie Maker.
- Make sure that the files are arranged with the earliest in the series at the top left and the last in the series at the bottom right. This can easily be accomplished by right clicking in the Collection view area and selecting Arrange Icons By: End Time.
- Use the mouse to select Edit / Select All from the top menu. All images in Collection View should become highlighted.
- Click and hold the first image in the Collection view, drag the image down to the Video track in the timeline at the bottom of the software window.
- Depending on the number of images in the Collection it can take several moments for the Video timeline to fill. It should show as a white background when finished.
- Click on the blue “Tasks” icon below the top menu line to open the Movie Tasks dialog box at the upper left of the screen. From the list of tasks, under “3. Finish Movie”, choose to Save To My Computer.
- Name the movie file and click Next. On this second screen the radio button “Best quality for playback on my compuer (recommended)” is lit. Use this choice or click the radio button for “Other Settings” and select a different, more specific quality level for your final movie file. Click the Next button
- The movie has been made! Now it’s just a matter of time as the computer crunches the picture files into a movie file. This can take up to an hour for complicated or lengthy compilations or as little as a few minutes for simple under one minute clips.
Creating time lapse videos from still images can be both fun and a creative stretch. This is the same technique many photographers use to create stop-motion animated movies. Search for example videos and where possible learn about the settings that the photographer used and why. Hundreds of tips are available online with a simple search too, make notes on the interesting tips that you find and apply them to your next time lapse project.