How to shoot a timelapse

What is a Timelapse?

Timelapses are a useful and powerful tool in the video production arsenal. At its most basic, timelapse is a shooting style that produces a video that plays back a duration of time faster than it appeared in real time.

There are a couple of ways to achieve this effect including:
1) Using photos taken at a set interval and then making a video file from these stills in post-production.
2) Shooting video and then increasing the speed this video plays back at through post production control.

For this post, I’m going to cover the first technique which is typically regarded as true timelapse (that’s not to say the other doesn’t have its uses). The first is typically used by professionals, and those interested in higher quality videos (due to the ability of most cameras to shoot high res photos).

Below is our Timelapse showreel, so you can see exactly what timelapse (and hyperlapse) is.

Controlling Time(lapse)

Its important to have an understanding of how video works as a medium to have complete control over your timelapses. That might sound a little much, but I assure you its necessary for a complete understanding.

When you’re watching a video, you’re actually viewing a consecutive string of photos that are being shown to you in rapid succession. I know, i’ll give you a moment to gather yourself together after that BLEW you mind. Or didn’t. This rate at which you are shown images tricks the human brain into believing it’s seeing motion. This rate is technically referred to as frame rate. If you watch anything upwards of 24 frames a second (fps), then your mind will see it as smooth unbroken motion.

Now, just to make things a little more confusing, frame rates come at different industry speeds according to where you are in the world. Ever seen the accronyms PAL and NTSC? Well this refers to the accepted geographical frame rate for that particular place.

PAL (25fps / 50fps etc) = Europe, Africa, SE Asia and

NTSC (24fps, 30fps / 60fps etc)  = North America, Japan, and others.

In all honesty, PAL or NTSC frame rates aren’t the most important thing in the world for timelapses (but they are for video! Mostly due to light frequencies but that’s a tangent for another day). If you’re like 95% of people out there, you just need to make sure you’re achieving high enough frame rates to create fluid motion in the video file. Its possible to play back timelapses at slower speeds to achieve a certain look, but its best practice to shoot as if you were displaying at a minimum 24fps.

A contact Sheet from the 19th Century which shows early forms of timelapse

The beginnings of film are found in timelapse – to some degree!

Calculating Your Shot Time

Now, how this all applies to timelapse.  Hopefully you have some idea of what your end video file frame rate is going to be (probably 24 or 25fps) so you know that to make 1 second of video footage, it takes X amount of frames – X being the frame rate.

For example, if we’re filming for 25fps, then we’ll need 25 photos to make up a single second of video footage. So, it takes 25 frames shown every 1 second to create fluid motion. Then, for a 10 second timelapse, we’ll need to shoot 25 frames x 10 seconds = 250 frames.

Now you need to calculate how long your timelapse will take to shoot.

This should be dictated by your subject and what look you’re after and the story you’re trying to tell. You need to decide how long of an interval you’ll have between each of your photos. There are numerous looks you can go for, all of which are achieved through artistic choices of the interval, your camera settings and playback speeds. In this example, i’ll say we’re shooting a landscape, and i’d like to get some fast moving clouds through the shot.

I’d typically set my interval around 4-5s between each photo for this. Which means to shoot 250 photos for 10 seconds worth of video footage, i’ll need 250 x 5 = 1250 seconds for the shoot to complete – which equates to just over 20 minutes.

So the simplified equation for figuring it out is:

Video length = photos / frame rate you’re using

Shot time (in seconds) = amount of photos needed for the wanted video length x interval between shots (seconds)

Media Hog Production's Timelapse Set Up

A timelapse set up we used to the shoot the sunrise over Canary Warf, London.


How to ACTUALLY Shoot a Timelapse

Well done on making it through the theory section. Or for skipping it. Now, on to the actual practicalities of shooting a timelapse. I’ll list the most basic equipment you need to get started, but its worth knowing that set-ups can get a lot more complicated than this with the use of other equipment including: sliders, dollys, gimbals and even remote control buggies. But for now this is what you’ll need:

A tripod – It’s crucial your camera stays still during your timelapse so a sturdy tripod is a must. Or even a not so sturdy one like the one i started out using if you’re working to a strict budget. You want the framing to stay exact throughout the shot, and for the shot to move as little as possible – ideally not at all – so a tripod is definitely called for to help you frame your composition, and then keep that composition until you’re done.  You’ll also want to guard your tripod from passersby if you’re out in public, as peoples feet have a habit of nudging a leg which can really ruin the whole shot in an instant.

A Camera – This should really go without saying. This is the thing that will be taking the photos you’ll need to use to make your video file. Most cameras nowadays shoot excellent photos, so don’t worry about the gear as much as understanding how to use it. You can even use your mobile – as long as you have a good mount for it to sit in on your tripod.

An Intervelometer – This is the little machine that will help trigger your camera at the interval you set. They’re easily found and purchasable online ranging from cheap not very dependable units, to more expensive weather-proof ones. Some cameras and phones, like the Sony mirrorless camera system, actually support apps in-camera that provide intervelometer abilities. This is what we actually use in-house most of the time which saves us having to buy intervelometers. Magic Lantern on Canon’s offers similar abilities.

An Intervelometer, used for Timelapse

ND Filter – These aren’t strictly necessary, so if you’re just starting out, give this one a miss until you have a good handle on how to use your camera and what exactly these are going to help you with. Think of these as sunglasses for your camera. When its extra bright outside, you can put on an ND (they screw on to your lens and they come in various strength levels). This will essentially make your camera think it is darker then it really is, allowing you to lower your shutter speed and or open your aperture to attain more motion blur and a shallower depth of field respectively –  if that’s what you’re after. They can introduce some more lens flare and colour cast into the image.

Post Production  Software – You’ll need some sort of post production software to help turn your hundreds of JPEG or RAW files into a b e a utiful video file. There’s tonnes of options out of there, some free and others expensive. We use Lightroom, Premier Pro, and After Effects, all of which are made by Adobe and are NOT free. Other alternatives are LRTimelapse, Quicktime Pro, Photolapse (free). A little googling will get you far with this – but essentially you need to import your images (that should be sequentially named out of camera) into the software, at which point you can often tweak certain exposure and colour settings to get things looking how you want. You’ll also need to decide on your output frame rate, so well done to those who read the theory part above because that should hopefully now make some sense to you. For those of you who didn’t, time to scroll up i’m afraid. You’re not done yet. Finally, after all the messing around, you’ll output your sequence as a video file of your choosing.

Now you’re ready to start shooting – a lifetime later. Not much about timelapse is fast mind you, so if you’re impatient, this might not be for you! Remember to take a book and some food. It makes for an easier time of things.


Other Related Blogs:

Ten Timelapse Top Tips

Comments (2)

  • Lisa

    August 10, 2017

    thank you for this tutorial, we are going to London at Christmas and I have so wanted to try a time lapse and this is my first time reading about it.
    I have to research cameras as well. I have a Nikon but it’s only the 3200. This model does take amazing HD video, I’ve played a few times with it sometimes exposure
    was perfect other times it is not, and it doesn’t always focus on the subject, seems to go in and out of focus so trying to figure that out.
    Your video’s are amazing, I hope I can create something beautiful of us while there. I’m excited to try.

    • Loki

      August 10, 2017

      That’s very kind Lisa! I’m glad it’s helped.

      Re. how your camera doesn’t always focus on the subject, it sounds like you might have it on ‘Auto Focus’ mode, or even ‘Continuous Auto Focus’. This means the camera, depending on how the auto focus is set to work, will be making the choice itself as to what to focus on. You need to put the focus mode into ‘Manual’ and then use the focus ring on the actual lens to do your focusing – especially if you want to do some timelapse. That way, you know the focus once you’ve set it, won’t budge. If you’re shooting video, being in manual mode can slow you down though as you’ve got to fiddle around a bit, and be sure to remember its in manual because you don’t want to go through your footage and find it all out of focus! The focus mode will be in the Nikon’s menu. Its NOT the M on the top dial of the camera – that’s for manual exposure setting (shutter speed, f stop, ISO).

      All the best and good luck!

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