Taking Better Time Lapses

If you haven't seen our general guide to time lapse, please check it out first

This article introduces:

  • Framing and planning your time lapse
  • Choosing your duration and interval
  • Selecting camera settings
  • Using rotation
  • Editing and compiling your time lapse
  • Recommended settings for common time lapses

Framing and planning your time lapse

Keep in mind that a time lapse is very different from a sped up video. Fast things (like the motion of individuals) will be lost, whereas slow things, (like a concert stage being built) will be revealed. With that in mind, below are some recommended strategies for creating compelling time lapses.

When planning your time lapse consider the speed of your subject(s). Some things (like tortoises and snails) are known to be slow, but other things (like bread rising or people doing Tai-Chi) may not be as compelling without something to compare against. For this reason try to have two subjects or objects of different speeds in your time lapse. And whenever possible try to include something with a known speed (like clouds) to communicate that time really is passing quickly. As a general rule of thumb, if you can include clouds you should.

Try to avoid having things that pass through your framed image quickly. For example, if you are trying to catch footage of people setting up an event, zoom out a bit to increase the amount of time that individuals are visible in the frame. You can always crop the image, but you can’t zoom out in post processing.

Even if you don’t have an obvious need for adding motion to a time lapse, even a little bit of (smooth) camera motion can go a long way in improving your end result. Sometimes motion is an obvious or necessary thing to include (like when capturing a panoramic landscape). But much of the time even very small motions (like 5 degrees) can add a lot of visual interest without moving the frame away from the subject you're photographing.

Choosing your duration and interval : 

The most important part of taking a good time lapse is having the correct interval and duration. This is what will dictate what sorts of action will be apparent in your time lapse. So before you get too deep into any other aspect of your shot, it’s important to consider the following questions :

How fast are things moving relative to the total size of your image?

If people are small little ants down below, you can use a fairly long interval between photos, but if your camera is close to them, you will probably want to take photos more often. The important question is always how much something will move relative to the total size of your final image, and what part of that motion you care about. Generally speaking, if you do want the motion in question to show up (like a plane flying across the sky or the petals of a flower blooming) you will at a minimum want to catch it for 1 second worth of footage (i.e. 20+ images).

How long is the thing you are capturing going on for?

If you are trying to capture an event that takes a fairly known amount of time (like playing a board game) you will need to prioritize the duration over which you take your photos. In contrast, if you are just capturing the blur of traffic, then you can let your interval dictate your settings.

How many photos should you take?

Most time lapse assembly programs give you some control over how many photos to use for creating one second of video footage (called frames per second, or fps). Generally speaking, you will want to use at least 24 fps. However, you should always take slightly more footage than you plan to use since going over 24 fps doesn’t have an adverse effect, whereas as going below it can result in choppy footage. That being said there are limits to how many frames you can cram into a second of footage (the limit for LightRoom is 50) and taking too many photos will take longer to edit, so don’t go too overboard.

Answering the above questions will help you decide what the constraints of your time lapse are. Since it can feel like there are trade offs, determine which 2 of the above questions are most important and the  adjust your remaining setting accordingly. For example, if you want about 3 seconds of footage, and you want to take photos for 2 hours, then you will need to set your interval 1 minute (remember it’s always better to take a few more photos).

Camera settings

The next big thing you will want to play with to maximize your time lapsing potential are your camera settings. Generally speaking, your Shutter Speed (the length of time that your camera lets light in for) will be most important as it affects how crisp (or sharp) moving objects are.

If your time lapse incorporates motion that is fairly fast relative to the size of your image (people in the same room, cars driving), you will probably want to use a slightly longer shutter speed. This will result in slight blurring of moving objects, giving the viewer a feeling for the direction and speed of an object’s motion, which is especially important when objects are crossing your image quickly. The cheat sheet at the end of this article provides some more guidelines.

You can also get very experimental with shutter speed and introduce a large amount of blur if you are more focused on the overall motion (like groups of people moving in and out of a train station) rather than the motion of individuals. For a textbook example of this (and some general inspiration), check out this example.

Please note that we generally advise shooting in manual for the most control, but sometimes shutter priority can be useful in changing light conditions. If you are using a Radian and shutter priority, you will need to make sure that the hold time between photos is at least 0.5 seconds though so that your camera has enough time to fully adjust. 

Using rotation

As mentioned above, even a small amount of motion can transform a good time lapse into a great time lapse (that’s why we made Radian!). Here are some guidelines for using Radian’s rotary motion in your shots:

  • For medium-range subjects (10 - 100 yards) keep your rotation speed at or below 0.15 degrees/photo
  • For long-range subjects (100+ yards) go up to 0.2 deg/photo
  • For close-up subjects, stay below 0.1 deg/photo 
  • Rotating in the same direction as the motion in your shot is generally a bit better than rotating opposite to it
  • Tilting up generally results in a better time lapse than tilting down

Editing and compiling your time lapse

The last stage of your time lapse will be to actually turn your photos into a final video. This stage is often what can turn a regular time lapse into a stunning one, so don’t neglect it! For the best results, you will want to edit your photos before compiling them, using a software capable of batch photo editing. For free software we recommend Picasa, and for paid software we recommend Lightroom 3 or 4 with the LRTimelapse plugins.

Editing photos can be as involved or as quick as you want it to be. With that in mind, here are some general guidelines:

  • If the footage is of the outdoors, add some sort of top-bottom gradient filter to darken the sky. Otherwise it is often difficult to have both the sky and the ground equally exposed. And if the clouds and sky are too bright they frequently look white and uninteresting. Clouds can add a lot to a time lapse, so do try to emphasize them!
  • Increase the contrast a bit to highlight motion, especially with respect to clouds and the sky.
  • Start by adjusting settings for a single image in the middle of the time lapse. Then copy those edits over to a few other images at the start and finish to make sure that the edits will look good once applied to all the images. Once you're happy with the edits, apply the edit settings to all images.
  • Before compiling your time lapse into a high-resolution video, make a low-resolution draft to make sure that the final video duration looks good. Compiling can take a while so this can be a time saver! 

Recommended settings and cheat sheet

The below settings are a good starting point. If in doubt, take a few tests shots to get a feel for how your time lapse will turn out. You can also get a feel for your time lapse by quickly scrolling through a few photos on your camera. Often this will give you a good preview of the finished time lapse.

People :  2-4 second interval , 0.1 - 0.5 second shutter speed    

For a video that has a lot of people in it, check this one out - http://vimeo.com/63141887

Cars at night/Cityscape :  3-6 second interval, 1 second shutter speed

Cars in the day : 2-4 second interval, .1-.3 second shutter speed

Clouds : 10-20 second interval, <1 second shutter speed

Stars :   30-60 second interval, 20-40 second shutter speed (depending on camera)