Taking a Time Lapse

 Time lapsing is a remarkable technique that allows you to creatively capture the passage of time with your digital camera. By periodically taking a series of photos over a span of time, these photos can then be stitched together into a video that speeds up time in ways no other medium can.

Time Lapse Vs Sped-Up Video

One of the key differences between time lapses and sped-up video is the incredible quality that comes from each frame being a fully-exposed image. Especially when shooting in low-light conditions, the quality difference between time lapse and video is enormous. And while many time lapsers now shoot many tens or hundreds of gigs of photos on a single shoot, imagine the amount of space needed to save 4 hours of HD video! 

To get an idea for what a time lapse can do, check out some of our favorites: 

Table of Contents

I. Prepare
○ Gear Checklist
II. Compose
○ Motion
○ Set Up
III. Shoot
○ Interval Setting + Video Length
○ Camera Settings
○ Examples
IV. Compile
V. Other Resources and Tutorials


I. Prepare

Plan ahead to give yourself plenty of time for set-up and to be ready for any unexpected events. Look up details regarding the venue you want to cover—exact sunrise/sunset times, moon phases, weather conditions, etc. Dress appropriately, and bring anything you might need to pass the time. You’ll definitely want to stay near your camera for the duration of the time-lapse. Most of all, BE SAFE. 

General Gear Checklist: 

  • Camera + Lenses, memory cards, fully charged batteries
  • Tripod & ball/tripod head
  • Intervalometer (Like Radian 2 or Pulse)
  • Additional items: External hard drive, Memory card reader, gloves, water, USB battery pack


II. Compose

The key to any time-lapse is finding an element that will change over time, from a change in lighting to moving subjects. Whether this change happens rapidly over 20 minutes, or slowly over a whole day (perhaps even multiple), time-lapse is an effective medium for capturing that change. Some interesting elements or subjects for time-lapses are moving shadows, sunrises/sunsets, stars, clouds, people, events, cars, plants (as they turn to face the sun, blossom, or grow), or rare phenomena like the northern lights.

Once you’ve chosen a subject for your time-lapse, it’s important that you take some time to plan out how the shot should look. You’ll find that having a visually interesting foreground or static element in your scene (rocks, trees, buildings, silhouettes) will greatly enhance the time-lapse and serve as a nice point of reference for the moving elements (stars, clouds, people).

Tip: Before unloading and setting up all of your camera gear, save yourself some time by grabbing your camera and snapping a few test photos. Keep in mind that your final video will be cropped down to 16:9 (standard HD aspect ratio), instead of your camera’s 3:2 or 4:3 ratio for still photographs. To help visualize this crop you can put your camera into video mode with HD res. In general, it’s best to allow enough buffer space above and below your subject so that your subject does not get cropped out of the final video. Taking test shots will help you quickly visualize the scene, find the perfect vantage point, and determine what gear you'll need for your time-lapse.


How might motion come into play?

Motion control, whether it’s linear or panning, or some combination of the two, can oftentimes add great cinematic & functional effect. Panning (side-to-side movement) and/or tilting (up-down movement) is ideal for following a subject that may move out of frame (stars, moon, etc) or for capturing a wide subject that your camera lens’ field of view cannot cover (valley, an entire room, etc). It also allows you to creatively “reveal” new elements to the viewer and allow their visual focus to shift as you pan, tilt, or slide. Linear movement greatly dramatizes your foreground, and offers a very cinematic effect to your scene. It is most effective when you have a close prominent foreground whose perspective will shift as your camera moves along the slider.

If panning or tilting, also consider the speed of your rotation (degrees per photo). In practice, .1-.15 degrees moved between photos is a good speed to stick to. 


Tip: Because setting up a motion time-lapse can be time consuming, we recommend that you first simulate different movements by moving your camera through space in real-time (with your own hands, of course) before setting up any equipment. Think about where you want the timelapse to begin and where you want it to end. This is also a good time to use your camera’s video features so that you can record the movement by hand and then review it afterward.

*Depending on your subject it'll be helpful to know how fast and in what direction you want your camera to move. In most cases the sun, moon and stars will be moving in your shot. Some times that you might want to look up and plan around before setting off on your time-lapse adventure: Sunset/sunrise, moon phase, moon rise/set, milky way rise/set.

Set up 

When you’re happy with your composition and what kind of motion you want, you can start setting up the necessary gear. The most important thing to think about is stability to ensure that no unwanted movement occurs during the time-lapse. Though there are many effective post-processing techniques for stabilization, the less you have to rely on these the better.

Setup your tripod so it is balanced and can support the weight of your camera. A timelapse only works if the camera remains steady the entire time, and if anything causes you to stop a time lapse, you'll likely need to start over. If you are using motion equipment, make sure that all pieces are properly attached to your tripod(s) so that the entire system is completely stable and secure. Additionally, inspect all of your cables to make sure that nothing will get caught or tangled as Radian rotates, or as your camera moves along a dolly.

Tip: If you are using a dolly, ensure that it will stay balanced as the camera moves across it. It is possible for the weight of the camera to cause your dolly to shift or fall over as it moves across. To avoid this, move your camera across the rail multiple times prior to beginning the time lapse, or simulate weight at different points along the dolly.

III. Shoot

Determining Interval Settings and Video Length

To determine the final video length, consider the duration of the time lapse and the interval at which to take each photo. 

Since a video is made up of frames, each photo your camera captures will end up representing one frame in your final video. For example: a common frame rate of 30 frames per second (fps) means that each photo you take will be shown for 1/30th of a second when you convert your time-lapse into a video. If you like formulas, this will help you get a better idea of the relationship.

Final Video Length =  # Photos / fps
where  # Photos = time-lapse total duration (in minutes) x Photos per minute (60/ interval (sec.))
So for example, at 24 fps, a 2 hour timelapse duration with 20 second intervals between shutters will result in 360 photos, and a 15 second video.

*Luckily, all Alpine Labs apps do this math for you based on your set interval and total time. 


Slower moving subjects like stars, may require a time-lapse duration of at least 2-3 hours and a long interval (~20-25 seconds), whereas fast-moving clouds or people may only need 30 minutes and a much shorter interval (3-10 seconds).

It’s important to think about the interval so that the movement of elements in your final video is appropriate. If you choose an interval that is too large, you may miss out on some of your elements’ actions and they might end up moving too fast. If the interval is too short, you may be capturing unnecessary photos and take up precious space on your memory card.

Tip: To quickly estimate a reasonable interval, think about your final video length in frames per second, and your final duration in seconds. Two common frame rates are 24 fps and 30 fps, so 10 seconds is about ~ 240-300 frames (photos). If your duration is 1 hour (3600 seconds), and you want a 10 second video, just divide 3600 seconds / 300 frames to end up with a 12 second interval. Again, our app does this calculation for you. 

Camera Settings

Make sure your camera is in manual mode in order to lock all of your camera’s settings. This includes aperture, exposure length, and ISO. If your camera is not in manual mode and is constantly adjusting these parameters, you may end up with a flicker in your final timelapse video. If you’re not sure which manual settings to use, you can put your camera into auto mode to find the proper settings, then use those settings in manual. 

Aperture controls your images’ depth of field. A smaller aperture (higher f number) will produce sharper images and reduce the amount of bokeh (depth of field image blur), which is ideal for landscapes. A larger aperture (lower f number) lets in more light and is better for low light scenes and when the subject is in the foreground. 

ISO controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. For most purposes, the lower the ISO the better (100-400). This will reduce noise and keep your images crisp and clear. However, in low light situations, you will have to increase your ISO in order to better capture your subject (1000-5200).

Shutter speed determines how long your shutter stays open, and is indicated by fractions of a second. Longer exposures are good for low light situations, like night shots (~20 seconds), or for blurring moving objects, such as people (~1 sec). Shorter exposures are good for capturing clear, non-blurry shots. The faster the subject, the faster your shutter needs to be in order to achieve clear shots. Keep in mind that your exposure length should never be more than your interval, otherwise your intervalometer will be trying to take the next shot while it's still taking the first.

White balance determines the temperature of your photo. The exact white balance is not very important because this can be easily changed in post. What is important is that your white balance isn’t changing partway through the time lapse. Sunlight normally serves as a good setting. 

Manual Focus - Most cameras have an auto focus capability, which makes focusing easier, but make sure you enable manual focus before starting your timelapse. If your camera is trying to focus for every shot, it will create a “zoom-in zoom-out” effect, and if it is too dark outside, the camera will fail to auto focus, stopping your timelapse. 

Image Quality- RAW will provide the most information for your photos giving you much more flexibility in post to edit the images, however this also results in large file sizes. JPEG offers small file sizes, but will give you less flexibility in post-processing.

Tip: Before beginning your timelapse, take a few test shots to fine tune your settings and see which settings look best.

IV. Compile 

Once you have the images on your memory card, you’ll need to use an application to turn those images into frames of a time-lapse video! Please see our tutorial on compiling your time lapse for more information on this


    Here are some links to some other time-lapsing resources and tutorials that we've found to be especially useful:

    Alpine Labs Product Review 

     Fix the Photo