Time lapse photography not as difficult as it seems

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Although learning time lapse photography is sometimes a frustrating process, it is very rewarding and not as difficult as it appears on the surface. The technique requires a little bit of technical, compositional and post-processing know-how. While it takes some patience to execute well, there are a few bits of knowledge that makes learning it easier.

Great time lapses involve dynamic movement

The best locations are scenes that contain dynamic movement. Motion is one of the four main visual cues that directs the viewer’s eye where to look in the frame. The most common, perhaps cliché, subjects are traffic, clouds and pedestrians. While still photography primarily deals with implied and graphic movement, time lapse deals with real movement. Keep this in mind when choosing a shooting location. If there is not enough motion in the frame, viewers find the resulting video uninteresting.

Essential equipment and skills

Minneapolis, MN. Having limited resources does not mean specific techniques cannot be executed well. We didn’t have a sturdy tripod with a hook to hang a proper weight, so placing a bag of sand into a backpack and tying it to the tripod was how we improvised. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

It is difficult to capture time lapse without basic equipment. Not using a tripod or an intervalometer results in shaky footage, which makes post-processing more complicated or impossible. Additionally, a weighted tripod is also sometimes necessary to mitigate camera shake. However, editing in Lightroom and Premiere Pro helps to minimize problems that arise from manual processes and other limitations.

The camera settings are completely dependent on the desired results and environmental conditions. For the traffic video, the camera was set to release the shutter every three seconds for 900 shots, which resulted in a 45 second video. Generally speaking, faster movement requires a faster shutter release. The number of shots depends on the desired length of the final product.

Here are the menu settings for internal intervalometer for Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras:

  • Nikon: Menu –> Shooting Menu –> Interval Timing shooting –> choose now or start time –> choose interval –> choose number of exposures –> start on –> press OK.
  • Canon: Menu –> 4 –> Interval timer –> Enable set Interval & No. of shots

If the camera does not have interval timing built in, intervalometers are relatively inexpensive on Amazon. For those on a budget, begin with cheap equipment. If it is gear  that becomes well-used over a longer period of time, then that justifies buying upgraded gear.

Lightroom makes processing time lapse simple

Time lapse. Screenshot of Lightroom of Auto Sync feature.
To sync the same edits across all images, click on the first image, scroll to the last one, hold down the shift key and click on the last image. Click ‘Auto Sync’ on the bottom right of the adjustment panel to apply.

The next step is importing the hundreds of images you took into Lightroom. Thankfully, the Auto Sync feature makes it unnecessary to edit each one separately. Edit the first photo in the series as desired and then select all of the images (select the first image, scroll the the last one, hold shift and then click the last photo). All that needs to be done to sync the edits across images is to click the Auto Sync button at the bottom of the adjustment panel.

Lighting changes during sunrises or when clouds pass over, which sometimes creates problems with syncing edits across all images. In the opening video of downtown Minneapolis traffic, the exposure was set to anticipate brighter conditions due to the rising sun. Doing so prevented lighting issues and the levels did not have to be adjusted in post. However, images can also be adjusted in batches using auto-sync. Making drastically different edits is sometimes apparent in the video, so be careful to check they flow smoothly from one image to the next.

Once the edits sync, export them into a new folder. Since time lapses involve hundreds of images, it takes Lightroom significant time to export. We recommend making some coffee and grabbing a snack while you wait; it is going to be a while.

Assembling the time lapse

Depending on the desired final product, time lapses can be assembled in either Adobe Photoshop or Premiere Pro. The process a matter of a couple quick steps in Photoshop, but adding music and other edits is relatively easy in Premiere Pro with a little extra effort. Use Adobe After Effects to add end credits or captions, if desired, but that is a story for another time.

Photoshop

Time lapse. Screenshot of Photoshop's Image Sequence feature.
The Image Sequence feature in Photoshop makes it easy to import hundreds of images automatically.

Instead of selecting hundreds of images individually, Photoshop automatically pulls all of the files that are in a sequence. Toward the bottom of the window, check ‘Image Sequence’ and select the first image in the series to import everything at once. If the option does not display in the ‘Open’ menu, then click ‘Options’.

Photoshop then asks which frame rate to use. While there are a number of options, 24 or 30 frames per second is the standard choice for time lapses. Typically, photographers use 24 frames per second. After Photoshop processes the files, check to make sure the video is smooth by pressing the play button in the bottom panel. Click File –> Export –> Render Video and then simply click ‘Render Video’ to export and save the video when it is ready.

Premiere Pro

Compiling time lapse in Premiere Pro requires patience but adding music and adding additional effects results in a more engaging video for the audience.

Import the video (File –> Import) created in Photoshop into a new project in Premiere Pro, or use the same ‘Image Sequence’ process above to compile the images. Additionally, dragging and dropping an existing video into the project files box (bottom right corner) accomplishes the same thing. Drop any other additional files into the same box and then drag them from there into the sequence panel (bottom middle).

There are many neat effects available in Premiere Pro but the most useful for time lapse photography is ‘Warp Stabilizer’. In the opening video, semi rigs speeding down the interstate made it impossible to eliminate camera shake. No amount of weight on the tripod stops the actual bridge from shaking. In the Effects panel (right) search for ‘Warp’ or click on Video Effects –> Distort. Click on Warp Stabilizer and drag it directly onto the clip in the sequence panel.

After assembling and processing, click File –> Export –> Media and the click ‘Export’ in the dialog box. Congratulations, you’ve just made your first time lapse video!

photopigs plans more time lapse photography

Putting together time lapses for the first time was fun and photopigs plans to create more in the future. Although they won’t necessarily make it into our website content, they are always available on our YouTube channel.

How do you think our time lapses turned out? What could we do better? Is there something specific you would like to see us create? Did you try out time lapse and still have questions? Leave them in the comments below and we will do our best to answer!

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