Some Findings About Time-Lapse Movies

Hi friends!

In this post I was writing a few words about time lapses. At that time I had little knowledge about this interesting and challenging photographic and video-graphic technique as one of my statements was: “Creating time lapses is not difficult.” Now I realize it was my enthusiasm which was “speaking”. In reality as I would find out later creating quality lapse movies proves to be pretty challenging and good preparations, technique and even software are required.

At first glance it looks simple and straight-forward: you put the camera on a tripod, do the framing and composition, start the intervalometer and let the camera shoot for a specific amount of time and with a specific frame rate. Then you either assemble the shots into a movie by using specialised software or the camera does this for you if it has this feature. Is it so simple? Well … urghhh … not quite! There are more things that might need to be taken into consideration. Missing a single detail might ruin the whole movie and cost several hours of wasted time and resources!

I’ll elaborate on this but first let me provide you a free advice: use this technique sparingly. The time lapse is meant to show the viewer a phenomenon that can’t be easily spotted with a naked eye. Good examples might be: a flower that opens within a few days, melting snow or ice, a specific place from sunrise till midnight or a make-up session. Try to be as original and creative as possible, the moving clouds lapse is already too “mainstream” (and often boring!). Not every scene is meant to be converted into a lapse movie.

Now let me share my findings with you:

  1. First of all let’s remember the goal: to capture in a (very) short movie something that spans over a much longer period of time, namely too long for accurately observing the changes and transitions. You won’t sit all day long to watch how the the light changes in your yard, will you? That said, it makes no sense to use time-lapses to capture fast moving objects like birds in flight, fast moving clouds and other action scenarios. These would only appear like glitches on the screen of your camera and computer even if you shoot one frame per second! So, it makes no sense to capture them this way! Even if the fast moving objects are not the main subject of the lapse if they interfere with the exposure the glitches might still be annoying. Probably a video editing software might do the job of removing them but why bother with such fine editing? An alternative might be shooting the lapse “in frames” (i.e. not “in-camera”) and removing the unwanted objects manually before assembling the shots into a movie. But this would also be tedious. Instead I would advise you to choose an appropriate place, moment and subject(s) where everything moves slow (and is interesting) enough to be time lapse eligible. To sum it up let me give you an example of a “bad” TL I shot at the beginning of this year: https://youtu.be/Hr7uK2euz8I.
  2. Always notice how the light changes. From my experience the best time-lapses are the ones made when the light is constant (don’t take it as a rule nonetheless, it’s just a personal finding) and manual exposure can be used. At least this is what I observed at my D500 when creating in-camera TLs. For example if I want to “lapse” a melting ice cube I prefer to do this during the night when I “own” the constant light (e.g. the lights from my kitchen which I occasionally use as studio for my lapses and other indoor work). However when I’m outside and the light might change I use aperture priority exposure mode (this is how I did in previous example). But as mentioned this might cause some “glitches” in the footage (in the given example the annoying glitches are the ones caused by flying birds; I find the light variations acceptable although they can be clearly noticed). For a light changing environment you might want to probe with your own camera and try both in-camera lapses (if applicable) and TLs created with external software. A caveat for the last option is that you most probably will do best with a quality commercial software product which is obviously not for free.
  3. I always strive to use fully manual settings for lapses as I noticed they tend to bring the best results. This means: manual exposure, manual focus and  manual white balance. Actually manual white balance is any WB setting that is different from Auto WB. It can be Tungsten (Incandescent), Fluorescent, Daylight, manual pre-set with grey card and others. Even if the light changes it’s important that the white balance remains CONSTANT, otherwise if it is set differently from frame to frame it might completely ruin the movie. This can be fixed at post processing (if you create the TL using software) however why bother when it can be done correctly from the start? So my advice to you is NEVER EVER to use AWB!
  4. Regarding manual focus it is not only a way to obtain consistent focusing but also one factor that helps preserve battery energy and shooting accuracy itself. Remember that you might shoot hundreds or even thousands of frames. The power savings might be significant and could mean the difference between a perfect lapse and a “do only part of the job” result. Also in a daytime-nighttime scenario the AF might begin to struggle when light becomes less which again would spoil the result. To sum it up there’s no reason to use auto-focus as all frames will need to have the same focusing distance anyway (unless you want a special effect, yet AF would not be the right way to achieve it nonetheless). So use the “set once, use many times” principle and you won’t regret it!
  5. When shooting with modern lenses it’s of utmost importance that the aperture stays WIDE OPEN. Let me explain the reason. Until each exposure is started the aperture is widely opened by default (it is brought to the setup value only when taking the exposure). Due to lens imperfections, when the aperture is closed to the setup value for each taken frame the resulting exposure will not stay constant even if lighting conditions haven’t changed (otherwise mentioned the captured light varies from frame to frame). This might lead to annoying light variations in the final output. This happens even if exposure smoothing feature is activated in a in-camera lapse! So to be on the safe side keep the “hole” wide open so the aperture blades stay fixed.
  6. A wide-open aperture might mean a challenge regarding depth-of-field. If the lens focal distance is small this would be not an issue when shooting a landscape time lapse. However when a telephoto is used there might be an issue with the DOF. My advice to you is: play with the focusing distance, focal length and framing until you are sure that the right composition and depth-of-field have been obtained. Actually framing and composition are one of the most challenging parts of the TL setup.
  7. When shooting with a zoom lens tilted to the ground (a.k.a shooting from above) make sure the lens will not expand. If you have a zoom blocker you are fine, otherwise you might want to use a duct tape or similar to block the “auto-zooming”. Of course you will want to do this unless the zooming during lapse is the effect you desire. This is what I obtained due to this mistake: https://youtu.be/tGMUCtjhcqA. The effect is interesting but it is NOT what I wanted. And I strive to achieve consistent results. An alternative is to use the lens at its maximum focal length (if the framing and DOF allow this) or even better to use a prime lens (same requirements apply).
  8. Usually the 16:9 frame format is used when creating a time-lapse (either when 720p, 1080p or 2160p is used). This means the original picture format is cropped in camera (for in-camera lapses) or should be cropped at processing. This should be strongly taken into account when composing the shots as the DSLR cameras have as default format 3:2 while other cameras might use 4:3. You might be tempted to use the standard camera format for your composition especially if you use the camera mostly for taking pictures (well, most of us do this, don’t we?) So before starting to shoot the TL I strongly recommend you do some test pictures and/or movies to see how ONE movie frame is created. If you have in-camera TL capability just shoot a short lapse by stopping after one frame and check the LCD. If this capability is not available you could try to shoot a regular movie (after all most cameras should have filming features, right?). The adjust the camera/zoom until the right framing and composition are obtained IN THE MOVIE FRAME.
  9. Needless to say a tripod is absolutely required for a time-lapse. However if you don’t have one you might use another stable platform to place your camera on. Be aware that it should not move at all while having the shots taken unless you wish to obtain a special effect in your movie. I personally don’t want to obtain this so I make sure my camera stays in a fixed position all the time.
  10. If using a camera with optical viewfinder it is best to ensure it is covered when the time-lapse is shot. This is done to prevent stray light coming through the finder from interfering with the “useful” light captured by the lens. I cannot say how much this might alter the pictures but you know the proverb: better safe than sorry!
  11. If shooting the time-lapse during the night you might want to ensure the shooting time span does not overlap with sunrise, otherwise unwanted effects might occur. To say it straight ahead your TL might get ruined, at least part of it.
  12. A very important thing to do is to ensure the battery supports the lapse period and frame rate. Obviously it should be fully loaded when starting the frame sequence. You might want to do some test time lapses before to see how much it holds. The environment temperature might also have an influence on it (colder weather means higher battery drain). A way to extend the battery “lifetime” would be to use shorter shutter speeds by increasing ISO. However don’t overdo this as (too) high ISO might also have an unwanted effect on battery.
  13. As mentioned at point 9 there are situations when a tripod is not available. In this cases you might want to put the camera on a solid surface, like a rock. Special attention should be paid to the focus ring. If the focus had already been setup by AF and then switched to manual the accidental touch of the ring might easily change it and ruin the movie. For this reason I recommend that in such a situation you check the focus once more before shooting after everything else had been setup.
  14. If you use a home setup for time lapse (e.g. use artificial light in the kitchen at night) I recommend you avoid actioning other light sources nearby while the movie is being shot. After all, the camera is doing the job and you have spare time, right? And using other light sources like the one from the lobby are part of your reflexes, isn’t it? It’s human and perfectly normal. However you should be aware that it’s quite a pity to ruin a several hours work by a moment of lack of attention. Awareness and attention are paramount here!
  15. Also while the time lapse is being shot one should pay attention to small and “insignificant” details like: not touching the camera/tripod accidentally, not walking in front of the camera (and not letting others do this) and not SMOKING nearby (unless you have the intention to do this for obtaining some “special” effects). I know this might sound like a “hey it’s obvious? Why are you telling me this?” thing, however I think it’s worth reminding you this. Sometimes it might not be so obvious and as written before “better safe than sorry”.

That said, I hope you’ll find these pieces of advice useful. As you can see from the above findings a time lapse movie is not simple at all! There are lots of variables that need to be taken into account even when shooting the lapse in a controlled environment (like your home). A careful setup needs to be performed and sometimes you need to try the scenario more times until achieving the desired results. As Bryan Peterson is saying in his videos: “you keep shooting”!

Take care.

PS. Check these posts too:

The Magic of Fog. Welcome to the Misty Mountains!
What Photography Means To Me (5)
Photo Selection and Other Findings on Editing
A Trip to Fundata
A Long Trip. But Still Unforgettable!

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