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How to Make a Time-lapse Video: Part One

By Michael Shainblum

Time-lapses have been used for many years to show beautiful scenes, that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. From ice cubs melting, to the Milky Way gliding across the sky there are an abundance of applications. Here are some tips to help you get started shooting and editing time-lapse clips.

I shot this time-lapse in northern Italy’s Dolomites Mountains with photographer/videographer Andrew Studer and photographer Serena Ho.

TIME-LAPSE GEAR

While it’s possible to create a time-lapse sequence using a mobile phone balanced against a rock, a little but more gear will open up greater possibilities.

Camera: I use the Canon EOS 6D and Sony a7S, but really, any DSLR or mirrorless cameras will work.

Lens: Your still photography lenses are good for time-lapses, too. I usually bring a wide lens (17-40mm or 14-24mm), a mid range lens (24-105mm), and a 70-200mm lens.

Tripod: While any tripod will do the job, if you do a lot of hiking to reach your destinations, consider how much the tripod weighs. I have the Induro CLT204 and CLT104, which are lightweight yet sturdy.

During our trip, the weather in the Dolomites was unpredictable.

Time-lapse remote (Intervalometer): This device lets you trigger the camera to take images in a set interval; for example, to show cloud movement over the course of 15 minutes, you might set an Intervalometer to take an exposure every two seconds.

Memory cards: You’ll benefit from cards that are very fast and can hold a lot of RAW images so you don’t run out of space. I use 64GB or 128GB cards that are at least 100MBPS write speed, but the right capacity for you depends on your camera's resolution and file size and the number of images you shoot.

Filters: Filters aren’t a must-have for time-lapses. However, if you plan to use longer shutter speeds for day-time time-lapses, neutral-density (ND) filters will knock down the amount of light entering the lens. I most frequently pull out 3-stop and 6-stop ND filters.

I captured this shot as a low sun turned the rugged rocks of the mountains a soft pink.

TIME-LAPSE GEAR SETTINGS

There are a few important things to consider when shooting the still images that will become the time-lapse.

Focus: Set to manual.

Shutter speed: Set to manual. For certain subjects, I like to shoot long exposures because the motion blur makes the time-lapses less choppy and also blurs out any people or cars in the shot.

While you’re learning the technique, I recommend capturing images during a time when the light is relatively consistent—for example, only during the night, or only during the day. The drastic changes in light that come with day-into-night time-lapses require putting your camera in aperture priority mode, which means your f-stop is fixed but the shutter speeds change as the light changes. This can result in flicker, an unwelcome effect that takes work to fix. 

Andrew Studer captured this behind-the-scenes look at our Dolomites adventure.

F-stop (Aperture): Wider apertures, such as f/4 or f/5.6, help you avoid the sensor dust spots that can show up if you shoot at f/18 or f/22. While those spots might be easy to remove in a photograph, they’re really annoying to clone out of time-lapse clips. Keeping the aperture lower can also reduce flicker.

ISO: As in still photography, it’s best to keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise. However, when shooting at night, you may need to be at a high ISO to capture enough light. In these circumstances, I may shoot ISO 6400, or even 12800 with the Sony a7S.

Interval: Picking the right interval between individual shots is very important. Here’s a general rule of thumb: The faster a subject is moving, the more frequent the interval should be. However, it depends on the look you’re going for.

  • Cars and People: 1-2 second interval
  • Fog and Low Fast Clouds: 1-2 second interval
  • High Clouds and Slower Clouds: 2-3 second interval
  • Stars and Milky Way: 15-30 second interval
  • City from sunset into night: 5-7 second interval

Raw vs. JPEG: RAW images take up a lot of space, but it’s worth it for the editing range you’ll gain.

For my tips on processing your shots in Adobe Lightroom CC and Adobe After Effects CC, go to “How to Make a Time-lapse Video: Part Two.”

To see more from my trip to the Dolomites, visit my website.