Timelapse Photography: A Complete Guide for Beginners

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If you're not familiar with timelapse videos, you've probably already seen them but just aren't aware of it. With timelapse photography, you can take sequential photos captured over a period of hours and compress them into a video of only a few minutes in length – this allows you to see a slowly changing scene at a much faster pace and can open up a whole new world of photography to you.
Cover Image Credit: Startrails by Brian Tomlinson Photography

In theory, timelapse videos are easy to do with your camera – you’re simply taking a few hundred photos, one after another, and then lining them up in post processing. However, to get a stunning, seamless timelapse video, there’s much more involved than spending a few hours behind the lens.
Click here to see Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull on Vimeo
What Do You Need to Make a Timelapse?
Intervalometer – This handy tool allows you to take a certain amount of photos spaced evenly in exposure – meaning that you don’t have to sit with your remote and take X amount of photos every second.
The amount of time of each exposure will vary greatly depending on your available light, but an intervalometer is needed to capture extended timelapses and keep your exposures uniform in spacing – i.e. the amount of time in between each image (or frame).
A fantastic asset to intervalometers is that you can input how long of a delay between each exposure you want. This is important if you’re shooting in RAW as it may take a few seconds for your buffer to catch up and be ready for another exposure – if you're in burst mode, your camera will periodically take breaks to catch up which can throw off the timing between each image and make your timelapse appear choppy, so adequate spacing for your camera to take a breather is needed.
Most modern SLRs have built-in intervalometers so buying one isn't too much of a concern – check your manual and see if you need to pick up one of these.
Alternatives to an Intervalometer
As an alternative to an intervalometer, it is also possible to tether your camera to a laptop and let computer software do the work of the intervalometer.
Sofortbild – is free (donationware) tethering software for the Mac that can be used as an intervalometer.
There are also various tethering programs for different cameras that accommodate tethered time lapse photography. Check out this great post at DIY Photography about open source alternatives.
Tripod – You need something to stabilize your camera for many hours, and a tripod is a solid way to make sure your camera doesn't move between frames.
Techniques for Timelapse Photography
As I just mentioned, large gaps between exposures prove to be a problem when trying to make a seamless timelapse video – too much time and it will seem choppy and lack that smooth quality most timelapse photographers aim for.
Flicker and the Importance of Manual Mode
It’s imperative that you set your camera in manual mode and not change your settings, even when shooting lighting situations that change over a period of time – like sunrises and sunsets. By allowing your camera to adjust exposure automatically, you’ll most definitely get what is called “flicker” – which is the sharp change of exposure from one frame to another.
Click here to see a “before and after” example of timelapse flicker
By shooting in manual mode and not allowing your camera to change your exposure, you'll avoid this kind of flicker. Even in situations where the lighting changes dramatically from start to finish – such as sunsets – it’s best to keep it in manual if you want to avoid this.
Another cause of flicker is large gaps between exposures – it makes your video jump around and look disjointed. The best way to solve this is to minimize the gap between each exposure, but still long enough to allow the image to read to your memory card – this is a particularly important concern if you’re shooting in RAW. It can be a challenge to find a good balance, but the results are worth it.
Aperture Flicker and How to Adjust For It
Besides flicker caused by changing exposures and gaps between photos, there are other causes to watch out for. If you use a small aperture – such as f/8 or higher – your shutter moves a lot from one photo to the next, going from its dormant wide-open state to the smaller size of your chosen aperture – the higher the f/stop, the more it moves. Each time your shutter moves, it never really goes back to the exact same place it did before due to slight miscalculations. For regular photography, this doesn't matter – but for time lapses, it can cause flicker.
To rectify this, you need to choose an aperture that keeps your shutter at a relatively open state – meaning that you're minimizing the distance your shutter has to go when you take a photo. The wider the better, but most photographers note that anything under f/8 is pretty good at eliminating aperture flicker.

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Shutter Flicker and How to Adjust For It

Another type of flicker to consider is shutter flicker – which is inconsistencies in exposure due to things moving too quickly – a.k.a. a fast shutter speed.
Most professional time lapse photographers will shoot at a slower shutter speed to ensure that shutter flicker doesn't occur – under 1/50th of a second to play it safe, although some push the limit to 1/100ths of a second with reportedly good results.
How to Obtain Optimal Exposure
So obviously finding that “sweet spot” exposure can be quite challenge in itself – shooting at a slower shutter speed than normal combined with a wide aperture can be quite problematic, especially during the daytime when light is abundant.
Note: If you’re unsure why this is problematic, read this tutorial on how your camera exposes a photo and what elements come into play to get an optimal exposure.
A common technique time lapse photographers use to reduce their exposure time is by using ND filters – this is almost a necessity if you plan on doing daytime timelapses without flicker as it will help slow down your shutter if needed.
Choosing the Right White Balance
There’s another step in avoiding flicker- setting your white balance manually. Just like with an automatic exposure setting, your camera chooses white balance based on each image if not selected manually. This can cause some color flicker – where your image changes white balance from frame-to-frame.
Another benefit of setting your white balance is that you don’t have to change it in post process. Editing a handful of images can be done quickly – especially in RAW – but if you’re dealing with several hundred photos for a timelapse, you can easily lose hours just on adjusting your white balance.
Getting a Good Editing Workflow
Don’t go into a time lapse shoot with the mindset of “I’ll just shoot in RAW and edit later”. When you’re dealing with hundreds of photos, any step you can skip in your editing workflow can literally save you hours of post processing time.
For example, you may be shooting a sunset and want your foreground and sky to be properly exposed (i.e. no silhouette images). Instead of  blending the exposures manually in post process and autobracketing, it would be much wiser to use an ND grad filter – this will eliminate the amount of photos you take, and simplify your editing workflow considerably.
The best part about shooting timelapse videos with your SLR is that you can use a wide array of specialized lenses, giving you unique and powerful perspectives not easily captured with your video camera. Check out this creative timelapse of New York City captured with a tilt-shift lens:
Click here to see The Sandpit on Vimeo
Rails, Dollies, and Motion Control Systems
Once you've mastered the art of a stationary timelapse – meaning your camera and tripod don't move – you can add another element that will create a sense of fluidity by combining a slow-moving camera with a fast-moving subject.
Timelapse motion control systems basically attach your camera to a rail, and with each capture (or frame) it seamlessly moves your camera in a certain direction. The actual distance moved isn't very long – usually around 6 feet over the course of several hours – but the end result is a fantastic show.
Click here to see The Arctic Light on Vimeo
For more information on how to get started as a timelapse photographer, visit this fantastic beginner's guide on Timescapes.org. It also includes a list of video editing software to help you bring it all together.
This guide is simply an introduction to timelapse photography – once you get started, you'll undoubtedly find yourself presented with unusual circumstances to overcome. The helpful people at the Timescapes.org forum can help you considerably – Timescapes is considered to be the one-stop information source on professional timelapse photography, and their forum has a wealth of incredible tips and tricks, as well as inspiration.

Read more great articles by Christopher O’Donnell on his website or follow him on Google+ and Facebook. You can also find him on Twitter and 500px.

About the author

    Christopher O'Donnell

    I'm a professional landscape photographer living on the coast of Maine. Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. Feel free to visit my website.


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