With The Latest Cameras, Shooting Time-Lapse Isn't as Hard as It Used To Be. But It DOES Require Some Skill.
Time-lapse video is a wonderful storytelling device. It speeds up action so things that normally take a long time to occur can be viewed in only a few seconds. Motion that is slow or imperceptible can be sped up dramatically—for example, you can watch flowers bloom, buildings being constructed, or shadows changing with the sun's motion.
Here are my Top 10 Tips for Shooting Time-Lapse:
1. Plan the Shot Before You Begin
First, let's go over the basics. To create a time-lapse, you aren't shooting video at all—you're shooting a series of still photographs, and then turning those photos into video frames. The subtle differences between those frames is what creates motion.
So in planning the shot, what do you want to achieve? Do you want to make clouds roll across the afternoon sky? Car lights at night motion-blur into red and white lines?
Also, think about the angle of the camera. Will pedestrians or traffic be moving in front of you? Obviously, it's better if they don't block the shot.
Time-lapse shots with people tend to have frenetic motion. Depending on the interval settings, they may look like they're walking fast, or disappear into a blur.
2. Use the Right Camera
There are many different cameras available that shoot high-quality video. Some of them have time-lapse functionality built right in.
My Panasonic GH5, for example, enables me to set up a time-lapse, click the shutter once, and walk away. It will automatically snap a picture at whatever interval I set. Then, once shooting is complete, it will convert that set of images into a video file. That makes my job a whole lot easier.
If your camera does not have time-lapse functionality, there are devices you can buy that plug into your camera and control the interval and picture snapping. There's also software you can buy that converts photos into video.
3. Shoot 4K If Possible
Shooting 4K isn't about the image quality, it's about the size. When you're editing a 1080p video, 4K footage is literally TWICE the size you need. That means you can add motion to the shot—slowly zoom in or out, or pan across.
That gives you a lot of flexibility when editing.
4. Use Manual Settings
Most experienced shooters use manual settings—no auto focus or auto exposure for us. But when shooting time-lapse video, using manual settings is even more important. As time goes by and light changes, your camera will not adjust settings in exactly the same way. So the photos won't be consistent in their focus or exposure.
This can cause your time-lapse to have a flickering effect.
Also, if you're shooting time-lapse at night, longer exposure settings can add some interesting blur and lighting effects. But of course, the exposure can't be longer than the time-lapse interval.
5. Use a Tripod
For time-lapse to work, the camera has to remain in EXACTLY the same position, sometimes for hours at a time. The only way to achieve this is with a tripod.
Even then, you have to be careful not to touch the camera. The tiniest shift or pan will show up in the footage.
6. Use a Fully Charged Battery
I think this is a corollary to Murphy's Law. If you spend an hour shooting a time-lapse sunset, your battery light will start blinking before the sun goes completely down.
Corollary number 2: the better the sunset, the more likely the battery will die.
7. Set the Right Interval
This is perhaps the most important point. The interval you set between shots will determine the speed of motion in the final video. But it isn't one-interval-fits-all.
For example, if you're shooting clouds on a windy day, and you can see they're moving briskly, then your time-lapse interval may be one shot per second. But if it's a calm day, and the clouds seem still, then your interval may be one shot every 10 seconds.
If you're capturing the sun's motion, or shifting shadows, you'll need an even longer interval—one shot every 30 seconds.
Rule of Thumb: Shorter intervals are better. You can speed up time-lapse footage in post, but slowing it down will look jerky.
8. Use the Right Lens
The lens you choose will dramatically affect the impact of your final shot. For example, if you're shooting a sunset, your first inclination may be to use a wide-angle lens to capture more of the sky. But in reality, a longer lens will give you a much better view of the sunset color and silhouetted clouds.
If you're shooting at night or in low light, a faster lens will open up more shooting possibilities. But be careful—the more you open up a lens, the more you'll need to check focus and depth of field.
A fish-eye lens can add an interesting effect. If you're shooting clouds, for example, you can distort the image so the middle of the shot looks normal, but the edges are curved and convex.
9. Use an ND Filter
Anytime you're shooting the sun, you have to be careful not to overexpose the shot. You can adjust aperture as well as ISO, but in some instances, that just isn't enough.
An ND filter, or variable ND filter, gives you another good way to block out excess light. They are especially handy when you want to adjust depth of field and blur the background.
10. Be Prepared to Wait
Depending on the interval settings, time-lapse shots can take several minutes to shoot, or a couple of hours. So you need to be prepared before you click the shutter.
At 24 frames a second, a ten-second time-lapse will require 240 shots. So how long will that take? Well, if you're using a 3 second interval, that's only 12 minutes. But a 10-second interval will stretch it to 40 minutes. A 30-second interval will take 2 hours.
And if you're like me, you're not going to leave an expensive camera unattended. So be prepared. Have a chair to sit in. A good book. Video games on your phone. And plenty of water.