The Complete Guide to Shooting Time Lapse Movies
New cameras and software have made it easier than ever to shoot a time lapse movie.
There are four main steps to capturing a time lapse movie:
- Initial setup
- Shooting your images
- Processing the images
- Combining them and editing them into a movie
There are plenty of variables when you’re shooting a time lapse, but there are a few things you will definitely need:
- A tripod / way to fix your camera in place. Here’s the rig I’m using.
- A plan for your exposures — most time lapse movies don’t change the camera settings half way through, so if you’re shooting a time lapse of a sunset you’ll want to try to find an exposure that looks good both before and after the sunset. If you need to use multiple settings you’ll probably want to shoot multiple segments and edit them together.
- Math — I know, this part doesn’t sound fun. Unless you like math! If you like math you’ll love this part.
- An AC adapter — if you’re shooting for hours and hours you’ll need to plug your camera into a wall, so keep that in mind if you’re doing any particularly long movies.
About that math stuff, it’s actually not that bad. You really only have three variables:
- How long do you want your movie to be?
- What frame rate do you plan on using?
- How long is the event you’re shooting?
And, yes, there’s an app for that. Kessler Crane makes an app that includes a handy calculator for figuring out how many photos to take how often for your time lapse movies.
24 frames-per-second (FPS) is standard and will give you a very smooth video. You’ll be taking a ton of photos, so be sure to dial the settings down in your camera so you don’t fill up your hard drives!
At 24 FPS, you need 1,440 images per minute of video. I set out to shoot at least a minute of video and decided to go with one image every second — so I need to shoot at least 1,440 images.
I’m shooting a time lapse of driving around Chicago, so I need to drive around for at least 24 minutes.
Shooting Your Images
The first step of making a time lapse movie is simple: take a ton of photos at precise intervals.
The newest cameras make this as simple as changing a few settings and hitting go, but there are a few old school techniques you can use if your camera doesn’t have this baked in. Let’s look at all the options.
- Patience and a stopwatch. If you don’t have any other option, you can certainly stand next to your camera and press the shutter once every second. Good luck!
- A camera with an external intervalometer. Most cameras will let you plug in an intervalometer (for you etymology nerds out there, “intervalometer” means at measured intervals). Canon has their own for some of their cameras, and Calumet makes one that you can adapt to almost any DSLR.
- A camera with an internal intervalometer. Congrats, you just won the jackpot! If you have a built-in intervalometer this will be very easy for you to set up.
Whether or not you are using an external intervalometer or an internal one, from here the set up is fairly similar. Intervalometers have three settings you can change, plus start and stop buttons:
- Shoot X images
- Every Y seconds
- For Z minutes/hours (or until you hit N images total)
For our tutorial, remember, we want to shoot ONE image every ONE second for 24 minutes, or until we have 1,440 images.
On the Nikon D800 — which has a built in intervalometer — follow these steps:
- Go the Shooting Menu and find Interval Timer Shooting
- Choose “Now”
- Choose an Interval of 1″
- Choose the total number of shots — for us it is 999. Now! We are trying to take at least 1,440 images, so this means we’ll need to restart the shooting at some point. My plan is to restart the time lapse when I’m at a stop light and there’s less changing within the scene.
- Go ahead and start shooting by going to the next screen and hitting “OK” to start.
OK — you are on your way! Good luck!
Processing the Images
If you don’t need to change the files at all, you can skip this step entirely. But say your horizon was a little crooked and you want to fiddle with the files a little. If so, Lightroom will make this a breeze. Just follow these simple steps:
- Import all of the images into Lightroom
- Edit the first image in the series until you are satisfied
- Highlight all the thumbnails in the series
- Hit the “Sync…” button and make sure every option is checked before hitting “OK” — this will apply your changes to every file in the series
- Hit “check all” in the sync dialog box and hit sync.
- Go to File > Export…
- For naming choose “custom name (sequence)” and name it however you’d like, let’s say “time lapse “. This will give you files like “time lapse 1.jpg”, “time lapse 2.jpg” and so on.
- For size choose the width you’ll want your final result to be. Let’s do full HD, which is 1920.
Turning Your Images Into a Movie
There are a lot of ways to do this — everything from iMovie to Youtube (kind of) to video editing programs. We’re going to use Photoshop for this tutorial, because I think it is particularly easy. You’ll need Adobe Photoshop CS6.
- Go to File > New > and choose the preset “Film & Video” and choose your resolution, aspect ratio, and file format.
- Click “Create Video Timeline” down at the bottom:
- Go to the panel menu and click “set timeline frame rate” (on the bottom right). For this tutorial we are doing 24 FPS.
- Go to Layer > Video Layer > New Video Layer From File…
- Find the folder where you’ve saved your images (be sure they are in sequential order!) and click “open”.
- Photoshop will automatically add the images and in put them in the right order. Which is wonderful!
- If you need to resize the images to fit within the video frame, go to Edit > Free Transform and fit the image to the video frame.
- Once you have your images situated within the frame, go to File > Export > Render Video
- Add the name you’d like and confirm the settings you want, but the default should be good to go, and click “render”.
Here’s the video I made for this tutorial. I ended up driving around for about 35 minutes or so, which gave me close to 90 seconds of video from 2,600 shots. I also made a wrong turn into some underground streets, so the video gets pretty dark for a few seconds. Oops.
Some cameras can do this in camera. As in take all the photos and give you a movie file right away. I know, crazy.
Here’s how to do it on the D800:
- Find “Time Lapse Photography” in the Shooting Menu
- This is similar to the Interval Timer Shooting options, but there are a few changes. First choose how long the camera should wait between images. We’re still sticking with one second.
- Here’s the nifty part: choose how long you want the camera to capture images, and the camera will show you how much memory the movie file will need and how long of a video you’ll end up with. You can see here shooting for 24 minutes will give us a one minute video.
Gear used in this tutorial: