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What Is Time-Lapse Photography?

Time-lapse photography is a cinematography technique in which a photographer will take a series of still images of the same frame at regular intervals over a period of time, then play through the entire sequence rapidly. For example, individual shots taken of a flower growing over time become a video showing how it goes from seedling to fully blossomed blooming.

The purpose of time-lapse photography is to create the illusion of high-speed movement—manipulating time to make it seem as if the subject is moving rapidly. Time-lapse photography is most commonly used to capture slow processes that normally wouldn’t be very visible or interesting if being watched with just the human eye (e.g., sunrise and sunset, the movement of the stars during the night, or the growth of plants). However, time-lapses can also be used to capture fast movements and make them seem even faster (e.g., a waterfall, a crowded city sidewalk, or a busy highway).

What Equipment Do You Need for Time-Lapse Photography?

Time-lapse photography requires only a few special pieces of equipment.

  • A camera. While technically any point-and-shoot camera or smartphone can be used for time-lapse photography, the easiest ones to work with are DSLR or mirrorless cameras—some even have an in-camera intervalometer (often called a time-lapse feature or time-lapse mode), which means you’ll need less equipment to take great time-lapse photos.
  • A tripod. A tripod is essential to time-lapse photography, because the camera needs to stay perfectly still in order to emphasize the steady movement of your subject and to avoid overly blurry photos.
  • An intervalometer. An intervalometer is an external device (or, in some cases, software that you can download to your camera) that tells the camera to take photos at specific intervals for a specific amount of time. This prevents you from having to stand next to your camera and manually press the shutter button every few seconds.
  • Neutral-density filters. Neutral-density (ND) filters are like sunglasses for cameras—they reduce the amount of light that comes through the lens without changing the color-temperature. While not strictly required for time-lapse photography, ND filters allow you more flexibility with your shutter speed, so you can use slower shutter speeds and still have the same amount of light.
  • High-capacity memory cards. Time-lapse photography involves taking many high-quality images back to back—and that demands a lot of space. For the best results, shoot in RAW format, which takes images in the highest resolution with actual image dimensions. You’ll need to prepare for very large RAW file sizes, so bring multiple high-capacity memory cards.

What Are the Best Camera Settings for Creating a Time-Lapse?

When shooting a time-lapse video, you will get the best results when shooting in manual settings, i.e., adjusting your camera settings yourself. If you were to shoot a time-lapse video with your camera set to automatic, the camera would be deciding for you how to correct for changing light levels—and on auto mode, your camera won’t be able to adjust each shot consistently or may even overcompensate for light changes, resulting in heavy “flicker” (when some images come out much lighter or darker than others, giving your video a “flickering” effect).

Shooting in manual can often sound scary, especially if you’re a beginner to camera settings, but this step is critical in getting the right light and smoothest motion blur for your time-lapse. Here’s what you’ll need to keep in mind:

  • Aperture. Choose an aperture that will keep your subject in focus and provide enough light. Experiment with your aperture to achieve the right depth of field for your subject.
  • Shutter speed. Choosing the best shutter speed depends on the look you want to achieve. If you want each shot to look sharp and clearly capture moving subjects, a fast aperture (1/100 or faster) will achieve that—but if you’re shooting in a busy area with lots of fast-moving subjects (e.g., a road or a crowd), the video can end up looking jumpy, since subjects will be captured every few seconds in a different position. If you want a smoother-looking video, experiment with slower apertures (1/50 or slower), which will capture moving subjects in motion and add a motion blur to their path. A good standard shutter speed for time-lapse photography is double your frame rate (e.g., if you’re shooting at 25 FPS, your shutter speed should be 1/50).
  • ISO. The best ISO setting will depend on your light. For time-lapse photography, a low ISO is best, since it will reduce photographic noise and graininess, but a low ISO requires a higher-light setting. If you want to shoot time-lapses in low-light settings, you’ll need a higher ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light, but your video will come out grainier.
  • Focus. Set your camera and lens to manual focus, as opposed to auto focus; this will maintain a consistent focus for each shot. If your camera were in auto focus, it would try to refocus on a new subject between each shot—which could be problematic in a fast-moving time-lapse like a crowd or busy street.
  • Time-lapse interval (speed). Think of the time-lapse interval as the number of frames per second (FPS) in your time-lapse movie. When you plan your timelapse, you need to consider the speed of the subject to choose your time-lapse interval correctly. Fast movement requires shorter intervals, between one and three seconds—too much space between each image and fast objects in a scene will appear to be skipping. Slower movement, however, can be captured with longer intervals (up to 30 seconds) without appearing jumpy.

How to Shoot Time-Lapse Photography

  1. Scout your location. Shooting time-lapse photography is a long time commitment, so you definitely want to scope out a good spot before you show up and start shooting. Take into consideration how you want to frame your subject, how much light the area gets, and whether or not there will be any unexpected interruptions.
  2. Pack carefully. Not only should you pack your photography equipment, you should keep in mind what sort of environment you’ll be working in—if it’s going to be hot and sunny, pack a hat and sunscreen. If it’s cold, pack a jacket and gloves. No matter where you’re going, bring water and snacks.
  3. Set up your equipment. Make sure your camera and tripod are set up on sturdy ground; otherwise, the frames will be slightly different and your time-lapse will look like it’s wobbling.

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