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What Is Timelapse Photography?

The term ‘timelapse photography‘ refers to a film/video technique where time is essentially sped up. Timelapse allows you to compress many hours or days into just a few seconds or minutes.

You can use timelapse photography to show imperceptibly slow motion. This can mean a flower opening or members of parliament shuffling on their seats during a parliamentary debate. Yes, the BBC actually produce timelapse footage of this.

Timelapse can also compress real-time actions that take place over a long period of time. For example, the construction of a building or the changing seasons.

Whatever the subject, timelapse photography is based on taking a series of photos at regular intervals. You then combine the images into a continuous sequence in the form of a video file. The rate at which we view the individual images in the sequence is much faster than the rate at which they were originally recorded.

Most timelapse sequences are taken with the camera in a fixed position. Sometimes auxiliary gadgets are used to introduce panning or even zooming.

And more and more photographers experiment with moving the camera position for each shot in the sequence. This allows the viewer to enjoy a more immersive experience in so called ‘hyper lapse’ video.

Timelapse Workflows

There are two main timelapse workflows. The first is to let the camera do all the work. This is the quickest and easiest method since it’s easy to set up and requires no post-processing. Either the camera shoots video at a lower frame rate than normal, or it takes a sequence of photos and combines them into a video for you.

The second, and more flexible method, is to process a sequence of still photos taken in raw or jpeg format. Then, you use post-processing software to combine the images into a video. Video editing software is often used to create the original sequence and to edit footage already generated in-camera. This allows you to apply various effects such as panning and zooming to otherwise fixed point of view shots.

Basic Timelapse Equipment You’ll Need

In order to start shooting timelapse videos, you don’t have to invest in lots of new expensive equipment or software. You can almost certainly begin by using what you already have to hand. The basic requirements are of course, a camera, some means of triggering it at regular intervals and a tripod or other means of fixing the camera in position.

Depending on your workflow and the complexity of your timelapse shoot, you may be able to avoid post-processing software at first. Ultimately, however, you’ll find it worth the investment for high quality results.

The Camera

There is no need to buy any special timelapse camera. You can use almost any camera to make a timelapse movie. The capabilities of your chosen camera will, however, have a bearing on the type of workflow you use.

Let’s look at some very different cameras and consider how their features might affect the way you work. We’ll start with the camera you probably already own, a DSLR.

Many of the latest DSLRs are capable of shooting ultra-high definition video. Some manufacturers allow you to shoot a timelapse movie directly in-camera (at least in the top-end models). This is a great way to get started if money is no object. But what do you do if your camera is for example, an old Canon 50D?

This camera is no longer in production and although it has Live View, it does not support video. More modern Canon cameras began to support video but have only recently provided in-camera timelapse functions.

Magic Lantern OS

A new way to provide a range of video functions for older Canon cameras is to install an open-source alternative operating system known as ‘Magic Lantern’.

A Canon camera with Magic Lantern installed on white background. Timelapse photography equipment.

A Canon camera with Magic Lantern installed.

This is actually installed on a memory card and doesn’t overwrite the Canon software. It gives you the option to select it instead of the Canon software when you power-up the camera. Magic Lantern provides features for those interested in making movies. It also adds a host of features for stills photographers including an intervalometer. You can find out more here.

What if your DSLR doesn’t have any in-camera video capabilities and you don’t want to install Magic Lantern? You can still use it to take a sequence of still images for timelapse. And you can combine these images in software later.

This is more time-consuming but it does have the advantage of giving you far more control over the final timelapse result.

One downside to this method is that on a DSLR, a timelapse sequence typically involves many hundreds of mechanical shutter actuations. Some photographers worry about their cameras suddenly stopping when they reach the maximum number of shutter actuations.

This is a largely unfounded worry. The maximum number is not an absolute limit at which the camera stops working. It’s a somewhat conservative statistic. Your camera will most likely continue to work well past this number.

The situation is different when making a timelapse video in-camera by shooting at a slower frame rate. This is because the mechanical shutter opens once at the start of shooting. Then it remains open for the duration of the shoot while the camera is instead using its electronic shutter to expose for each frame. This reduces mechanical wear and tear.

Point and Shoot

For travel convenience, many DSLR owners also have a compact mirrorless ‘point-and-shoot’ camera. Many of these compact cameras may only ever be used in fully automatic mode. The more expensive models, however, provide all the modes and features you might expect on a good DSLR.

Sony RX100 on white background. Timelapse photography equipment.

The Sony RX100 is a very capable compact camera that you can use for timelapse photography.

The Sony RX100 range is a good example. It has a resolution of 5472 x 3648 pixels which is better than some DSLRs and it shoots video but in the case of the Mk III, only at 1080p. It doesn’t shoot time lapse but like many smartphones, it can accept additions to its software in the form of ‘apps’ you can download from Sony’s website.

Once you have the appropriate app, the RX100 can easily shoot time lapse video. It can also take a series of stills at full resolution for combining into a 4K video in post.

The Sony timelapse app can also adjust the exposure settings for timelapse videos where the lighting level is changing significantly during the course of the shoot. This is the case in sunrise or sunset timelapse movies.

GoPro

GoPros were initially aimed at young sporty types who like to film their exploits on mountain bikes or snow boards. Nowadays, they’re becoming popular with more serious photographers.

Photo of a GoPro on white background. Timelapse Photography Equipment.

Rugged and compact, the GoPro makes the task of producing 4K timelapse video very easy.

GoPro cameras have been designed to film action both in real time and in timelapse mode in ultra-high definition. They can either take a series of still photos at a resolution of 4000 x 3000 pixels for later post production of a video or make a 4k timelapse movie in-camera.

If you want to explore high speed events for timelapse, they can even film at 12o frames per second. This means you can slow down the action by a factor of four and still produce a really smooth video. The latest versions have impressive processing power. They can provide in-camera image stabilisation that’s good enough to eliminate the need for gimbals in many situations.

Unlike a DSLR or a point-and-shoot camera, the latest GoPro Hero 6 model is waterproof to a depth of 10m. If you want to take a timelapse video of the bottom of your fish pond, you can.

Intervalometer

This is a device that triggers the camera to take a photo at regular intervals. This is really just a software function in the camera’s operating system, so your camera may actually already have this function.

Nikon cameras have had an intervalometer function built-in for some years. Other manufacturers such as Canon, have, until recently, resisted this trend, preferring to sell a separate intervalometer accessory (at a significant cost).

Canon camera with a separate intervalometer accessory on white background. Timelapse Photography Equipment.

If your camera doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer, there are many third party manufacturers who make them at a very reasonable price. Not all timelapse photography has to be taken at strictly regular intervals – hyper lapse being a case in point.

Generally speaking though, you will get a smoother timelapse result if the shooting interval is consistent. You also won’t have to press the shutter button every few seconds.

Tripod/Clamp

Controlling the position of the camera during a timelapse shoot is of paramount importance. This helps you achieve a smooth and consistent result.

This may involve using a standard tripod fitted with a geared head such as the Manfrotto XPRO 3-Way Geared Head, a less conventional smaller support such as a Joby Gorrilapod, a Manfrotto Magic Arm or one of the many clamps sold by third-party manufacturers for the GroPro cameras.

Left: A clamp and flexible arm sold for GoPro cameras. Right: A Manfrotto geared head. Timelapse Photography Equipment.

Left: A clamp and flexible arm sold for GoPro cameras. Right: A Manfrotto geared head makes it easy to precisely line up each shot in a hyper lapse sequence, especially when the camera is sporting a heavy lens.

In the case of hyper lapse, you move the camera between shots. A tripod is invaluable in lining up each shot. It reduces the amount of stabilisation work needed in post production to achieve smooth motion.

Controlled Moves

It’s easy to fix the camera in one static position and watch the world go by. But a single fixed point of view can become monotonous for longer sequences. There are a number of devices on the market that introduce some slow and controlled movement during the shoot. These range from sophisticated electronically controlled slider rails to inexpensive clockwork-driven pan heads.

If you want to travel light and produce 4K timelapse movies that incorporate some panning motion without any post production software, the combination of a Joby Gorillapod, GoPro and a Flowmotion pan head is worth considering.

Photo of a Joby Gorillapod, a clockwork 2-hour Flow-Motion auto panning head and a GoPro Hero 6 camera. Timelapse Photography Equipment.

A Joby Gorillapod, a clockwork 2-hour Flow-Motion auto panning head and a GoPro Hero 6 camera.

Software

Some cameras can shoot timelapse video and output an MP4 file directly. Not all of them can produce 4K quality in-camera. But all of them can produce still photos whose resolutions exceed that required to make a 4k video.

This means that whatever your camera, you can almost certainly produce high quality 4K video. However, you will probably need post-processing software. At the very least, you’ll need it for basic colour and tonal corrections.

Post processing software can also track and stabilise motion for hyper lapse footage. If your camera didn’t change its point of view during the shoot, you can add effects such as panning and zooming in post.

With the Adobe photographer’s subscription, you’ll have access to both Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom will help you organise your images, apply consistent edits to all the photos in the timelapse sequence (including cropping to the required video aspect ratio) and export them to a folder ready for Photoshop to merge into a video file.

If you’re working with video files created in-camera, you can still use Lightroom to keep track of them. Although it’s possible to use Lightroom to edit video files, that’s not what it was designed for. The facilities it offers are fairly rudimentary.

For more advanced timelapse photography editing, cross-platform applications such as Adobe Premier Pro and After Effects provide all the tools needed for professional looking timelapse videos. If you don’t have a full subscription and you’re working on a Mac, then Final Cut Pro is an excellent editor. You can also check our article on creating a timelapse with Lightrooms LRTimelapse for more information.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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David Baxter

Dave is a photographer and writer based in Oxfordshire, England. He has a science and engineering background and has been taking photographs for over 40 years. His broad experience includes computer graphics, image processing, studio, landscape, macro, architectural, and panoramic photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and has published numerous technical articles for a Canon based photography magazine. He now runs photography workshops in Oxfordshire and is currently working on a new Lightroom book.