A time-lapse is the opposite of slow-mo: instead of slowing down fast-moving activities they speed up slow ones. They’re perfect for showing the movement of clouds, crowds, traffic, and the like. You can even use them to show slow moving things like blooming flowers.
The great thing about time-lapses is that they’re very easy for photographers to shoot. Each frame is a single still image. Let’s have a look at the basics of shooting one yourself.
Before You Start
While it’s possible to shoot a time-lapse with your iPhone, for this article we’re going to look at using DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. They give you the most control.
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As well as your camera, you need a tripod to keep everything locked in the same position. You also need an intervalometer so you can take photos at the same interval; some cameras have one built in, but if yours doesn’t, any decent remote shutter release will work.
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The final thing you have to do before starting is to work out how many images you have to shoot. There are calculators that can help, but I find it’s worth doing the math yourself.
The three standard video playback rates are 24 frames-per-second (fps), 25 fps, and 30 fps. For online videos, I’d recommend going with 30 fps, but any will do; it just changes the math a little.
Let’s work with 30 fps for this article; it means that we need 30 still images for every second of final video. If we want to shoot a short 15 second time-lapse, that’s 450 photos (15×30=450).
Now that we know we have 450 frames to play with, it’s time to work out what the interval between each one has to be. Let’s assume that we’re trying to shoot the sun setting over 30 minutes. Thirty minutes is 1800 seconds, so if we take a photo every 4 seconds (1800/450=4), we’ll compress half an hour into 15 seconds at 30 frames-per-second. Simple!
For your time-lapse, work through the same process and calculate what interval you need. Most of the time, you’ll want something between about 1 and 20 seconds—anything longer will take ages to shoot, and everything will be sped up a huge amount.
Shooting the Time-Lapse
Frame your shot and lock the camera down on your tripod. Take a few test shots to get your exposure right. Once you’ve worked out what settings you want to use, set your camera to Manual mode and dial them in.
Similarly, take a few moments to get your focus right and then switch your lens to manual focus. You don’t want anything changing between shots.
Set the interval and, if possible, the number of shots with your intervalometer. Every device is different, so I can’t give detailed instructions here; if you’re having difficulty, check the manual.
You also have to decide between shooting RAW or JPEG. If you’re only doing a few hundred frames, I’d recommend RAW. If you’re shooting a few thousand, you can consider JPEG.
Once everything is ready, press the shutter button on the intervalometer and step back. Your camera should now spend the next while taking a photo every few seconds.
Prepping the Frames
With all the frames shot, it’s time to combine them into an actual time-lapse. If you’re familiar with a video editor like Adobe Premier go ahead and use it. For photographers, however, the simplest option is to use Adobe Lightroom.
Import all the photos—except your test shots—into Lightroom. Go through and make sure everything looks all right and that no shots are missing.
Once you’ve made sure all is good, go to the Develop module and select the first image. Make any edits you want. One thing I’d recommend doing is changing the crop to 16:9; it’s the traditional widescreen video aspect ratio.
Next, go to Edit > Select All then Settings > Sync Settings. Make sure everything is selected and click “Synchronize.”
This will apply the same edits to all your frames, so you don’t have to go through and do everything individually.
Creating the Video
With all the frames ready to go, it’s time to create the time-lapse video. We’re going to do that with a very handy Lightroom Slideshow template from Sean McCormack. This version of the template only exports video at 29.97 fps; Sean also has older presets that do 24, 25, and 30 fps, but you may see some artifacts if you use them.
Download the preset from Sean’s site and add them to your Lightroom Slideshow Templates folder. For full instructions on how to do that, check out our guide to adding presets to Lightroom. The simple option is to go to the Slideshow module, right-click on the Template Browser, select “Import,” and then navigate to the downloaded template file.
With the template added, head to the Slideshow module. Select it from the Template Browser.
Next, in the bottom left corner of the screen click “Export Video.”
Name your time-lapse and select either 1080p or 720p from the “Video Preset” dropdown. Click “Export,” and the time-lapse will get saved.
Go check it out and make sure everything looks good. Congrats! You’ve just made your first basic time-lapse.
Some Things to Consider
Time-lapses are growing in popularity and complexity. Above, we’ve looked at creating a very simple time-lapse. There are lots of ways you can take things further.
Cameras aren’t perfect. They don’t take the same photo every time you press the shutter button. There are often tiny variations. If there’s a little bit of flickering in your time-lapse, it’s almost certainly from this. If you want a lot more control and a way to smooth out the variations, check out LRTimelapse—at about $120 it’s pricey, but it’s the best tool out there for making time-lapses.
Similarly, you can get creative with your shots. More advanced intervalometers will let you change the shutter speed between frames (often called bulb-ramping or “bramping”), so you can transition between day and night or other situations where light levels change. You can also use motorized tripod heads to add movement to your shots.
If you’re serious about time-lapses, it’s also worth learning how to video edit. That way you’ll be better able to combine different shots, add music, and otherwise make more interesting videos.
Time-lapses are at the intersection of photography and videography. They’re fun to play around with although they can be time-consuming to get right. Now you know the basics.