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How To Shoot A Time-lapse On A DSLR Or Mirrorless Camera

Time-lapses are a cinematic technique that every photographer should know and try at some point.

They’re not too hard to learn and can look awesome if done correctly. Follow this quick guide on how to shoot a time-lapse so you can shoot your own!

What Is Time-lapse Photography?

A time-lapse is a sequence where time seems to be played back faster than real time.

This can be done by simply speeding up a piece of video or by shooting a series of photographs, stitching them together in a sequence and then playing them back in a video sequence. 

In time-lapse photography sequences the frames will be shot at a slower rate compared to the playback.

What this means is that you can compress a large time frame into a short time frame. 

For example, you might shoot 1 frame every minute for 24 minutes. But, if you play back the footage at 24 frames per second then those 24 frames will result in just 1 second of footage. 

So you have compressed 24 minutes worth of real time action into 1 second of footage. 

What Equipment Do I Need For A Time-lapse?

When you are shooting a timelapse you need specific tools to make sure that you can do them correctly. 

A Camera

This is an obvious one, but it is important. The type of camera you have will determine what kind of time lapse you can shoot. A higher end DSLR or mirrorless camera will give you the most options when it comes to time lapses.

You can shoot a time lapse on other lower end devices such as point and shoot cameras, but you will most likely have to stick to just playing back video footage at higher speeds.

You can shoot photo sequences on these lower end cameras to be played back in a time lapse sequence, but since these cameras generally will not have remote trigger options then it will be a case of shooting all the photos manually!

Stabilisation For Your Camera

Since you are taking lots of photos consecutively and you may be using long shutter speeds you will want something to stabilise your camera to avoid any camera shake. 

The best and most common tool for this is a tripod. A tripod can be adjusted to your preference in terms of shooting height and angle while also being a secure way to stabilise your camera.

If you don’t have a tripod you can also use a platform where you know the camera wont move.

This can simply be a stack of books or a window ledge. The key is that the platform is stable.

An Intervalometer

An intervalometer is a device which allows you to automatically set your camera to take exposures every so often for a period of time.

Clearly this is useful for time lapses since you might want to take hundreds of pictures all with an equal time frame between each shot. 

An intervalometer is able to control the following settings: 

  • The initial self timer for the first shot of a sequence.
  • The interval of time between each shot.
  • How many shots are to be taken.
  • Shutter speed for each exposure.

You can buy intervalometers which are cabled devices that are inexpensive, but you will need to check which intervalometer is right for your specific camera.

The other option is that your camera may have its own time-lapse option that works as a built in intervalometer. 

Video Time-lapses VS Photo Time-lapses 

Shooting A Time-Lapse With Video

With this method you simply use the video recording on your camera and film a piece of footage. Then speed up the footage however much you want to form the time-lapse.

This can be an easy solution and it doesn’t take much to accomplish if you have a camera that can record footage. 

There are some downsides to this. The first is the shutter speed. With the video recording you will be limited in terms of the shutter speed and will most likely be shooting according to your frame rate.

One common rule in video is the 180 degree rule. Basically you shoot at double your frame rate for playback. 

For example, if your playback is 25fps you shoot at 1/50th of a second, or if your playback is in 30fps you shoot at 1/60th of a second. 

As you can see here this means you will not be shooting with shutter speeds slower than a second and this means you can miss out on some cool effects which we will discuss in the next section. 

The other downside to shooting a time-lapse straight from video is that the resolution of each frame could potentially be lower compared to individual photos.

This can mean you are limited when editing if you wanted to crop in to certain parts of the footage as you may see a loss in quality. 

Shooting a time lapse with photos

When creating time-lapses using photography you shoot a sequence of photos and put them in order into a video sequence. Doing this can allow for more creative freedom for the time lapse. 

Unlike video you have free reign in choosing a shutter speed and each exposure can be much slower.

For example, using a 4-5 second exposure may allow for a lot more motion blur in each scene which can help in creating a very smooth flowing time-lapse.

The exact shutter speed depends on the lighting available and the speed at which the subjects are moving. 

As a general rule of thumb, the quicker your subject is moving the quicker your shutter speed will be. 

Also each frame may be higher quality compared to in a video sequence allowing you to edit and zoom in on sections of the footage without much loss in detail.

Overall, time-lapses with photos will give you much more creative control compared to a video although a downside would be the time required as you may have to shoot hundreds if not thousands of exposures!

How To Shoot A Time-lapse?

  1. First you want to pick your scene and head there.
  2. Now set up your camera on your tripod or whatever else you may be using for stability.
  3. Choose the length of your final footage. This is important because it determines how many shots you need. Let’s use an example where you want 10 seconds of footage.
  4. Get your focus right. For this you will want to set your camera to manual focus so your camera does not keep changing focus between shots by auto-focusing. 
  5. Get your exposure right. Take some test shots at different shutter speeds and aperture values. In the end, you will want everything set at manual so the camera does not keep automatically changing settings between shots as this will result in inconsistent images in the time-lapse. If you want, you can help set up your shot by first shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode then manually adjusting from there. Your ISO should be manually set too.
  6. Set up your intervalometer to shoot the right amount of photos at the right intervals for your sequence. To find out how many frames you need, you will need to take your final footage length and multiply that by the frame rate that you will play it back in. So if you will play the final time-lapse in 24 frames per second and your final footage will be 10 seconds long, you will need 240 frames shot (24 x 10). 
  7. Now everything is set up. Start the sequence.
  8. Time to get back to your computer. Import all of your files into Lightroom if you want to edit them, if not just import them straight into a video editing software and import all of your frames in. Make sure they’re all in the correct order.
  9. Make sure your frame rate is right and each frame takes up the same amount of time. 
  10. Play the sequence and watch that beautiful time lapse go!
  11. Evaluate. If you are not happy with the outcome try to see why. If it looks jittery and the movements are too choppy for you, try slowing your shutter speed down more. If instead you are seeing that everything is too blurred and you can’t make out the movement at all, then try to speed up the shutter speed per photo. Another thing to consider is the aperture value and the focus point. If you see that certain parts are looking too soft, but you want them sharper then try changing your focus point or increasing your f-stop number to introduce a larger depth of field.

We hope you found this helpful! As always we appreciate your time for reading this.
– Photography Pursuits Team

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