Time-Lapse Primer

There has been an explosion in interest in time-lapse, and for professionals, being able to add time-lapse skills to your repertoire gives you one more thing a client may want. It also gives you some cool motion to have in your portfolio. Creating time-lapse can be incredibly rewarding, too. Half the pleasure of going out to shoot is the journey that’s required to get to the location. The better the location, the harder it is to access. The first time you look at the shot and see the results, it’s extremely exciting.

For me, it’s about the art, the experience, the desire to take a step back and breathe, and most importantly, the desire to share. What makes time-lapse photography so fascinating to me is that it requires patience. It’s one activity that requires you to stop and take in your surroundings, sometimes for only a few minutes and other times for hours.

Many people are drawn to the art through the process, one that allows us to analyze our environment and adapt. The slower-paced shooting environment is similar to the experience of shooting a still photograph before the advent of digital mediums.

The most important thing is to get out and shoot. Like anything, practice makes perfect. Because of the diversity of ways to approach shooting a time-lapse, this article will focus only on the basics, with a few helpful tips to improve your skill set.


Camera body and lens
Cards and batteries
Camera-cleaning tools
Polarizer filters, Vari-ND filters and grad filters

It’s essential that you’re prepared before you go out to shoot. Make sure you know the types of shots you want to accomplish before heading out to shoot. Double-check that you have all the gear you need and that you have replacement items in case any gear is lost or broken. To capture a time-lapse, you’ll need the following gear:

The Basics

When shooting a time-lapse, it all starts with the foundation. The first thing you’ll want to make sure you have is a solid tripod and shooting surface. If using a lighter tripod, you may want to lash the tripod down or attach a weight to the center column. If it gets windy, this will ensure that your final shot is stable.

Using a motorized slider with multiple cameras shooting at different focal lengths gives you a polished, professional clip that will dazzle viewers.

Once you’ve secured your camera, make sure your camera lens and sensor are clean. When shooting high-resolution photos, any dust or dirt on either will show up in your final image and this could render the shot useless. Although you can remove some of these spots in postproduction, it’s good to get in the habit of making sure each is clean. This is especially important when you close down your aperture, as this material becomes more present in your final image.

The Shots: Mix It Up

Subject matter is at the forefront of these endeavors, without question. When shooting a time-lapse, determine what your subject matter is and how you want to capture it. Typically, the first thing I do when I get to a location is take 10 minutes to investigate the surroundings and find out the best way to accurately capture the space. Make sure to take into account all aspects of the image.

The Settings: A Starting Point

The most common questions people ask when trying to determine the perfect settings for their given shot is what interval, shutter and aperture to use. I’ll walk you through a few different settings you’ll need to consider when setting up your shot and hopefully guide you toward the settings you desire.

Stationary shots are also useful. A solid tripod and head to lock the camera down are all that’s needed.

Focus. The first step is to set your focus to manual and turn off the image stabilizer if you’re on a tripod. Ensure that Live View is activated. To focus, use the +/- button to zoom on your subject matter. If you’re shooting at night, use exposure simulation and shine a flashlight on what you’re hoping to have in focus.

Shooting Mode. Once you’ve focused your image, you need to determine your shooting mode. Use only manual or aperture-priority mode. In most situations, unless shooting a day-to-night/night-to-day time-lapse, you’ll want to shoot on manual.

File Format. I recommend shooting both RAW and JPEG. By shooting low-resolution JPEGs, you’re quickly able to prepare a render in the edit suite. Another thing I highly recommend is making sure your camera is set to “auto reset file number” so when you format your card, it resets the file numbers back to 1. By doing this, staying organized will be much easier.

Flicker: The Infamous Achilles’ Heel Of Time-Lapse

One of the biggest challenges when shooting a time-lapse is flicker. It’s the pesky distraction that takes the viewer’s experience from being immersed in the emotion of the scene to that of an observer. Because flicker isn’t something you normally would see in live-action content, when viewers see this in a time-lapse, they quickly become aware of the act of shooting rather than paying attention to the story.

There are many different things that cause flicker, including:

Shooting in aperture-priority mode
Change of light within your scene/shutter speed
Aperture abbreviation

Although each of these will cause flicker, there are a few measures you can take when shooting a time-lapse, as well as a few measures you can take when processing the time-lapses to remove it.

When you’re shooting in aperture-priority mode, you’ll need to deflicker in post. There’s just no way around it. There are a few options to remove this flicker, and each requires some trial and error. The first and most comprehensive method you can use is LRTimelapse. Although very reliable, if this doesn’t work, you also can try GBDeflicker, CHV Time Collections Long Exposure or Frame Blending in Adobe After Effects.

The best way to smooth the changes of light is by using a longer exposure.
By using a longer shutter speed, you usually can smooth out the changes in light.
The interval (delay) isn’t critical with these types of shots. Use longer exposure times—anything over 1⁄50 sec. to smooth out these changes in exposure.

When shooting with a stopped-down aperture, you may experience flicker due to aperture abbreviation. To avoid this flicker, you’ll want to use the “lens-twist method” (see the sidebar on the following page).

Menu screens from Canon and Nikon DSLRs show the best image-quality settings to use.

White Balance. Ensure the white balance is also set to manual. Your sho
oting location and time of day will determine your white balance. Although it’s not 100% important to nail your white balance when shooting RAW, it’s good to get in the habit of setting it. As a point of reference, daylight is ~5600K and tungsten is ~3200K. When shooting astro time-lapses, I tend to lean closer to 3200K, but I highly recommend taking a few test shots to see what you like best.

Some cameras have intervalometers built in. If yours doesn’t, you’ll need to purchase an external unit. Above: The Hähnel Giga T Pro II lets you control the camera wirelessly.

How Much Is Important. Once you’ve set all the internal settings on the camera, you’ll need to determine what you want your aperture to be. Most lenses have a sweet spot, and I highly recommend testing out its full range of apertures to find out where the sharpest point of your lens is. When choosing what aperture to use, this will depend on what you’re shooting. Keep in mind that you’ll introduce flicker if you have your lens stopped down unless you use the “lens-twist method” to lock out your aperture blades. If you want to drag your exposure during the day, I recommend using ND filters rather than stopping your lens down completely. If shooting astro time-lapses, you’ll more than likely want to shoot wide open.

Smooth Like Silk. One of the last settings to determine is shutter speed. Set your desired shutter speed based on the effect you want. The longer the exposure, the smoother the motion of the action in your scene. By dragging your shutter (shutter open longer), you’re able to hide exposure changes, and as a result, remove some of the flicker that would have been present otherwise. Usually, I wouldn’t recommend a shutter speed faster than 1⁄100 sec., as you’ll start to see more flicker from changes in light within your frame.

Most Canon DSLRs don’t have internal intervalometers, but Canon makes the TC-80N3, which works with most of their cameras.

If trying to drag your shutter during the day, you may want or need to use an ND or a polarizer filter to get the desired shutter speed. By dragging your shutter, you’re creating motion blur, and as a result, you’re creating an image similar to shooting video at 24/25 fps. However, if you want to create a “stop-motion” effect, you may need a faster shutter to freeze the action within the frame.

Time Is Everything

Zero out the intervalometer in all modes and set the delay mode to the desired time. Some intervalometers require you to set your time between frames using the interval setting. If you’re in Bulb mode, set the “long” option to the desired exposure time. When deciding on what interval to use, make sure the time between photos is at least the amount of time it takes to both expose and buffer the given image.

The Lens-Twist Method

A stopped-down lens will always cause a certain amount of flicker because between frames the aperture opens, then stops down again, just before the exposure is made. It’s impossible for the aperture blades to close in exactly the same way in every exposure. The “lens-twist method” locks the aperture blades. To do it, establish the aperture you want to use and set it on the camera or lens. Press the depth-of-field preview to stop down the lens to that aperture and simultaneously depress the lens release button. While holding the DOF preview button, twist the lens slightly. Your camera will lose contact with the lens and the blades will remain locked in the stopped-down position. You’ll lose the lens metadata information in the exposures, but that’s a small price to pay.

Turning off the AF at the lens will keep your camera from changing focus mid-clip. Make a short checklist to confirm important and easily overlooked steps like this.

Typically, I try to take as many photos as possible and then speed up in post if necessary (unless doing a full-day time-lapse). It’s easier to speed up than to interpolate frames if not enough photos were taken. A good starting point is a one- to three-second delay between photos. A time-lapse calculator is helpful here. I use the Kessler time-lapse calculator to determine what interval to use, based on my given shooting scenario.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before committing to the time-lapse, shoot some test frames; you can see a quick preview of what your shot will look like. Scan all areas of the frame, focusing on solid compositions, to ensure there’s no element that doesn’t belong. Once you’ve captured the test frames, scroll through the images to see how the motion in the frame is moving.

The last steps you’ll want to follow are to format your card and make sure your batteries are fully charged. Once you’ve done that, you should be able to start recording your time-lapse.

To learn how to shoot more advanced time-lapses using specialized techniques, how to deflicker and how to process these shots, go to www.prestonkanak.com.

One Brick At A Time

Now the fun part. What to do with all these images. The first thing I recommend doing is processing your JPEG photos to see if the given shot will work in your film. If it does,
you’ll then want to process the RAW files, and there are a few ways to accomplish this. My go-to method can be seen in the steps below:1 Import photos into Lightroom and save metadata to create XMP files.
2 Select folder in LRTime-lapse, initialize, define reference area, auto-keyframe, and save metadata.
3 Reload metadata in Lightroom, edit photos marked with a star rating, as desired, save metadata.
4 Reload metadata in LRTimelapse, auto-transition, deflicker, and save metadata.
5 Import image sequence into After Effects and render out 1080 and 5K sequence.

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