Fueled by the vast availability of high quality digital cameras timelapse
has seen a surge in popularity and creative vigor. If you're new to the
art-form or if you know what a Norris Intervalometer is but have only
scratched the surface of DLSR techniques, this comprehensive tech-tip
can serve as a kickoff for your journey into the challenging yet
rewarding art of capturing digital timelapse photography.
Two General Approaches; Sequenced Stills or Digital Video 'Sped Up' in Post
There are advantages & disadvantages to both methods so being aware
of the caveats going in can save you a lot of headaches down the road.
Today, the majority of timelapse enthusiasts use digital single lens
reflex cameras (DSLR) and are shooting sequenced stills, but there are
many high quality video cameras that can provide great results by
shooting video and increasing the speed via post processing. Let's break
down the pros and cons of both approaches:
- Ability to capture resolution far above final output, in other
words if you're using a 10mp+ camera and you're finishing at 2k or 1080p
you have plenty of resolution to spare. If you have a source resolution
much higher than your final video output
resolution, pan and zoom effects within the frame in post
production are possible without loss of image quality.
- Ability to capture RAW images (filenames ending in .CR2, .NEF
etc.). The same holds true in timelapse as in traditional digital
photography, capturing RAW data will give you the most flexibility in
post but can come at storage and speed cost.
- Ability to adjust ALL exposure settings. Still cameras give you
full manual control over exposure, aperture, ISO, white balance, etc.
Many video cameras do not.
- Ability to preview shots in the LCD. Very useful to monitor exposure and progress of motion.
- Capture Speed; with many DSLR bodies it's difficult to achieve less
than 2-3 second intervals per shot capturing full-resolution RAW
frames. You can shift your capture method to JPG and get far faster
capture speeds (many cameras can do 2-3 FPS consistently with the
shutter locked or 'held down'). Note on shooting JPG: due to the fact
that white balance is 'baked in' it's crucial that you have it set and
locked down in the cameras settings. Note on shooting RAW: make sure to
allow the camera's buffer to clear (each image has fully saved to the
card) before triggering the next shot, if not the camera's buffer will
eventually become full and frames will be missed.
- Time drain in post; particularly shooting RAW can require some
serious time and computer resources in the post process. Shooting JPG
can speed post processing significantly but if you want quality and
future proof source files, remember to budget the time, memory and
- Easy; not much to consider when shooting, make sure all your
settings locked to taste, you have power to last the duration, press the
REC button and chillax.
- Tape is in the past; most video cams record direct to chip or hard
drive now so it's a snap to transfer directly into your project.
- Fast in post; drop that file into the timeline, speed it up to taste and voila timelapse.
- Not much resolution flexibility; once it's recorded you can't do
much in post, for example unlike hi-res stills the pan-and-scan aka 'the
Ken Burns effect' is out of the question. You pretty much have to get
it framed right while shooting, color correct and live with the results.
- Limited duration; once the recording memory is full you're done. In
some cases cameras will simply stop recording after x amount of time.
- Power consumption; in general a running video capture will consume more power than stills
The Basics of Shooting Timelapse with a DSLR (We have a very helpful video tutorial covering the 'First time out with the Stage Zero dolly and MX2 controller': LINK)
- Get familiar with an intervalometer aka 'interval timer' (The MX2 Motion Controller
has robust intervalometer built in - basic models can be found at many
photography retailers ). These devices send a trigger or 'fire' signal
at designated time intervals. One of the advantages of the MX2 is that
it can dial in the interval at 0.1 (1/10th) of second granularity thus
very accurate interval times can be set.
- Interval timing can vary quite a bit depending on exposure time set
on the camera, desired overall time to be captured and subject. To get
started shoot daylight scenes and try keeping your interval around 3-6
seconds, as your experience grows you can venture into more elaborate
shots like long exposure timelapse.
- Set the camera to full manual mode (M), set your exposure time, aperture, and
white balance based on the scene. This is just like general 'old
school' photography, use your light meter to help with proper exposure
and/or review your test stills on the camera's display.
- Set the auto-focus to off; if your auto-focus is on the camera can
shift focus points with undesirable effects or lock out the shutter
signal coming from the intervalometer due to 'focus priority' settings
on the camera.
- Plan on capturing about 300 frames, this will result in about 12
seconds of footage after compiling. In general more than 10-15 seconds
of a single timelapse shot can get tedious in a production, 300 frames
is 'just right' for most situations.
Composing a Movie From Stills (We have a very helpful video
tutorial on 'Photos to Video using Adobe RAW Workflow' with an
accompanying blog post on alternative workflows using inexpensive or
free and open-source software - LINK )
- Transfer the images to your post production computer and organize
each sequence by folder. It's also helpful to remove any extraneous test
shots from the folder so you only have the complete sequence of frames
- Make sure images are numbered in chronological order: e.g.
img_00001.jpg, img_00002.jpg etc. Sometimes renumbering or bulk renaming
your files is necessary. Some examples of helpful programs to automate
this process on Windows; renamemaster or bulk rename utility. On a Mac you can use Automator (example workflow)
to not only rename files in numerical order but also extract them from
separate folders on your camera's CF card. Some camera models allow you
to reset the file numbering, i.e. restarting it at img_0001.jpg, thus
helping you avoid the need for any subsequent file renaming.
- Bring the image sequence into your NLE of choice and render at your project resolution and framerate.