Making Time-Lapse

Somewhere between still photography and full-motion video, time-lapse is moviemaking that any still shooter can do
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Rising Milky Way and setting sun, Joshua Tree National Park, California.

A movie is just a series of stills. It’s really that simple. While time-lapse is simple in concept, the range of gear and workflow options is vast. You can make it simple or more complex, depending upon the end use and your own expertise. In this article, I’ll outline the basics, including a soup-to-nuts time-lapse workflow from production through post, giving you the step-by-step to create your own time-lapse video. In future articles, I’ll dig deeper into the proliferation of new gadgets and the ever-expanding possibilities, including HDR, 3D, motion control, specialty lenses, apps, intervalometers and more, as well as venturing deeper into postproduction workflow and color correction.

Above, are screen grabs for RAW workflow.Top left: Drag image sequences onto the Comp button and adjust settings to make a new comp in Adobe After Effects. Top right: You’ll get a pop-up window where you name the comp. Above: For best results, select 32-bit for your bit-depth.

Fishing For Subjects
The essential tools for making a good time-lapse are likely already in your kit: camera, memory cards, tripod, computer and some basic video-editing software. Just add intervalometer, and stir. A plethora of other cool toys abound once you progress to the next step.

I grew up fishing in the Pacific Northwest and find time-lapse shooting to be pleasantly similar. I make my best guess after studying the environment and then I cast my line. Only postprocessing will reveal “the catch,” whether mundane or spectacular. Looking into that other dimension, time, can be awe-inspiring. We get to stretch our minds while sharing beautiful images. That’s not a bad way to explore nature.

Step-By-Step Time-Lapse Capture
1 Observe your environment in real time, noting the quality of light and shadow, then put on your time-traveler hat and soak up the same environment, but in future time. Imagine the interaction of the wind and clouds, observe how the light will unfold and spread, and how the shadows will be cast. Try to predict the plant cycles and other subtle movement.

2 Choose a scene that’s captivating in the present time frame and that will have transformative potential in the future. I find a good loupe is a critical piece of gear because it lets you examine the details in the whole frame as you compose.

3 A solid tripod to keep your camera stable is a necessity. I use a Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod and a Manfrotto photo-movie head. This versatile combo works for my still and motion work, and it’s great for time-lapse. The head is particularly important because you don’t want to have the camera slipping during a long series of exposures.

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Blooming succulents make an excellent time-lapse subject. Because the flowers open so slowly, you’ll want to set a long interval between image captures.

4 Set your exposure manually. You’re locking in the exposure to capture each scene. Establish the aperture setting that gives you the necessary depth of field (usually maximum depth of field for landscapes, minimal depth of field for macro), and you’ll want a relatively slow shutter speed. This is called dragging the shutter. It will help smooth out the environment or camera micro-movements that can result in blips, moving objects, animals or people that wink in and out when compiled into a movie. Once you have the desired aperture and shutter speed (try ƒ/22 and 1⁄30 sec. as a starting point), change your ISO if you need to adjust for the light. As you make test exposures, pay attention to the histogram and be mindful of clipping highlight or shadow information. Remember that you have to imagine the light changing, so plan your exposure accordingly. I use B+W and Schneider ND filters to help manage my shutter speed. ND filters and polarizers are your friends in this process.

5 Establish the time interval between frames, with the goal of a 10- to 30-second scene. Your final time-lapse movie will be rendered at 24 fps, so do a little math, and you can quickly establish how many individual frames you need to record. For a 10- to 30-second scene, you’ll capture 240 to 720 frames. In the classic example of a landscape with dramatic cloud movement, a 2-second interval may be perfect. You’ll get all of your frames in 10 minutes. For shots where more passage of light is desired, many hours will be needed. Choose as tight an interval as possible balanced against memory card space.
Note: You’ll need an intervalometer; this device allows you to program the number of exposures. Many DSLRs have an intervalometer built in that’s accessed through the menu settings, while others require a separate accessory. Check your camera manual to see the specifics for your DSLR. I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with the following settings: manual exposure and focus, RAW, ISO below 1000, if possible, turn off image preview, Live View on with exposure simulation.

Storms like this one seen over Los Angeles are dramatic, but be sure to set your exposure properly because the light can change rapidly.

6 Power and memory. In some situations, you’ll be shooting for a long time. Be sure you have sufficient battery power and memory card space. I use Anton/Bauer products to power my whole rig. Also, because I shoot RAW files, I need to have the biggest memory card possible.

7 Do it! Insert a fresh battery, confirm sufficient card space, clean your lens, cover the eyepiece, confirm solid lock-down on the tripod, shoot a test frame to confirm exposure and focus, shoot a mark frame, which is invaluable in postproduction, and start your intervalometer.

Workflow options abound. Below are the basic steps for either JPEG or RAW images. I use the Adobe Creative Suite for most of my work, so you’ll notice a number of references to After Effects CS5.5, but other programs can do the same things for you as well.

JPEG Workflow
Organization is always the first step. Using Adobe Bridge, I create one folder per scene, then batch-rename so all of the individual still images have a name that identifies them with the scene.

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As you set the parameters for your project, you’ll want to scale the images appropriately. Here, we’re going for a 1920x1080 frame size.

Launch QuickTime Player 7, and under the File menu, choose Open Image Sequence. Navigate to the first frame of your scene, select, and choose Open. When prompted, choose the desired frame rate for your final movie. Under the File menu, choose Save As, then Save As A Self-Contained Movie. Play. Your time-lapse movie now can be imported into a number of video-editing programs like Adobe After Effects, Apple Final Cut Pro X, Apple iMovie or another program for resizing, color-correcting and adding professional touches like titles and a soundtrack.

RAW File Workflow
I prefer to do everything in RAW to maintain the maximum image quality and to give me the most latitude for adjusting color. The RAW workflow is demanding in computer resources and it takes more time and effort, but I believe it’s well worth it. After you start to get a feel for the capture process, I strongly recommend you move up from JPEG to RAW capture, and you follow this RAW workflow.

Once back in my studio, I off-load files to my time-lapse workhorse Mac Pro for processing to see what I have. The steps below assume a destination QuickTime movie of 1920x1080 ProResHQ at 23.976 fps.

Sunrises and sunsets are among the most popular time-lapse projects. Like storm scenes, the trick is to predict the light conditions and set your exposure appropriately. Once the light exceeds your exposure settings, end the sequence. This image is from a project that was shot in Norway.

1 Organize. Using Adobe Bridge, I create one folder per scene, then batch-rename so the individual still images have a name identifying them with the scene.
2 Preferences. Launch Adobe After Effects CS5.5 (older versions work, too). Assign the frame rate in the After Effects menu: Preferences > Import > set to 23.976. Then set to 32-bit by option-clicking on the bit-depth button.
3 Import. From the File menu, go to Import File. Navigate to the first frame in a scene folder. Select Open to launch the Adobe Camera Raw window. Change white balance, reduce noise, clean blemishes, etc. Repeat for all scenes.
4 Create Comps. Click once on a scene. Hit return to select, then copy. Click the Comp button, then paste, and enter settings. Drag and drop the scene onto the Comp, then reduce the scale (S key) to 34.2% (for Canon EOS 5D Mark II images) to fill 1920x1080 frame sides. Reframe and scale as desired.
5 Color Correction. This is where your shots come to life. There are many options. A simple, yet powerful starting place is Levels. With your scene layer selected in the Comp, go to Effects > Color Correction > Levels. Levels is a 32-bit filter that will unlock much of a scene’s beauty. For color-correction accuracy, be sure to view on a good monitor. I use a broadcast-quality HD monitor driven by AJA Kona 3G hardware. Without this, I wouldn’t feel comfortable accurately color-correcting.
6 Render. Go to the Comp menu, then Make Movie. This adds your movie to the Render Queue. Set the Output Setting to ProRes 422HQ. Click Render.

Todd Sali is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. You can see more of his time-lapse work at his website,


    Nice article, with lots of information. I’d like to get into time-lapse projects at some point…

    I’m wondering what specifically you shoot as a “mark frame”? I’m assuming it’s something to help with calibration of the photos in post, but I’m not familiar wit this.

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