The complete guide to shooting and editing a Holy Grail timelapse

How to overcome the challenges of what once was the most challenging timelapse shot imaginable.

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A holy grail timelapse is a timelapse shot during sunset or sunrise.

As the ambient light changes, so should your camera's exposure settings.

In this tutorial, you will learn how to set up your camera, how to shoot, and how to edit your sequence from beginning to end using Adobe Lightroom Classic and LRTimelapse.

Yes, you will need LRTimelapse, which you can download as a free trial here.

Why do you need this special timelapse software? Let's use a sunset as an example.

When the sun sets there is an obvious consequence: the amount of light hitting your camera sensor changes.

This means that your timelapse sequence will either get underexposed.

Going from the middle of the day to the middle of the night means you will have to ‘ramp' (gradually adjust) your settings up to 15 stops.

A stop is a measurement of exposure.

By changing your exposure settings during the shoot you end up with a sequence that ‘flickers'.

An example of flickering, this is caused by changing your camera exposure settings during sunset.

In post-production, we'll be using a specialized timelapse editing software called LRTimelapse to fix this flicker.

If you'd like a quick rundown of what this software is check out the following video.

Keep in mind that this isn't the only way to create holy grail timelapses.

I'll link to more ways to shoot and edit at the end of this article.

What gear do you need to shoot a holy grail timelapse?

You'd be surprised, I'm sure.

As complicated as the holy grail timelapse used to be, it's very straightforward now.

Here's what you need:

  • A camera with Manual mode and RAW photographs.
  • A lens.
  • A remote (internal or external).
  • A tripod or camera mount.
  • A subject to shoot.

You can check out all the camera gear I use here.

What camera settings do you use to shoot a holy grail timelapse?

Let's go over this step by step so we don't miss anything.

Keep in mind that you can download the Holy Grail Cheat Sheet as a handy one-page PDF by signing up to The Time Warper Weekly, your favourite weekly timelapse newsletter.

Download it via this link here.

Here are the settings you want to apply to your camera to shoot a Holy Grail:

  • Enable RAW photographs (not JPEG). RAW files contain much more data than JPEG files. You'll need this data to smooth out the flickering caused by the changing exposure settings.
  • Frame up your shot, turn off Image Stabilisation (IS) if your lens or camera has it and make sure your AutoFocus (AF) is turned off once you've focussed.
  • Make sure your camera is in Manual mode. We will be in charge of the settings, not the camera.
  • Make sure neither ISO (sensor sensitivity) and White Balance (colour temperature) are on automatic mode. Choose an ISO and WB setting that suits the start of your shot and stick to it. We'll be manually changing the ISO later during the shoot.
  • Configure your Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO so your frame is exposed properly (not under- or overexposed)
  • Choose an interval on your remote and make sure it runs for an infinite amount of shots. You don't want it to stop shooting because you left it on a 200 shot limit. For intervals you can choose anywhere from 6 to 12 seconds (on average).
  • Make sure your battery is charged, your memory card is empty and that your file numbering won't cross over from 9999 to 0000 as that is just an annoying thing to fix (but quite easily done in Lightroom).

How to shoot a holy grail timelapse

Now that we've got all the camera gear and settings covered, let's have a look at how to actually shoot the holy grail.

In short: you will be keeping an eye on the histogram while shooting and adjusting the shutter speed and eventually ISO in between photographs until the light stops changing.

The reason we are using an external remote or intervalometer is that it is much easier to ‘stop and start' the sequence to change settings and check the exposure than when using a built-in intervalometer.

How to shoot the holy grail timelapse:

  1. Frame up your shot, make sure it's level and focused, disable IS (Image Stabilisation), and disable AF (Auto Focus).
  2. Dial in your settings for the proper exposure and set your remote to the desired interval.
  3. Hit Start on the remote and sit back. I have image review off to save battery life.
  4. Once the sun sets and the light starts changing, hit Stop on the remote immediately after a photo has been taken. Review the histogram and press Start on the remote to keep shooting. Repeat this whenever you want, but make sure to not bump the camera and make sure you start the remote again at the right time. Keep track of the intervalometer's timing in your head or say the seconds out loud if that makes it easier.
  5. Once you notice the exposure meter has gone down one-third of a stop, change your shutter speed by one-third. Usually this is one “click” of the wheel on your camera. Make sure you rotate it in the correct direction!
  6. Make sure to leave at least 10 photos in between changing your settings.
  7. Don't lose focus. It's very easy to let the exposure run too dark (or too bright at sunrise) so make sure to stay on top of it. If you struggle with this set up a repeating alarm for every one or two minutes.
  8. Once your exposure reaches half of your interval you can start ramping your ISO. This is just a guideline.
  9. Keep changing your shutter speed or ISO speed by one-thirds (never change it more than one-third of a stop).
  10. Once the light has stopped changing you can stop changing the settings and let the sequence run for another ten or so minutes. This way you have a nice little extra bit of footage at the end of the clip. Nothing's worse than wishing your shot was one second longer when you're editing.

Stop the remote, hit play on the camera, and scroll through the images. This will give you an immediate impression of how the sequence looks. It'll flicker like crazy but that's what we'll be fixing next!

How to edit a holy grail timelapse with LRTimelapse

Download LRTimelapse via my affiliate link here.

  1. Offload your footage onto an internal or external Solid State Drive. SSD's are much faster to work with than HDD's.
  2. Import the contents of your hard drive into Adobe Lightroom Classic. Put the timelapse sequence into a separate folder and title it as follows: YYYY-MM-DD-ProjectName-ShotName-RAW
  3. Open LRTimelapse and navigate to the folder you'll be processing.
  4. Make sure you're in the Visual Workflow tab and follow the step-by-step process at the top of the window.
  5. Click Keyframes Wizard. Use the slider to enable a number of blue keyframes. How many you need depends on the number of photos, you can get away with only a few. I used 9 on this sequence.
  6. Click Holy Grail Wizard. Use the Rotate and Stretch slider to get the start and end of the orange curve as close to the yellow line as possible. You will see the changes happen in the viewer window on the left.
  7. Hit Save and open Lightroom. Select all photos and hit ‘Metadata > Read metadata' in the top menu. This will read the data that LRTimelapse just added to the sequence. You will notice some photos getting a star rating added to them.
  8. On the top right of the Library, select the sorting button next to the padlock and select '01 LRT5 Keyframes'. This will show you the photos that you gave the blue keyframes to, reflected as 4-star ratings.
  9. Open up the first photo and edit it as you please. Try and stick to Exposure, White Balance, Contrast, Vibrance and Saturation edits only. You can work with Gradients by clicking the Gradient tool. Finish editing the first photo, then hit G on your keyboard.
  10. This returns you to the selection of photos, select all photos with the one you just edited as the highlight and hit the little script icon at the top of your screen. Click ‘01 LRTimelapse sync keyframes‘. This will add the edit data from the first photo to the rest of the images.
  11. Select the second photo and develop it as you please.
  12. Return to the selection of photos, select the photo you just edited as well as the remaining ones, and hit the script icon again followed by '01 LRTimelapse sync keyframes'.
  13. Repeat this process until all the keyframes (4 star rating) photos are edited. Select all the edited photos and hit ‘Metadata > Save metadata‘. Return to LRTimelapse.
  14. Click the Auto Transition button. This will calculate how to edit the photos in between the ones you edited to make sure every setting gets adjusted or ramped smoothly.
  15. Hit the Visual Previews button and let it run. Once it's done generating preview files hit the play button and review the sequence. This is where you can go back to Lightroom and adjust your 4-star images and repeat some of this process to get the desired look.
  16. Once happy with the Visual Preview hit the Visual Deflicker button. This will add a darker orange curve to the viewer window which is a visual representation of the deflickering it will apply, based on the rectangle in your image. Let this run and generate the complete preview, then review it by hitting the play button. You can refine part of or the entire sequence using the custom settings and run it again. You'll be surprised at how amazing this step is and how much it can fix.
  17. Once you're happy with the preview, drag your folder containing the image sequence into Adobe After Effects (or export it from Lightroom using the LRTimelapse and Lightroom combo, just follow the steps in the software, it's pretty straightforward). I prefer After Effects as it gives me more control over stabilizing, adding subtle motion to the shot, etc.
  18. Import the RAW photos as an image sequence and create a composition. Add any effects you want and export the composition. I prefer the full resolution in a ProRes HQ codec for really high-quality shots.
  19. Let this export run when you're not using your computer as it takes up a lot of resources and will slow your system down. I usually let it render overnight.
  20. Check your exported footage, hopefully, it turned out great! If it's not what you were hoping for then try and analyze the clip to see what went wrong. Worst case you just repeat the process and get better at navigating the software and settings. The better you shoot it, the easier the processing will be.

And that's it! I know this may seem like a lot but it really isn't that bad.

LRTimelapse has come such a long way (I've been using it professionally since 2012), by now all you have to do is shoot a clean sequence and follow the steps in the software.

It's almost completely “plug and play” now. Back in the early days, we had to manually add each and every keyframe and do much, much more work.

I've actually used the latest versions of LRTimelapse to reprocess older sequences that I thought were unsalvageable. Thanks to Gunther's great coding work though the software has become much more powerful and is able to rescue footage from the depths of your ‘failed' folders.

Make sure to try or buy your copy of LRTimelapse 6 via this link. If you end up buying it through there I make a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. It's part of how I make a living and your support is much appreciated.

If you'd like to support me in other ways you can subscribe to my Youtube channel, follow me on Instagram and Twitter, or join the Patreon family where you get early access to videos and tutorials, exclusive wallpapers, and more.

You can download a one-page PDF cheat sheet to take with you on your holy grail missions here.

Finally, and most importantly, thank you for reading and supporting my work!

If you liked this tutorial on The Basics Of Timelapse Photography then you might be interested in The Ultimate Timelapse Guide.
This 142-page e-book features everything you need to know to plan, shoot and edit the highest possible quality timelapse sequences in the most efficient way possible.

Do you prefer learning from video content? Then The Ultimate Timelapse Course will be more your thing.

You will learn basic and advanced holy grail shooting (sunset & sunrise), advanced editing using Lightroom Classic, LRTimelapse and After Effects, how to ramp settings (gradually change over time) using a free Lightroom plugin, advanced deflickering methods, hyperlapse photography, astro-photography, and so much more.

Get all the best tools and techniques to become a great timelapse photographer.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Matthew, I just started making timelapses and this article is invaluable. I already purchased LRT5 through your affiliate link (which I hope was cookie based because the actual “buy” page doesn’t have your affiliate code in the slug) anyway a million thanks.

  2. Great useful article Matt, thanks for this. One q, in the video you show changing or ramping the white balance in post editing in LR. Can you just explain this a bit more, and typically what white balance settings would you use in a city scape like the one you had of Sydney harbour? thanks

  3. Wow, this is one of the most robust ‘how to’ articles i’ve ever seen in the photo world. THANK YOU for your generosity to the community! I am a new fan of yours who will seek ways to support your ongoing efforts.

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