The basics of timelapse photography

The basics of timelapse

If you're into taking photos or making videos and would like to know what the basics of timelapse photography are then you've come to the right place.

This tutorial will teach you everything you need to know about shooting and editing a basic timelapse sequence.

Timelapse photography is an art form which acts like a looking glass into another dimension. I know that's a hefty line but it's true, trust me.

Timelapse is wildly popular on TV and I can't name a single popular Youtuber that hasn't dabbled with it at least once in their career!

Just so you know that I know what Im talking about: I have been a professional timelapse photographer for nearly a decade. I've travelled all over the world creating content for clients such as Canon, Google, Samsung, Adobe, Ford and more.

1. What gear do you need for timelapse photography?

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a ton of gear to create great quality timelapse footage. For years I was shooting on a Canon 600D, I even got my first few paid timelapse jobs with that camera!

At the very least, you will need:

  • A camera that you can trigger (either with a remote or from the internal software).
  • A remote (as mentioned, this can be an external one or built in software).
  • A camera mount. This can be a tripod or a clamp, whatever you need to keep your camera steady.
  • A subject to shoot. Try and find something interesting, like people at a busy crossing.
Shooting timelapses at Canyonlands, Utah.

If you're interested in the gear I use for my commercial timelapse productions you can have a look at my complete gear list here.

2. How to set up a basic timelapse shot

  1. Mount your camera on your tripod and make sure the entire setup is sturdy. You don't want your rig to go tumbling down.
  2. Turn on your camera and switch it to Manual (M) mode. Make sure you are shooting RAW photos.

  3. Dial in the appropriate exposure by adjusting your shutter speed, aperture and iso values. Make sure your iso and white balance aren’t set to auto.
    • The reason everything is on manual and nothing is left on auto is because you – the camera operator – know best. Cameras aren’t built with timelapse photography in mind. The camera might choose the perfect settings for a single photo but then the light changes ever so slightly and you end up with a different exposure on the next photo. This results in visually distracting flicker, one of the most common beginner mistakes in timelapse photography. I talk more about this flickering and how to prevent and solve it in The Ultimate Timelapse Guide.
  4. Frame up your composition, making sure that your camera is level.
  5. Focus your lens and disable autofocus. If you leave autofocus on your remote will trigger the lens to focus for every frame it shoots. On some frames it will fail to focus properly and you end up with a very jittery looking sequence that is not fixable in post.
  6. Disable lens stabilisation if you have it. When mounted on a tripod the stabilising mechanism will actively ‘hunt’ for motion and create movement in between photos. This is fixable in post by applying digital stabilisation but why fix things in post when you can get it right from the start?
  7. Grab your remote or intervalometer and connect it to your camera. Select your desired interval (the amount of seconds between triggering photos). You can use the following as a guideline, however feel free to adapt and experiment:
    • People or foot traffic: 1 second
    • Vehicular traffic: 1 to 2 seconds
    • Clouds and cityscapes: 3 to 5 seconds
    • Sunset or sunrise: 6 seconds minimum
  8. Double check all your settings then hit start on the remote, sit back and relax. This is a great time to read a book, listen to a podcast, take photos on your phone of your timelapse setup and location etc.
  9. Let the sequence run for at least 250 photos (this will result in 10 seconds of video in a PAL environment such as Europe. If you're in a NTSC country like the USA you will want to let the sequence run for 300 photos)
  10. Once you've shot your photos, hit stop on the remote, pack up your bag and head to the pub to celebrate your first successful timelapse sequence!

I would like to let you know that this tutorial also comes in a handy PDF called The Basics of Timelapse Photography.
It has a bunch of extra info and tips that you won't find on this page.

If you would like to learn how to shoot Holy Grail timelapses – timelapses where the light is changing – check out my Holy Grail tutorial here.

3. Post production

The next phase in creating timelapse videos begins: post production. This consists of offloading your data, colour grading your photos in Lightroom and finally exporting a video file using Photoshop.

I'm using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop because you can get them at a very reasonable price as a photo bundle. Click here to get that bundle.

There is currently no software that I'm aware of that is free and that does a good enough job.

Before offloading the data from your memory cards I recommend installing the free app Post Haste on your computer and use my basic timelapse template (included when you purchase The Ultimate Timelapse Guide or available as a separate download on my store here) to generate a consistent folder structure.

A random photo of me at Bondi beach. Shot by Nicolas Rakotopare.

3.1 Post Production: Colour grading your photos with Adobe Lightroom

Before we begin colour grading we need to transfer the data from the memory card to an external (or internal) hard drive.
If you're using my Post Haste template you will drop the photos in the RAW folder that you just automatically generated.

  1. Open up Adobe Lightroom and import the folder containing your photos using the ‘Import > Add’ method.
  2. Rename your sequences to reflect the content of the shot. I like to work with the following ’date-location-shot’ structure:
    2018-05-30-MacquariesChair-OperaWideSunset-RAW
  3. Select the sequence you would like to process and select the first photo.
    Go to the Develop module (or hit D on your keyboard). We will colour grade one photo, then copy the settings on to the rest of the sequence.
  4. Adjust the settings (exposure, contrast, white balance, vibrance and saturation) as required. In the top menu click ‘Settings > Copy Settings'. Select which settings you want to copy (usually all of them), select the rest of the photos in the sequence and then click ‘Settings > Paste Settings'.
  5. Select all the photos in the sequence and ‘Right click > Metadata > Save metadata to files’. This generates a series of small ‘sidecart' files that will be used to generate the video file later. These files are saved alongside the RAW files and have the same file name but a different extension.

3.2 Post Production: Creating Video Files with Adobe Photoshop

Now that we’re done colour grading the images we can move on to creating a video file from your photos. Yes that's right, Photoshop can create videos.

  1. Open Photoshop and select ‘File > Open’.
  2. Navigate to the correct folder and select the first photo of your desired image sequence.
  3. Make sure to enable ‘Image Sequence’ under the options tab and then set the frame rate. I use 25 fps but you can use whichever frame rate has your preference.
  4. Go to ‘File > Export > Render video’. This is a time consuming process because Photoshop is generating every video frame out of the original RAW data.
  5. I recommend using the basic recommended settings to generate your video file, as pictured below. Beware, this export process will take a very long time.
Export settings for Adobe Photoshop

Now it’s time to post your clip on instagram and watch the algorithm block you from getting lots of views.

If you liked this tutorial to the basics of timelapse photography then you might be interested in The Ultimate Timelapse Guide.
It features everything you need to know to plan, shoot and edit the highest possible quality timelapse sequences in the most efficient way possible.

In it you will learn basic and advanced holy grail shooting (sunset / sunrise), advanced editing using Lightroom, LRTimelapse and After Effects, how to ramp settings (gradually change over time) using a free Lightroom plugin, advanced deflickering methods and so much more.

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