Workshop: 8 simple tips for shooting a time-lapse

Time-lapse photography is easy now that the function is built-in to many of the latest DSLR cameras. The results can be amazing and they’re a definite crowd-pleaser in any presentation.

But if not done correctly, you’ll wonder why you wasted so much time on something so boring.

The truth about time-lapse photography is that your brain has to switch gears from regular photography. Each one requires at least a few minutes of your time, or even a few hours, days or weeks, depending on what you’re shooting. Here are a few basic pointers on how to get it right.

1 – Pack the right gear
A camera and a sturdy tripod are the basics, plus a fully-charged battery (time-lapses can eat up your batteries pretty quickly).

Make sure everything on your camera is set to manual – exposure, ISO, white balance, focus… this will keep the time lapse looking consistent. This can’t be done in Automatic mode.

If your camera doesn’t have a built-in time-lapse function, you’ll need to buy a remote trigger with a built-in intervalometer.


2 – Do the math
If you take one photo every two seconds for 10 minutes, you’ll have enough footage to produce a 12-second video running at 25 frames per second; or if you want things to run even faster, a five-second video running at 60 frames per second.

Considering a sunset can transition from light to complete darkness in as little as 20 minutes, it’s important to make these calculations in advance of shooting so that (a) you don’t miss your window of opportunity; and (b) the video plays out in the time frame you want.


3 – Compose with motion in mind
When setting up, remember that you’re not just trying to capture a great photo – you’re capturing motion. Whether it’s the night sky or pedestrians or peak-hour traffic you’re capturing, try to isolate that motion accordingly with the rule of thirds or depth-of-field or whatever takes your fancy.


4 –Go wide, go high
Capturing a few frames of any moving object is going to require some distance, especially if your camera isn’t moving. If that isn’t possible, try using a wide-angle lens.

Also, shooting from a higher position towards the ground is a simple way of avoiding complications from the sky being over-exposed.


5 – Go location-scouting
This isn’t just about finding a great vantage point – it’s also about finding the best time of day to shoot. The sun’s position will affect how the sky is exposed and the way shadows are cast.

Personally, I prefer to shoot at peak-hour (when the crowds are thickest) with the sun at my back.


6 – Take a few test shots first
You’re essentially shooting multiple still photos in manual. Whatever you’re able to review on your view screen is pretty much what you’ll get in the video.

Unless you’re using a program like Adobe Premiere, you’re not likely to be able to enhance the colours, exposure or composition without some difficulty. So before you set the wheels in motion, make sure the exposure is going to look exactly the way you want.


7 – Take note of all your settings
If you want your time-lapse video to look consistent, it’s good practice to take note of all your manual settings – ISO sensitivity, aperture, shutter speed, focal length… all of it. If you’re shooting a construction site over a series of weeks, you’ll want to remember the exact height, angle and position of your tripod, not to mention the time of day.


8 – Don’t worry about bystanders
A person standing in the one place with a tripod and camera is bound to attract some attention. Don’t be worried about a people walking right up to the camera and spoiling a couple of frames – when it plays back at 25 frames-per-second, you won’t even see them.



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