How to make a timelapse video

Table of Contents

Let’s start this thing up! And we are going to start it with timelapse, a photography technique that brought me a lot of joy, adventures, and good times overall.

So what the timelapse actually is? It’s a series of images taken in a certain interval with the time between every single image taken is the same, for example, 2 seconds. The final result of a timelapse sequence is the sped-up video of the actual scene. Depending on the interval the movement in the scene can be faster or slower but we’ll get to that later.

I’ve imagined this post to be a beginner’s guide to timelapse photography. Something to make you interested in this kind of, well basically lifestyle, because timelapse is more than just taking a bunch of photos. Sometimes it includes 3 hours hike to the perfect location and sometimes it includes driving for hours because you just found a perfect location on the internet and you have to go there. Simply put, you have to love it.

I’ll try not to be too technical and write as simple as I can. There will be times to be technical.

DISCLAIMER: All the timelapse video you’ll see in this post were made years ago. I haven’t done this kind of photography for a while although I intend to start working on new timelapse material. However, these videos are part of my timelapse history and as such have a special place in my development as a photographer.

My beginnings with timelapse photography

Still one of my favorite eras of development as a photographer. I got my first somewhat serious camera back in 2012, right in the year the world was supposed to end. It was a Canon EOS 600D, a nice DSLR for beginners. I don’t quite remember how I started with loving timelapse so much but I know that in my beginnings I didn’t have the intervalometer (more about it later) and I was trying to press the shutter manually in the same intervals just by looking at the stopwatch. The result was not perfect but still much more than I expected.

It was not the option to repeat the same practice over and over so I bought the intervalometer for my camera. With having a tripod before, nothing was stopping me from fully embarking into the world of timelapse.

And so I started. I was chasing clouds, sunsets, sunrises… Everything that I thought it will look well in a timelapse. Sometimes I was waking up very early, sometimes I was awake when everybody else was asleep, chasing the Milky Way and fighting with a dew forming on my lens. You probably heard ‘It’s not the goal that is worth, but the journey toward it’ too many times. But in the case of a timelapse, it’s totally true. Just imagine standing on the top of the hill in the sunrise, in all that quietness and everything you hear is the mesmerizing sound of the shutter curtain of your camera.

If you fall in love with timelapse photography, you have a lifetime of development and good times ahead of you.

Confession and a promise to start with

I haven’t done a timelapse video in a while now. At least not as a hobby, I did a few of them for my work. But as I was thinking about what would be the first blog post to write on this site, the timelapse was the first topic that came to my mind. Today, I have better equipment than I ever had but making a timelapse somehow seems to slip away from me. And I promise I’ll soon go out and start working on a new one.

What to think about

A nice clear day never made a good timelapse. Think about it. If you are going to shoot a sky on a clear summer day, what’s going to move in that scene. Always search for something that moves, like clouds for example, or traffic in a city. If you are shooting a scene with a wide lens think about the best angle to capture the movement you intended to film. And make sure that the movement will be visible in the overall scene. Aim for the dramatic scenes, stormy clouds before the rain rolling over the city skyscrapers make a good dramatic scene.

The basic gear you’ll need for a timelapse photography

The times have changed since I got my first camera and started to explore the world with it. Today, in the era of mobile phones and small compact cameras shooting a timelapse was never easier. Most of these devices have integrated timelapse options.

Still, I won’t be talking about them at all because I believe the good timelapses can only be done by slightly better cameras. However, mobile phones are perfect for a start with the timelapse technique.

The Holy Trinity of timelapse photography is – a camera, an intervalometer, and a tripod. These are the basic pieces of equipment and something you must have. Period.

Let’s talk about each piece of the equipment separately.

The camera (and a proper lens)

I suggest DSLR or Mirrorless cameras. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive one at the beginning or you might buy a used one. My first camera was Canon EOS 600D with an 18-55 kit lens. Perfectly fine for the beginnings. Good things about these cameras are the ability to shoot RAW which means you have more control and options during your editing phase.

The other thing to consider is the lens, especially its focal length. When shooting a timelapse you want to have a powerful scene, something that’ll leave you breathless when you come home and view it on a larger screen. For that reason, I always suggest filming a timelapse with a wider lens, for example, 20mm. After the 18-55mm kit lens, I bought Sigma 10-20mm (not so wide when put on a camera with APS-C sensor), a nice wide lens that I used on many occasions.

For filming my next timelapse I would probably use Sigma’s 24-70mm Art lens with 2.8 max aperture. I suggest using the zoom lenses when doing timelapse photography since sometimes you need to walk a lot to a place you want to film from. This way, you’ll need to carry only one lens that will give you more possibilities. But if you go shooting a night sky, then you might consider taking a wide lens with a fast aperture.

Be patient, you’ll have enough lenses with time.

The tripod

A must-have when shooting a timelapse. And the heavier it is the better. You’ll get strong backs over time and it won’t be a problem to carry it around. And no, you can’t just put the camera on the ground and make a decent timelapse. Invest in your gear. Even the shitty tripod is better than no tripod at all. I started with a cheap one as well and I never knew that I’ll pay for the tripod as much as I paid for the current one I have – Manfrotto. But it’s worth it. Not only for the timelapse but for the other fields of photography that I work on.

You need the tripod because even the slightest movement is visible in timelapse photography and it can be annoying.

So get a tripod, it might be a cheap one for the beginning, just put some extra weight during the windy time and you’ll be fine.

The intervalometer

You don’t want to do the same thing I did at the beginning and press the shutter button manually and repeat it a few hundred times while trying your best to do it in the right interval.

Buy an intervalometer instead. It’s the cheapest of 3 basic pieces of timelapse gear and boy will you love it. You’ll make all the adjustments according to the scene you are shooting and an intervalometer will do everything for you.

Other equipment pieces worth considering

When it comes to other pieces of the equipment you might use for timelapse videos slider is the first thing that comes to my mind. It’s the piece of equipment that makes your camera move with every image taken. For example, the camera moves 1mm after every shoot. The slider can bring another dimension to your timelapse video and make it more appealing since it adds the movement of the camera too.

If you are going to buy a slider, I suggest you invest in the motorized one. I tried to shoot a timelapse with a manual improvised slider and the result was not so good, but still not terrible. At least it was fun to make a manual motor for my slider which I made out of those small music boxes that you need to turn to make music. With the motorized slider, your engineering ingenuity won’t show but it’ll make your life easier.

Some other gears you might want to buy include extra memory cards, extra batteries for your camera and intervalometer, and so on. Maybe an ND (neutral density) filter that will allow you to shoot with long exposures during the daytime. Basically the sunglasses for your lens.

Lens heater is another thing worth considering, especially if you are into astrophotography or want to make a timelapse of a starry sky. Humid nights can make your lens pick up some condensation and start fogging up. A lens heater is a simple solution for this. You can even make your own improvised lens heater.

Process of shooting a timelapse

Choosing the theme of your timelapse

You need to have a theme. Every video has a theme so needs a timelapse too. It can be mountains for example. The city. Movements in the city make a good timelapse video. It can be anything you want to, just be consistent. Don’t mix moving cars in a city with clouds moving over the mountain peak. Look for what other people film and find some inspiration from the work of other people.

Choosing the places you’re going to film from

Once you have the theme of your timelapse you’ll need to think about the best places to shoot from. Use Google maps and other apps if you need to. Plan the best times to go shooting the particular scene. If you are going to shoot moving traffic, the good spot might be an overpass above it. Think.

Choosing the right time of the day for filming

Very important. You probably know that the best light for photography is early in the morning or an hour before the sunset. Plan your shooting time according to what you want to achieve. If you want to film shadows crawling on a building you need to check at what time that particular building has shadows on it. If you want to film traffic in the city, you will choose the busiest hours when people go to or return from work. Choosing the right time for making a timelapse can really make a difference.

Packing up

Ok, so you have the theme of your video and the location in your mind. You know the time you want to film it too. Great! You did a good part of the job already, at least half of it. Now the only thing left is the fun part of it. Pack up your gear and go out in the timelapse adventure. Make sure you don’t forget anything. Pack your gear according to your needs. If you go somewhere to film a night scene, consider taking some warm clothes with you.

Double-check all your gear. Make sure you have enough battery in the camera and intervalometer. Bring spare ones too. Just in case.

Starting with shooting and choosing the right interval

Almost there. You came to the location at the right time. You’re taking the camera out and putting in on the tripod. The intervalometer is plugged in and ready to go and you found the scene you want to make a timelapse of. You just need to choose the right interval. This is a very important step. So how are you going to choose it? It depends on the scene you are shooting. Let’s say you shoot fast-moving clouds. Then you want your interval to be 1 second, maybe 2 seconds. Let’s say you’re filming a sunrise. Sun is rising much slower than the clouds so the interval of 5 seconds might work. Depending on the space you have available on your memory card, it’s better to make a shorter interval and speed it up later for a faster movement than vice versa. If you choose too long an interval, you won’t be able to slow the things down without the lag in your video. Play with the intervals and you’ll find out what works best for you.

Hope you’re not tired of reading because we’ll do a bit of good old math now. Regarding intervals and planning. So let’s say you came to the mountain to film something. Let’s assume you work with 25 frames per second in your video. That means that one second of your timelapse will consist of 25 images. Four seconds of your video will take 100 images and so on. If you have set your interval to be 2 seconds that means that you’ll make 30 images per minute. So roughly, one minute of actual shooting will be one second of a timelapse. To record 10 seconds of it, you’ll need to take images for almost 10 minutes in real-time. Simple as that. In the end, you’ll end up with 300 images on your camera. That might be enough for one particular scene. Then you move to the next one and again choose the right interval and repeat the whole process again.

You already guessed that your interval is related to how long you’re going to shoot one particular scene. If your interval is longer and you’re recording something that moves really slow, you’ll spend more time getting enough images to make 10 seconds timelapse.

Raw or Jpeg?

I would always say Raw. Yes, it will take a lot more space but you’ll be grateful once it comes to the editing process because you can make wonders with Raw photos.

Today, when you have SD cards with many GB, there is no need to worry about the space. In case you want to preserve all of your Raw files, you might want to consider buying an external hard drive.

After the shooting is done

Computer work. Try to be as orderly as you can when organizing your timelapse files. Transfer your files as soon as you come home and have separate folders for every scene. It’ll help you to have a more organized workflow.

Every separate scene must be edited and put together using the specialized software for photo editing. There will be a post about photo editing soon enough.

Making final arrangements

After you have edited your photos, it’s time to make all these timelapse sequences into the final product. Notice that you’re not working with photography anymore but with video so you’ll use the video editing software for this purpose.

Don’t ruin everything with the wrong music

That’s right. All your work might look bad to the viewer only because you decided to put rock music in scenes with a mist rolling over mountain peaks. Think about the dynamics of your scenes. Think about the motifs in your scenes. Choose some calming piano arrangements for nature scenes. Play with the dynamics of the overall video. Follow the music. Have slow transitions when the music is slower and speed up when the music becomes more energetic.

For my first timelapse ever I choose Mike Oldfield’s Songs of Distant Earth to be my background music and I was very satisfied with the outcome. Choose music that’s alive, not the same all the time. Monotonous music makes monotonous videos.

Why just not record video and speed it up?

You can. But still, photography has some advantages over video. First of all, you can easily have 4K timelapses using common photography. Video is limited when it comes to dynamic range too. If you’re shooting Raw with your camera, you’ll have enormous options when it comes to editing these photos. Video tends to have more size overall and your computer might have a hard time working with these large video files. In the end, some cameras have a 10 minutes limit for the recording of the video which means you need to press stop and start recording again which will make your timelapse inconsistent.

Making a day to night timelapse

When I’m making a timelapse I like to shoot in manual mode. But when it comes to shooting scenes with changing light, that’s when you want to shoot in Aperture Priority mode. Your camera will do the rest and it will calculate shutter speed for you.

Let’s say you’re shooting a sunset scene and you want to make a timelapse. As the sun is falling down there is less and less light hitting your sensor and shutter speed will be longer to make the same exposure. If you were to stay shooting in the manual mode, at one point you would only get dark images because there won’t be enough light for the proper exposure.

The other thing you need to have in mind is the interval. Make sure that your interval is long enough. If you are shooting a sunset make it at least 10 seconds. If your interval is set at, for example, 2 seconds, it might happen that your exposure is going to be longer than your interval when things get darker and the timelapse process won’t work well.

Getting rid of a flicker

Ah, the flicker. Annoying light changes when the footage is sped up. Because your camera has a shutter curtain that is not always super extra precise down to the millisecond, some frames will be a bit lighter, some will be a bit darker and that becomes visible when you speed up the images. If you have mirrorless cameras, you won’t have this problem.

Worry not because there is a simple software that will remove the flicker with few clicks and it’s called Flicker Free. Check it out.

In the end

…it doesn’t even matteeeeer. Experiment. Nobody made a perfect timelapse on the first try. With time you’ll get to know all your equipment by heart and you’ll know your intervals at any given moment. You’ll become a timelapse master. It takes time like everything else in life, but it’s worth it. It can be a beautiful journey. Make it that way and enjoy it.

If you have any particular questions – contact form.