In the last few years, I’ve been adding more and more timelapse clips to my video productions. Clients think they are awesome, and I enjoy the challenge and the increase in visual value it brings to an edit, so ultimately I have to do these quite a bit. I’m going to share the steps for cranking out timelapses quickly and efficiently, while trying to keep it as simple but informative as possible.
Keep in mind these are for basic timelapses– I won’t be getting into starlapses or multi-axis moves.
In the video below, you’ll see a montage of video clips set to music, with some timelapse clips at the end of each sequence. You’ll only about 15% of the timelapses I actually shot during these productions, so I shot a TON of them. I would typically work my timelapse cameras like a rotisserie you see for sale on TV– I set it and forget it. Once it was going, I’d be off shooting video clips or BTS stills. By following the same simple procedure (which I’ll explain below) I’m able to bang out one timelapse after another, all while getting other work done, thus being as efficient as possible.
Recently, Lonely Speck posted a very informative video that was all about how to create a motion timelapse of the milky way. If you’ve got motion rigs or want to learn about getting good exposures of the stars at night, definitely check out this video. My article is a bit more elementary, geared toward static (non-moving) timelapses shot in typical indoor or outdoor conditions.
I’m not a timelapse photographer by practice, but I am one by necessity. These unique visuals can add a ton of production value to your video projects, help your edit segue from one section to the next, and communicate in a few seconds what otherwise can take minutes or even hours. I’ve learned to leverage timelapse video clips in my video edits, and now nearly every client I shoot for either requests them or gets them included by me to inject some life into the final video. The project below has about 4-6 timelapses throughout that help give some life to what would be otherwise boring subject matter.
Get an idea of the math invovled. Sorry.
Take the time to learn the basic calculations for timelapse acquisition, and how they are related. Here are the three most important things to consider:
How long you want/need to leave the camera there?
How long of a video clip you want to end up with once it is processed?
How long does the interval between photos need to be?
When I’m running around on location or even in the studio, I try to be as fast and productive as possible, going for a high quantity of timelapses. So I use the first two questions to answer the third.
How long you plan to leave the camera there: (20 minutes)
How long of a video clip you need: (at least 10 seconds (or 240 frames))
How long the interval of your photos will be to achieve the above: (5 second interval)
Why do I choose those numbers?
20 minutes might not be long enough for the action you want, but for behind the scenes content and for a usable timelapse of a person working, it’s a relatively short amount of time, but it will still capture the fast paced movement you’re looking for, as well as things like clouds and shadows moving if you’re outside.
I aim for a final clip of about 10 seconds, knowing that I’ll likely only use about 4-6 seconds in most edits. I find that having a few seconds of handles on either end gives me more to work with if I need it, which happens often.
Here’s the math:
Letting the camera run for 20 minutes is 1200 seconds. And I know that I want to get a clip that ends up as 10 seconds, which is 240 frames. If I divide 1200 by 240 and I’ll get 5 seconds per frame, AKA my interval. (based on a 24fps project!)
TL;DR – Set your intervalometer to a 5 second interval and plan to let it run for at least 20 minutes for a resulting 10-second timelapse clip.
• If the numbers are hard for you to work with or remember, write them on a laminated card and put it in your camera bag, or put them on a notepad app in your smartphone.
• Use an app like Timelapse Helper to help with the calculations of a timelapse.
• By having a longer interval, you’ll speed up the passage of time. A shorter interval will slow down time.
Enough of the numbers. Let’s shoot!
Again, I’ll try to keep this simple. Set your camera to manual, and go through your menu settings to make sure nothing is set to auto. White balance, focus, ISO, noise reduction, anything and everything that can affect the image and over the course of a timelapse you’ll notice discrepancies. The key to a smooth timelapse is avoiding flicker. As long as your camera remains at the exact same settings over the course of your timelapse, you shouldn’t have any camera-generated flicker. (More advanced techniques are done differently, but that’s for another article.)
Follow the typical rules for exposure in regards to your aperture so that you are getting the amount of depth of field you want. Utilize shutter speeds to control motion rendering, and balance your overall exposure with ISO or neutral density filters.
Once you think you’ve got it, take a few test shots. Check your camera’s histogram and when your exposure is good, lock your camera down. If it is windy at all, weight your tripod with a backpack.
• If you want to accentuate the motion of people moving in your timelapse, experiment with shutter speeds around 1/10-1/40 of a second, depending on how quickly they are moving and how much blur you want.
• For most of my timelapses, unless they are of something very epic or important, I’ll shoot them as a small RAW. I’ll get more images on a single card, and it will process faster later while still giving me flexibility to process and move the images in post.
Shoot, check, repeat.
Find unique points of views, interesting compositions, focus on people working, places where light will be moving, etc., and set up a timelapse. I use either my smartphones stopwatch or a wristwatch to keep an eye on the time. Once the 20-minute mark has passed, I check the timelapse quickly to see how it turned out. I’ll then take the timelapse rig to my next spot, and start all over again.
Side note: If you’ve got a camera like the Panasonic GH4, you’re actually done at this point. The GH4 is able to process quicktime movies of timelapses right in camera.
Whether the still photos are on memory cards or on a hard drive, I’ll import them into Lightroom. I import the whole card and go get a sandwich or something while I wait. Once they’ve downloaded, I scroll through the Grid View in the Library module, making collections out of the different timelapses. This takes just a few minutes, and will make sorting through these later much easier.
With my timelapses all separated into their own collections, I can work on them quickly and independently.
• If your system is fast enough, you might be able to go into Loupe View and hold down the right arrow key for a quick preview.
Important: Select the collection you want to work on, so your changes will only affect one of your timelapses. I usually choose an image from the middle of my timelapse, that hopefully represents a sort of middle ground on the overall exposure and elements that will be in the entire timelapse. I then process it in the develop module. How you process is up to you, but I generally aim to correct any exposure or white balance issues, and flatten the dynamic range a little bit. Sometimes I’ll add a graduated filter if a portion of the image is in shadow or harsh sunlight.
• Don’t crop your images in Lightroom! You will be able to adjust the framing in the next step to make it fit a 16×9 video frame.
Once you’re happy with your processing of that single image, use a “Select All” command to select all the photos in the filmstrip at the bottom of your screen. The image you just processed should still be the active photo. At the bottom right of the Develop controls, you should see a button that says “Sync.” Select that, check all of the options in the Synchronize Settings window that pops up, and hit OK. This will apply your settings from that one image, to all of the images in that specific collection.
With all of your photos processed and selected, it’s time to export. Use a custom name with a sequence counter in the file name as well, this helps other applications to recognize the files as an image sequence. I export JPGs at about 2500K at full size, because I find the file size to be manageable and the quality still quite good.
Post-Production: Adobe Premiere
If you don’t have After Effects, you can still make things work with just Premiere, it’s very easy, but much more processor intensive in my experience.
Double click in your project window in Premiere. This brings up the import window. Find your exported stills and select the first one. Check the box “Image Sequence” at the bottom and hit OK. Premiere will automagically make a video clip of the images you just exported. It might slow down a bit on playback; Premiere is doing a lot of work when it tries to play back all of those high-res stills! You may want to export the video clip and then re-import it, as playing back an independent movie clip is much easier than rendering an image sequence on the fly.
Post-Production: If you have After Effects
After Effects handles this portion like a champ. Open a new project. Import your photos, making sure to select the images and not the folder they live in. You’ll need to make sure you check the option that reads, “JPG Sequence.”
AE will display a single file in the project window. Simply drag it to the New Composition button. Natively, it will create a composition that is the same dimensions as the image sequence, which actually isn’t what we want, but it does give us the proper sequence duration. Right click on the newly created composition, select composition settings, and change the dimensions to 1920×1080 and the frame rate to 24, or whatever your final video settings will be.
Double click your composition and adjust the scale and position parameters. Here is where you can do things like adjust the cropping, create keyframed scale animations or “pans” in post. A little bit goes a long way, so keep it subtle.
Once you’re happy with the motion created, simply render it out to whatever codec you need. I export mine to ProRes 422 LT.
Once imported into Premiere, the clip should play back just fine! And you’re done! Except for the other 10 timelapses you need to go back and process.
Hopefully all or some of these steps will help you get faster and more comfortable with busting off a high volume of usable timelapses. Leave a comment below if you have any questions on the process, or suggestions for the people who are still learning the ropes on timelapse acquisition.