Have you seen Breaking Bad? What about the Planet Earth documentary series? Even if you haven’t seen either, I’m sure you know how beautiful and versatile time lapse imagery can be. After reading this blog post, you’ll realize how easy it is to plan and execute capturing time lapsed footage to incorporate into your own story.
Because time lapse imagery is presented in video form, most people assume a time lapse video is just what it looks like - video taken over a long period of time, then sped up. Capturing and working with video clip that's three hours long, however, is a processing nightmare that leaves us with thousands of unused frames. Instead, time lapses takes still images automatically captured at predetermined intervals (like 0.5 secs, 1 sec, 3 secs, etc) and compiles them into what then looks like video. It's sort of like a digital flip book animation that uses JPEGs instead of text book margins.
Time lapses are used to quickly communicate on screen action that takes a long time to capture in front of the camera. While time lapses are associated with sunsets and rush hour traffic (or any combination of the two), they’re very useful when producing short form videos for online viewing. Setting up and breaking down an event, traveling to a destination, preparing a meal from start to finish - all of these are great examples of when using time lapse is appropriate.
Regardless of what kind of timelapse you plan on shooting, you’ll always need these things:
A stable, steady mount like a tripod or guerilla clamp
A fully charged battery (an extra battery if you have one, also fully charged)
An intervalometer (if you’re not using a GoPro Camera or any camera that has a time lapse function)
Pretty easy right? You’ll need a steady mount, like a tripod, to keep the background still in order to highlight the action you want (which is the point of a time lapse). As you head out to the location you want to shoot, think about the type of action you want to shoot and where the best place to capture the action is. Keep in mind how much time you need to capture the action. You’ll need more battery power (and memory!) to shoot the 3 hours it takes to build a sound stage from scratch then you will to shoot the 30 minutes of laying out a lunch buffet.
Like with any type of shoot, arrive on location early to get familiar with the environment and envision the shot that you want. Three things you should keep in mind when choosing how to frame your time lapse are:
Where is the action taking place?
Does the action move through the frame or is it happening in one location?
What’s going on on the edges of your frame?
Your main focus of course is your action and how to place it; you’ll want a different frame for a marathon running though a historic intersection than you would for a fast growing plant. Think about interesting places to put the camera and take advantage of what’s unique about the type of action you want to capture when composing your frame.
Finally it’s time to get down to the meat and potatoes: choosing the right time lapse interval for your camera. You might think that there’s a lot of complicated math involving frame rates, source durations, destination durations, etc. While there is math involved, and although it’s not that complicated, there’s still an even simpler way to figuring out how to choose up your camera’s time lapse interval.
Shorter intervals yield smoother movements because the subject(s) move in smaller increments from frame to frame. It follows, then, that when shooting faster action you’ll need relatively smaller increments to capture smooth movement. Similarly, when shooting action comprised of slower movement (like shadows changing throughout the day), a longer interval is appropriate to avoid capturing unnecessary frames that will just take up space. When choosing the appropriate time lapse interval, ask yourself:
How fast is the action?
How smooth do you want the movements to look?
Using an interval of 0.5 seconds to shoot a sunset is heavy handed and a sure way of running out of space before your action is finished - something between 5-10 seconds is more appropriate, depending on how fast the clouds are moving. Likewise, you need an interval of 0.5-1 second to make your driving time lapse look smooth.
If you're working with a GoPro camera, simply go to Settings > Camera Settings > Time Lapse to select the interval you want. If you’re not using a GoPro, refer to either your camera or intervalometer manual on how to set the interval you want.