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The ultimate guide to timelapse photography: Part 1

I’ve been toying around with timelapse photography for a little while now and, I’ve got to tell you, there’s a lot to learn. This is the first of three tutorials I’ll be doing on timelapse photography. They’ll be a holistic compendium of all slow things sped up. This one will cover the absolute basics, from the gear you need, to how you use it, to what to do with the images you get. So open up ebay in another tab and get your credit card because you’re going to need to buy some stuff.

The Gear

Firstly here’s a list of stuff you absolutely need to do timelapse photography.

- A camera that has a remote shutter port OR an in-built timelapse function,

- An intervalometer (if your camera doesn’t have an inbuilt timelapse function),

- A tripod, and

- A neutral density filter (for daytime photography).

Choosing the scene

This is the most important part. Before you think about whipping your camera out you need to pick what you will be shooting. This is more challenging than still photography because the scene will change over time. Light and shadows will move, some plants will follow the sun, water will ebb and flow and branches will be affected by the wind. You need to have an idea about what effect all of this will have on your shot beforehand because once you start shooting you can’t change anything. I suggest that you spend some time on location without your camera first to get an idea of how it changes with time. The time of day you are shooting is also important. Sunrises and sunsets are particularly tricky for beginners because of the sheer amount the light changes. I’ll get into how you allow for this later.

Once you’ve got all that in mind it’s time to get your gear off. Or out rather. Keep your gear on or you’re likely to get arrested.

The ND filter

A short note on the neutral density filter. If you’re doing timelapse by day you will need one. An ND filter is basically just a piece of tinted glass. All it does is reduce the amount of light coming in through the lens. This is important for timelapse photography as you need to use a long shutter speed to create the illusion of fluid movement. Anything that is moving in a frame should be blurred. This will create a smoother video. If you use a short shutter speed your video will appear to flicker. This has something to do with a phenomenon known as the flicker fusion threshold. Blurring movement between frames reduces the amplitude of the modulation which we see as continuous movement. If you don’t believe me, go and rent an action movie and pause during a scene with fast movement. The individual frame will be blurred but when you see it as video it appears sharp.

The shortest shutter speed I use is 1/2 a second.

The set up

Get your camera on your tripod, sit it down and then frame your shot. It’s a real pain in the arse moving your tripod around on uneven ground trying to get the scene just right, but the camera is going to be in the same place for hours. Sitting it on a rock is rarely a sensible option. Any movement at all will ruin your video so make sure your tripod head is tight and rigid. After you’ve framed your shot set the focus to manual. This is very important, if you leave it on auto the focus will change between exposures.

Next you need to connect your intervalometer. This should connect to a port somewhere in the side of your camera. Canon use a three pin connector like this. When you have your intervalometer connected you need to test how fast your camera can take pictures. If you take images too fast your buffer will fill up and your video will not be recorded with a consistent frame rate which will result in stuttering. Alternatively, read your manual and see if you can find any information about the maximum sustained burst speed. I generally don’t shoot any faster than one frame every ten seconds.

Take a few test shots to check your exposure. Remember to think of the light when you are doing this. If you expect the scene to brighten then start by underexposing by one or two stops. If you expect it to become darker then you should overexpose by one or two stops. Now you should have all the information you need regarding shutter speed and interval to program your intervalometer. The only thing you need to figure out now is how much footage you want.


I always shoot in RAW. Yes, the files are huge and yes shooting RAW will have a slower burst speed than jpeg but RAW has the greatest dynamic range. As the light will be changing over the course of the video you will need uncompressed imaged so that you can correct dark shadows and blown out highlights later. Make sure you have the biggest memory card you can find. One that can record about a thousand RAW files.

Frame rate

Video has a few different standards for frame rate. The most common ones are 24 frames per second for cinema, 25 frames per second for European, Oceanic and most Asian television (PAL) and 29.97 frames per second for American, Canadian and Japanese television (NTSC). Which standard you use is not all that important unless you expect your work to be broadcast on television. I generally use the 29.97 frames per second.

To work out how long you need to record for you need to take your framerate (lets say 30fps to make the maths easier), multiply it by the length of the video you want to create (lets say 20 seconds) and multiply it by your interval (one shot every 10 seconds).

30 x 20 x 10 = 6000 seconds.

Divide by 60 to convert seconds to minutes an we are now left with a figure of 100 minutes to record 20 seconds of footage at 30fps. Set your intervalometer to take a photo once every ten seconds for 100 minutes and then tape it to the leg of your tripod. This will stop it blowing around in the wind and shaking your camera. After you’ve secured it press start and walk away.

Post processing

For the processing you will need a few different programs. First you will need something that can batch edit your stills. Any adjustments you make to one image need to be made to all of the others. Consistency is key here. I use Lightroom and its ‘sync’ feature to quickly apply changes to all of my photos. Correct the shadows in the dark files and apply that correction to all the images, then correct the highlights in the bright images and apply that to all of the images as well. Then go and adjust for colour and contrast.

Next you need to crop and resize your images. HD video is generally 16:9 in aspect with a resolution of 1280×720 for 720p, or 1920×1080 for 1080p and 1080i. Export your images as high quality jpegs or tiff files, depending on what your video software supports.

Next you need something to turn your images into a video. There are a few video editors out there. I use Adobe Premiere, but if you can’t afford that I recommend Lightworks. Create a new project and make sure your resolution and frame rate are set. Import your still files as an image sequence (see here for adobe premiere and here for Lightworks). Now all you need to do is encode and export.

After that you should end up with something like this:

In Part 2 I’ll be going into shooting sunrises and sunsets, night time timelapses and creating a horizontal or vertical pan with software.


  1. Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm | #

    Funny how we were just talking about this ;) Sounds like a ton of work. Will have to be down the road till I try and master this but thanks for the tips!

    • Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm | #

      Yea, there is a lot to it but it can be heaps of fun. The more you get into it the more you realise how much there is to learn!

  2. Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm | #

    I’ve been experimenting with timelapse recently – I totally didn’t know about the flickering thing, so thanks for that heads up :D

    • Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm | #

      Its a strange thing, taking blurry images for a smooth video, but it works!

  3. Posted August 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm | #

    I have been thinking about trying this out so thank you for the informative tutorial!

    • Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:05 am | #

      Excellent! Let me know how you go!

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