Capturing and Understanding Time-Lapses – Part 1

If you’re a photographer looking to transition into video, a great way of getting a "toe in the water" is to start by capturing time-lapses. Since they require a lot of planning, prep, and visualization, creating a time-lapse naturally lends itself pretty well to the tedious nature of creating films. I’ve made this same recommendation to the hundreds of photographers I’ve met over the years and the ones that end up doing it ultimately have a deeper appreciation for the process and eventually become more competent filmmakers in the long run.

There’s a lot of great time-lapses out there on Vimeo, but my personal favorite is the one embedded below from Ross Ching, who happens to be one my inspirations when it comes to conceptual filmmaking. I remember seeing this specific video a while back and was so excited by it that I showed it to all my friends and family at least 50 times each. Needless to say, they were all pretty sick of it (and the song) by the time I was done showing them, but it’s still a pretty great video and is a great example of what is possible with a bit of planning and creativity.

Like anything in photography or video, getting to the point where we can capture a time-lapse like the one I’ve just shared starts with some basics. So, I’ve decided to put together a quick-start guide on how to capture time lapses for those of you that want to start practicing. It’s gonna take you a bit of practice to get it right, but it’ll eventually be worth it in the long run! This is the first installment in a two-part tutorial on creating time-lapse. Todays portion will cover the needed equipment and the basic techniques used to capture the images and the second part will cover how to edit and combine them into a movie. So read up, go practice, and come back next week for the second part of this tutorial!


Before you are off and running, there are a few things about creating a time-lapse that I’d like to share with you. It’s good to keep these things in mind especially if you’re starting to plan out your first one:

  • Shoot manually - If you haven’t gotten used to the hang of operating your camera manually, now is as good of a time as any. For time-lapses, setting your camera to custom white-balance, manual focus, and manual exposure will help you out considerably. A custom white-balance will ensure that your photographs have a consistent color tone throughout and prevent your camera from being tricked by challenging lighting conditions. Manual focus will prevent your camera from "hunting" for focus points – and potentially not taking a photograph – between shots. Manual exposure will ensure that your camera isn’t tricked into thinking scenes are brighter or darker than they really are by challenging lighting conditions. In essence, setting the camera to manual will ensure that your eventual time-lapse film will be visually consistent throughout, so make sure you get used to it!
  • You will take a lot of pictures - If you are just getting starting and are new to this, that means you’ll be putting a lot of mileage on the shutter of your HDSLR, which can affect its overall lifespan. My recommendation is to have a dedicated time-lapse camera, so you don’t have issues with a primary camera in the long run. Personally, I have been using an old Canon 1dMkII I had laying around. Despite its 8.2 mega-pixel sensor, it’s worked beautifully because the megapixel count on the 1D MkII doesn’t really have an impact on the final resolution of the movie since it is only 1920×1080.
    In addition to the benefits of having a second camera dedicated to capturing time-lapses, the sheer amount of images also affects my decision of what file format to capture in as well. In my experience, capturing JPEGS is preferable over RAW files for time-lapses because of the file sizes and number of files being created. In fact, I’ve found that JPEGs are really nice to work because the are smaller than RAW files and using them cuts out a huge step in the overall time-lapse workflow. I’ll probably eventually switch over to RAW for challenging situations, an important project, or when it doesn’t require so much computer processing power to crank through them for a time-lapse, but I’m completely fine with JPEGS for now.
  • Time-lapses require time - Don’t expect to go out for a few hours and get something of value. A good time-lapse innately shows change over a passage of time, so set aside at least half a day to give yourself time to see things change and develop. Oh, and bring a good book. You’re going to need something interesting to do while your camera is doing the work.
  • Do more than one - It’s what you DO with multiple clips that will make your film compelling. As you plan out a time-lapse, don’t think that it will be enough to simply capture cars going across a bridge. Just like video, you’ll need different angles and subject matter to keep things interesting. Just try to push yourself creatively!
    Watch more time-lapses – The one thing you can do to help you improve your time-lapses is to watch more time-lapses. There are hundreds of videos out there, so take some time and watch a few before you do one. Vimeo has an incredible wealth of content waiting to be watched so take some time and watch some of the stuff there… It’ll give you an idea of what works (and doesn’t work) conceptually.


As with anything, you’re going to need some equipment to do this properly. You’ll probably see a lot of different time-lapses out there that move and have a lot of cool effects, my personal recommendation is to keep it simple in the beginning and add stuff as you become more comfortable with it. To capture a basic time-lapse, you will need (absolutely need, not just "maybe" need) the following:


Once you’ve got your equipment ready, determined the exposure, and visualize what you want your time-lapse to look like. The rest is actually pretty simple…. even though it involves a little math.

Step 1: Choose the frame rate of your final project - In general, most filmmakers use 24fps so that is a safe place to start. If you remember from one of my previous blog posts about frame rates, the higher the frame rate, the more frames being taken per second. As a result, a 60fps time-lapse will play back differently than one captured at 24fps.

Step 2: Determine how long your time-lapse film will be - This refers to the total length of the final product. In other words, what will the total running time of the time-lapse be?

Step 3: Determine how many frames you will need to capture – The number of frames you will need to capture for a time-lapse is a simple calculation that takes into account the frame rate and total running time.


Calculating the total number of frames needed for a time-lapse is pretty simple. For example, if your time-lapse will be 30 seconds long and played back at 24 frames per second (FPS), the calculation for the total number of frames will look like this:


As a formula, the calculation looks like this:


By using the formula and plugging in the variables we know, we can quickly find out that a time-lapse of 30 seconds, played back at 24 frames per second will require 720 total frames. Once you know how many frames you’ll need, the next step is to determine the interval at which you capture them.

Step 4: Determine the frame interval – Frame interval the actual amount of time that will need to pass between successive frames in a time-lapse. It is derived from a simple calculation that takes into account the total time length of the event being captured and the total number of frames.


To calculate your frame interval, take the total number of frames that you get from Step 3 and divide it by the estimated time length of the actual event you are capturing. For example, if you will be capturing a 4-hour event, change the hours to seconds and divide by 720. This will result in a result of 20 seconds, which means you will need 20 seconds to elapse between each frame captured by your camera.


As a formula, the calculation looks like this:


This means that you will have to capture a frame every 20 seconds to achieve a 30-second time-lapse film that plays back at 24fps.

Step 5: Capture, edit (that part will be another post), and show!


Once you get the hang of the calculations and how they work, it gets to be pretty easy to set up and calculate a time-lapse. There are some mobile apps that do the calculations for you, but I haven’t really found one that I like just yet because they just don’t seem to work the way I want them to. I have been trying out Timelapse Helper and Timelapse Calculator with some decent results, but eventually find that using the formulas is just easier for me.

Trust me, once you do a couple, you’ll eventually get the hang of them and will eventually start to try new and different things. They’re really a lot of fun to do and will really help you expand the quality of your content when you can start adding them into your films. Just take a look at some of the biggest television shows out there and try to see where they’ve managed to sneak in time-lapses. It’s pretty cool!

So, until we meet again next time, here’s another one of my favorite time-lapses for you to enjoy! Take care and keep shooting!

Victor Ha will be at pictureline in August for Video Bootcamp for Photographers--a phenomenal two-day workshop where you'll learn all about getting started with video. Visit the event page to learn more and register!

Read part 2 of this tutorial here!

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April 2013Time-lapse photographyTime-lapse tutorialTime-lapse videoVictor ha