Photofocus features a series on multi-shot photography excerpted from Rocky Nook’s  “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Multi-Shot Techniques” by Alan Hess

Camera settings for time-lapse photography

As with any other type of photography, before you shoot images for a time-lapse, you need to determine which exposure, focus, and file type settings to use. You’ll need to know what you want to focus on and how to make sure the focus doesn’t change during the series of exposures. Selecting a file type is more a matter of choice, but you need to know the differences between the available file types to decide which one you want to use for your time-lapse.

Exposure settings

Your camera may have a lot of different exposure modes, including modes like Action or Sports, Close-up, and Portrait. All DSLRs have at least four exposure modes: Program (P), Shutter Speed Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), and Manual (M). When you use any of the modes other than Manual, the camera uses the information from the built-in light meter to adjust the exposure settings. In Manual mode, you control how much light is going to be recorded on the sensor by setting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The camera does nothing to change the exposure no matter how light or dark the image is. This is the setting you are going to use for time-lapse photography in just about every case.

The exposure mode dial on the Nikon D750. The camera is set to Manual.

When you use Manual mode you need to set the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed— but what settings do you use? For a time-lapse you need to think more about the final movie than any of the individual frames. As photographers, we tend to use a shutter speed that freezes the action so that the subjects in the photograph are sharp and in focus. For example, when I photograph surfers I tend to use shutter speeds over 1/1000 second. But these shutter speeds will cause flickering in a time-lapse.

You need to use a fast shutter speed to freeze action for a still shot. ISO 400; 1/1000 sec.; f/4; 400mm

When shooting video with your camera, you want to use a shutter speed with a denominator that is about double the frame rate. So if you are using a frame rate of 24 fps, the shutter speed should be somewhere around 1/50 second. If you use 30 fps, you’ll want a shutter speed of 1/60 second. These settings tend to work best for making the motion in movies look natural, and they work for time-lapse movies as well.

The easiest way to set the exposure for a time-lapse is to set the camera to Shutter Speed Priority and then set the shutter speed to either 1/50 or 1/60 second, depending on your frame rate. Set the ISO to 400, position your camera, and press the shutter release button halfway down to see what aperture the camera selects. If the depth of field is too shallow, increase the ISO; if it is too deep, lower the aperture (make it wider). This is where those neutral density filters come in. If you need to decrease the amount of light coming into the camera, add a neutral density filter. Once you have the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture all worked out, change the exposure mode to Manual and enter all three settings. There are scenes for which it is more difficult to set the exposure, especially if there is a big change in the amount of light during the time-lapse. The best method for adjusting the exposure settings while shooting a time-lapse is to do it manually—simply check the screen on the back of the camera and slowly adjust the exposure as needed. I have found that it works best to adjust the shutter speed a little bit first, and then use the ISO to adjust the exposure further. For example, if you are shooting a time-lapse of a sunset that starts out very bright before the sun starts to set, just do the following:

  1. Set the exposure for the current scene.
  2. As the sun sets, periodically check the camera after a frame is recorded to see the current exposure.
  3. When the scene starts to get too dark, increase the shutter speed by 1/3 stop (from 1/60 second to 1/50 second).
  4. As the scene darkens even more, increase the ISO, and continue doing so as the scene gets darker and darker. You want to avoid changing the depth of field or increasing motion blur, which would be more distracting than the increase in the digital noise. The idea here is to let the scene get darker, but not too dark. This takes a little (ok, a lot) of practice. Some cameras do not allow you to preview the images while creating a time-lapse in-camera. In this case, I would prefer to take a sequence of still images and create the time-lapse with software in post-production. I recommend quickly stopping the time-lapse every so often, checking how it looks, and then starting it back up. Try not to do this too often, but stopping it every once in a while isn’t going to make a noticeable difference in the final movie.

Focus settings

In addition to using the Manual exposure mode, it is also important to use manual focus. You do not want the camera to change the focus point while shooting a timelapse. Imagine how weird it would look if the focus kept jumping around the frame while you watched a time-lapse video. If your camera is set to autofocus, it will try to focus right as the shutter release button is pressed down. So if you are taking a series of 900 photos to compress into a time-lapse, the camera will try to focus 900 times and will likely change focus for some of the frames. This will create focus jumps in your final movie.

The AF/M switch on the Nikon D750. Make sure autofocus is turned off before you begin shooting a time-lapse.

When I’m setting the focus for a time-lapse, I start with the autofocus turned on. I center the focus point right over the area of the scene that I want to be in focus and I press the shutter button halfway down so that the camera autofocuses. Once the focus has been established, I switch to manual focus. It is really important for the focus to stay fixed for every exposure in the time-lapse, so try very hard not to touch the camera or lens at any point while the images are being taken. As an added precaution, I also make sure the Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization feature is turned off. This technology is great when you’re shooting single frames handheld, but it’s terrible when you’re shooting a time-lapse because it can cause slight shifts in the focus.

File type

I prefer to use the RAW file type for most of my photography. A RAW file contains all of the image information straight from the camera’s sensor and gives you much more data to use when you’re adjusting the look of an image during post-processing. A JPEG file is a compressed file that has basically already been edited in the camera, and while it can be adjusted during post-processing, there is not as much information in the file as there is in a RAW file. Although there are very few cases in which I prefer to shoot with the JPEG file type, time-lapse is one of them. The main reason for this is that RAW files are very large and take up way too much space in the camera’s memory when shooting images for a time-lapse. This doesn’t matter if you are creating a time-lapse in-camera because the camera will combine the images into a movie automatically and will not save the individual files. The benefit of creating a time-lapse from a group of single images in post-processing is that you have access to the individual images and you can use them for other projects. The downside is that you need to use big memory cards to store all of the individual files. And, of course, it takes much longer to create the final time-lapse.

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