(Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, Photofocus features a series on multi-shot photography from Rocky Nook’s “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Multi-Shot Techniques” by Alan Hess.)
For a time-lapse series of photographs to work properly and be worth watching, the camera needs to be held stable, you need to be able to take multiple images over time, and the final movie needs to compress the time in a way that keeps the viewers interested. A time-lapse in which nothing seems to be happening or changing can be quite boring. On the flip side, a time-lapse in which there is too much happening or things are changing too quickly can be difficult to watch.
To create a time-lapse video, you will need a camera that can take multiple images over time using either a built-in interval timer or an external shutter release that can be set to trigger the shutter at specific intervals. Many cameras have the ability to trigger the shutter at set intervals. Check your manual to find out whether your camera can do this or if it requires an accessory to make time-lapse series.
What you are looking for right now is a feature that allows you to program the camera to take a single still image every few seconds or minutes over a specific period of time. If your camera does not have this ability, you can use an external timer or intervalometer. This is what I used for years, and I still use one on my cameras that do not have this capability built-in. I have the Nikon MC-36, which has been replaced by the Nikon MC-36A. Both of these models come with the 10 pin connector. I’ve mentioned this device previously because it also acts as a remote shutter release and allows the shutter to be kept open for longer than the 30-second maximum when you use the Bulb shutter speed. If you are looking for a less expensive version, check out these time lapse triggers.
Steady does it
Once you have set the camera to take a series of images, the next step is to mount the camera on a tripod so that it doesn’t move during any of the exposures. The setup should be very secure because if the tripod or camera moves even a tiny bit, the entire time-lapse will be affected. Imagine watching a time-lapse movie in which, every once in a while, the scene seems to go out of focus for a split second—this is distracting and can ruin the whole effect. So make sure that the tripod can support your camera and lens and that it is set up properly and on stable ground. I put soft dive weights in my camera bag and hang it from the the center column hook to add weight to the tripod and keep it from moving.
There are a few pieces of gear that can take your time-lapse photography to the next level. The first item is a slider that allows the camera to move smoothly during the series of exposures. I know I just said the camera needs to stay still during the photo-taking process, but if you set it up properly, you can have the camera move a small distance over the course of the entire time-lapse sequence to add just a little something extra. To do this, you can set a motorized slider to move the camera during the time-lapse creation. It should move for the same amount of time as it takes to shoot the entire series of images.
Neutral density (ND) filters
A second piece of equipment that can make life easier is a solid neutral density filter or use a variable neutral density filter. Using a longer shutter speed allows for smoother time-lapse videos. When you shoot in bright light, even if you use the lowest ISO setting and a small aperture, the shutter speed will be too high to give you the smooth look you want. A neutral density filter blocks out the sunlight, which allows you to use longer shutter speeds and wider apertures in bright light and gives you more creative control over your images. I have a set of two neutral density filters from Nikon that can block out four or eight stops of light, which allows me to radically change the shutter speed I’m able to use, especially during the bright daylight. In the photo on the left you can see that the scene is really bright, so the slowest shutter speed I could use was 1/250 second. With the ND 8 filter, I was able to use a shutter speed as slow as 1/20 second, which is a huge difference as you can see in the photo on the right. The water is softer and will blend from one time-lapse frame to the next. If I used the sharper version, the time-lapse could look choppy.. If you don’t have an ND filter, I suggest that you try doing some regular time-lapse shooting before you run out to buy one since these filters can cost over $100.00 each. An alternative is the variable ND filter which, while more expensive, is more versatile and takes up less space in your bag than a set of solid filters.
(Editor’s note: Neutral density is measured in one-third of a stop increments. A .1 ND filter reduces light by 1/3 of a stop. A .2 ND by 2/3s of a stop and a .3 is a 1 stop reduction in light. A .8 ND filter is 2 and 2/3s stops less light.)
When choosing the subject matter for a time-lapse video, there are two things to think about: what will move during the length of the shoot and what will stay static? There are some scenes that just scream for a time-lapse recording, like a sunrise or sunset, especially when there are also some great clouds in the sky. When you add a good static subject, like a pier or jetty, then you have something to hold the viewer’s attention. One of my favorite places to practice time-lapse is at a dog beach where the dogs can play off-leash, which gives me a lot of moving subjects. This is a great project to start with because you can see the results pretty quickly. The photo below shows the setup for a time-lapse I shot at sunset on the beach. When shooting on the beach, make sure the tripod doesn’t move as the tide changes.
This photo shows what happens when the water hits the legs of the tripod and the camera moves during the exposure. The blurring in the image is the result of a slight movement of the camera when the water washed some of the sand out from under the tripod leg.
Read more from Rocky Nook Enthusiast’s Guides.