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3 Tips for Time-Lapses Worth Keeping

I’ve fallen in love with time-lapse photography. It allows me to show change in a picture over time, and that’s makes my image more engaging and more endearing. I’ve been shooting lots of time-lapse over the last year, but I’ve only finished a handful of the sequences into video files because I often do one thing wrong that ruins the entire sequence. Here are three tips that’ll help you avoid wasting hours shooting to end up with nothing worth sharing.

1. Shoot Movement

Time-lapse is most engaging when there are things moving and changing as the movie progresses. Clouds are wonderful subjects to cut your teeth on because they change quickly over time and revealing their movement in quick time is almost always impressive. Building columns of cumulus never cease to amaze me, and clouds zipping in different directions at different elevations are intriguing. Interestingly, shooting a longer interval will show more movement; that is, shooting at one frame every five seconds will show more change than shooting at one frame every second (of course, it means you need to shoot longer to get a video of any given length).

2. Manual Everything

  • Autofocus will shift slightly from frame to frame, causing a stuttering feel to the sequence; use autofocus to set the focus, then switch it to manual.
  • Auto white balance may change from picture to picture depending on what colors the camera sees in the frame; a red dress walking by may change the color significantly. Choose a white balance setting (ideally in degrees Kelvin).
  • I love to use Aperture mode when shooting outside, but any of the auto exposure modes will give you trouble. Changing clouds overhead, or car headlights shining into the lens will prompt the camera to change the exposure and will make the video appear to flicker. Shoot a frame in Aperture mode to get the settings, then switch to Manual mode and dial in the settings.
  • One thing that shouldn’t be manual is holding the camera. Use a tripod, and turn off the vibration reduction or image stabilization.

3. Shoot RawUsually

When you shoot RAW you have a lot of options, including incredible highlight and shadow recovery, and Lightroom can apply adjustments to a sequence in a snap. However, Photoshop requires JPEGs to stitch a sequence together, so I export my RAWs as JPEGs to use in Photoshop.

A problem with RAWs is that they are huge and fill the camera’s buffer quickly. If I am shooting at a short interval between frames (i.e. one frame per second) then the camera cannot keep up and the sequence ends up stuttering. A tip for shooting in JPEG is to activate the highlight and shadow recovery built into the camera; I set mine to the highest setting. This helps make sure that bright spots don’t get blown out, and shadow areas maintain detail.

This next video shows the problem of shooting faster than your camera can write. You’ll see some stutter and apparent skipping; those are times when the buffer in the camera was too full to make the next frame. This can be conquered by leaving more time between frames (one shot every three seconds instead of one frame every second), shooting smaller images (JPEG or maybe Small RAW (on Canons)), or by buying faster cards that allow your camera to write to the card faster.

The Bottom Line

Time-lapse is so fun, and now that many cameras include intervalometers it’s become so simple to shoot a few minutes anywhere you go, and they can really add flavor to your slide show of still images or a vacation video. I’ve spent hours and hours shooting sequences, and if I had known these tips then more of them would have been worth keeping. I hope this helps you, too.

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