I am sure many of you have seen videos of what seems like amazingly fast action like a flower opening, clouds racing overhead, the Milky Way rising through the night sky or anything else in what seems like only seconds or minutes that actually can take hours.
Time-lapse photography is used to speed up that process in a technique that is used in cinematography a lot. It conveys the passing of time & makes for interesting viewing.
The photographer will take a set of still images at regular intervals of the same object over a period with the camera on a firm tripod, showing changes of any moving objects that are taking place, then replay the video at a fast rate. Bearing in mind that normal videos play at a rate of 25-30 frames a second, so if you are trying to create a video of say the moon rising from the horizon, & want to show this in about 10 seconds, anything shorter is too fast for the viewer, leaving them wondering “What just happened” then you need to take a minimum of 250-300 photos.
The process can seem quite daunting to an inexperienced photographer, but most cameras now actually have settings already incorporated that will do everything for you even produce the final video, my Nikon P900 Coolpics that I use when I need to travel light, has 5 different settings, for cityscapes - 10 minutes, landscapes - 25 minutes, sunsets/sunrises - 50 minutes, night sky & star trails taking - 150 minutes, along with an inbuilt lens range the equivalent of 18mm -1500mm, that will capture these scenes, then process the images into the required videos. My P900 will not do exceptionally long exposures required for decent Milky Way images, which is a bit limiting. All in all very simple! On the other hand, my Nikon D5500 that I use for better quality, does not have such settings, making it necessary to work out how many images I need to take over a given period then download the images into a program to produce the video.
To do time lapse photography, you need a camera, a sturdy tripod so that the camera does not move about thus taking blurred photos and ensures that still objects in a frame do not move, consider hanging a small bag of sand from the bottom of the tripod to stop it vibrating in slight wind, I usually do not bother shooting if the wind gets stronger. Remember, because of the many photos needed, large memory cards, multiples if you are shooting in RAW mode, not really necessary unless you want 4K videos or do lots of post processing of your images, some sort of movie editing program if your camera does not produce the finished video. Startrails is free and a good one for astrophotography, there are others out there as well, but photographing the stars & heavenly bodies is more difficult and a different ballgame altogether as you must expose for the foreground, which tend to overexpose if there are any streetlights nearby, differently to the sky, as some exposures could be 50 seconds or longer then stack your images, thereby combining the 2 separate exposures for a balanced effect. I will leave that for another time, or you can look up the many videos out there.
Finally, some people use neutral density (ND) filters which reduces the amount of light entering the camera, though these are not strictly necessary for time lapse, they do give you greater flexibility of using lower shutter speeds.
The best way to photograph time-lapse is to set your camera on manual settings, that is if you are comfortable in taking it off auto. I personally do not mind photographing on the auto settings as my camera compensates for variations in exposure quickly if the sun comes out or ducks behind a cloud, even though having been a professional photographer for close to 40 years, I have been known to use both.
Many so-called photographers’ frown at the use of auto but it is very handy especially when shooting fast paced action & news stories when it is essential that you get the “pic” in the shortest time possible otherwise you have lots of explaining to do to the impatient editor who is on deadline with his publication & waiting for your image. I have seen so many wedding photographers miss that fleeting glance, the smile, the touching of hands between the bride & groom, because the photographer was busy checking their exposure, I was always watching for these special moments because I trusted my gear, which I had made a point of knowing very well. Try changing a roll of film running sometime or using a manual focus long telephoto lens that you could tell by instinct as to which way to turn the focus without looking whilst on the move & ensuring that the image of the moving object would be sharp the instant you put the camera up to your eye & pressed the shutter, Oh the joys! I had learned to observe then react with lightning-fast reflexes, probably since I was a press photographer for all those years & ever vigilant. My take on this is that the camera companies spend a lot of money making sure that the auto functions work correctly. I use manual when I just want to chill, taking my time to create my landscape images. You should use manual focus when doing time-lapse so that the auto focus does not pick random objects during exposures if the camera does not have a focus lock.
This incredible star tail photo was taken by the very talented WA photographer Sebastian Pavone, who just happens to be my nephew. Thank you for letting us use this image. To see more of his beautiful work visit Sebastian Pavone Photography.
If you have decided to be brave & use manual, then you must choose an aperture that will give you enough light, night-time images require that the lens be wide open thus limiting your depth of field.
The next thing to take into consideration is the right shutter speed to keep things sharp. Using 1/100 of a second or faster will do this but then it can have a detrimental effect on slow moving objects within the various frames as it can make the final video very jumpy. In this case the shutter speed should be dropped to about 1/50 or slower, which will give a pleasing blur to the moving objects in your time lapse. A good standard to adopt is to use a shutter speed that is double of your frame rate for the movie, remembering that movies are 25-30 frames a second.
The best ISO setting for your camera is to use a low one as there is less digital noise, or random imperfections on the sensor (film grain in the old days) but then this requires more light being made available, which is not a problem in daylight, but in low light time-lapse you need a higher ISO which fools the camera into thinking that there is more light than there actually is, but then the video is again subject to more noise. It is a balancing game, especially when shooting in low light, leaving room to experiment to the photographer’s satisfaction. There are some noise reduction software out there including a setting in Photoshop, but it must be remembered that when you apply these reduction algorithms, you are removing detail from the images. Again experiment!
The next thing to consider is the interval between frames for the time-lapse. The speed of the object must be looked at, as faster objects like busy streets need shorter times between the frames, 1-3 seconds between images otherwise the object appears very jumpy, whilst slower ones like star trails etc need up to 30 seconds between images. Again, at 25-30 frames per second for the final video, means lots of time out in the cold nights, bearing in mind that for night time-lapses, your exposures could be up to 50 seconds for each frame with 30 seconds in between them, that is 80 seconds just for 1 frame, remembering that for a final 10 seconds of video, you need at least 250- 300 frames, that means that you will need 5.5 hours to shoot at night in a dark area where there is no light pollution.
Scout your location, & take in the environment, note if there are any obstacles or unexpected interruptions likely to hinder the completion of the photography session. Things like tides, traffic, nearby streetlights, must be taken into consideration as time of sunset/sunrises if you are shooting these & be on location with things setup ready to go, well before time.
You need to pack not only your equipment, but water, snacks, warm clothing, hat, sunscreen etc. You will be surprised how quickly the weather can change out in the bush if you are going to out of the way places.
Have fun, take lots of photos, be safe, after all you are on a photographic safari, so experiment with your images.