How to Make a Time-Lapse Video

Making a time-lapse video these days is easier than ever. With so much technology readily available, practically anyone can now make a time-lapse video anywhere they are. A couple of things you want to ensure before shooting any time-lapse video are that you’ve got plenty of battery power (especially in the cold!) and plenty of space on your memory card. Assuming those are in place, then you’re ready to go!

For those who commonly shoot in Manual mode on your DSLR, this will seem much easier than you may have originally thought. When shooting a time-lapse video, you want every single setting to be on Manual mode. Otherwise, particularly if you’re in changing light, the camera will interpret one or two specific frames differently than before, thus rendering in the video what seems to be an odd flicker. Going back through the video and pinpointing that exact location and then correcting it is more trouble than it’s worth, so be sure to simply keep everything manually set. This even includes your white balance settings, unless shooting in RAW. RAW photos do not record the camera’s white balance settings since they can (and should be) always changed in post-processing.

This brings up the point about which format to shoot in: RAW; JPG or even HD video? Each has its pros and cons, but I’ve found myself sticking with RAW for several reasons. First, as with JPG, you get a full camera frame much larger than HD video, giving you the flexibility to pan across a frame, if desired. Second, unlike JPG, any post-processing work is made much easier. Third, while they do take up much more room, hard drives and memory cards are only getting bigger and cheaper. And finally, should I happen to look back on a particular frame and think it might make a good still photo, I have it there just like any other photo I would have taken.

On to the actual shooting. As mentioned, you want to keep everything manually set. This means you’ll pretty much be setting up like a standard photo, and if in RAW, it basically will be. A necessary piece of equipment to have hooked up to your camera is some kind of computerized intervalometer. If you’re shooting Canon, they offer the TC80N3 which works out really well. If you’re on a budget however, you can search for ‘Canon intervalometer’ and find a good third party option that will work nearly just as well. Depending on the subject matter, you’ll want to shoot in a predefined interval. Much of what I’ve done thus far includes clouds, and to get their motion captured smoothly, you’ll want to set your intervalometer to about three seconds. You don’t want to go too quick because you want to make sure your camera is completely done saving an image before moving on to the next. If you’re shooting too many frames too quickly, you could be asking too much of your camera and then it will wind up skipping some frames here and there. Once everything’s set, get your shot set up and let the intervalometer do the rest!


Processing in Lightroom 3

If you’re in changing light, for example, sunset, you’ll want to start out overexposing your images by about one stop. This will allow you to capture more frames clearly as the light gets darker. I actually often allow for a minimal amount of "blinkies" (the blown highlights on your camera’s review) because if you figure you’re shooting at 30fps (frames per second), that means that after thirty shots, or one second, the highlights will have dimmed enough to be properly exposed. You can also figure if you eventually want to compile them all into a nice and elegant compilation like you see so often around the Internet, then that initial second or so will also be caught in a transition anyway.

You can either set the intervalometer to an infinite amount and just quit when you think you have something nice, or you can set it to a predetermined setting so you’ll know about how long your clip will wind up being. Regardless, it’s a good idea to have an idea of how long your clip will be anyway so some basic math is a pretty necessary skill to have. If you’re shooting one frame every five seconds, for example, and your final clip will be 30fps, then you can figure that in one minute of shooting, you’ll get 12 frames which come out to less than half of a second in your final render. The timing can be crucial, especially if you have the foresight to see that it’s a scene you’ll want to be panning in, which will require a longer clip so as not to seem "forced" or too quick.

Once you’ve got all your images loaded back onto your computer, you can actually process them all at once in just a few clicks using Adobe Lightroom 3. To do this, process the first frame like you would any other photo. Once you’re finished, right-click on that photo and go to Develop Settings, then Copy Settings… Select the checkbox for everything you edited, including cropping, neutral density filters, lens correction, etc. Once copied, select the next frame, then find the last frame and while holding Shift click on that one. With all of them selected, right-click on any of them, go back up to Develop Settings then Paste Settings and all of your settings will be magically copied onto each and every photo in a matter of seconds! Go back, select the first one so that every photo is selected (provided they all look ok to you) and then export them all as JPGs in a convenient location where you can find them easily.


Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10

The final step is to get them all merged together so they play continuously and seamlessly. There are lots of programs that do this; anything from Quicktime Pro to Windows Movie Maker to the popular free alternative, VirtualDub. After starting out with VirtualDub, I eventually opted to spend a little bit of money on something more intuitive and settled upon Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10. It’s powerful, intuitive and very user-friendly. Regardless of what you use, any and all of these options, among others, should allow you to select the first JPG and load them all in as a sequence. Some programs will automatically recognize that you want them together, others will require you to simply check a box indicating so, for example. Once it does that, all that’s really left to do is save it, wait for it to finish and then watch it!

Congrats! You’ve just entered the world of time-lapse video!

Got anything to show off? I’d love to see it! Feel free to leave a comment with a link to something you’ve created, whether you’re just getting started or you’re a time-lapse guru.

23 thoughts on “How to Make a Time-Lapse Video

    1. Thank you, Russ! My first couple were JPG, but even with time-lapse I still cringe at the thought of shooting in JPG and so I found the pros of shooting in RAW to outweigh the cons.

    1. Thank you, Russ! My first couple were JPG, but even with time-lapse I still cringe at the thought of shooting in JPG and so I found the pros of shooting in RAW to outweigh the cons.

    1. Thank you, Erik! I actually do it in the same program I use to compile the images – Sony Vegas. I don’t know for sure about Quicktime or Windows Movie Maker, but I know any other video editing software can do it, even the free VirtualDub.

  1. Excellent tips Mike, gosh, I remember doing timelapse with my Super 16mm 15 years ago, it was a big, big deal, sure nice to be able to enjoy the easy handling of a DSLR. Thanks for sharing the info!

  2. Excellent tips Mike, gosh, I remember doing timelapse with my Super 16mm 15 years ago, it was a big, big deal, sure nice to be able to enjoy the easy handling of a DSLR. Thanks for sharing the info!

  3. Thanks for the article Mike.  Looking to head to the Swiss Alps with my camera and intervalometer.  Hopefully I’ll get something as nice as your time lapse.

  4. Thanks for the article Mike.  Looking to head to the Swiss Alps with my camera and intervalometer.  Hopefully I’ll get something as nice as your time lapse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.