Getting started with DSLR time lapse photography

Getting started with time lapse photography using a digital SLR or mirrorless camera doesn't take much gear beyond what you already own. If your camera features a built-in time lapse mode or intervalometer then you actually DO have everything you need to get started.

Getting Started Gear List

  • DSLR or Mirrorless camera

  • Wide-Angle Lens (14mm-24mm focal length preferred)

  • Sturdy Tripod

  • Freshly charged battery

  • 16GB Memory Card or larger

  • Internal or External Intervalometer (Timer Remote)

For cameras that do not feature a built-in time lapse mode you'll want to pick up an intervalometer (timer remote) that is compatible with your camera model. An intervalometer is a remote control that can trigger your camera to take pictures at a pre-defined intervals (the amount of time between photographs) and connects to your camera through a remote port or the USB port of your camera. Even if your camera has software built-in for time lapse you may find that a plug-in remote control is more reliable and allows you to use different camera modes that may not be supported by the built-in controller.

Below is a compatibility chart for the most popular camera models:

Connector Type: E3 (RS-60E3)

Connector Type :C3 (TC-80N3)

Connector Type :1N (MC-36A)

Connector Type :3N

Connector Type :micro USB

Connector Type :micro phone plug

  • Panasonic Lumix GH2, GH3, GH4

  • Panasonic Lumix G3, G10

  • Panasonic Lumix Gi,GHi, GFi

  • Panasonic Lumix FZ 20, FZ30, FZ50, FZ100, FZ150

  • Panasonic Lumix L1, LC1, L10

  • LEICA Digilux 2, Digilux3

  • LEICA V-Lux 1, V-Lux 2

  • View Intervalometers for these cameras

Camera Pre Setup

Once you have everything you need to get started it is normal to want to jump right in, but let me give you a few tips that will improve your first time lapse.

  • Set your camera mode dial to "M" or "Manual" mode

  • Turn off AUTOFOCUS

  • Turn off Image or Lens STABILIZATION (if applicable)

  • Turn off AUTO WHITE BALANCE (Set manually or use an appropriate preset)

  • Turn off "LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION" (when shooting the night sky)

  • Set the DATE and TIME

How to choose an interval

The purpose of time lapse photography is to speed up movement that normally takes place over a longer period of time. The interval you select plays a big role in determining how fast things get.

Since television displays video at 30 frames per second (30fps) any interval faster than 1/30th of a second will speed up time. For example, a 30 frame time lapse that was captured at 1 second intervals (30 frames x 1 second) will play back at 30x normal speed. Why? Because it will only take one second to play back what took 30 seconds to capture (30 frames x 1 second interval = 30 seconds).

For those who love slow-motion - your process works in reverse. With slow motion you record the scene with a faster interval (1/60th for example) so when the video is played back at the normal 1/30th of a second you end up with a 50% slow down in the motion.

Ultimately, the interval you choose should depend on how fast the subject is already moving. Some subjects might be moving so fast in real-time that a time lapse of it would be overkill. Think of race cars at the Indy 500. If you speed that up with time lapse the results would look like blips popping in and out of the frame.

As a rule of thumb the slower the real-time movement the more interesting the time lapse will be. Also, the slower the movement the longer your interval can be.

Subject Suggested Interval

Slow moving clouds 3 - 5 second interval

Fast moving clouds 1 - 2 second interval

People walking in park 3 - 5 second interval

Cars moving in the city 1 - 2 second interval

Sunset (no clouds) 10 second interval

Sunset (with clouds) use cloud intervals above

Construction Project 10 - 20 minute interval

Tip: Pick an interval that will keep a subject in your camera's field of view for at least a few frames (car moving across the frame, person walking). This is easier to do when using a wider angle lens since a subject entering on one side of the frame will take longer to move across the field of view. For example, when capturing people walking in the park try to make sure that a person who appears in one frame doesn't disappear in the next frame. When this happens your final time lapse video will look like blips popping in and out - rather than people moving quickly.

How long do I keep the camera going?

Answering this question involves asking yourself how long of a time lapse do you want. If you only need a 10 second time lapse video then you only need to capture 300 frames (30fps x 10 seconds). Now that you know you'll need 300 frames, the total time you will need to shoot will be based on ther interval. If you choose a 2-second interval then you'll need to be there for 600 seconds (300 frames x 2 second interval). 600 seconds equals 10 minutes of shooting time.

Now you're ready to shoot

Before starting your time lapse you'll want to put your camera into manual mode and find proper exposure by adjusting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity. Your camera will have an on-screen exposure meter that can help guide you, but you are better off using LIVE VIEW mode to gauge whether or not your exposure is correct. Just snap a picture and see what the results are. If you need help figuring out exposure you can switch your camera to auto mode and look at the values it selected - then switch to manual mode again and enter these values.

Double check your focus. If you are not used to using manual focus then temporarily turn on Auto Focus and press the shutter button down half-way. Your camera will now auto focus for you. If you like the results just flip back to manual focus mode and you will now have proper focus that won't change from frame to frame.

  • Connect the intervalometer to your camera

  • Set the desired interval (in photo it is set to 2 seconds)

  • Set the number of frames you want to capture and you're ready to hit "start". Tip: If you do not know up front how many frames you want to capture the intervalometer should allow you to select "- -" as the number of frames. "--" means infinity and in this mode the intervalometer will keep it going until you stop it. You'll find the " --" mark if you bring the shot count to zero.

Why did you have me set my camera to manual?

To create a flicker-free time lapse you want to make sure that the camera doesn't meter each frame differently. If you were shooting in one of the auto modes (Av, Tv, Auto) the camera would evaluate each picture it takes and would likely make slightly different decisions for every photo. When you play these captured frames back as video the small exposure differences between frames will make the exposure in your time lapse appear as it was flickering. The same holds true for the white balance setting and focus. You do not want the camera changing white balance from frame to frame just because a cloud momentarily covered the sun. And we all know that camera's have a mind of their own when it comes to deciding what to focus on. By setting each of these manually we are guaranteeing that they won't change from frame to frame.

Turning your still images into a time lapse video

Now that you have a card full of images it is time to turn them into a timelapse video. For this exercise you will need to download two pieces of software:

  • Adobe Lightroom (trial version)

  • LRTimelapse (free version)

After downloading each of these programs make sure to install Adobe Lightroom first. Once installed you can then install LRTimelapse. This ensures that the LRTimelapse's Lightroom export module gets installed properly.

This following tutorial is designed to get you started. In future articles I will dive more deeply into post production techniques.

Import Images Into Adobe Lightroom

  • Import your photos into Lightroom Go to File - Import Photos & Videos

  • Navigate to your captured images Under the Source column on the left side of the import window choose the drive location AND folder of where your images are located. This would either be your camera's drive letter if you connected your camera to your computer - or - it would be the drive letter of your card reader that you slid your memory card in to. Once selected you'll notice that all of the photos have a checkmark next to them.

  • Deselect test shots Take a look at the first row of photographs. You'll likely have a few test shots in there that weren't part of the time lapse. These were the shots you took to check exposure and focus when you were setting up your shot. This is the time to "uncheck" these test images so that they do not end up being copied to your computer.

  • File renaming On the right side of the import window, under "File Renaming" put a checkmark next to "rename files." Next to the template drop down choose "shoot name - sequence." Next to "Shoot name" enter a custom shoot name (example: "First Timelapse" or "BostonMoonRise"). Next to "start number" enter the value: 1000. It's important that you do NOT start the sequence numbering at "1" since other programs out there, when sorted by name, will use the first digital to sort by. That doesn't sound wrong but this means that the number 2 will be followed by the number 2, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 3, 30, 31 - throwing your sequence out of order. If you use a four digital number you're guaranteeing that 0020 will always follow 0019 and so on. Of course if you captured more than 9999 photos you may need to use FIVE digits when renaming files.

  • Destination Under the destination drop down I always check off "into subfolder" and then name the folder that will store these images - I named mine "Boston Moon rise." From there we need to tell Lightroom where this folder (and images) should be placed. On my system I place the images on my "O" drive. My folders are layed out by year (2013, 2014, 2015), month (Jan, Feb, Mar...) and then by project name (Beach Sunset, Boston Moon rise, etc.). In this example I would navigate to my "O" folder, then to "2015", then to "January." Lightroom will now import these images to that location in a subfolder that I called "Boston Moonrise."

  • Import Click "Import" and Lightroom will move your photos from the memory card to the new location on the computer's hard drive

  • Go to Folder in Library After importing photos, Lightroom displays them in a collection called "recently imported." However to work on these images it is best to work directly in the folder that they were imported to. The easiest way to do this is to "right-click" on any one of the images and select "Go To Folder in Library." That's it. Now you're ready to start editing the first image.

  • Enhance the first photo Click to select the first photograph and then hit "D" on the keyboard. This switches to the Develop module so that you can tweak this first photo to your liking. Use the sliders on the right panel (white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, clarity, vibrance, etc.) to adjust the tones in your image to your liking. Once you get the photo looking the way you want we will copy these changes to the entire set of photos that make up this time lapse.

  • Sync changes to the other photos Hit "G" on the keyboard to switch back to the thumbnail or "Grid View". Now click once on the thumbnail of the first photo (the one you just edited) and scroll down until you see the very last photo. While holding down the SHIFT key on the keyboard use the mouse to click once on the last photo. ALL of your images will now be selected (they turn light gray). Now click "Sync Settings" at the bottom of the right column. A settings window will open showing you all of the settings that can be synced. You want ot make sure to click "Check All" in the lower left corner of the window, and then click the "Synchronize" button to the right. This will synchronize the changes you made on the first photo with all of the remaining photos in your time lapse. When finished, which will only take a few seconds, all of your photos will have been tweaked - automatically.

  • Exporting Images

To take these still images and merge them into a time lapse video we are going to export the images using the LRTimelapse exporter plug-in. Lightroom will convert each of the raw files into a finished JPEG and place them into a folder on your hard drive. Once the export is finished LRTimelapse will use its video rendering engine to turn this folder of JPEG's into a high quality time lapse video. In "Grid View" select all images by pressing "CTRL-A" on the keyboard (CMD-A on the Mac). Now click "Export" on the lower left panel. An export window will open.

On the left side of the Export window, under presets, you'll see a drop down labeled "LRTimelapse." Expand this drop down and select the LRTimelapse. The right panel will now change to the LRTimelapse export module. The only two fields that need your attention are the "Output Path" field and the "Name of sequence" field. In the "Output Path" select the drive and folder of where you want Lightroom to export your images to.

Next to "Name of the Sequence" give your timelapse video a name. Click "Export" at the bottom of the export window

Creating the time lapse video When Lightroom is finished exporting all of your images, LRTimelapse will automatically open up the render video window.

Since this is your first time lapse sequence LRTimelapse will wait for you to make some selections regarding the resolution you would like to render the video at and the codec (format) you would like to save the video in. To keep this tutorial simple I won't dive into what each of these mean, but I will guide you as to what you should select.

  • Codec: Select MP4 (H.264) MP4 is compatible with YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook.

  • Output Size: Select 1080p. Most HD Televisions today diplay at 1080p so I recommend selecting this option.

  • Speed: Frame rate: 29.97 29.97 provides smoother playback, while 23.976 looks more cinematic

  • Quality: High

  • Pixel Format: 420

Click the "Render Video" button on the bottom right of this window and LRTimelapse will turn the exported images into a video. Once finished the video will be found in the folder you selected as the "output path" when exporting from Lightroom.

If all went according to plan you have just created your first time lapse video. Congratulations.

As you continue to shoot (and render) each time lapse you'll eventually want to combine these individual video clips into a longer video. Using video editing software such as iMovie, Sony Movie Studio, or Adobe Premiere Elements will allow you to combine video clips into a movie, complete with music. As your needs grow you may find yourself wanting more professional software such as Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro or Adobe After Effects.

Here is my most recent time lapse film. This was created from 3.5 years of shooting in and around the New England area.

Join Ron at one of his upcoming advanced time lapse photography workshop. www.TimelapseWorkshops.com

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© 2019 / 2020 Ron Risman        Mottion Control Video     Timelapse Cinematographer