Fueled by the vast availability of high quality digital cameras timelapse has seen a surge in popularity and creative vigor. If you're new to the art-form or have only scratched the surface of DLSR techniques, this comprehensive tech-tip can serve as a kickoff for your journey into the challenging yet rewarding art of capturing digital timelapse photography.
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Two General Approaches; Sequenced Stills or Digital Video 'Sped Up' in PostThere are advantages & disadvantages to both methods so being aware of the caveats going in can save you a lot of headaches down the road. Today, the majority of timelapse enthusiasts use digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR) and are shooting sequenced stills, but there are many high quality video cameras that can provide great results by shooting video and increasing the speed via post processing. Let's break down the pros and cons of both approaches:
- Ability to capture resolution far above final output, in other words if you're using a 10mp+ camera and you're finishing at 2k or 1080p you have plenty of resolution to spare. If you have a source resolution much higher than your final video output resolution, pan and zoom effects within the frame in post production are possible without loss of image quality.
- Ability to capture RAW images (filenames ending in .CR2, .NEF etc.). The same holds true in timelapse as in traditional digital photography, capturing RAW data will give you the most flexibility in post but can come at storage and speed cost.
- Ability to adjust ALL exposure settings. Still cameras give you full manual control over exposure, aperture, ISO, white balance, etc. Many video cameras do not.
- Ability to preview shots in the LCD. Very useful to monitor exposure and progress of motion.
- Capture Speed; with many DSLR bodies it's difficult to achieve less than 2-3 second intervals per shot capturing full-resolution RAW frames. You can shift your capture method to JPG and get far faster capture speeds (many cameras can do 2-3 FPS consistently with the shutter locked or 'held down'). Note on shooting JPG: due to the fact that white balance is 'baked in' it's crucial that you have it set and locked down in the cameras settings. Note on shooting RAW: make sure to allow the camera's buffer to clear (each image has fully saved to the card) before triggering the next shot, if not the camera's buffer will eventually become full and frames will be missed.
- Time drain in post; particularly shooting RAW can require some serious time and computer resources in the post process. Shooting JPG can speed post processing significantly but if you want quality and future proof source files, remember to budget the time, memory and processing power.
- Easy; not much to consider when shooting, make sure all your settings locked to taste, you have power to last the duration, press the REC button and chillax.
- Tape is in the past; most video cams record direct to chip or hard drive now so it's a snap to transfer directly into your project.
- Fast in post; drop that file into the timeline, speed it up to taste and voila timelapse.
- Not much resolution flexibility; once it's recorded you can't do much in post, for example unlike hi-res stills the pan-and-scan aka 'the Ken Burns effect' is out of the question. You pretty much have to get it framed right while shooting, color correct and live with the results.
- Limited duration; once the recording memory is full you're done. In some cases cameras will simply stop recording after x amount of time.
- Power consumption; in general a running video capture will consume more power than stills
The Basics of Shooting Timelapse with a DSLR (We have a very helpful video tutorial covering the 'First time out with the Stage Zero dolly and MX2 controller': LINK)
- Get familiar with an intervalometer aka 'interval timer' (The MX2 Motion Controller has robust intervalometer built in - basic models can be found at many photography retailers ). These devices send a trigger or 'fire' signal at designated time intervals. One of the advantages of the MX2 & MX3 is that it can dial in the interval at 0.1 (1/10th) of second granularity thus very accurate interval times can be set.
- Interval timing can vary quite a bit depending on exposure time set on the camera, desired overall time to be captured and subject. To get started shoot daylight scenes and try keeping your interval around 3-6 seconds, as your experience grows you can venture into more elaborate shots like long exposure timelapse.
- Set the camera to full manual mode (M), set your exposure time, aperture, and white balance based on the scene. This is just like general 'old school' photography, use your light meter to help with proper exposure and/or review your test stills on the camera's display.
- Set the auto-focus to off; if your auto-focus is on the camera can shift focus points with undesirable effects or lock out the shutter signal coming from the intervalometer due to 'focus priority' settings on the camera.
- Plan on capturing about 300 frames, this will result in about 12 seconds of footage after compiling. In general more than 10-15 seconds of a single timelapse shot can get tedious in a production, 300 frames is 'just right' for most situations.
Composing a Movie From Stills (We have a very helpful video tutorial on 'Photos to Video using Adobe RAW Workflow' with an accompanying blog post on alternative workflows using inexpensive or free and open-source software - LINK )
- Transfer the images to your post production computer and organize each sequence by folder. It's also helpful to remove any extraneous test shots from the folder so you only have the complete sequence of frames
- Make sure images are numbered in chronological order: e.g. img_00001.jpg, img_00002.jpg etc. Sometimes renumbering or bulk renaming your files is necessary. Some examples of helpful programs to automate this process on Windows; renamemaster or bulk rename utility. On a Mac you can use Automator (example workflow) to not only rename files in numerical order but also extract them from separate folders on your camera's CF card. Some camera models allow you to reset the file numbering, i.e. restarting it at img_0001.jpg, thus helping you avoid the need for any subsequent file renaming.
- Bring the image sequence into your NLE of choice and render at your project resolution and framerate.