What Is It?
Time-lapse photography is effectively the opposite of slow-motion filmmaking. By shooting multiple frames of a scene at intervals and then stitching them together into a film/video, the final product presents the passage of time in a unique, artistic way. It’s not a new process – the first time-lapses were done in the 19th Century. And it’s not a fad — with advances in digital photography, digital processing, and digital video, new creative styles are possible and the process has simply gained renewed popularity. To see the work of a great, contemporary time-lapse filmmakers, I encourage you to check out Tom Lowe and the stunning 4K film he produced, “TimeScapes”.
I’ve always been interested in this technique, and I’ve done some of it myself. There are a few time-lapse sequences in the music video I shot and produced for Astra Via’s “Fast Forward”. I’ve been playing around with it more since, and I think I’m hooked. What really sparked my interest in time-lapse photography was when I learned that, sure enough, “there’s an app for that.”
How to Do It:
TriggerTrap is a free iPhone and Android app that works as a programmable shutter release for your device’s camera. If you want to use it with a DSLR, you need to buy a small dongle for $30, so that you can connect your mobile device to your camera (which is what I did.) When connected, the app works surprisingly well. There are multiple reviews of the app and how it works, so I won’t get into all that here. To make your life easier, I’ll point you to this particularly extensive review on The Phoblographer. In a nutshell, the app gives you a variety of creative triggering options — not all of them intended for time-lapse. But for time-lapse (also known as “long-exposure photography”) you can set the overall time you want to cover in a scene, the number of exposures to take within that time, and you can even ramp the speed up and down at either end of the session to create a “warp” effect.
There are a few things to keep in mind when doing time-lapse photography. First, set your focus before you begin. If you leave your camera on auto-focus, and your subjects are moving in and out of a shot, not only will the end result look weird, it will affect the time your camera takes to prepare for each exposure and confuse the app. You also want to maintain the same exposure settings. This means either put your camera in “Aperture” mode, so that the shutter speed will vary without changing the aperture of each exposure, or leave it fully manual, which is my preference.
Once you have all your shots, you can then import them onto your computer and stitch them together into a single video file. I have been using a free program called TimeLapse Assembler, which gives you several options to set your resolution, frame rate and format. Once I have my exported video file, I can then ingest that into FCPX and edit the final piece with music, ambient noise, what have you.
If you go to Vimeo and do a quick search of time-lapse videos, one thing you’ll notice about the best time-lapse filmmaking is the way perspective is adjusted, adding another level of motion on top of the passage of time. I’m talking about camera motion that adds a 3rd dimension to the viewer experience. Of course, you can invest tons of money into motorized sliders and dollies that are timed to gradually move throughout a series of exposures. I cannot recommend against this. In fact, I would love a piece of kit that could do this, and I hope to have one soon enough. Check out manufacturers like Cinevate and Kessler for more on this. Vincent Laforet has a great blog post about his own recommendations in this motorized sliders.
But if you’re like me, and you are working with only a tripod (and no, don’t try manually doing this with your hands on a slider), there are ways you can spice up your video in post. The results aren’t exactly the same, but you can definitely add dimension to your time-lapses by creating a little camera motion. In Final Cut Pro X, I’ve been playing around with this. Something as simple as the “Ken Burns effect” allows you to set start and end points so you can zoom in and out, pan left/right, etc. And thanks to FCPX’s ability to natively edit up to 4K video, you can take full advantage of a using very high resolution video in a 1080p editing space. Think about it: your camera most likely shoots stills at much higher resolution than it shoots video. So if your photos are 5,000 pixels across, you can create and edit sequences in 4K, move the camera all around as you please, and when you output your video at 1080p, there will be virtually no loss in resolution — even if you zoom in to twice the size of your frame. Here’s a short example of a time-lapse experiment I did just the other day:
Try it Out
I have a particularly renewed interest in shooting time-lapse photography, because of the potential I see for the international school market, which I am focusing on with my new brand, International School Marketing (ISM). But schools aren’t the only ones that can benefit from this technique. I now have several video productions for various clients that I look back on and think, man, I wish I had thought of this sooner! The art form of time-lapse can add a level of professionalism and creativity to an otherwise straightforward video, and now it’s affordable for everyone.
As with 360-degree VR photography and HD video, the DSLR revolution has democratized professional filmmaking. Thanks to apps like TriggerTrap, time-lapse photography is now something that everyone can afford, and professional artists can focus on advancing their skills without breaking the bank.
I can’t end this post without showing you one of the coolest time-lapse films I’ve ever seen. I particularly like it because it highlights one of my hometowns, Saigon, Vietnam. Rob Whitworth is an Asia-based photographer dividing his time between time lapse and architectural photography. This award-winning video is another example of how cool this process can be — and it’s a reminder of all the great things that can be accomplished both in-camera, and (I’m gonna go out on a limb here) in post-production: