Timelapses are fun and can be very powerful if used in videos. A couple of days ago, the weather forecast suggested strong storms coming up, so I brought my GoPro Hero 5 and my Olympus E-M1 Mark II into the office and did a couple of timelapses throughout the day. This is what I got:
While this may not be as impressive as what other photographers / videographers are doing, I think my example serves us very well for this article, because it illustrates some do’s and don’ts quite well.
Let’s get to it:
1. Use slower shutter speeds
When you shoot video, you will usually want to shoot with a 180° shutter. If you aren’t much of a video person, that simply means, if you target 24 or 25 fps, you shoot with a shutter speed of 1/50s. This is, in most cases, freezing motion enough but giving the faint typical Hollywood motion blur. However, when you shoot timelapses, it is often better to shoot slower shutter speeds (and possibly use ND filters to get that shutter even slower) to get a nice motion blur. This makes your timelapse seem faster and more fluent, as everything blends together in a much smoother way.
Just think of a photo of a car. If you shoot it at a very high shutter speed, like 1/2000 of a second, you will completely freeze the motion (as if the car is stopping). If you shoot at 1/50 of a second, the car will be blurred and you get a feeling of speed and motion just by looking at the static image. It is the same effect when shooting video and works particularly well for timelapses.
2. Use manual settings (when possible)
This is a tricky tip, but crucial nonetheless. Especially if you shoot separate photos and later combine them into a timelapse, you want to lock in as many settings as possible. Foremost: white balance. If your video switches to different white balances for some frame, this will be very obvious and look out of place.
In regard to your exposure, I would say: it depends. In most cases you probably want to lock your exposure, for example if you are shooting clouds in the sky or a street at night. Otherwise your metering system might decide that for a few photos (because of changes in the light) your picture should be exposed some more. That may be correct for your metering system, but again, these photos will stand out and make your timelapse look off.
It does become a problem, however, if you shoot in situations, where the light is changing by a huge degree. Examples might be: shooting from sunny weather into a rain shower, or shooting the sunset from day to night. In those cases, you need to actually have the exposure adjusted by the camera, but try to make use of your metering system depending on your shot. If you shoot a landscape and nothing is going between your lens and the subject, you might even want to go as far as to use spot-metering on that spot. In most cases you probably want to choose either average metering or center-weighted average metering, as they generally give better results and have less extreme fluctuations (if they fluctuate in some images, the fluctuation is usually smaller than a ruined spot-metering reading).
3. Choose a subject with movement
Obviously nobody wants to see a timelapse of a room that is mostly empty, where maybe a cat is walking in and out once every couple of minutes. Timelapses work best if you can see a fair amount of movement in there. This could be clouds, cars, people or water. Make it interesting. If your timelapse starts out interesting but then something changes and ruins your shot, stop there and select a new location, then continue. Switching perspectives during a timelapse can be pretty powerful.
4. Use the highest resolution possible
Even if your target video is in a smaller resolution, such as 1080p, you should still shoot your timelapse in a higher resolution. This gives you a number of advantages:
- you can always downsample the clip and get extra sharpness
- if your framing was off, you can correct it later
- generally you can shoot a little wider and have less of a risk to miss interesting events
- you can use post-cropping for simulating camera movement (see 5)
5. Camera movement makes all the difference
Another key factor in making good timelapses is movement. Coming back to the last point of number 4, shooting a higher resolution than your target media, comes in handy. You can crop in and then move your crop around, thus creating virtual camera movement. It can be sliding from one side to another, it can be zooming in or out. Play around with it. You will see, movement makes all the difference. Watch the following example to see the same clips without and with movement:
Even better, but often not quite as affordable and available, is the use of sliders and motors to get in camera movement. You can use really sophisticated multi-motor setups to combine sliding and panning movements, but even with the comparatively affordable TurnsPro motors, you still have to pay quite a bit of money to create real camera movement.
Do get creative though: a GoPro on an egg timer can create amazing looking panning movement on a budget.
6. Watch out for reflections
Chances are, whenever you are going for that amazing cityscape timelapse, you might be shooting it from a place where you can’t open the windows. In that case there are two things you can do: try to reduce the reflections by using a CPL (circular polarising filter) – but this only works on polarised light, which means pretty much only sunlight.
If you have reflections caused by artificial light or can’t quite get the reflections out enough, you might want to consider something to block the light around your lens. Pressing the lens hood all the way against the window reduces the reflections quite considerably. Use some dark cloth around it to shield any light that might still be spilling in.
You could also use something slightly more sophisticated like the Lenskirt, but you could try a do-it-yourself approach as well and create a home-made version of it.
If you look closely, in my video you can sometimes spot reflections as well. This is because they were made in a building that has two panes of glass roughly 10cm / 4in apart. To get rid of reflections there, you need to use a rather large black fabric or similar behind / around your camera, because you can’t get close to the second window. That isn’t possible in every location, so sometimes you can merely try to get as close as possible.
7. Watch your batteries / memory cards
While this may seem like a no-brainer, don’t underestimate how many photos a timelapse takes and how time-consuming it can be. Time-consuming in photography terms doesn’t only mean that you spend a lot of time, but in this case, it also means you will spend a lot of power on your camera. A GoPro Hero 5 for example lasts somewhere between 2 and 3 hours (depending on the temperature and your timelapse interval), which can be quite tight to capture that beautiful moment during and just after sunset. Lots of cameras have USB ports these days, like the GoPro as well. While many cameras can’t be charged through it, a lot can still be powered through USB. So get a high capacity power bank (I never leave the house without my trusty Anker PowerCore 20100) and use that, when your timelapse might take you longer. If you have an outlet somewhere close by, you can even use a wall plug and have practically indefinite power.
Now that your power situation is sorted, think of your memory card. You may be shooting a lot of photos. And I do mean “a lot”. If you use a more professional camera and are shooting RAW, think again if you really need to. This takes up a humongous amount of data on your memory card. Additionally you will need to convert them all to JPEG first before you can further turn them into a video. But even if you shoot timelapse videos directly (like with the GoPro), a longer video in 4k can become quite big rather fast. So make sure to empty your memory cards before you go out for timelapses and, when in doubt, get a larger card.