4 Things to Consider When Making Time-Lapse Photographs


It seems the perfect storm of affordable cameras, constant updates in technology, and adventurous artists has hit us and brought with it a large wave of time lapses. I’m not sure when time lapses really became as popular as they are right now but they show no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

After perusing the multiple Vimeo channels and thousands of YouTube videos dedicated to time lapses you might find yourself like I did, wanting to try to do a time lapse yourself. There are dozens of tutorials out there for you to follow (one of my favorites being this one for it’s straightforward and simplistic approach that will get you started immediately) so you don’t really need me to explain it again.

What I would like to do is cover a few subjects nobody talked to me about before I attempted to shoot a time lapse. Subjects that are not too far beyond a beginner’s comprehension but that will also help push your time lapse beyond the amateur level…hopefully.

#1: JPG vs RAW

One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to shoot JPG or RAW. Really the only advantage to shooting JPG is that the files are smaller and thus you can cram more photos onto a single card. This may seem like a huge advantage when one of your main goals is to interact with the camera as little as possible, however I’ve had to switch cards several times during a time lapse and as long as I was careful I never encountered any excess movement as a result.

So really, to me, the only reason you should ever shoot JPG is if you’re just shooting a quick test to see if your time lapse idea will work. Otherwise shooting your time lapse in RAW is the way to go. You may have to switch cards at some point and rendering the final video out will take longer but in the end it’ll payoff with what you see on screen.

Shooting in RAW, while providing a lot of versatility, can also be trickier to get down. I recommend the tutorial above that I’ve used to guide me through the process a number of times.

#2: Using an Intervalometer

This is kind of a given. Honestly I only include this in case you find yourself in a position where you don’t have your intervalometer with you and are considering trying to shoot a time lapse anyway. Don’t bother. I’ve been there.

I got all the way to the top of a mountain in Telluride, CO to shoot a time lapse of the sun setting only to have the supposedly “brand new” battery for my intervalometer die immediately. This was my last night in Telluride and by the time I located a shop in the small town that had a battery the sun would have already set. So I said screw it and tried to shoot it by hand. The video below is the result and clearly kind of sucks (it doesn’t help that this was just a quick test with unedited photos that aren’t properly formatted):

Now, I could have tried to smooth the video out with some sort of software in post but with that level of shake occurring it still would have likely been unusable.

Another quick note on Intervalometers, my experience has been that the biggest difference between the name brand and the cheap Chinese knock off is the name printed on the device. Consider saving yourself $80 and trying the generic brand. But maybe replace the batteries first…

#3: Avoiding Flicker

If you’ve ever tried to do a time lapse and noticed that yours clearly looks like a series of flashing pictures while the YouTube video with a million hits looks like a smooth nearly seamless scene it’s likely because of flicker. When I first attempted to do a time lapse nobody explained how to avoid flicker to me and so my time lapse looked a bit off when I finally put it all together.

The main thing you can do in camera to avoid flicker is shoot in Manual mode. Now obviously sometimes that’s not an option, like if you’re shooting day to night and vice verse.

If this is the case and you’re shooting in Aperture Priority Mode or something like that then your main goal is to make sure it’s at least getting an accurate reading with every photo. What a lot of people don’t realize is this reading can be thrown off by the light entering through the viewfinder that’s usually covered by your eye. Except now that you’re letting the intervalometer do the shooting there’s nothing there to cover it.

This can be solved two ways, covering the viewfinder with the eyepiece cover often found on the strap that came with the camera (it’s that little plastic thing you never even realized was a thing until now) or with gaffers tape if you’ve lost the cover/strap, or you can shoot with the LCD screen on which effectively covers the viewfinder internally. I wouldn’t recommend going that route unless you’re shooting a really short time lapse though as it will be a severe drain on the battery.

No matter your level of precaution there’s still likely to be a little flicker. So once you’re done with your time lapse you’ll need to use one of several programs available to deflicker the time lapse. I recommend LR Timelapse which is great software in general for time lapses but especially shines with their deflicker feature and extensive tutorial on how to use it.

#4: Manipulating it in Post

Once you have your beautiful time lapse of the star filled sky over the lake with the mountain in the background, you have two options. Post it to Vimeo with the other 3,776 star filled sky over the lake with the mountain the background time lapses, or do something interesting to it to make it stand out. Even if that means messing it up to the point where you can’t recognize some of it. Go crazy. I’m a big supporter in abstract art and there’s no reason time lapses shouldn’t get a little abstract  sometimes too.

If you don’t want to get that crazy at least try doing something to make it a little interesting. Even if it’s a little something more down to earth like using a plug-in to make something look dreamy or like a faux-tilt shift. I’m a big fan of Magic Bullet for this reason, just check out what it can do.

Now this was a quick time lapse done by Philip Bloom simply to show the power of Magic Bullet on your time lapse. Just imagine when this is applied to you star filled sky over the lake with the mountain in the background! Then you’ll have something truly amazing to post to Vimeo.

Image credit: Berg Lake Twilight by Jeff Pang

  • agour

    Actually you missed probably *the* most important thing for timelapse…

    What interval you use (how much time passes between each photograph)! If you mess this one up, all the above points are moot ;)

    Oh and for avoiding flicker, you can also use the lens twist: :)

  • Caca Milis

    Pentax K-5 is great for shooting a timelapse built in ‘interval shooting’, saying that I have yet to shoot a decent timelapse

  • Caca Milis

    Great point, shooting slow for clouds and fast for city scenes is a great example

  • Mantis

    I’ve been using my Olympus E-PL2. It doesn’t have interval shooting, but I discovered a neat little hack.

    I set it on “Anti-shock” mode, then set the delay for however long I want my interval to be. Then I set it on Continuous Shooting mode, and just tie a thick, tight rubber band around the shutter button to keep it down.

    With as as many shutter actuations that time-lapse burns through, I feel that using a mirrorless camera can handle the wear & tear better than an SLR.

  • SRekdal

    Shooting timelapse in live view mode on a DSLR is not a good idea at all. It doubles the wear&tear on your mirror will need to open and close twice for each frame.

  • Daniel Tian

    Another reason for flicker is the opening and closing of the aperture. Even in manual mode, a lot of cameras leave the aperture wide open, and stops down only when taking the photo. This opening and closing causes minute differences in the size of the aperture, which normally goes unnoticed but shows up as flickering in time lapses. One way around this is to get a lens that has a manual aperture, or if you only have electronic aperture lenses (Canon lenses, Nikon G lenses), then you can press and hold the DOF preview button and unscrew the lens slightly so that the contacts aren’t touching the body contacts. This way, the aperture will be ‘locked’ to your selected value and won’t cause flicker.

  • TSY87

    contrary to the link you posted, lens twist will not work with a nikon DSLR.. if you twist the lens, the aperture blades will close because that is how they are when unmounted.. and the tab that actuates the aperture is not making contact with the lens to open/close the aperture.

  • TSY87

    this does not work on nikon g lenses… the aperture is still mechanically actuated despite not having an aperture ring.

  • Daniel Tian

    Ah, that’s a good point. I forgot about that because I normally shoot time lapses with D lenses. I don’t think there’s any way around it then with G lenses.

  • Dave

    I would love to see a finished product by this author that convinced me to follow his advice.

  • Zos Xavius

    Unless your camera keeps the mirror locked the whole time, like my pentax cameras. The mirror never flips unless I turn off live view. Same with the 5d mark II I use. This is next to useless though for time lapse because it kills the battery.

  • Zos Xavius

    thanks for the lens twist tip. wish I would have thought of that!

  • agour

    I wonder if you could jam a piece of card or something in the lever, to prevent it moving? :) Would still need to twist the lens off a little though