Home > DSLR filmmaking, Film Production > How to do Time Lapses with DSLR cameras

How to do Time Lapses with DSLR cameras


Time lapses can be tricky, however, setting the appropriate settings in the camera will give you a higher success percentage. This guide will serve as a checklist of what you need to think about when doing a time-lapse. At the end, the more ‘control’ you have over the possible variables, the more accurate your results will be.

Intervalometer / Timer Remote

THE INTERVALOMETER / TIMER REMOTE

Most DSLR cameras don’t have a built-in intervalometer. Canon and Nikon make their own but you can also find other brands that will be less expensive and will of the job.

THE INTERVAL

Ideally your time lapses should have a fluid-organic motion. Choppy time lapses don’t look good and have the opposite effect on audiences: alienation from the story rather than immersion in the story. Basically, a short time interval between pictures will allow you to ‘record’  more information that will look better when played back. For example, when doing a cloud time lapse there is a huge difference between taking a picture every 5 seconds and taking a picture every 30 seconds. The 5 second one will be smoother and more fluid. Keep in mind that shorter time intervals will result in more photos per minute/hour.

Think about the speed at which your subject matter will be moving/changing and then set your interval. A seed may take 1 week to germinate, hence taking a picture every 5 seconds seems a bit exaggerated.

DURATION – DO THE MATH

Time lapses must have handles. Budget for at least 5-10 seconds of handles before the ‘real’ time lapse starts and after it finishes. Always do the math to find out for how long you’ll need to be shooting the time lapse. Here is an example of a sunset  time lapse:

  • The ‘real’ sunset (the coolest, most beautiful part of the sunset) will have a duration of 25 minutes.
  • You start the time lapse 60 minutes before the ‘real’ sunset begins.
  • You set your interval to take a picture every 5 seconds. This will give you 12 pictures per minute (= 60/5) and 720 pictures per hour (= 12*60min).
  • You run your time-lapse for a total of 100 continuous minutes. 60 minutes before the ‘real’ sunset, 20 minutes during the sunset and 20 minutes after the sunset. At the end you should have shot 1200 pictures (= 100min*12pics/min).
  • If the rest of your footage was shot in at 30fps, your project’s FCP timeline is set at 30fps. Normally each picture is a frame so you need 30 pictures per second. The sunset time lapse will run for 40 seconds (= 1200/30) of which 24 seconds will be before the sunset, 8 seconds will be the sunset and 8 seconds will be after the sunset (dark).
  • In total you shot for 100 minutes and you got a 40 seconds time-lapse that could have had more handles at the end.

Ideally you want more handles than 8 seconds at the end of the sunset. This will allow you to have longer transitions and more flexibility overall. By shooting for a longer period of time its easy to control the duration of the handles before and after the sunset.

The 24 seconds before the ‘real’ sunset may work as a build up. However, If you want to control the duration of the actual sunset you can take a picture every 2 seconds and that will result in a 100 second time lapse in which the ‘real’ sunset lasts 25 seconds. In conclusion, DO THE MATH!

CAMERA SETTINGS RATIONALE

These are the camera settings that you need to be aware of when shooting a time lapse:

Camera Mode

Camera Mode

Evaluating how the light will change during the time lapse is crucial. Normally you’ll find ‘constant’ light situations (crawling clouds around noon) and variable light situations (sunset or sunrise). If the light is constant throughout your shoot you may use the Manual setting, if the light is variable, you may use the Aperture Priority setting.

Manual: You set the camera’s aperture and shutter speed to specific light conditions. If the scene gets brighter or darker (i.e. the sun goes behind a cloud) the images will respectively get brighter and darker. It works great for time lapses with constant light conditions (in studio, clouds around noon, crawling shadows, etc.) and when you can predict that the light will barely change. With the appropriate settings it can also be used for night situations.

Aperture Priority: You set an aperture value and an exposure compensation value and the camera automatically sets a shutter speed. The camera will adjust the shutter speed to match the light conditions on every shot. This is the setting that is normally used for variable light conditions like sunrise and sunset. Aperture priority, however, is somewhat difficult to use because in low light situations the shutter speed time can be slower that the interval time. At dusk you may have 10 second exposures and your interval time may have been set at 5 seconds… Seemingly, because the camera is making a decision for you, you may get some ‘flickering’ every now and then.

White Balance (WB)

Dial in a light temperature if possible (normally the K option under the WB setting), set a custom WB or pick one of the WB Presets (daylight, tungsten, etc.). Avoid Auto WB or you may get color temperature changes throughout your pictures. You can get creative by choosing certain WB settings to manipulate the color temperature of your pictures.

Image Format and Size

JPEG is the simplest way to go. Shooting JPEG images will allow you to store more pictures than shooting RAW and you wont need to edit them to be able to use them. RAW images, being literally raw photos without no auto-enhancements, should always be processed before used. Processing 1000+ images can be close to a nightmare.

An 18MP large JPG image is around 5100×3400 pixels. This size is 2.6x bigger than a full 1920×1080 HD frame. This will allow you to zoom in 2.6 times or do moves on the actual time lapse…

Picture  Style

Some DSLR cameras have ‘Picture Style’ settings which auto-enhance the contrast, saturation and sharpness of your images. If you are shooting JPG this can be a useful tool to give the time lapses a ‘better’ look. It’s basically doing some color-correction before shooting. The ‘Landscape’ setting will normally adjust the saturation of blues and greens hence making the skies bluer and the mountains greener.

Auto Focus

After getting critical focus, TURN OFF the Auto Focus of the camera. If the camera re-focuses for every shot this will result in weird jumps throughout the time lapse.

Review Time

TURN OFF the review time of the pictures to save battery power. It is important however to look at the first few images of the time lapse to make sure that ‘everything’ is working properly.

Framing

Pictures have a 3:2 aspect ratio while video is normally 16:9 or 4:3. This means that the actual frame that you choose for your time lapse will be cropped to fit the video timeline. Make sure that your composition won’t be affected by this cropping.

Example and Links

‘SKY’ by Phillip Bloom

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  1. limewire
    April 30, 2010 at 2:55 AM

    shoot nice stuff dude.

    • April 30, 2010 at 11:02 AM

      Thanks! I’m missing the section on how to make an actual film clip using Quicktime… anytime…

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