Time lapse photography has occupied my attention for several years. The visual passing of time strikes a chord with the part of me that is in constant daydream mode. With most of my experience coming from video production and not photography I had (and very much still have) a lot to learn. At this point I should mention that when I refer to time lapse I am typically referencing the process of combining numerous photographs into video form as opposed to dramatically speeding up recorded video. I flirted with both and settled on the photography base as my preferred method.
My first foray into the world of time lapse was pretty basic. I started with a fixed camera taking “standard” photos, usually over the course of 30-40 minutes. Nothing special here, but I was trying to convert my video knowledge into basic photography principles. It was fun, but not particularly successful.
What I learned
- You need a really sturdy tripod base. Any vibration or movement will more or less ruin the party.
- Understand the passage of time and how fast your subject moves. Things that move slower require a longer interval between photos to create any effect. Think of a plant growing from a seed. You might have to take one photo every week to notice any difference. ON a busy street corner you could take a photo every 3-5 seconds. The sky is popular component of good landscape time lapse. Keep in mind that an interval of at least 10 seconds is useful to create dynamic cloud movement.
- Understand how long you have to actually run your time lapse. Not being a fan of basic math I struggled with this. For example, pretend you are setup to do a nice landscape time lapse. You reckon since the clouds are slow moving you might want to have an interval of 12 seconds between photos. Going with the assumption that you are going to produce a 24 frames per second video (cinematic standard) it will require 24 still images to make up one second of video. With this information we can figure out how much actual time you need to have your camera running for every second of time lapse video. 12(seconds between photos) X 24(total frames needed for a second of footage) = 288 seconds or a little less than 5 minutes. If you are ever going to use the time lapse for anything you want a time lapse to last on screen for at least 10 seconds (at the very least). So if we extend that information we now have 5(minutes for every second of video) X 10(minimum length of useful video) = 50 minutes! The takeaway here is to plan out your shots, in some cases be prepared to be out there for hours.
Motion Controlled Time Lapse
Naturally after I crawled further into the subject I noticed people making incredible camera movements throughout their time lapses. I was obsessed and had to figure it out. The concepts are all the same, but now you introduce the technique of moving your camera during the interval between photos. Each movement is incredibly subtle, but over the course of the entire time lapse it adds up to, in some cases, a six foot slide or a 180 degree pan.
In order to jump into this technique some additional equipment is required. There are many manufacturers out there so I won’t get into specifics, but you will need a system that will drive the motion of your camera over time including a control system that can program the movement. Some have been able to master this with a simple slider and moving your camera by hand, but human error makes this very difficult. Having this controlled mechanically and by a computer provides a much more consistent result.
(Random example of some time lapse with motion. There are tons of amazing examples on YouTube and Vimeo.)
Motion Control Systems
After spending a lot of time practicing the “vanilla” time lapse and even leaping into some motion controlled projects I was pretty engrossed in the art form. I mention art form because it’s more and more evident to me that you will only get as far as your creative mind will take you. I consider myself fairly well educated in the science of time lapse but to truly get the shots that make you go “wow” you need that left brain point of view. I don’t say this to deter you, but be prepared to crawl on the ground, climb a mountain or do whatever it takes to find that elusive void to make art.
Darryl, another time lapse acolyte in our department, turned me on to the concept of a hyper lapse. Instead of taking tiny movements sliding or revolving around a fixed point (tripod) you move the whole package throughout space. An example of this is approaching an object of note from say a 100 yards away. Between intervals you would move your tripod in a very controlled manner. If done well this creates a “sliding” movement but on a very large scale. This technique becomes another layer of complexity that takes a while to master.
(You can see the hyper lapse concept in a commercial we produced for Oregon State. They create an almost dreamlike feel.)
What I learned
- Planning is even more critical for this kind of move. You want a relatively straight path free of obstacles and hazards. If a car parks itself along your path the party is over. Try to have your move as linear as possible. Since you are mimicking a sliding movement you don’t want to have to bend around a tree or else it breaks the illusion.
- Although you are moving your whole tripod the camera needs to stay locked onto the target. Think of looking through your viewfinder as crosshairs. You want to move your tripod and then re adjust the camera so it is still framed similarly. Using your grid will help with this, but ultimately takes a lot of practice. If you change your framing the video will end up a little insane. (you just have to see for yourself)
- This technique requires some manipulation on the video processing end. Because this is done by a human hand inevitably there will be some wobbles in your path. Using a tool like the warp stabilizer in Adobe Premiere/After Effects does a great job of smoothing out these rough edges.
My love for time lapse photography will always evolve as I learn, but that’s part of the fun. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Night Sky time lapse. Being in Oregon there is always a vista just down the road. Trial and error in one of the most beautiful areas in the world. I could do worse.