Thursday, September 1, 2011

What you need to create time-lapse videos from photos

I got into doing time lapses last year and am hooked, so I wanted to share how I do my time-lapse videos. Here's one I recently did at a preseason NFL game in Detroit so you can see the final product. 

* Intervalometer
* Sturdy tripod
* Digital SLR
* A large memory card 
* Video editing software 

NOTE: you can do a time lapse without an SLR if the point & shoot camera has a built-in intervalometer or if you hack the firmware like I did for my old Canon A700 IS. There are websites that provide the hacking code and how to do this. Here's a link to the one I used for my old point & shoot.  

Assuming you have all the items listed above, the first thing you'll need to know is that time-lapse photography is very labor intensive. Unless your camera is secured so no one will steal it, you'll need to be nearby or next to it for the entire length of your time-lapse shoot. If it's going to take an hour to get the shot you want, then you'll need to be there for an hour. Getting an amazing time lapse is a fantastic feeling and well worth it when you get the final product, but there's a lot that goes into it. Even after you have all the shots, you'll still need to edit the stills in a video editing program and that could take a lot of time.  

An intervalometer is a device that counts intervals of time. It's necessary for creating time lapses. It tells the shutter when to take a picture and then tells it to take another one (and another and another until you tell it to stop) in a certain interval of time (be it every second, every 30 seconds or more).

Some SLRs have built-in intervalometers like the Nikon D90. If not, you'll need to purchase an intervalometer. I suggest getting a third-party brand because the name brands for Canon, Nikon and Sony are really expensive. I currently have three intervalometers and bought all three on eBay out of Hong Kong for $20 with no tax or shipping. Here's a photo of the one I have. Just go to eBay and type in your brand of camera (i.e. Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc...), then intervalometer and you'll find these.

Intervalometer from eBay

The key to make a good time lapse is a tripod or device that will hold your camera steady. Of course if you're looking to do a moving time lapse there are other tripods that are specifically made for movement but are very expensive. I use a Manfrotto tripod for most of my time lapses and all of my night photography. With the head (bought separately) it cost me about $150. There are Monfrotto's out there that cost well over $1,000 but unless your a super professional, that just seems like a waste of money. I also use a Monfrotto clamp (about $35) that I can "clamp" on a fence post or a railing that doesn't use as much space. For the above time lapse of Ford Field, I use the clamp (look below a photo of it). Notice to the right of the camera, I have a bicycle look hooked to the camera body. I attached this with a loop from a key chain to the place where the neck strap is located. You can purchase a dedicated camera lock, but the bicycle lock was $4 compared to the more expensive specific camera lock. 

Camera location for Ford Field time lapse
I'm sure you can do a time lapse with a film camera, but for the Ford Field time lapse I shot over 700 individual images. Assuming you had 36-exposure rolls of film, that would be over 20 rolls. The cost to buy the film then develop it would be well over $200 for just one time lapse. Then you'd need to get the converted to digital anyway to create the time lapse. 

I shoot with three Canon SLR bodies - the 7D, 40D and 20D; but you can use any brand. This time lapse was done with the 40D, but I've done them with all three in the past. I like the 40D because it has Live View, so I can zoom 10 times the distance on the screen to ensure I have tack sharp focus. I've blown the shutter in the 20D twice and the 40D once because of the vast amount of pictures taken in time-lapse photography. Yes, the 7D is a better camera, but I find for time lapses since they are static that either the 40D or 20D has equally good quality. I don't want to risk a blown shutter on the 7D until it happens naturally. 

One thing to note is to turn off your Image Stabilization of you lens if it has it. Stabilization is there to compensate for camera shake, so if there's no camera shake the IS still tries to move to compensate and thus you images might be blurry. If it's a long-exposure of over 1/25 of a second then it will likely be very blurry. If you have a camera that has in-body stabilization like in the SLRs made by Sony and Olympus, you will need to go into your settings and turn this off. For Nikon shooters, Image Stabilization is called Vibration Compensation (VR) is on the lens. 
As mentioned earlier, I've hacked the software for my $100 Canon A700 point & shoot that allowed the camera to do interval shooting and it's worked out well in certain situations. However, if it is at all dark, it will look horrible compared to an SLR due to the sensor size of a P&S being 13 times smaller than that of an SLR. 

I shoot with a Scan Disk Extreme UDMA cards - one 32 GB, two 16 GB and two 8 GB. These are the fastest cards on the market from the most reliable memory card company. I shoot sports and want the fastest record speeds to keep up with my camera. I also shoot in RAW, which is a much larger file so that I can ensure perfect colors and exposures. In the Ford Field time lapse, I used a 16 GB card with the 40D, which is a 10.1 megapixel camera. The RAW files were each around 14.3 MB and I shot 713 photos, so I used 10.2 GB. If I would have shot in large instead of RAW, the files would be about 4 MB each (or 2.85 GB), but I wanted to enrich the colors to make the eventual video pop, so I opted for RAW. You don't need to do this but that's how all of my time lapses are done. 

Having a large card means you can shoot for longer times (assuming your camera battery will last that long). With Canon, I find that it has the longest battery life. In my 7D with the additional battery grip, I've shot 5,000 images before needing to re-charge the batteries. Even with the 20D without a battery grip, I've taken nearly 1,000. Make sure your battery is fully charged and the review time is off - this saves a lot of juice. Next, I always try to figure out how many photos I'm going to take. For time lapses like Ford Field, I like taking a photo every 30 seconds. So you'll need to do a little quick math to ensure you have a large enough card. I set up this one two hours before kickoff and planned on stopping 30-45 minutes after the game. One every 30 seconds = two per minute = 120 per hours. So for 713 shots, it would take 5.9 hours.

To convert the RAW images, I use Breeze Browser which is a great photo browser and RAW converter. Likely when you bought your camera, it came with software from that company to convert RAW images. You can also use Adobe Camera Raw for conversion. 

I really like Breeze Browser because when I bulk convert, I can ask it to go to whatever size I want. For time lapses, I want the files to be as close to 1920x1080 for full-screen HDTVs. The newer entry level SLRs and some P&S cameras have settings that will allow you to shoot stills in full HD, but the higher lever SLRs like my do not do so yet so I need to convert down to this size for a video editing program. I use Adobe Premiere for transforming my stills into video. Premiere won't accept files larger than the screen size you choose (like full HD), so you'll need to bulk convert all of them and Breeze Browser does this fast (I converted all 713 images in less than ten minutes). 

Premiere and Photoshop both have 30-day unlimited use free trials. Breeze Browser does the same for 15 days. If you're a student or know someone that is one that you can use to purchase, you can save significantly if you decided to buy one of these programs. 

Once you've converted all your images to the proper size (or are lucky enough to have a camera that already does that), then you need to import your images into a video editing software like Premiere. There are others out there, but since I had already purchased Adobe CS4, Premiere came with it. I've tried Quicktime Pro that has a feature to allow you to compile images as a video, but since I couldn't put a wordmark on my videos, I'm not using that program anymore. If you don't care about having a small wordmark in the images, then Quicktime Pro is very good and very fast. However, the final product could be very, very large. I did one of the New Meadowlands Stadium that the Giants and Jets play at and it was over 600 MB. The same thing with Premiere was a tenth of that size. 

In Premiere CS4, I select a new project and name it. Then it'll open options for the new sequence. I created a specific one for my time lapses under the custom menu with these options: 29.97 fps, 1920h 1080v (1.000) AVCHD 1080p square pixel. Once the new sequence is opened, I'll import all the images. Once that's done, I select all the images and go to "Clip" on the top menu bar and down to speed/duration. Here, I'll select 00:00:00:01 which will mean that each still image will be shown for one frame of the 29.97 frames per second thus it'll be 30 individual photos shown in the span of one second. 

Next, I'll take the first and last photo and change their duration to two seconds so that the time lapse doesn't just take off from the initial start of the video and abruptly end. I'll then add all the images to "timeline" in the area noted as "Video 1." If I want to add audio, I'll import that next and put it at "Audio 1." I'll next create my wordmark by going to the top menu bar where it says "Title" and creating a "default still" title and placing it on the bottom right corner of "Video 1." 

All that's left is to convert this into an actual video. Go to "File" then "Export" then "Media," which opens the export settings. Make sure everything looks good in the source on the left side then click OK and it'll take you to the encoder. When that comes up just click "Start Queue" and once that's complete; you'll have your completed time lapse that's ready to be uploaded to YouTube, Facebook or your website. 

I hope this helps in your venture into the world of time lapse. Please feel free to comment below. If you're interested in other time lapses, I have them up at There I have the most sports time lapses anywhere else and others of the cities I've visited. 

Here's some of my favorite time lapses that I've created thus far. 


DENVER: 20 Hours in 20 Seconds




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