[Lessons Learned] Time-lapse Photography

Random Observation/Comment #411: Life is about trying new things and retrying old things. I guess life is just about trying? No, that’s too complicated. Life is about not thinking about trying.

see lemons time lapse

Time-lapses are a series of photos that are strung together and then sped up to condense something like 700 photos into 12-seconds of video. What you’re left with is those awesome Planet Earth shots that show sunrise and sunset across the lands while flowers bloom right before your eyes.  Beautiful stuff and not entirely out of your skill set (if you have some money and free time).

My colleague introduced me to time-lapse photography through one of his photography discussions at work.  After seeing how he makes his stunning videos going through NYC night life and some other random clock series, I started seeing time-lapses everywhere (mainly because I was watching a lot of House of Cards).  Being crazy and having a free hour after work, I decided to try my own.  Here is my setup and some lessons learned.

Things I Used:

  • DSLR (Nikon D5100) – this is the camera I’m most familiar with
  • Lens (Nikkor 35mm f/1.8) – I would recommend using something more wide angle (see below)
  • Fast SDCard (SanDisk 32GB 45MB/s – $30.53 on Prime) – I think a faster and larger card will help with all these continuous shots
  • Tripod (Dolica 60” Proline– $40) – inexpensive, well-made, and reliable for all my purposes. This is obviously necessary because you need it to be steady for the 300+ shots you’ll be taking
  • Intervalometer (RainbowImaging LCD Timer Remote Control – $28.99 on Prime) – unless you’re pressing the button manually, which is not recommended.

Learning by Doing: To be honest, I just went out and did it. I stood there looking at the manual for the intervalometer for 15 minutes like an idiot, but I did it.  And more importantly, I learned something the good old fashion way. Note that I did not do any calculations in the beginning and just decided to wing it.

  • Scene picking:
    • Remember that time-lapses are a series of photos strung together, so you need to choose somewhere that doesn’t have too much movement. If it does have a lot of movement, you’ll need to take smaller interval frames or have a location where the object stays within the frame for a long distance so you can follow it throughout the scene (e.g. people walking a city street during rush hour with the camera pointing down from above to see full trails).
    • Taking a self-portrait photo every day can also turn into a time-lapse.
    • I chose the Shake Shack line in Madison Square Park because it was close-by to work and convenient.
  • Tripod setup:
    • Frame your shot so that you can keep as many people in frame as possible. If it’s a line, get the entire line so you see people moving along it.
    • Make sure you’re in a spot that isn’t too heavy in traffic or else people will walk in front of your camera and totally block your shot.
  • DSLR Settings:
    • Shooting mode: Manual
    • Focus: Manual, focused on the line area
    • Quality: JPG (Choose Medium if you have a smaller SDcard)
    • ISO: manually set (outside I just did 100 on a sunny day)
    • White balance: manually set (sunny)
    • F-stop: I did F9 because I generally wanted more people to be in focus
    • Exposure: I set 1/40 only because I wanted to see people blur a bit. Also, dragging your exposure like this will make the movie seem smoother.
  • Intervalometer Settings (with the RainbowImaging LCD Timer Remote Control)
    • DE: 00:00’:00” – this is the timer. It will take a photo when the time is up
    • BU: 00:00’:00” – this is the exposure time. You can increase the time set for exposures if you set the Exposure to “BULB” (slowest exposure possible)
    • INT: 00:00’:04” – this is the interval timer so you can take the photo every INT seconds until the N photo counts are taken
    • N: – – (infinite) – this is the number of photos that the intervalometer will take. I set it as infinite because I just timing manually.
  • Shooting and Waiting:
    • I stood there waiting and looking at my phone as it continuously took a photo every 4 seconds for 45 minutes. Obviously people came by, but they didn’t really ask questions.
  • Post Production:
    • I used Photo Lapse 3 found here. It very simply did everything for me.
    • To make sure this didn’t take forever, I also shrunk the photos down to a smaller resolution (640)
  • Result:

Lessons Learned:

  • Don’t forget that it may get darker while you’re taking your photo. In my case, the sun was setting while I was watching the Shake Shack line move, so it started from bright to dark in a very uneven way.  Extreme changes in lighting like this are very hard to capture in time-lapses and I should have chosen something more consistent.
  • Night time-lapses can be very cool especially if you catch taxis stopping and going and creating streaks with the stoplights.
  • Planning the scene is extremely important. Consider subjects with cloudy days, semi-still water, parties, and anything with clocks.

I can’t wait to do my next time-lapse shoot! It’s certainly a nice sub-section of photography that blends snapshots with video.

~See Lemons Time Lapse