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Camera settings for Time-lapse photography

With even smart phones now offering a Time-lapse Photography mode, this interesting area of photography is accessible to anyone. For the smooth, professional-looking time-Lapse sequences you see in movies and TV series, you would have to put some thought into how you control your camera – and specifically, your camera settings for time-lapse photography. The smoothness of a time-lapse sequence is mostly dependent on the choice of camera settings … and there is a specific thought-process involved.

This does involve a bit of mathematics, but it is quite simple really. And there are always Time-Lapse Calculators available as apps for your smart phone.

There are a few things we need to be aware of, and decide on before shooting a time-lapse sequence:

How long is the duration of the event we are photographing – sometimes we have a specific duration … sometimes not. In the example above, there is no real duration because there will always be people milling around in Times Square. But other times you might be photographing an event with a specific duration.

The length of the final video clip is also something we need to decide on beforehand.  This of course ties in with the intended use of the video, and whether it will be added to a longer video clip. Generally, 1 minute is really long – Youtube metrics show that people usually click away at around a minute.  So decide whether you need 10 seconds, 20 seconds or 30 seconds, or however long we need.

What kind of subject movement do we have?  i.e., speed and flow of movement. Clouds, water, cars, moving people, etc,  all have slightly different considerations with what will translate best in a Time-Lapse video clip.

These three things:
– duration of the event,
– length of the final video,
– subject movement,
will help determine our shutter speed …. and our interval.

If this all sounds confusing, hang in there – this all locks in together.

The video clip above has several different levels of movement – the clouds, people (static and moving), and traffic. Then on top of that, the camera is moving as well. So there are a bunch of things to juggle here in determining our shutter speed and interval.

Let’s break it down into steps:


Timelapse photography – a complete introduction

As with everything in photography – or as with everything in life really – there is a learning curve. Then you have two options. You can reinvent the wheel, and figure it all out from scratch by yourself … or you can do some homework and study what people before you have done.

There are several websites that are loaded with information – and then there is this thorough primer on the topic, written by Ryan Chilinski: Everything you want to know about Time-Lapse Photography. (Amazon)


Selecting the time-lapse interval

The interval is the length of time between shots.

With that one number – the interval – we control two things:

  • how fast the time-lapse change appears to take place
  • how smooth that action appears on the screen

The ideal is that our shutter speed should be at least 2/3rd of our interval. This will help give us continuity in the movement in our video. When our shutter speed is too short, the video will look jerky – like bad stop-motion. We usually want fluid movement.

Our persistence of vision creates the illusion of continuous, fluid movement. Persistence of vision is what keeps the world from going black when we blink our eyes. Our brains retain the visual image for a short while, to give us a sense of continuity.

For that continuous, fluid look to our video, we need to slow our shutter speed down to be appropriate for our chosen interval. We don’t want that fast shutter look. Invariably, we need to slow our shutter speed down. Now, the first thing that we need to realize here, is that with video, we usually don’t want a fast shutter speed. Here we need to break free from a photographer’s mindset where we often have fast shutter speeds to freeze action. With video, we rarely want crisp individual images. With video, this is explained by the “180 degree rule”, which suggests that our optimum shutter speed is twice our frame rate. However, with Time-lapse, it is slightly different – but we do want that continuous smooth look to our final video.

Next step – we need to decide on the Frame-Rate that the video needs to be compiled with.


Choosing the Frame Rate

How fast should  your clip be played back?  30fps / 24 fps / 25 fps?  Our final decision will be made when we render the video, but it does affect our initial decision about our settings because frame rate affects our calculations.


An example of how we decide on our camera settings:

Scenario: Let’s say we have a cityscape with fast moving clouds.

Let’s say we decide on a 10 seconds clip, to be used in a longer final video. If we want a 10 second clip, it would be wise to add a 2 seconds buffer for fade-in and fade-out (for the video transitions).

Hence, 12 seconds.  Let’s decide on a frame-rate of 30 fps.

How many photos are we going to take?

12 x 30 – 360 frames
Simple as that: 12 seconds at 30 frames a second = 12×30 = 360 frames. We need to shoot 360 frames as a minimum.

Now let’s calculate the interval and shutter speed and the duration of our shoot.

General advice is that clouds need an interval of 1 to 3 seconds. (This, and other subjects are also covered in Ryan Chilinski’s book on  Time-Lapse Photography (Amazon).

So for fast moving clouds, 2 seconds is a good choice.

360 photos at 2 seconds intervals = ??
(720 seconds.)
360 frames * 2 second intervals = 720 second shooting time.
720 seconds = 720 / 60 seconds = 12 minutes.
So we will be shooting for 12 minutes. Our camera is going to fire every 2 seconds, for 12 minutes.

With a 2 second interval, our shutter speed should be about 1.3 or 1.6 seconds. That will give us smooth movement.

That wasn’t so difficult, was it? And as I mentioned, there are Time-Lapse Calculator apps for your phone which will help you juggle these values.

If it wasn’t clear until now, it should be more apparent that we absolutely need Neutral Density filters of some kind to pull our shutter speeds this slow in daylight. The most common options are the 6-stop and 10-stop ND filters.





timelapse NYC

Camera settings used with this Time-Lapse shoot

Times-Square (2017-06-21) : Rotational time-lapse test

The lens was set to f/8 and the ISO was set to 64

Shutter speed: 8 second exposures @ 10 second intervals
approx 2.5 hr event duration. (6:15pm – 8:53pm)
= 940 images

Ramping done manually in post, via Bridge … the hard way. The flickering lights of the displays there in Times Square appear to throw off the ramping device I used on the 2nd camera. So I used the footage shot on the one camera, and then manually did the exposure ramping during post.


Photo gear used with this Time-Lapse shoot




My choice of camera for Time-Lapse Photography

If we consider that 1080p video is only around 2 megapixel resolution, and that even 4k resolution is only approximately 6 megapixel resolution, it might appear that the 36-megapixels of the Nikon D810 camera is overkill. Perhaps, perhaps. But it does allow me a lot of extra wriggle room in post-production. Let’s have a look how this impacted this video clip shown here.

Camera settings and details for this Time-Lapse video clip, shot in Bryant Park for a client.

4 second exposures @ 6 second intervals
f/8 @ 80 ISO
Nikon D810, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 with 10 stop filter
2828 images @ double speed = 47 seconds

Here is the screen capture of the full image. Since I tilted my camera up, there is perspective distortion. Because this was specifically about one of the properties surrounding the park, I had to correct for those leaning buildings.

Correcting for this in post-production of the RAW files, left me with about a 24-megapixel image. Still a lot of detail.

This comes in very handy with the zoom effect that was applied in post-production via Final Cut Pro X. I started off with defining the wide view as a Key Frame, and then I defined a tighter composition as a Key Frame. The final, tighter view is still larger than 2 megapixels. Hence, no loss in resolution as the video zoomed closer!



Camera settings again: our choice of shutter speed

Here is one of the test clips I shot for the client a few days before, to explore different viewpoints, and to help me in confirming my exact camera settings ahead of time.

The first half of this clip was shot with 30 second shutter speed / 45 second intervals;
and you can immediately see how crazily rushed the movement of the clouds look! It might be useful for dramatic effect somewhere, but not in this instance – a more relaxed tempo is needed.

The 2nd half of that clip: 4 second shutter speed / 5 second intervals;
and the tempo is immediately more pleasing to the eye.



This comparison example, clearly shows that we have to put some thought into how we juggle the camera settings for a final result that is visually pleasing.

All of these things:
– the duration of the event,
– length of the final video,
– subject movement,
will help determine our shutter speed and our interval … and ultimately, the success of our time-lapse video.


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