Tips on Timelapse

A collection of timelapses shot over the last year by myself, using my modest photographic equipment: a Canon 350d (Rebel XT), a Canon EF 35-105mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, and a Sigma EF-S 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. Most were shot in Raw, and especially the cloud sequences have extensive post color correction.

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The music is Buralta by Fedaden, off of his new LP Broader ( is the only place that has it in lossless, and it costs a ridiculous $25).

I shot my first timelapse a little more than a year ago. Above is a compilation of the best ones that I’ve created. I have learned a few things about timelapse:

1). Shutter angle in timelapses is very important. In stop motion animation, the strobing look of objects moving without motion blur is part of its visual aesthetic (except when counteracted by techniques such as Go Motion). In timelapse, since the subjects move by themselves, very filmic results can be achieved. The trick is to think about shutter angle, and to adjust your camera’s settings accordingly. Tyler Ginter wrote a more in-depth post about the technical and aesthetic considerations of Shutter Angle, but my description of it in application to timelapse follows.

Most films are shot with what is called a 180º shutter angle of a rotary shutter. This means for every frame, the exposure time is about half of the frame interval. Traditional film runs at 24 frames per second, so the time interval between each frame for both capture and display is 1/24th of a second. At a 180º shutter angle, each frame of film is exposed for 1/2 that time, or 1/48th of a second. This produces a level of motion blur that we as an audience are familiar with and are quite aware of as an innate aspect of our viewing experience, even if we don’t understand what we are seeing technically. The blurring of moving objects mimics the way our eyes see (just try flailing your hand around in front of your face), and helps the space between frames disappear, producing a pleasant illusion of movement. If you are shooting a timelapse of some clouds, and your frame interval is 2 seconds, your exposure time should then be about 1/2 of that, or 1 second.

Of course increasing or reducing your shutter angle has dramatic perceptual effect, which should be fully understood, and used carefully. Two dramatic examples of this are Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypto. Saving Private Ryan used a “narrow” shutter angle of 90º or even 45º for some combat shots, for a shorter exposure time and less motion blur on each frame, to produce a dramatic strobing effect, which accentuates the violence and physical proximity of the images. ( This effect is quite apparent in the final battle scene from the film ). Using a very short exposure duration interrupts a natural viewing experience.

If you take exposure too far on the other side of a “normal” shutter angle, strange results can occur. Many people who saw Apocalypto in the theater were confused about how some scenes looked like they were “shot on video”. They had a very fluid and “lifelike” motion aesthetic, which evoked “soap opera” or “news footage”. In addition to media being shot at higher framerates like 30i (NTSC DV), or 60p (capable by some HD cameras), this perceptual effect can occur at 24 frames per second if the shutter angle is set to be 360 degrees. Normally this setting would be impossible in a conventional film camera, but the shutter mechanisms of digital cinema cameras such as the Panavision Genesis easily allow the shutter duration to equal the frame interval. Some other movies that are afflicted with this problem are 2012 (shot by Dean Semler, the same DoP as Apocalypto), as well as Public Enemies (360º shutter is clearly visible at 00:58 in Trailer 1).

2). Make your shot look good as a compelling still photograph should before turning it into a timelapse. Composition counts doubly as much in Timelapse than in still photography. This should probably be pretty obvious, but it took me a while to realize, and even longer to implement properly. If you shoot a still photograph with bad or uninteresting composition, you can always stop looking at it, or move on to the next photo you shot. Viewing timelapse, you will be looking at a static composition for the duration of the shot, unless you have a motorized tripod head, or a motion-controlled dolly system. Make a conscious effort to take test shots and make sure your composition is spot-on, before you start shooting frames. Once you start shooting, the best plan is to walk away from your camera until the quantity of time you have calculated will be sufficient to get as many frames as you need. 15 seconds, or 360 frames is probably the minimum duration desirable for a single shot, depending on what you are shooting for.

3). Preplanning is just as important in timelapse as in animation. It is distinctly valuable to analyze the motion of the subject you are shooting, and determine what the best choices for achieving the result you want. Adjust your frame capture interval based on what you are shooting, and adjust your shutter speed accordingly in order to achieve the amount of motion blur you want. Try to imagine what the final timelapse will look like before you shoot anything, and think about how you could make it better.

4). Have fun, because timelapse is awesome, and can visualize movement in a completely novel way compared to our normative perceptions.

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    That was ridiculous. You could actually sell this to stock footage…

  • Ben

    Nice reel!
    Thanks for sharing your insights here. I’ve been experimenting with timelapse photography for a little while now and know how hard it is to get everything right. Thanks for the technical explanations too.