In this tutotrial I’ll share my preferred way of capturing timelapses. I’m going to stay away from “day to night” or “night to day” techniques(also called the holy grail) since these are fairly advanced and can be overwhelming when starting out. We won’t be shooting any video, instead we will capture the scene with photographs. The only extra piece of gear we’ll need is an intervalometer. These can be found in camera shops and online. I don’t have a preference for which brand is best, the main thing you need to double check is that the intervalometer comes with the correct camera control cable. This is the cable that will connect with the intervalometer and tell your camera when to take a photo(if possible have two cables on hand, cables will mess up at the worst time). On the software side of things this does require more specific and expensive items but I’ll cover that part after the scene has been shot.
Starting out, make sure the camera is on a tripod with the pan and tilt locked so the footage doesn’t shake, wobble, or drift. The first decision to make is whether to shoot .jpg or raw. I always shoot in raw if at all possible. Raw gives much more room to really manipulate the colors and brightness in post than .jpegs do, however raw images use up way more card space than .jpgs. When you see just how much better raw images look the advantages to raw make the larger file sizes a non issue.
Once you’ve figured out the composition for the shot and you’ve gone with either raw or .jpeg the next step will be set up the intervalometer with the number of shots to take and how many seconds to wait between taking the next photo. If there are fast moving clouds I’ve found shooting once every five to seven seconds works out pretty well. If there are no clouds around and you want to show shadows moving across the ground one photo a minute works out alright except for sunrise and sunset. Be prepared to stay in a spot for at least two hours if recording shadows moving. Staying in a spot for this length of time is necessary because you would only capture 120 photos and if editing at 24 frames per second(the same number of frames per second most movies are shown) you will have a timelapse of five seconds. Recording moving shadows is somewhat risky because if clouds do show up and block the sun the shot is pretty much ruined and a significant amount of time has been wasted.
After setting the intervalometer up we move on to picking our exposure. I always choose to shoot in manual exposure mode if I will be around the camera. Manual exposure is prefered over aperture or shutter priority because cameras can be easily fooled into making a scene too bright or dark if a cloud passes in front of the sun. Most of the time setting the manual exposure to negative one EV(exposure value) works out pretty well but you really need to make sure nothing in the scene is overexposed to the point of pure white, or only have a very small portion of the scene pure white like just a small percentage of clouds. If nothing is blown out in scene you will want the camera shooting as close to blowing stuff out as possible to try and keep noise out of the shadows. Everything should now be ready to go, double check focus and then have the intervalometer start controlling the camera.
After the desired number of photos have been taken the post production process starts. A good length of time I’ve found for each clip in a timelapse montage is five seconds, so try to capture at least 120 photos if editing at 24 or 23.976 frames per second. The advice for five second clips is for a pretty fast edit, if your video will have a slower pace plan accordingly and take more photos.
Some cameras make new folders if there are over a certain number of photos taken and your timelapse will be spanned over these folders. All the photos will need to be in one folder on your hard drive before going any further. For editing I use Adobe Production Premium CS6. Out of all the programs in the suite I’ll use After Effects for this tutorial, but for “holly grail” timelapses more programs are required.
Start out by opening After Effects. With the program open, Click on “File” >” Import” > “File…”
Select the first photo of the timelapse, then click on the “Force Alphabetical Order” check box, finally click “Open”
A window with your photo should open like this.
If you shot in raw making sure to barely blow your highlights out or get close to blowing them out the photo will probably look underexposed. This was to be expected since the sky is usually brighter than the ground. Check out the sliders to the right of the photo. Bring the slider that says “Highlights” to the left and the slider that shows “Shadows” to the right. Play around with the rest of the sliders and see just how much power there is to manipulate the look of the image. In the photo below is my final color correction to the image…it’s a really big difference compared with what I started with. If I can avoid fixing things in post I’m usually for it, but when shooting landscapes there’s rarely a good way around fixing it in post.
Once happy with the color correction click on “OK” in the lower right of the “Camera Raw” window.
This next step is difficult to explain through words so I’ve included a picture going through the steps. Note that this is going for a “film” look at 23.976 frames per second. If you are looking for a more video look this can be changed to 29.97 frames per second in NTSC countries or 25fps in Pal areas. If you’ve never really noticed the difference in the ways movies look compared to a soap opera try both the 23.976 version then the 29.97 version. The results are pretty cool.
Now that the footage is at the desired frame rate click anywhere on the timeline. This tells After Effects that we want to work with what’s on the timeline. To export the sequence so that we can view it in real time click on. “Composition” > “Add to Render Queue”.
Now we set up our settings for the export. The settings I’m about to go through aren’t what I usually use in my timelapses, but they are good to quickly see how your timelapse will turn out while keeping the render at HD resolution and also a fairly small file size.
It’s not uncommon to have a render take 20 or more minutes for a 10 second clip even on a high end computer. When the render finally finishes, find out where your timelapse was saved to and watch it in your preferred media player.
The steps I’ve gone through are just the basics for what goes into most every timelapse shot with raw. It’s somewhat involved but I’ve found that this method generally provides better results than shooting video and speeding it up later. After working with timelapses for over a year I don’t think it’s easier to shoot or process the images. Both take a while to master and are repetitive and tedious tasks. On more advanced timelapses it’s easy to spend more time processing a timelapse than shooting one. I find processing of the images to be more enjoyable than shooting most of the time. When shooting in real time you kind of have an idea of how things will look but it’s not until you reach the post side where you see if you created something cool or not. It’s kind of like Christmas morning, you’re excited to see what you’ve got.