Making Time Lapse Photography Work

let’s look at time lapse photography and ways to help improve your skills, and quickly move on to 10 specific steps to improve your time lapse sequences.

SABINO RESTORATION: This brief sequence was done in Mystic, Connecticut as a team restores a turn-of-the-century steamboat.


If a still photograph is a single note, a time lapse clip is like a musical score. Each note must blend into the composition.

The toughest part of time lapse imaging is the creative act of choosing what you want in the scene, trying to anticipate the conditions, and deciding how long you want your final lapse to be. The key question to ask is: how much time do I have to make my time lapse? 


Time Lapse Photography clips


Time Lapse Photography Clips – Things That Work And Things That Don’t

My two most common errors are first, forgetting to fully charge the camera battery, and second, not checking my CF/SD memory cards to ensure they have enough space.

The next three time lapse experiments show mistakes I’ve made. I find it helps to write down a checklist to avoid repeating mistakes when producing a time lapse clip.

TL1. SUNRISE OVER BAY. In this first sequence, I chose the wrong settings. With an aperture of 1.8, and ISO 4000, the highlights were blown out. The old wharf was a main subject and, due to the wrong aperture of 1.8, it was out of focus.


  1. TL2. KAYAKS. In this second sequence, the clip lacks mise en scène; there is nothing of interest happening in the scene to tell a story or set the mood.

TL3. SPIDER WEB. Here I miscalculated the focus on the web. None of the detail of the spider web is clear because I did not focus on it, a breeze  rocked the spider’s web.



What will be in your background?  What direction are the stars, moon, and sun going to move? Choose a location that is dry, stable and safe for your gear if conditions should change. I like to start by framing elements that are 30 feet or more away, with an aperture of f/4 or so.


Make sure to double check that your tripod legs are down and solid so your camera will stay stable even in strong winds. If you have them, use sandbags to weight down the tripod. Gitzo carbon fiber tripods are a pro favorite for their combination of weight and stability. A tripod must be sturdy enough to compensate for camera vibration and wind movement.


An expensive lens is not necessary. Use any lens that covers the action, and preferable a lens shade. I prefer a 20 mm wide angle but different focal lengths are determined by your subject matter. Always set manual focus because you do not want the camera to hunt in autofocus.

4. CAMERA Calculations.

I use a Nikon D810 because it has an automatic time lapse movie setting. The dimensions are 1920 by 1080p for the Nikon’s .MOV file format. A twenty minute sequence takes about 20 megabytes in file size when the frame rate is set to 59 frames per second.

The Nikon’s in-camera time-lapse mode, H.264, is a commonly used video compression format for easy recording and distribution. This format is ideal for sharing and browsing via web, cell phone and mobile devices.

Oddly enough, the camera’s LCD does not show the true dimensions of the actual time lapse, because time lapse footage produces a cropped frame size. It crops the frame on the top and bottom, compared with what we see on the LCD.

We can solve this by previewing the actual dimensions of the final time-lapse. Set the camera to Video mode, and enable Live View. Once in Live View, take a test still photo by pressing the shutter button. The captured image will be cropped to the 16:9 format. I always disable Live View before starting a time lapse. Post production is done in Adobe Premiere.

Many camera models are time lapse capable, from Go Pro, Canon, Sony and others. For instance, a company called Brino makes a simple time lapse camera under $350.

5. EXPOSURE Settings.

Set the quality to RAW for flexibility in post.

If you can only shoot in JPEG, you may develop a JPEG time lapse workflow, especially if a) you don’t have RAW processing software, b) if you have limited memory space or c) are just sharing the final clip to low resolution social media.

Longer exposures make for smoother nature scenes. Shorter exposure times make choppier-looking clips that fit with construction site time lapses like the Sabino steamboat restoration above.

If you need long exposures but have bright conditions, a Tiffin 77 mm attenuator/ blender filter (1.2 density for about $170 USD) makes for a constant exposure range across the frame by darkening the skies during sunrises or bright conditions.


Select a White Balance other than Auto to match your scene (Cloudy, Bright Sunlight, Tungsten/Flourescent). Next, set the total length (Duration) of your time lapse. Then, set the number of intervals and the number of shots per interval.


Look in your camera menu to enable  exposure smoothing. Exposure smoothing means that when lighting conditions change, at sunrise or sunset, the camera automatically adjusts exposures to match the prior shot, which evens out the look of captures through the entire clip so there is no flicker of light with different exposure settings in the final movie sequence.


Turn Auto ISO off and set a specific ISO.


Select a custom setting in the camera menu to sound a Beep when the capture sequence is over, as the surrounding noise can make it difficult to hear when the camera stops clicking.


Professional time lapse sequences often let you move the camera smoothly, to add another dimension to the clip. The SYRP Genie Motion Control Kit allows both panning and linear motion control for time lapses taken on a tripod or rail or on your own homemade linear support system. If you need a rail, check out SYRP’s magic short track rail. It’s portable.

As always, thanks for your comments on this time lapse photography tutorial .

APM Jim Austin JImages Bio 2016

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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