A Complete Guide to Time Lapse Photography

Time lapse photography is when a photographer takes several hundred pictures while locked down on a tripod over the course of about half an hour.  Then, the pictures are replayed in fast forward so time is compressed.  You have undoubtedly seen time lapse videos before, but you may not be sure how to do it.  Have no fear…  this handy little guide will show you how.

How far apart should the pictures be?

I know people hate it when I give the “it depends” answer, but in this case it totally depends on the situation.  If I am standing on top of a high mountain and the clouds are moving quickly, I will set my camera to take a picture every 2 seconds.  If I'm just taking a picture of a sunrise, I'll often set the camera to 8 seconds between pictures.  The key here is to choose a time that won't be too many pictures for the time lapse, but enough pictures that your time lapse lasts more than 15 seconds (like my sad one in the video above).

How do I get my camera to take a timelapse?

“It depends”  Okay… this time I was just joking with the “it depends”… except it really does depend.  Some cameras have timelapse functions built straight into the camera, and other cameras need some help to be able to take a timelapse automatically.

Time Lapse on a Nikon Camera

Step 1: Click Menu > Shooting Menu > Interval Timer Shooting.

Step 2: Then, you have a series of options.  You can delay the start of the timelapse by setting a timer, or you can press the right arrow to start one now.

Step 3: The next screen asks you to decide how long you want the camera to wait between pictures.  Decide how many hours, minutes, and seconds between shots and dial it in.  The formatting on this screen is really funky, but you'll want to put in the number of seconds between shots in the second set of numbers (of the three sets).  This is to choose hours, minutes, and seconds between shots.  For a general timelapse, you might choose 00:05′ 00″.

Step 4: After pressing the right button to get to the next option for your timelapse, you see a screen asking how many shots to take total, and how many pictures to take between intervals.  So, the first number is how many total shots you want in the timelapse.  I always set this to 999 (the highest you can choose) because I can just stop the timelapse at any time when I decide I have enough shots.  The next number is how many pictures you want the camera to take between intervals.  For this number, choose ONE.   So, it will look like this: 999 x 1 = 0999.

Step5: Now click to the right to get to the next option.  This one is easy, just go up to START and your timelapse will begin immediately.

Time Lapse on a Canon Camera

Sorry, you're out of luck (sorta).  This is one of my major complaints about Canon cameras.  Canon is usually very slow to add in little features like timelapse, GPS, and bracketing more than 3 photos.  It was irritating…. so I switched to Nikon.

Anyway, Canon doesn't have timelapse functionality built into their cameras.  Your only options are to (1) be extraordinarily patient and sit there for 30 minutes pressing the shutter at regular intervals, or (2) buy a cable release that has time lapse functionality built-in,like this one for $25.

How Do I Process the Pictures Into a Time Lapse?

There are more than a dozen ways to do this.  What I usually do is bring in all the photos into Lightroom and select all the photos.  Then, I'll apply the edits that I want applied to every picture (contrast, vibrance, sharpening, etc).

Next, I output the pictures as a smaller size (no sense creating a file larger than 1080p) since video resolution is much smaller than the resolution of most photos.  Once I output all the photos into a folder in a smaller size, it's time to put the whole thing together.  There are many programs that can do this, but the easiest is actually by using free software from Google called Picasa.  Once you download it, just check out this easy tutorial for how to create a timelapse in Picasa.

If you're on a Mac, you can still use Picasa, but many people choose Quicktime Pro for putting together time lapse videos.

Where to Find Good Music For Timelapse Videos

I've been very frustrated with a lot of the stock music companies because most of them don't allow the music you purchase to be used in commercial projects, or they limit the number of listens to something like 50,000.  That doesn't work for me because I may create a cool timelapse that goes viral on Youtube and then I'd violate the terms of the license.  I've been really happy with Audioblocks.com, though.  You pay a low fee per year and can download as much as you want and they don't have crazy restrictions.  Some good music too.

Tips for Better Time Lapse Videos

Tip #1: Choose a subject that is stationary.  Notice in the video above that the boats were moving wildly?  When I took the video, I didn't notice any movement in the boats but they obviously move quite a bit over time.  The same is true of trees.  Carefully choose a subject that won't be distracting.

Tip #2: Decide what exposure mode to use.  Most people recommend shooting in manual mode so that the exposure doesn't change between shots.  I have used this with success in most situations, but there are times that I shoot aperture priority when the lighting conditions will be changing (like a sunrise), and I honestly don't see any problems with the exposure changing between shots.

Tip #3: Make sure you shoot more than you think you need.  Do the math and remember that a 25 second clip will require 30 minutes of shooting if you shoot one shot every 12 seconds.  Since most videos play back at 24 frames per second, you're going to need a LOT of pictures!

Tip #4: Don't burn up your shutter!  Most DSLR cameras are only rated at 150,000 shutter activations before the shutter breaks.  Taking a lot of timelapse videos can kill your camera, so you might want to use your cell phone instead.  The quality isn't AS good, but it's still really good for stills that are going to go into a video.  I use an app on my Android phone and it takes really nice timelapses.  Here's an article I wrote with info on how long your DSLR shutter will last.

33 thoughts on “A Complete Guide to Time Lapse Photography”

  1. Actually, Canon cameras DO have that option. I had (it died of old age a few weeks ago) a Canon Powershot S1 IS that had the time lapse option. I tried it out a few times just for fun, but never did create a time lapse. Now I wish I had!

  2. You can use the EOS Utility to take multiple pictures at your desired interval. Only problem you have to hook up your computer.

    You can also use Image Capture in OS X Lion not sure if its new feature in OS X Lion.

    1. Yes, I have been useing MagicLantern for a while.

      It’s an amazing software.

      Must to have for all Canon users.

  3. Well, a modern camera like the 7D or 5D Mk 2 can make around 150’000 shutter releases before the shutter breaks (not thew whole camera).
    The shutter can be replaced for around 250$. So, that isn’t a very expensive price to pay for many timelapse, pictures you can do during a propably large time.
    It’s more likely that you already have bought a new camera body in the mean time.

  4. Hi Jim,
    Got a question: If I start taking time-lapse pictures in Manual mode of my Canon Rebel XS DSLR, then do I have to manually adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO (considering I would want to take a 24 hour timelapse)? Or Should I just leave it when set first time and continue in that mode? What about taking pictures in Full auto mode (with flash off)?

    Recommendations? Advice?


  5. Hey there, thanks for the tips! One question, though- I’ve got a Nikon, but I can’t find the interval timing option anywhere. Thoughts?

      1. Steven Richardson

        There is no time-lapse feature on the D3100. You’ll have to buy an intervalometer to do TL photography

  6. I have a nikon D610 camera and made my first time laps movie with it. I shot the norhtern lights in Iceland but now i think the time frame should be longer, the movie is quite short and the aurora and clouds are moving to fast. Do you know if i can change a movie that was made with the incamera time laps function afterwards?

  7. I’m looking for a time lapse camera that will allow manual photos to be taken and played back as a video, similar to walt disney taking a series of stills, or Wallace and Grammit who move plasticine models and take stills, then playback at 25 frames/sec.
    Normal time lapse as well would be useful but not essential as well as normal stills.
    High quality is not absolutely essential so any of the cheap end can be considered, say more than 3 mpix.
    Any Suggestions.

  8. I have Sony DSC Hx 50
    can I take timelaps photography? vedio?
    how can this possible. please guide me

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