Creating time-lapse videos may seem like a daunting task. You may think that it requires complex workflow and complicated software. The truth is, time-lapse videos can be rather easy to create. In just a few short steps you can get some pretty impressive results. If you have a camera, lens, and tripod, then you already have the photography equipment that is necessary. What's more, you probably already have all the software you really need. In this article, we will take a look at one of the many ways to create time-lapse video. This article will by no means explore all the possible ways to do this. That would make for a really long article. Furthermore, this may not even be the best way to do it. However, it works well and is fairly easy to learn. Once you figure out the basics of this technique, you will be able to create some amazing time-lapse videos in no time.
What is a Timelapse?
I'm assuming that the majority of people reading this have seen time-lapse videos before and have a good understanding of what they are. You may have even created some of your own. For those who are new to time-lapse, it is the technique of taking a series of images over a period of time, then stringing those images together to be played back at a significantly faster rate. In practical terms, a sequence of 240 images that takes one hour to shoot can be mashed together to create a 10 second video.
Photographers try to convey some type of message or feeling with the images they create. However, there are some times and situations where a single still image doesn't quite do the trick. Either that, or we are just looking for new creative ways to express our creative vision. Shooting for time-lapse is one great option for doing that. You may want to show movement in the clouds or stars; express the motion of traffic on a busy street; or maybe chronicle the progress at a construction site. A single image does not do those things.
Shooting Your Timelapse Sequence
I won't go into much detail about the gear you need, camera settings, or compositional aspects of making the images in this article. There are so many variables that it would be difficult to include everything. To keep it really simple, you need a camera capable of manual control, a lens with wide to medium range focal length, and a tripod. Those things, along with a lot of patience, is all you really need to get started. For more information about camera settings and shooting intervals, check out this article by Jim Harmer. There are also numerous video tutorials on-line if you would like more information.
Taking the Photos from Lightroom and Preparing them for Photoshop
I realize that not everyone uses Lightroom and/or Photoshop, and that's fine. As I mentioned before, there are lots of ways to assemble and create time-lapse movies. This just happens to be how I do it, and it has worked well for me so far.
Image Adjustments to all photos before exporting
After capturing the images, they will be imported into Lightroom for some basic adjustments. Things like exposure, recovering highlight or shadow detail, clarity, and sharpness will be tweaked to create the look that you want. The key is to select a good base image to work with to make the necessary adjustments. Then, select all of the remaining images and synchronize the settings across the entire sequence. It is important to keep exposure changes at a minimum from image to image to avoid “flicker” in the final time-lapse video. This is fairly easy to do if you are shooting during times when there is little change in the light. However, this becomes more complicated when there are significant changes in ambient light, such as shooting at sunset into the night or from the darkness through sunrise. For situations where the ambient light changes dramatically, you will need to use a technique known as bulb ramping, or ‘bramping'. With this technique, camera settings are changed while shooting to compensate for lighting changes. There are several ways to do this, but that is for another article.
Exporting from Lightroom (Before import to Photoshop)
Once you have the images the way you want, it is time to export them. To do this, select all the images then go into the ‘File' menu and choose ‘Export'. This brings up the export dialogue box. From there, you choose where you want to save the images (I usually create a folder on my desktop so that I know right where to find them later), image size, and format. I would recommend just exporting as medium-sized JPEGs. As you'll see later, it is important that the image names include a consecutive numbering sequence. You may not need to make any changes, since the camera will name the files with consecutive numbers by default. However, if the sequence is somehow interrupted, make sure to change this upon export. Something like “timelapse_001”, “timelapse_002”, and so on, works just fine. If necessary, you can change the file names under, you guessed it, the ‘File Naming' section.
After selecting all of the settings, click the ‘Export' button to send the images to the designated folder. Go have a sandwich, wash the car, walk the dog, and maybe do a little shopping while waiting for Lightroom to complete this task.
How to Create the Timelapse in Photoshop
Now that you have a folder of images, it is time to jump into Photoshop to create the time-lapse. The ability to edit video was introduced in Photoshop CS6 and has carried over into the Creative Cloud versions. Unfortunately, earlier versions of Photoshop aren't going to have these features.
Step 1: Import the Image Sequence
Once in Photoshop, go to the ‘File' menu, choose ‘Open', and navigate to the folder with your images. Select only the first image in the sequence. At the bottom of the dialogue box, click on ‘Image Sequence'. If you don't see this box, click “options” on the left, then you'll see the box for “image sequence.” This is why it is important for the image files to be numbered consecutively. After choosing the first image and clicking on the image sequence box, clicking ‘Open' will import the images into Photoshop as a time-lapse video file. If there are gaps in the sequence, then there will be segments of the time-lapse video with a blank screen.
After clicking to open the images in Photoshop, you will be prompted to select a frame rate. Clicking the dropdown arrow will reveal a number of options. I typically select 24 fps for the cinematic look; however, the frame rate can be changed later, so it's not hugely important at this step.
Opening the image sequence in Photoshop will create a video layer, which is indicated by the filmstrip icon on the layer thumbnail. In order to see the video clip, go to the ‘Window' menu and select ‘Timeline'. In the timeline, you can customize the duration of the video clip, watch a preview, or even add still images, complete with transitions. There are tons of features and possibilities.
Exporting the Time-Lapse Video from Photoshop
After making all the video edits, or even if you make no changes at all, you can export the time-lapse video. To export the video, go the File>Export>Render Video. In the Render Video dialogue box, you will choose a name for your video, point to the location where you want it saved, and select the format and size for the video. I typically go with the H.264 format and high quality. You can also change the frame rate at this point, although I usually stick with 24 fps.
Set Things in Motion
Perhaps you want to add a little more “something” to your time-lapse videos. Something that will make the video more interesting and dynamic. Everyone has probably seen those time-lapse sequences that are shot on elaborate (and expensive) rail systems. A rail system is a motorized mount for your camera that moves very slowly in a specified direction as the images are captured. When played back as a time-lapse sequence, the video not only shows movement of objects in the scene, but the camera pans across (or forward, or back) through the scene. It's a really cool effect that gives videos a more cinematic look.
If you want to give this a try, but don't want to invest in the gear to do it, you can actually do this in Photoshop. Yes, it is ‘faking' it and may not be quite as smooth and organic as using a rail system, but it's still fun to play with. Here's how you do it.
All of the steps remain the same for taking your images through Lightroom and opening the image sequence in Photoshop. However, there are a few extra steps that need to be taken to make this work.
Change Canvas Size
Since the finished video will be panning across the scene, you will need to give Photoshop somewhere to go. Select the ‘Image' menu and choose ‘Canvas Size'. A window will pop up showing you the current canvas size and give you options for changing it. The units will probably be in inches by default, but I change that to pixels. The goal will be to decrease the canvas size by about 20% to give Photoshop some image pixels outside the canvas size to use while panning. In the example below, I exported the image out of Lightroom with a long edge of 2400 pixels. The canvas size was decreased to 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high. That gives a 16:9 ratio, which is perfect for viewing on a wide-screen TV or monitor. Click OK and you will notice that the image size appears to be smaller on your screen. However, the image size is the same, it's just that the viewing area (canvas size) is smaller. Using the move tool, you can pan around your image and see that there is area to the left, right, top, and bottom that is outside of the canvas area.
Convert to Smart Object
In the timeline, you may have noticed that clicking on the little triangle in the upper right corner of the film strip gives you options to change the duration and speed of the video. What you want is to change these to ‘Motion' options. In order to have the ability to add motion to your time-lapse, you will first need to convert the image sequence to a smart object. To do this, right click on the video layer and select ‘Convert to Smart Object'. When you do this, a couple of things will happen. The little film strip icon on the layer thumbnail will change to the smart object icon. Also, the film strip color in the timeline will change from blue to purple.
After converting the layer to a smart object, the fly-out arrow on the right side of the film strip will give you the ‘Motion' options you will need. Note that there are several options, including pan, zoom, rotate, and combinations of these three. I selected ‘Pan' only for my project, then set the pan angle to 180 degrees to indicate that I wanted to pan from left to right.
After making the changes to your time-lapse, you can preview in by pressing the play button in the upper left of the timeline, or just press the space bar. Depending on how fast your computer is, it may take some time to render the preview the first time through. Once you are satisfied with your creation, export it as before.
Wrapping It Up
As you can see, there are lots of options and some powerful tools in Photoshop (version CS6 and later) for working with video. Time-lapse videos are fun to create and can be a nice change from working with still images. It does take a lot of careful planning for setting up the shots and patience as you wait for the image sequence to complete. Hopefully this article will convince you that once you do get the shots, creating the time-lapse isn't too difficult. The most time-consuming part of the process is waiting for Lightroom to export your images, but all of us Lightroom users are learning to deal with the snail-like pace of the software. Give this a try, even if it's just a hundred images or so of the clouds blowing by.
Just One More Thing
It's difficult to write an article like this without using lots of screenshots to walk through the steps. Unfortunately, screenshots are not as interesting to look at as actual photos or the time-lapse videos that I'm writing about. I have uploaded a few time-lapse sequences to my Youtube channel if you would like to check them out. Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know in the comments if you have questions.