Time-lapse Photography - The Basics

Don't you just love those epic passage of time videos? Watching a tree come into leaf, a flower open or close, crowds in a busy marketplace, a house being built in just a few seconds are all fascinating and engaging.

For years I've wanted to try some of this and I've finally decided to give it a go and see what I can produce. Once you get an idea, you first try and make use of whatever equipment you have to hand and give it a try. I have a good DSLR and can make a video of still images so that seems like a good place to start, but in this post I'll explore some of the other options that I've decided to experiment with.

I'm also doing this on a budget. Firstly because I don't want to invest a fortune into equipment I may not use much and secondly because I believe that you can get a bigger sense of achievement from doing it economically. I think it's easy to get great results when you have no budget limit and take more pleasure from getting a good result from minimal expenditure.

My Equipment List

My DSLR - Pentax K3

This has been my main camera for a couple of years now. Frankly, I can't afford to change it, I'm comfortable with it and it works very well. It is a semi-professional model. This sounds imposing, but it just means that it has a few more buttons and dials than a basic model and a few more options in the menus to control things to a higher degree.

Coincidentally, it has an option to use a repeating timer to take stills periodically. This is exactly what we need for time-lapse and it's versatile and powerful.

My Action Camera

As detailed in my article on Action Cameras, I have an IceFox 1080P action camera that was designed to record action sports and immersive event video. It doesn't do time-lapse, although some similar cameras actually do have the appropriate settings.

It is small, discreet, comes with a weatherproof housing and can be powered externally. Use it to take video for several hours and this can be sped-up to produce a time-lapse effect.

A Time-lapse Camera

This is my latest addition, a Brinno TLC200 Time-lapse camera. These are designed to automatically make a time-lapse video by taking a single frame periodically. They have the advantage of battery life measured in days or even weeks rather than minutes or hours. Again, a weatherproof housing makes them suitable for indoor or outdoor use and they can be left unattended for long periods with complete confidence.

The Extras

I've a Gorilla-Pod bendable tripod for my main camera and a couple of budget ones for the lighter, smaller cameras. These allow me to place a camera securely almost anywhere. The action camera comes with a set of brackets, straps, pads and clips to attach it to just about anything and these can be pressed into use with the Brinno as well.

I've got batteries, memory cards, long USB power cables and a couple of cheap USB power packs to help me get more life out of things.

Making a Video

The equipment I have gives me three separate methods that I can use to achieve a final time-lapse video and briefly here are all three methods and what I see as the pros and cons of each of them.

Combining Stills

The DSLR takes a still image with a delay between each shot that I can specify in seconds. It can take super-high resolution images (24 megapixel), from which I can make a video of any resolution right up to 4K. I can use high quality lenses and have a range of focal lengths to achieve whatever field of view I desire.

The images, however, are large in terms of memory. I have to join them together - in order - to make a working video sequence before I can edit a final video and this can be a little finicky. Finally, a fully charged battery only lasts a couple of hours, needing a dedicated mains connection if I want any more time than this.

Speeding Up Video

The action camera only takes standard video at 30 or 60 frames per second. It is easy, however, to change the speed of the video playback in my video editing software, allowing me to speed the footage up many times to achieve the required time-lapse effect. It also gives me the advantage of being able to decide on a speed of playback after the event. I can even have different parts of the video at different speed with ease.

On the flip-side, the camera produces fairly large video files that are essentially going to be mostly thrown out in the final edit. Battery life is pretty poor, only managing about 90 minutes on a battery, but I can use USB cable and get power from the mains, my car or even an external USB power block to increase this quite a lot. The maximum size of memory card taken by these basic cameras limits my recording to about 24 hours though.

Dedicated Time-lapse

The Brinno is designed to be simple and efficient. It takes an image on a times schedule and creates a video file directly on its memory card. I can set start and stop times for it, tell it to only work in daylight or even to use a low-light mode to take sequences of the night sky. as mentioned above, its battery life is amazing. It will do up to 72 days if recording only every few minutes, or a couple of days if recording every few seconds.

It can only do 720P video and the frame-rate is fixed. The video files are quite large and the quality can be a little hit or miss. In good light, the quality is excellent, but in darker conditions it can be a little grainy.

What Are The Results

Here's a short video that uses clips made with all three methods, just to show the different results that can be achieved. I'm not entirely happy with the quality from the DSLR, but that's more to do with my lack of practise working with the time-lapse features and the exposure decisions that I made when setting things up.

I think that all three methods work quite well, but I'm currently liking the simplicity of the dedicated camera. It has the edge over the action camera simply because of the amount of memory used and the great battery life.