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Time Lapse for Beginners [in 6 simple steps]

Congratulations! You’ve decided to dive into a beautiful hobby or maybe your future dream job: time lapse photography. Anybody can do it, and you don’t even need much equipment. What you will need, however, is time. We have sat through countless sunrises and sunsets with our cameras clicking away. But we promise it was worth it. Follow these six simple steps and you’ll be able to shoot your first basic time lapse.

There are plenty of resources in the endless depths of the internet that will ease you into time lapse photography. We are honoured that you landed on our page. As the name “Time Lapse for beginners” already takes it away: This guide is very basic and only meant for beginners.

To ensure we’re on the same page, here’s what to expect from this article. We will guide you through the recording process of your first basic time lapse with no changes in lighting. This means we will not go through the so-called holy grail technique, which you need for shooting sunrises or sunsets. “Time Lapse for Beginners [in 6 simple steps]” is only for shoots during the day or night with no change in lighting. We will release the tutorial for shooting sunrises and sunsets later.

What is time lapse?

The first thing you need to know about time lapse is that it’s a video that consists of photos taken at a certain interval. So yes, you shoot photos, not videos. For a time lapse, you shoot a photo, wait a couple of seconds, shoot another photo, wait the same duration again before you take another photo, and so on and so on until you’ve got a reasonable number of pictures. Once you’re happy with the number, you can combine the pictures to create a video file in post-production.

A regular video consists of a lot of pictures called frames, shown one after another at a fast pace. The pictures you are going to take for your time lapse will play at a faster pace, one after another. How fast depends on where you live or where you are watching your video.

This pace is defined by the so-called frame rate every video has. In Europe, we’ve got a frame rate of 25 fps (frames per second), in the US you’ve usually got 30 fps and at your cinema of choice, 24 fps are standard.

You can choose the frame rate of your time lapse video as you desire – it will not show much of a difference to the naked eye as long as you choose a frame rate of 24 fps or higher. One might ask why I’m telling you this when it doesn’t make a difference.

Well, it might not make much of a difference to how your video will look in the end, but it is important for you when it comes to how many pictures you need to shoot for your time lapse. If you want the final video clip to be 10 seconds long and you want to use the frame rate of 25 fps, you will need to shoot 250 individual pictures (10 x 25 = 250).

Number of pictures taken / frame rate = length of the final video Try to remember this important formula

Now that we are on the same page, let’s dive in!

Step 1: Prepare your equipment

Using photo equipment instead of film cameras works in your favour. Photo equipment is much cheaper than video equipment and produces much better quality if you are shooting stills.

Here’s a list of things you need to bring for shooting your first time lapse video:

  • A camera + lens

  • A steady tripod

  • An intervalometer

Just in case you don’t know, an intervalometer is a little external device that you plug into your camera to tell it to take a photo every X seconds. A lot of cameras have this function already built in, so you need to check your camera first. If it doesn’t have one, get an external one.

So, now you’ve got the right equipment, let’s check it. Check whether your battery has enough power. You will shoot for hours, so it won’t hurt to bring an extra one. Check your SD card. Is there enough space to store several hundred pictures on it? If not, buy a bigger one or format it (after saving the files on it first, of course).

Step 2: Think about what you want to shoot

Not every subject is suitable for time lapse. It might be too fast or even too slow. Think twice before shooting fast-paced objects like a single runner or a base jumper. These events are over so quickly that you won’t notice them in your time lapse video.

Usually, there is nothing too slow for time lapse, but for our purpose today, we recommend not setting your goal on watching a tree grow, for example – that would take you months or years. We are looking for subjects to shoot within one hour of recording time, such as clouds, traffic, people, etc.

Step 3: Set up your shot

Once you get to your location of choice, make sure you find a spot with a solid foundation. Be aware of bridges shaking unnoticed or waves crashing against your tripod. As soon as you’ve set up your tripod, make sure you securely lock it. Ensure all of the legs are standing on solid ground, all the screws are locked tight and your camera is mounted securely on top.

Make sure nothing blocks your camera throughout your shoot. Is there a branch of a tree nearby that would get in the way if it gets windy? Are there people who might get in front of the camera when shooting?

The difficulty of shooting time lapse is that you might spend hours standing on the same spot. So, you need to predict how your environment will change over time. Before you start, we recommend asking yourself the following: How will all this look when I finish this shot? To answer this, think for example about whether the location will be closed before you can finish properly, or whether the incoming tide will leave your camera submerged by the end of your time lapse.

Such thoughts also apply to your subject. What will it look like when I finish? A forest during sunset will get black. The train that I’m using as a foreground might have left the station, leaving me with an awful space in the middle of my frame.

Step 4: Choose the right settings

When we have set up our shot, it is time to choose all the right settings:

  • If your camera or lens has a built-in stabilizer, turn it off. You don’t want any unwanted movement of your camera while you are shooting.

  • Switch to manual shooting mode. (Here’s an article about how to shoot manual.)

  • Make sure (if possible) to always shoot in RAW format (you can read about this in post-processing).

  • Disable autofocus or your camera will try (and fail) to adjust the focus for every single picture. Set the right focus manually.

  • If you can’t shoot RAW and you have to use JPEG instead, make sure you set the correct white balance.

  • Set the right aperture, shutter speed and ISO. If you don’t know how to do this, read our article about manual shooting mode.

  • Set the right interval. The interval is the number of seconds you want to wait after each photo until the camera takes another one. An interval of 4 seconds means that your camera will take a photo every 4 seconds. Choosing the right interval is the most challenging part for a beginner. With time comes the experience about what interval to choose. To begin with, we recommend you choose something between 2 and 8 seconds. This will fit for most of your shots.

Step 5: Happily click away

So, the hard work is done so far. All you need to do now is start your intervalometer, lean back and enjoy your surroundings. There’s not much to do now, so keep an eye on your gear and check the preview image of your camera now and then.

We recommend shooting at least 250 pictures per time lapse before you move on to your next spot to ensure you have enough footage for post-production later.

Step 6: Download your data

This last step might seem obvious, but it is very important. Let me assure you, more than once we have accidentally formatted a card before downloading the data, losing all of our footage. So, as soon as you get home, even if it’s 3 a.m., download your footage immediately and make a backup. You worked hard to get these frames, and this last step requires little effort, so please download and back up your data without delay. There you go! You shot your first time lapse! 🙂

Congratulations for finishing Time Lapse for Beginners [in 6 simple steps]! But the real fun starts in post-production. Read all about that here.


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