02 March 2011
These time-lapse tips are intended for people shooting with Digital Still Cameras, if you are using a still camera see our Video Camera Shooting Tips page. By adding the Pclix XT into your photography toolbox you have the ability to shoot time-lapse images anywhere, anytime. Over the years I've had countless clients ask hundreds and hundreds of questions about time-lapse. Everything regarding the setting up of their gear, what to look out for when shooting and finally how to put hundreds if not thousands of stills together into a time-lapse movie. Below I'm going to attempt to answer some of the basics to get you up and running. By following these simple rules of thumb you'll at least have a good starting point on which to build upon. There are of course many different approaches to accomplish things in life and time-lapse is no different. Again, this is a starting point, as you get more comfortable and confident with time-lapse shooting go with what works best for you.
The listing below and my comments are a work in progress. Over time I will tweak these words to reflect new ideas, thoughts and suggestions. Again, please take it all with a grain of salt as there are always a dozen ways of doing anything in life.
First off, based on my past experience it's a great idea to assemble a time-lapse shooting kit. Besides the obvious things you need like a camera there are some other basic items which can come in very handy at times. It's not that you need it all for each and every shoot but it's nice to have these things close at hand should they be required. So, lets start with a basic equipment list and then build from there.
EQUIPMENT - My basic list includes the following;
- Camera(s) - Depending on the job maybe more than one, lens are also just as important, bring a range if you have them.
- Camera Manual - Always keep this in your camera bag, you never know when it will come in handy.
- Pclix LT or XT and Control Cable(s)- Ensure batteries are installed and you've packed the proper control cable(s) for your chosen cameras.
- Batteries - Always ensure all your camera batteries are charged, bring spares if you have them.
- Tripod - Something solid, sturdy and with loads of possible adjustments. Weight can be a factor if you're carrying it a distance, carbon fibre can help but it's an expensive option.
- Memory cards - The larger the card the better and bring more than you think you'll need. Also make sure they're empty.
- Neutral Density (ND) Filters - ND Filters can be very handy if you want to slow down the shutter on a bright sunny day.
- Viewfinder Cover - Many cameras come with this little piece of plastic which fits overtop of the viewfinder. See below for explanation on it's proper use.
- Rain Protection - Not only for your camera but also for yourself.
- Flashlight - This should be in everyones camera bag. A working flashlight for night shoots or early morning can be a life saver.
- Sun Screen - You and your camera could be under the hot sun with no shade in sight. Be prepared.
- Portable Folding Chair - You could be shooting for hours, bring something comfortable to sit on.
- A Good Book - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Pillars of the Earth, Shantaram to name a few.
- A Hat - See Sun Screen above.
- Food and Drink - Having a snack and liquid to keep you hydrated for energy is always a good thing.
TESTING YOUR GEAR - Double check everything, and I mean everything;
It's always a good idea to thoroughly test your gear before you head out on a shoot, don't leave anything to chance. Setup your equipment as you would during a real shoot and make sure all is working correctly. Test fire your camera with the Pclix XT, then ensure your memory cards are empty and your batteries are fully charged.
LOCATION AND SETUP - A Few basic rules of thumb for where you are planning to shoot;
Private Property - Location, location, location, it's important in real estate and also for photography. One of the first things you should be considering when selecting a location for your shoot is on who's property are you actually standing upon. If it's a shopping mall, downtown banking building, sports arena, concert venue, government building, school etc. etc., you could be in for a question or two. Many of these venues are private property and may insist that you have prior permission before you show up. I have experienced this a few times myself and have been asked to leave in some cases. Remember if you setup a tripod you fall into another category of photographer in the sense that you really stand out come across as a professional.
Security - Do not put yourself in a place of danger, be it from others who could do you harm and/or steal your equipment, also avoid unsafe conditions due to weather, fire, lighting, avalanche, well you get the idea. Be very aware of your surroundings and try to have a set of eyes in the back of your head.
Tripod Placement - Once you are happy with your location (having taken the above into consideration) make sure your tripod is placed on solid ground or a structure which is rigid and will not move, even sightly. (unless of course you are mounted to something moving, like a car). Bare in mind your camera is going to be shooting images at your chosen interval, if the camera is moving even a tiny little bit from image to image it can make for a very shaky final product.
Changes in Light - Take a few minutes and try to imagine how the light is going to change during the length of your shoot. For example; Is the sun going to set directly in front of you? What is going to happen with shadows?
- Changes in the Environment - Again take into account how the location of your camera might change over time. Imagine you are on the waters edge at low tide and you plan on shooting for 6 hours, that could be a huge problem. Is might be possible that some unwanted object could block your shot during shooting, like a truck for example.
CAMERA SETUP AND SHOOTING SETTINGS - The Finer Points of Shooting;
There are some basic camera settings which should be considered as a starting point when shooting time-lapse. Things like, always use manual focus, manually setting the white balance, depending upon the light you might want to use a specific exposure mode. Should you shoot raw or jpeg? If jpeg, which image size is best and how much compression? Why should I cover the viewfinder when I'm shooting? Honestly pages and pages could be written regarding the questions above. I'll try and explain as best as I can in a minimal amount of words my thoughts on camera settings.
Manual Focus - As a general rule manual focus is always used when shooting time-lapse. The reason for this is simple. Say you are shooting a time-lapse sequence at an interval of 10 seconds. Your shot is a construction site and you are photographing a building being built. The focus of your shot is of course the building itself. If your camera is in AUTO focus then it will try and focus on anything that comes between the camera and the building. For example a workman walks by the camera very close to the lens just as an images is being taken, the camera will re-focus in order to have the workman in focus causing the building to be out of focus. The workman exits the frame as quickly as he entered and the camera will now re-focus on the building when it takes the next shot. When your time-lapse sequence is assembled a very odd frame (1/24th of a second) with your hero building out of focus and the workman in focus will seem very out of place.
White Balance - If you are shooting in very controlled lighting conditions, a place where the color temperature is not going to change then you probably can leave your camera in AUTO White Balance or put it in Manual and set the White Balance for the available light. If on the other hand you are shooting outside then be very careful of AUTO White Balance. White balance is tricky, it will flip with very little change in the light. Imagine it is a partly cloudy day, the sun is going in and out many times. If your camera is set to AUTO White Balance there is a good chance it is going to adjust the white balance every time the sun comes in or out. You generally do not want this to happen when shooting time-lapse. One way around this problem would be to make a judgement based upon what the sky is doing. If for example there is 75% sun and 25% cloud then set your White Balance to Sun. If it is the reverse is true then set it to Cloud.
Raw or Jpeg - Should you shoot RAW or JPEG? This question is in the top ten for sure. Really, it comes down to a few things. Firstly, what is your time-lapse final sequence going to be used for? Are you selling it as stock footage, just posting it on the web or perhaps emailing it to friends. The advantages of RAW; the image quality doesn't get any better and the image size is as large as the camera can shoot. If you are finishing your sequence for use in a feature film for example then I'd suggest RAW if you can get away with it. The disadvantages; RAW files can take a long time for be saved to your memory card due to their huge file size. This might mean that your interval cannot be a quick as you would like. Certainly for RAW you are going to want as fast and as large a memory card as you can afford. RAW files being the size they are are much more difficult to deal with on the post production side when you are assembling your time-lapse sequence. What are the advantages of using JPEG; When shooting JPEG images you have much more flexibility when it comes to image size, most cameras allow you to select between a handful of different sizes. JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files and therefore your camera can save them to the memory card much quicker, this means you can probably have as fast an interval as you want. Again, because of the small file size you can get many thousands of images on one memory card, sometimes many tens of thousands. For long term shooting this can be extremely important. Smaller file sizes make for quicker file handling when you are assembling your time-lapse sequence. OK, now for the disadvantages of JPEG; Image quality, JPEG files can in most cases be heavily compressed, nothing is free, you are giving up image quality and color depth when you shoot using JPEG. That being said 99% of all time-lapse sequences you have ever viewed on the internet where shot using JPEG.
Image Size and Compression - These two factors only come into play if you are shooting JPEG. RAW files by definition cannot be compressed. When you are trying to decide on what image size is best to shoot consider the following. What is the end result going to be used for? If it is something to be posted only a website then size really does not matter, in the end you are going to sizing your final result down to fit on the webpage anyway. If you are shooting images to be used in Television then definitely larger is better, at least something larger than HD which is 1920 X 1080. As for compression, I always use the least amount of compression, I want to keep as much of the image quality as possible considering my images are JPEGs. The only reason I would change to a higher compression setting is if I was shooting something where quality does not matter or I was trying to squeeze the largest possible number of images on a Memory card.
Covering Your Viewfinder - Most DSRL cameras these days come with a little black plastic cover that slides overtop of the viewfinder. What is this thing supposed to be used for? Here is the deal. Usually when you are shooting a time-lapse sequence you do not have your eye pressed up against the viewfinder the whole time. Because of this light can enter through the viewfinder and effect the exposure meter giving you a false reading. By covering the viewfinder using the small cover or a short piece of tape the exposure will be correct.
Set image count to 00 - This is done mainly so that you don't run into a problem later on when your images are being assembled into a final time-lapse movie. When a camera saves images they are sequentially numbered starting at 1, generally on most cameras this number goes up to 9,999. Once the camera reaches 9,999 it resets the image count back to 00 and it starts all over again. By setting the cameras image count manual to 00 you are avoiding the possibility that the number will roll over in the middle of your shoot. Most software used to assemble a time-lapse sequence wants to see all the images numbered in ascending order. This is how the software knows which frame goes where. If the number gets reset during your shoot by the camera your software is going to get mixed up. You'll end up with the end at the beginning.
- Aperture and Shutter Length - These are two settings which you should to pay close attention to. If for example you are shooting a time-lapse sequence where the lighting conditions will not change at all, then consider manual mode for these two variables. However, say the lighting is going to change drastically over time, you plan on shooting day to night for example, then setting the Aperture to a fixed F-stop and letting the Shutter compensate for the changes in light is perhaps a better way to go. Another option is to set your camera to AUTO ISO, by doing this your camera will also compensate for changes in light. Remember the higher the ISO the more grain your image will have.
Putting it all Together - A few thoughts on assembling a sequence of images into a movie file;
By following the steps below you will be able to turn your sequence of images into a movie file. This file can then be shared via email, posted on the web, used in television production or feature film work. There are many software programs which allow you to assemble a sequence of images into a movie file. In my experience one of the best ones is Quicktime Pro from Apple. Quicktime is available for both the Mac and PCs running Windows. There are two versions of Quicktime available, one being the free version the other a $30 USD Pro version. I use Quicktime Pro exclusively for this kind of work and it's is what I know best. Quicktime Pro gives you endless options for sizing, compressing and file formats with which you can save your movie. Once you have processed your time-lapse sequence through Quicktime Pro you can then import your movie file into whatever other software programs you wish. This can be an editing program, website application, email program, compositing application etc, etc.
Save your Images to your desktop - The first thing you must do it load your images onto your computer, be it a Mac or PC. This means to move your image files from your memory card to your computers hard drive. I would suggest a separate folder which will hold all the images from each time-lapse you shoot. Try a keep things organized and in an easy to find directory structure. Personally I have one main Time Lapse Source Folder, inside that are separate folders which hold the source image files for each time-lapse sequence I have shot. You more than likely are going to end up with tens of thousands of images which come from many different time-lapse shots. By having a well organized way in which they are stored on your computer well become evident as your library grows. One other thing I highly suggest is to back up your work. Every hard drive is going to fail at some point, it's just a question of when. External hard drives are so cheap these days that there is no excuse for not backing up your files on a regular basis.
Software Programs to use for Image Assembly - As I mentioned above there are many computer programs which can be used to assemble a series of time-lapse image files. Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas Edit to name a few, plus there are many others. I have used a few of these in the past for this kind of assembly but again these days Quicktime Pro is my choice. I would encourage you to search the web if you would like to try other options. There is loads of information out there for all things time-lapse.
File format, Image Size and Compression - All three of these settings effect the final movie file in one way or another. File Format is the type of file with which your movie is saved. There are many types, a few of them are very common when it comes to posting movie files on the internet or attaching them to an email. These typically would be H264, Flash, etc. There are other File Formats which are used primarily when image quality must be maintained at a very high level. Typically you want to do this when the final result will be used in Feature Film or Television production.
Quicktime Pro Workflow - Here is a very simple workflow which you can use to assemble your time-lapse sequence into a movie file using Quicktime Pro. It MUST be Quicktime Pro, this is the only version of this application which has the necessary features we are going to require to assemble our time-lapse sequence.
There are many applications like iPhoto from Apple and Picasa from Google which library images. Normally I do not use these types of applications to hold my time-lapse sequence image files. If you do it makes importing the source files into Quicktime Pro much more difficult. Instead I move my time-lapse sequence image files from my memory card(s) into a new folder on my computer. Normally I use the following convention. I create a new folder and give it a name which indicates the contents, for example "Maui Haleakala Clouds Source". This tells me the City, the Shooting Location on Maui, the Subject and finally that the folder holds the Source files. Remember, you are going to end up with thousands and thousands of image files hopefully from many different shoots, start off right at the beginning with a logical way of keeping track of everything.
Now that you have your image files on your computer startup Quicktime Pro. The beauty of using Quicktime Pro is that there is a very simple option for importing all you files at once with a few simple steps. First, under the file menu select the option called "Open Image Sequence", this will give you a dialogue box asking you which file(s) you would like to open. Navigate to the location where you put your new folder holding the images you just saved on your computer. Open that folder and select the very first image of the list and click "Open". You will now be given another dialogue box asking you to select the frame rate at which your movie will be played back at. Normally this should be set to 24, 25 or 30 frames per second. For most of my work I use 24 FPS, this means that it will take 1 second to show 24 frames. For example; if you shot 240 images your computer will take 10 seconds to play back your finished sequence. Select your frame rate and click "OK".
Quicktime Pro will now give you a viewing window which will be parked on the first frame of your time-lapse sequence. OK, a couple of thoughts about computer speed are in order before you attempt to play your sequence. There are many factors that can influence the playback of your sequence. The most important is the speed of your computer, how fast can it process data and then send it to the screen. This is closely followed by how large are your images and what file format were they shot at, RAW or JPEG. What you are asking your computer to do is no small feat, grab very large images with very little compression at 24 images per second from the hard drive and then play them one after another without missing a beat. Most computers cannot do this. Once you try and play your sequence you'll know right away if your's can. If your sequence pauses or misses frames then the processing power of your computer is not fast enough to play each and every frame.
- What makes Quicktime Pro such a great tool for assembling a time-lapse sequence is the different combinations of settings which you can use to save your file. By tweaking a few of these we can very easily get your sequence to play on just about any computer. There are three variables which we can change when saving our movie file, image size, file format and/or amount of compression. You'll start by selecting "Export" under the file menu, then make sure "Movie to Quicktime Movie" is selected close to the bottom of the Export window. Now click the "Options" button. You will then be given the option of selecting a file format and amount of compression and image size. As a very ruff starting point try this. Click "Settings" and change the compression type to "H.264" then in the same dialogue window make the Compressor Quality "Medium", now click "OK". Lastly we'll adjust the output size by clicking "Size", you can now set a custom movie size using the options on this dialogue box. Make the size of your movie 1/4 of the original size. Divide both the X and Y axis by 4, this will insure the aspect ratio does not change. Once you have set the size click "OK". Click "OK one more time to close the Movie Settings dialogue box, now give your movie a name and click "Save". Your computer and Quicktime Pro will now process your new file. Relax, this might take awhile. When finished try playing your new movie file, it should now play properly on your computer. As mentioned above there are many options for saving movie files in Quicktime Pro, experiment with different combinations. We've only just scratched the surface here.
Final Thoughts - Let's wrap it up.
Once you get more comfortable and confident shooting time-lapse sequences try different things, challenge yourself. Drive around the city with your camera shooting out the front window, capture you and your family cooking dinner and sitting down to enjoy the meal, shoot whatever it is you'd like to speed up in time. Enjoy.
Paul Cormack - Pclix - www.pclix.com