How to Shoot a Timelapse Video: A Beginner’s Guide

  • Post category:Tech
  • Post comments:0 Comments

If you’ve always wanted to create beautiful timelapse videos but you’re not sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place! 

Those beautiful high resolution timelapse videos on Youtube have always fascinated me. I thought I would need an expensive camera to create captivating timelapse videos, however I’ve recently found a great solution which only involves an entry level Canon DSLR camera, a decent tripod and MagicLantern software or an intervalometer.

Mountain-stars-timelapse-still-image-a-beginners-guide-to-timelapse-techlifediy.com

This post will outline the steps I took to create timelapse videos of my DIY projects using my Canon 550D DSLR camera. You can also use the instructions below to create beautiful landscape timelapse videos or really any subject that interests you. 

I’ve made this post as detailed as possible so here’s a list of contents if you wanted to jump to any specific sections.

A bit of background on how videos are made from frames

In our everyday lives, the motion we see in tv and films is essentially a series of single frames shown at a specific frame rate. The standard frame rate for realistic motion is between 24-30 frames per second (fps). Therefore, when you watch a 30 second video clip, you are essentially looking at 30 x 24 (if it’s a 24fps video) = 720 frames in very quick succession, giving you the perception of motion.

By applying the above principles, if we take a series of still photos and play them together at a realistic frame rate, then we have created a timelapse video!

Two main ways of shooting timelapse videos:

There are a couple of ways you can create beautiful timelapse videos. One method uses video clips whereby you capture a long video clip and change the speed of it using a video editing software. The other method uses still images and stitches them together, playing them frame by frame at a realistic frame rate.


Method 1: Creating timelapse video from video files

Creating timelapse videos from video files is relatively easier than from still images. Let’s say you recorded a 10 minute long clip of a motorway with moving cars. You then load the video on a decent video editing software and increase the playback speed of the video by a factor of 30. This means that your video duration will now be (10 mins x 60 seconds)/30 = 20 seconds long.

Increasing the speed of a video in a video editing software simply means that the software will drop some frames so the playback looks faster. 

So for the above example of the 10 minute long video clip shot initially at a standard 30 frames per second, your total frame count would be 18,000 frames. This can be calculated as – 

10 minutes x 60 seconds = 600 seconds x 30 frames per second = 18,000 frames

When you decide to quicken the video by a factor of 30 so the video duration is now 20 seconds, you are essentially reducing the number of frames by a factor of 30. Therefore, your total count of frames will now be 18,000 frames/30 = 600 frames.

If you export these newly reduced number of frames as a 30 fps video clip, your new speeded up video duration will be 600 frames/30 frames per second = 20 seconds.

The new 20 second video will give the perception that the events that occurred in your 10 minute video happened much faster and only took 20 seconds instead of 10 minutes to unfold.

This is one of the easiest ways of creating timelapse videos. However, there are some downsides to creating timelapse videos from video files:

  • You will have lower resolution frames to play with
  • You will not have control over each frame like you would with a DSLR camera
  • You can shoot raw image frames with a DSLR camera and have a lot more control over your recording on post editing
  • You can not set exposure, white balance, aperture etc. on a video camera like you can even on entry level DSLRs

Method 2 – Creating a timelapse video from still images with a DSLR camera

DSLR-Camera-shooting-landscape-photography

This concept is quite simple in essence. Essentially, your plan is to take a series of photographs and then play them at a realistic frame rate to create the perception that the image is moving. 

There are numerous advantages of creating a timelapse video from still images:

  • You can shoot and import raw image files from your DSLR camera giving you more editing flexibility
  • You can adjust exposure to add a perception of motion blur. A higher exposure per image will add a motion trail to moving objects to make your final timelapse smoother and more artistic
  • You can adjust the focus to ensure auto focus doesn’t get confused mid shoot
  • You can set your shutter speed according to the environment
  • You have more flexibility with f-stops/aperture value to suit shooting conditions
  • You can adjust the ISO settings to coincide with your light conditions
  • You can set the right white balance to ensure your images look more natural (or less if you wanted to)

Key considerations for making a timelapse video

Your timelapse video will be at least as good as the images that make up the video. Therefore, it is important that you think of the following things before going ahead and capturing still images for timelapse:

  • Shoot in raw on a DSLR camera if possible
  • Use a tripod so there are no shaky movements between frames
  • Use a slider/track if you need to add smooth movements in the framing
  • Shoot in manual mode with as many manual settings as possible tailored to your environment
  • Make sure you take test shots and view them on your phone, laptop or ipad to ensure you are happy with the framing, colours and everything else in general
  • Ensure you have enough batteries especially if you are shooting hundreds of frames
  • Allow for motion blur so adjust the shutter speed accordingly i.e. 1/50th of a second
  • Make sure you have a good camera memory card that has a fast read and write speed and is large enough to store all your frames
My Sandisk Extreme 32GB V30 SD Card for timeplapse shoots techlifediy
My Sandisk Extreme V30 SD card I use for timelapse shoots

You can go for a Sandisk Extreme V30 SD card, which are quite reasonably priced. V30 on this Sandisk SD card refers to it’s minimum sequential write speed of up to 30MB/second. This should be fast enough for you to store your timelapse images.

How to use your DSLR camera to capture timelapse images:

The first thing to think about is the interval duration you would like your timelapse video to be made out of. For this, you need to decide:

  • How long is the event you are looking to capture i.e. do you want to capture clouds moving for 2 hours and then condense it?
  • How long your finished timeplapse video is going to be

Once you know this, planning intervals and number of shots should be easy.

Planning the optimal interval for your timelapse photography:

Planning the lapse or interval between each shot is one of the most important elements of your timelapse photography. Intervals between your shots will decide how fast your final timelapse video will be in relation to real time. 

For example, if you captured a photo every second and then exported the frames to play at 30 fps, then each second of the timelapse video will be equal to 30 seconds in real time.

For slow moving objects such as clouds or the skyline, you can opt for a longer interval e.g. 5 seconds as you may not notice visible changes in shorter time intervals. 

For night time photography of stars or the moon, you can opt for 20 to 30 seconds.

For faster moving objects such as crowds, cars on a motorway etc. you may want to go for a shorter interval of 2-3 seconds.

Setting timelapse image intervals by the final duration of the timelapse video:

Let’s say you want to capture clouds moving over a field over a period of 1 hour. You plan to condense the footage to 10 seconds so the final output is 360 times faster than the actual real time. Here’s how you can workout the number of frames you would require:

Step 1: Decide on the final frame rate for your timelapse video. For this example, we’ll use 30 frames per second (fps).

Step 2: Then workout the number of frames you’ll need for the 10 second clip at 30 fps. So that would be 10 seconds x 30 frames = 300 frames

Step 3: Work out how far apart each image should be captured in the given 1 hour. If you are capturing 300 frames in 1 hour then you can work out the time gap between each shot as below:- 

1 hour = 1 hour x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 3,600 seconds
You would want 300 frames in 3,600 seconds, therefore, 3,600 seconds/300 frames = 12 second intervals

So from the above calculation, we can see that if we set the intervalometer to take a photo every 12 seconds, we will end up with 300 frames in 1 hour. We can then turn these 300 frames into a 10 second clip at 30

The other way to work out your interval or gap between each shot would be to go by your own experience and trial and error approach.

You can also carry out a quick Google search on interval times for timelapse videos. There are some great authors and photography enthusiasts out there who share tried and tested methods with great results. 

If you wanted to shoot a timelapse of moving clouds on a sunny day over a field and if you already know that your ideal frame interval should be roughly 5 seconds, then each second of your final timelapse video will be equivalent to 2.5 minutes of real time movement of the clouds at 30 fps. This can be worked out as follows:- 

30 frames x 5 seconds = 150 seconds or 2.5 minutes of real time movement of the clouds.

If you then wanted to export a 30 second video of clouds moving, then the total duration of your real time shoot will be as follows:- 

30 seconds x 30 frames per second x 5 seconds for each shot = 4,500 seconds or 75 minutes.

Once you know the final shoot duration, you can get a rough idea of the impact you are going to showcase in your final timelapse video. 

Interval adjustments for night time photography with lower shutter speeds

For night time photography of stars, path of the moon etc., you will have to take into account the shutter speed in the above work outs.

For example, if your shutter speed is set to 1 second at night to capture more light, and you plan to capture 300 shots at 5 second intervals, your actual shoot duration will be:-

(300 shots x 5 seconds intervals) + (300 shots x 1 second for each shot) which is,

1500 seconds + 300 seconds leading to 1800 seconds instead of 1500 seconds or 30 minutes instead of 25 minutes.

Setting the camera correctly for your timelapse shoot

Using the right settings for a DSLR camera such as optimum shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance is a world of knowledge on its own. For the purpose of this post, we will continue focusing on the timelapse aspect alone. 

How to control the intervals of your timelapse photography shoot

Some modern cameras come with built in intervalometer shutter settings. However, if your camera does not have a built in intervalometer then there are a few options available to you.

Option 1 – Using external intervalometer for timelapse image capture

Timelapse-intervalometer-I-purchased-from-Amazon-for-my-canon-550d

These intervalometers can be found in most photography stores or online quite easily. The prices range between £10 and £60 ($9 – $80) or higher for some more exclusive brands. I picked up a basic external intervalometer from Amazon for under £15 and it did the job quite well.

The intervalometers connect with your camera via a cable so you will need to check if your camera supports external shutter control first. 

Once connected, depending on the type of intervalometer you purchased, the settings should be quite straightforward. You set the time interval between shots in seconds and total number of frames you want to capture. The intervalometer will take care of the rest. 

Some key points to consider before buying a intervalometer:

  • Do you need a wireless remote with the intervalometer or just happy for it be wired and without wireless controls. 
  • Intervalometers require batteries, which maybe an extra thing to think about when you plan your timelapse shoots
  • Consider if you need a backlit LCD display on your intervalometer for night time shoots to view the settings.
  • Intervalometers can be an extra hassle to think about but do add quite a lot of flexibility and options to your timelapse shoot.

Option 2 – Magic Lantern – External Intervalometer alternative for Canon DSLR cameras

For those that use Canon DSLRs, there is an alternative solution. Aptly named, Magic Lantern, an independent program that runs alongside Canon’s own software. Magic Lantern adds lots of useful features on top of your standard Canon settings. One of the key features is Intervalometer. Using the built in intervalometer option with Magic Lantern is a convenient option which saves you from carrying an extra piece of external intervalometer. 

Magic Lantern installed on my Canon 550D intervalometer screenshot
Magic Lantern intervalometer options – installed on my Canon 550D camera

I have also written a detailed step by step guide on How to Install Magic Lantern on your Canon DSLR camera.

Magic Lantern is a software enhancement that adds increased functionality to the Canon DSLR cameras. It was developed on an open framework, licensed under GPL. It’s free and open source. Therefore, it comes with risks and warnings too.

Magic Lantern is not officially approved by Canon. Therefore, you will install it at your own risks. And there is no guarantee that it will work for everyone. So please visit Magic Lantern here: https://magiclantern.fm/about.html

and read thoroughly before deciding to install it on your Canon camera. 

At the time of writing this post, Magic Lantern supports the following Canon cameras:

Supported Canon cameras by Magic Lantern:

5D Mark II, 5D Mark III, 6D, 7D, 50D, 60D, 500D/T1i, 550D/T2i, 600D/T3i, 650D/T4i, 700D/T5i, 1100D/T3, EOS M.

In progress:

70D, 100D/SL1, 1200D/T5, 450D/XSi, EOS M2, EOS M50.

5D3 1.3.4, 7D 2.0.6, 550D 1.1.0, EOS M 2.0.3.

How Magic Lantern Intervalometer works:

Magic Lantern intervalometer options settings photos canon 550d
Magic Lantern settings for intervalometer

Using an intervalometer on Magic Lantern is really straight forward. You can set your intervals in seconds, and you can also set the total number of shots you want to capture. You can then position the camera, adjust all your settings. And once you are ready, all you need to do is press the shutter button manually for the first shot, and Magic Lantern will kick in.

Magic-Lantern-Intervalometer-options-canon550d-techlifedy.com

Magic Lantern intervalometer will also show you a handy estimate of your timelapse shoot. Once you set the interval and number of shots you want to take, it will workout exactly how long your final timelapse video will be. It works it out based on 25fps and also tells you how long your total shoot duration will be in real time.

Summary and recap of the equipment you need to shoot timelapse videos:

Before this post turns into an absolute mammoth, it would be a good idea to do a quick recap 🙂  

After reading this post, you should have a good idea about the fundamentals of creating a timelapse video. You should also know how frame and interval/lapse planning works. You now also have a good understanding of the intervalometer options and some tips on settings too.

Here’s a recap of the equipment you will need to carry out a successful timelapse shoot

  • A DSLR camera
  • Tripod/sliding tripod for extra effects
  • Intervalometer
  • A photo editing software for post edits on your timelapse images
  • Video editing software to construct your final output timelapse video

I hope you found this post useful. Please feel free to ask questions or make suggestions. Thanks and speak soon!

Leave a Reply