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  • Writer's pictureRachel Z

Understanding Time Lapse Photography

Time-lapse photography is a technique that anyone can easily master. The popularity of this photography style has increased over the past few years. It captures a series of motions which can last for hours to days (even months). The end product compresses all the changes in motion into a short video. Hey it's Rachel with Rachel Z Photography, your San Francisco, California photography guide, and I wanted to make a quick breakdown of understanding time lapse photography.

To put it simply, time-lapse is done by capturing tons of photos within a specific interval (which is a slower rate compared to its playback). With time-lapse photography, time seems to pass more quickly. You can also say that time-lapse is the counterpart of slow motion. The images are played at specific frames per second, and the end product is viewed as a video.

What is Time Lapse Photography Used For?

We see time-lapse videos everywhere on our social media. It is one of the most shared videos that fascinates its viewers because of the progress shown within a short period. Aside from art and entertainment, time-lapse photography plays several roles in different sectors in the industry.

In movies, time-lapse is mostly used as a time compressor. This allows the producer to speed up passaging time without bypassing scenes or locations. Aside from brevity, time-lapse in movies are also used for artistic reasons; it enables the audience a longer view of the subject.

One industry where time-lapse is widely used is in construction and demolition. This allows the contractor to capture changes, growth, deliveries, and progress. It allows construction companies to share their progress with their investors and the public.

Through the years, time-lapse photography in construction has earned its place in the industry because of its popularity and demand. It has now become a part of the construction site's daily system.

What Cameras can be used for Time Lapse Photography?

Time-lapse photography can be done using any camera, it can even be done using the latest mobile phones. However, to produce a high-quality time-lapse video, your camera must have a high-resolution sensor. Also, it needs to can work in subdued light and shoot RAW photos.

Most of the cameras nowadays have a built-in time-lapse mode. You need to gain a camera that will enable you to adjust the exposure manually even on time-lapse mode. Before we discuss the cameras, get familiarized with the basic time-lapse gear first.

Here are the essential gear in time-lapse photography:

  1. Tripod: The key to a good time-lapse video is a stabilizer. This is as important as the camera itself.

  2. Intervalometer: This is an automated trigger for your camera. You can program this device to capture a series of photos within a specific time interval. Most cameras have a built-in intervalometer. In case you don't have one (or you do not want to purchase), you can download third-party apps that work just like an intervalometer.

  3. Camera: There are tons of cameras that you can use to capture time-lapse photos. The question is, which is the best one? This will be discussed in further detail below.

  4. ND Filters: This is optional. It also depends on the type of environment where you will shoot your time-lapse photo. This accessory acts like sunglasses for your camera; it allows you to capture all the colors. This is suitable when you are shooting in an open area or bright environment.

Best Settings

The setting depends on the scenery you are planning to shoot. It also depends on the equipment that you are using. It is recommended for your camera to be on manual settings to capture the best cinematic time-lapse photographs.

It sounds a little scary, especially if you are a beginner at manual camera settings. However, you just need to understand the aspects and importance of each setting. To help you out, below are some recommended settings for time-lapse photography that you might want to look at.

Time-lapse Interval

This is one of the most important settings you have to consider being able to produce a smooth time-lapse photo. Consider the speed of your subject to choose the correct intervals. The faster your subject is, the shorter your interval will be. Using a longer interval for a fast-moving subject will cause skipping images.

You also need to consider the length of the final time-lapse video and the number of frames per second. You can use an additional attachment to your camera called an intervalometer. This device remotely controls your shutter, time interval, and the duration of the time-lapse photo. It requires a lot of practice to learn how to choose the best interval.

Here are some sample intervals with their corresponding subjects:

  • 1-second interval

  • Traffic

  • Fast-moving clouds

  • Animals in motion

  • 2-3 seconds interval

    • slower-moving clouds

    • sunrise or sunset

    • moonrise or moonset

    • using a telephoto lens

    • moving people

  • 15 seconds interval

    • stars

    • construction

    • flowers

Shutter Speed

The sharpness of your time-lapse photos depends on the shutter speed you will use. The look you want to achieve for your time-lapse video also depends on your shutter speed. As a general rule, the shutter speed for a stunning time-lapse should be double your frame rate.

Suppose you want to capture sharp images of a moving subject, set your shutter speed to 1/100 or higher. However, your photos will probably look shaky or choppy. To achieve a cinematic time-lapse, you can experiment with slower shutter speeds like 1/50 or lower. This will shoot smooth images in motion with a blur along their path.


The ISO setting depends on the amount of light. Time-lapse photography, however, works best in a low ISO setting. This reduces the graininess and photographic noise. A low ISO setting requires a higher light source. It is always best to adjust your ISO to control the total exposure of your images.


Always set your focus on manual rather than auto. This will maintain the focus on your subject in each shot. The autofocus mode will cause your camera refocusing on another moving subject.

White Balance

Do not use the auto-on white balance. Adjust it to the white balance setting and leave it on. You can easily adjust the brightness of your photos during post-processing, especially when using RAW files.

Things to Remember

In the end, it doesn't matter if you are using a dedicated equipment camera for time-lapse photography. You just need to note some of these technical considerations to create a stunning time-lapse.

  • Plan it out. Before shooting your time-lapse, you must plan it ahead of time. You must figure out how long you want your last video to be. A good time-lapse video has a frame rate between 24-30 frames per second.

  • Consider the subject's speed. The length of the interval depends on the speed of your subject. The faster your subject is, the shorter the time interval. This is best to avoid blurry time-lapse photos.

  • RAW OR JPEG. Decide on which file you would like to use on your video. This also depends on the resolution you want to achieve. A RAW photo will show more details and will allow you to crop or zoom from the original photo. It will also give you more flexibility once you reach the editing stage.

  • Test it first. Do test shots to see if you are in the right frame or if your camera exposure settings are right. You also need to check first if you picked the right interval for your subject. It is recommended to set your settings manually. This is to have full control over the photo outcome.

  • Tripod is a must. One key to stunning time-lapse photos is a steady camera. This is where the tripod comes in. It will also help you reduce your time in adjusting to the level during the post-processing stage. This is an essential gear to shooting time-lapse videos. There are a lot of pretty good tripods in the market that are also budget-friendly. You will never regret purchasing one. Also, do not forget to tighten the knobs of your tripod. Make sure that it is standing in a stable position before leaving it out. Strap your camera and intervalometer if you must. Avoid stretching out the middle of your tripod.

  • Fully charged batteries. Before heading out to shoot your time-lapse, make sure that your camera's batteries are fully charged. Also, bring spare batteries with you to avoid delays on your production because you ran out of juice in between.

  • Background music. If you plan to add background music to your time-lapse video, choose first before you start. This will allow you to know the final video duration and calculate the number of frames you need for the entire project.

  • Add motion. This may sound a little crazy, but as an additional effect on your time-lapse, add a little motion. Try moving the camera while shooting your time-lapse video, and this will surely level up the effects on your final output. You can do this by using motorized equipment, like a slider. This will move your camera slowly while staying focused on your subject.

  • Disable Auto Power Off. Most cameras nowadays have auto power offsetting. Time-lapse needs long shooting durations. Do not forget to turn off this setting before shooting. This is to avoid your camera from turning off automatically after a certain period. You don't want to go back to a turned-off camera and a cut version of your time-lapse video.

About Rachel Z Photography

I'm a 29-year-old San Francisco-based photographer, activist, tattoo enthusiast, and guardian of 2 lovely rescued birds. I adore doing portrait photography for others, whether that's indoors or outdoors, covered in flowers and nature or covered in fake blood. My goal with my photography is to empower you by taking the essence of who you are and turning it into works of art. I want to hear what YOUR ideas are and help make them into a reality. I want you to feel powerful. I want you to feel beautiful. I want you to feel confident, because we all deserve that.

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