Timelapse Tutorial Part 1: What is Timelapse Photography?

Cover photo by Ryan Hallock.

Anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary will be familiar with timelapse photography, even if they couldn't identify the technique itself as timelapse. When you watch an African riverbed flood and desiccate and flood again over the course of a year, but the footage has been condensed into a running time of thirty seconds, that's timelapse. Seeing a plant grow, flower, and die within the space of ten seconds would have been achieved using timelapse photography, too.

Or, like Matt and Will Burrard-Lucas, you can make a timelapse recording of the Great Migration, as millions of wildebeest cross the Mara river from Tanzanzia to Kenya.

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of timelapse photography is:

the photographic technique of taking a sequence of frames at set intervals to record changes that take place slowly over time. When the frames are shown at normal speed the action seems much faster.

The difference is in the frame-rates

How about a photographically or cinematographically-oriented explanation? Video is made by shooting a series of photographs (or frames) in succession and then stringing them together so that they can be watched in sequence. Films shown in the cinema are usually filmed at 24 frames-per-second, and depending on where you are in the world, television programmes will have a frame-rate of 24 or 25 frames-per-second. When they're played back at the same rate, this gives the impression of things happening in 'real time'.

Timelapse photography doesn't need to complicated to be beautiful, as Edward Steven Perry's Lesotho timelapse shows.

The timelapse sequences in nature documentaries, however, will have a much slower frame-rate with a significant period of time elapsing between each shot. They might have been 60 frames per minute, or six frames per minute, or 24 frames per day. When these frames are strung together and shown as a video played back at 24, 25, or 30 frames per second, it makes whatever was recorded appear to take place much faster than it really did. It's an excellent technique for documenting change and a great first step into filmmaking.

Documenting change

For anyone interested in having a go at timelapse photography, it will require identifying a subject that is going to change over time, taking a series of photographs of this subject as it morphs, and then piecing together these photographs to create a video. The result will be a video showing the change happening faster than it really did. You don't have to worry about recording sound, about focus-pulling or panning, or about directing your subjects.

Timelapsed sequences can be as involved or as simple as you want. They can be shot over a matter of minutes, for example drifting and shifting clouds; the span of months, such as the construction of a building; the course of years, or anything in between. They can be taken on the move, for example in a car or on a bus. And they can involve shifting vantage points and changes in focus as you grow more sophisticated. The key is to have a subject that is changing.

On the move doesn't have to be in a car or on a bus; it can be on a plane, too, as this awesome timelapse piece by Philip Bloom shows!

Then of course you need to know how to shoot your images and how to edit them into a video. But don't worry, we'll get to that!

More Timelapse Tutorials!

This tutorial is part of a 4-part series. Check out the rest: