Albert Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
It’s not lightly I contradict one of history’s greatest minds, but recently we’ve discovered another reason for time, the magnificent visual artistry of time-lapse photography.
With amazing camera smartphones like the Nokia Lumia 1020 making time-lapse photography ever more common, you’d be excused for thinking this was a relatively modern phenomenon. Think again. It was used commercially for the first time in Georges Méliès’ feature film Carrefour De L’Opera way back in 1897! Happily, these days we don’t need to be film producers to create breath taking time-lapse photography. If you’re packing a Nokia Lumia, everything you need is right in your pocket.
One man who has shown this to be true more than any other is Olivier Noirhomme. We hooked up with this time-lapse photography master to learn more about how he makes his magic. In a series of articles, he’ll teach you how to create landscape time-lapses, macro time-lapses and night time time-lapses. But to kick start we get down to basics. Over to you, Olivier.
Requirements for getting started
1. A concept for a scene
This can be anything you want, the sky, a landscape, a street, a park, your house view. Literally the only requirement is that something moves within the scene. The point is to see the evolution of a subject. A uniform gray sky, for instance, won’t produce a great video because there’s unlikely to be anything moving.
2. A way to secure your smartphone
The best way is to use a tripod. If you don’t have one, you can place the phone on something solid and fix it to prevent any movement. It’s also best to find a way of secure your device to stop it falling. With a tripod, make sure it’s locked at all times in case of strong wind.
3. A power adapter
Time lapse photography can be pretty taxing on your smartphone battery. To make sure you don’t run dry, I suggest you have a power adapter or portable charger always on hand.
4. The right app
The Nokia Camera app doesn’t have an interval capture option but the Windows Phone Store has plenty of apps offering this functionality. Among others, there’s Timelapse Pro and CameraPro. Timelapse Pro is great for regular and basic time-lapses. There’s a free version with a few capture settings, which allow you to take shots and directly make a video out of them. The paid version enables you to add effects, export/upload video or to save the pictures in the gallery. CameraPro is perfect for regular and advanced time lapses. It’s the one I’m use all the time because it has a lot more settings than Timelapse Pro such as total focus control, exposure time or ISO value.
If you want to control each and every setting, like in Nokia Camera, and play with the resolution, then transfer the pictures to a computer afterwards, it’s your must have app.
5. Computer software to render the video
As I’ve already mentioned, there are apps that create a video right after the capture, so it’s not mandatory work on a computer. However, these apps can be very limiting. Depending on the settings, you’ll have no colour, brightness or contrast correction, no effects, no music and certainly no zoom or pan. All those things are, of course, possible with the file created by the app but it’s also very limiting. It’s way better to work directly on the pictures than on an already processed, compressed and limited in resolution video. I always use a video editor to do my time-lapses precisely to be able to do whatever I want to do with the original files.
How to fix your settings
Choosing the right resolution
You’ll probably want a 1080p (1920*1080) or 720p (1280*720) video. It’s important to have pictures with a higher resolution to keep the sharpness. Always choose a 16/9 ratio or else you’ll lose the top and bottom of your pictures or have black bars on the sides. Whether you have a Nokia Lumia 920, 925 (both 8MP, 3552*2000), 1020, 1520 (both 5MP, 3072*1728) or another Lumia, the resolution on each one is more than enough, even for little stylish zooms (close to 2x zoom in 1080p with 8MP).
Just compare the different sizes and you’ll see that even 2MP would be more than enough. 2MP seems very small for a picture but it’s slightly bigger than a 1080p video. On phones like the 1020 or 1520, the full resolution pictures aren’t necessary for a regular time lapse, even with small zooms. It will drain your battery for nothing, take a lot of space on your phone and will be more for your computer to handle. Additionally, with 5MP, you’ll have the best image quality thanks to the oversampling technology.
Now, for insane zooms and pans, you’ll need the full resolution of your 1020. The power adapter is mandatory and you’ll lose the benefits of oversampling but it will permit you to zoom 4x in 1080p, 6x in 720p and even 2x in 4K, thanks to the 33,6MP (7712*4352).
Here, a 4/3 ratio can sometimes be useful. Thanks to the higher resolution of 38,2MP (7136 × 5360), you can zoom a little more. However, except with black bars on the sides, it will not be possible to show the whole scene in a 16/9 video. Here’s an example of a time-lapse where where ultra high resolutions can be really useful.
The interval time and number of pictures
Even for a short video, you’ll need hundreds of pictures so one time-lapse can sometimes take hours to shoot. The number of pictures clearly depends on what you want to capture and the chosen interval time but be aware that it’s that number that will influence the length of the video.
On the flip side, the length of the interval time will influence the speed of movement in the video. Without thinking about a specific scene, generally, short intervals produce slow and smooth movements and long intervals produce rapid movements. To ensure very smooth movements, I always make 30fps (frames per second) videos. It means that a second of video consists of 30 pictures. This gives you an idea of how many pictures are needed for the result you want.
For example, with a 5 second interval and 30fps, you’ll need 450 pictures and 2250 seconds (37,5 minutes) to do a 15 second video. The 37,5 real minutes will be condensed in those 15 seconds, hence the fast forward but very smooth feeling.
If the scene has a lot of fast movement, such as clouds on a very windy day, it’s almost mandatory to choose a short interval time. For example, if a cloud were at the bottom left in of the picture in one frame and and at the top right in the next, it would create a weird effect in the video. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to see how it had progressed.
If the movements are slow (such as clouds on a gentle breeze) or very slow (such as a growing plant) you can choose longer time interval as there won’t be a lot of difference from one picture to the next one. Whatever the interval time is, you’ll still need a lot of pictures to fill in the 30fps and the longer the interval the longer the capture will be.
Shutter speed and exposure time
It can be very different from a scene to another, depending on the brightness, or lack of. Most of the time, except at night, the shutter speed will be fast or very fast, generally below one second to avoid any overexposure. A very bright scene could have an exposure time such as 1/1000s or even shorter. Darker scenes, still during the day or with soft artificial lighting, could have 1/30s, 1/15s or maybe 1/4s but not longer. Experimenting will help you find the right one and will also quickly show that, with daylight, it’s hard to have a slow shutter speed without overexposing the scene. For the more advanced photographer, you can try ND Filters.
Don’t leave ISO value on Auto. To keep the same brightness evolution throughout the capture, it needs the exact same value for each shot to avoid any obvious change which would produce a flash like effect in the video. To get the find the best value, do tests before the capture. Choose the lowest value, take a picture and look at the result. If it’s OK for you, you’re done. If not, choose a higher value and repeat the steps until you find the right one. This is an example of a video, which could have been ruined by ISO value changes.
It really depends on the scene itself. Very bright scenes may need negative compensation as very dark scenes may need positive one. Do some tests if you’re doubtful about leaving it on zero or judge for yourself by studying the shadows, bright areas, the sky etc.
The White balance can change the colours and the tone of a scene. By testing each option, you’ll see there can be a lot of differences from one choice to another.
I never leave it on Auto because it can lead to an issue that will ruin your time lapse. On Auto, the white balance may be different from one picture to the next for whatever reason (a change of brightness, the sun leaving/appearing on the screen, clouds, etc.) and this will break the homogeneity of colors and tones.
To keep it simple, there are five basic choices : Auto, Manual, Macro, Hyperfocal or Infinity.
Again, it’s not a setting you want to leave on Auto. Because of the way most camera apps work, on Auto, the focus is logically redone for each shot. If there are focus changes during the capture, it can cause a vibrating effect that ruins the video, such as with this one below.
The exact same focus is thus needed. In CameraPro, the focus is fully controllable like in Nokia Camera. For landscapes and distant scenes, Hyperfocal or Infinity are perfect. By definition, the focus is never redone in Hyperfocal and Infinity because it doesn’t focus on a precise part of the scene. I choose Hyperfocal almost every time simply because it gives better results by giving the maximum depth of field. For closer scenes, manual focus on the viewfinder is the best way to go, sometimes helped by additionally selecting Macro focus. CameraPro will remember the focus you choose. It will not redo it for each shot, even it the scene changes during the capture.
We hope you found this fantastically detailed introduction to the world of time-lapse photography as useful as us. Next week Olivier will share what you need to do on your computer once you’ve captured your time-lapse. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please leave them below and we’ll ask Olivier to answer them or contact him directly on Twitter.
Image credit: Dan Eckert