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Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera

COW Library : Cinematography Tutorials : Marco Solorio : Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
Using a DSLR Camera to Create Time-Lapse Video
A Creative COW Magazine Feature

Time Lapse Secrets

Walter Biscardi

Marco Solorio
One River Media
Walnut Creek, California
© 2010, All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
You already know that your digital camera has higher-than-HD resolution -- even higher than film res sometimes -- and the pictures can look amazing. It turns out that your still camera actually works better than an HD video camera for creating gorgeous time-lapse photography. Marco Solorio tells you how to put it all together. This article focuses on Adobe After Effects, but it works the same for many other applications. Read on for details.


Believe it or not, you have the ability to shoot film resolution 2K files, 1080 HD, 720 HD and standard definition video with any off-the-shelf digital SLR (DSLR) camera. Today’s full-frame sensor DSLR cameras can even go well beyond the 4K cinema resolutions, for under, and sometimes well under, $2000. Their ability to shoot HD video is revolutionary, but it is also worth remembering that these are still cameras, with features for photography that are no less amazing, including huge sensors with almost unbelievable sensitivity to light. With some experience, you can shoot time-lapse without it even looking like time-lapse. When it comes to this style of shooting, you can throw your video camera out the window. After reading this article, you'll see why DSLR technology can be superior in every way imaginable.


When it comes to time-lapse photography (AKA, "interval shooting"), there isn't a true HD video camera on the planet that'll out-perform the resolution, quality and control of your standard DSLR. The best HD video cameras only go up to 1080 HD (which by the way only equates to 2.1 mega-pixels) and the media is fairly compressed in most cases. With a DSLR, not only can you easily achieve 1080 HD resolution, you can even surpass 2K film resolution with little effort. With some high-end DSLRs on the market, you can even surpass 4K film resolution while paying only a minute fraction of what a Grass Valley Viper or Sony CineAlta rig would cost. Imagine that, greater-than-4k-resolution, 4:4:4 lossless color space, and 14-bit latitude. Sounds good to me.

It's not just a matter of frame size that makes DSLRs so much better than HD video cameras for time-lapse. It's also a matter of image formats.

With a high quality DSLR, you can shoot in RAW mode, which is basically the "raw" data taken by the image sensor (CMOS or CCD). What this brings to you is much greater flexibility in the post-production process. White balance off? No problem. Exposure slightly low? No problem. With RAW files, you can adjust image settings before they have been applied to process the final output. It's kind of like working with negative film and adjusting the levels before you create a print out of it. Of course, like anything that delivers greater quality, a RAW image will be larger in file size than its JPEG counterpart. But believe me, it's worth every extra byte. And with today’s cheap prices on large memory cards, it’s a no-brainer.


Another great benefit to shooting with a DSLR camera is glass. Nothing beats picking your lens of choice for a specific shot in mind, especially primes. With a quality, fast lens, the large DSLR's image sensor can obtain narrower DOF (Depth of Field); something a DV camera can only dream of. Low-light capabilities are also vastly improved because of this. Shooting with a huge sensor and a prime lens at f/1.2 with no lens adapters is a thing of sheer beauty.

Another interesting aspect of using DSLR versus any video camera is size. Obviously DSLR cameras are considerably smaller in size than video cameras, especially a broadcast SD or HD camera. I have a photography backpack that holds the camera, eight lenses, a large selection of filters, flash, a nifty notebook computer compartment and miscellaneous items like batteries, CF cards, cords, etc. All of this is smaller than a CineAlta HD camera itself.



Here are five things to remember when shooting time-lapse for video:

1. Shoot in RAW mode if you have the option.
2. Shoot in manual mode; both camera and lens.
3. Format your card before you start.
4. Use a battery grip pack or external power.
5. Use a good tripod on solid ground.

So, now what do you actually DO?

There are several ways to control your DSLR. Canon has a nifty digital shutter release controller (Model TC-80N3) that works perfectly with my Canon 5D Mk II and 20D (also known as an “intervalometer”). With it, you can set interval times (minimum of one second intervals) and the remote will accurately snap away as if it were you physically hitting the shutter release button.

Another useful way to shoot time-lapse is by tethering your DSLR to a computer via USB or Firewire. Canon offers free software to its DSLR users which controls every function of the camera from the software, including time-lapse recording. You can even shoot your images directly to the computer or the camera - or both!

Do check your camera’s operating manual first though as some cameras have built-in intervalometers.

If you anticipate shooting frames over an extended period of time, then saving your images direct to a notebook computer (or even to an external FireWire drive for even more space) is a powerful option. With memory cards at the current capacity of 32 GB with 64 and 128 GB on the way, external storage may not be required. As a point of reference, I can currently get about 20 seconds worth of 24p footage on a 4 GB CF card running in RAW mode at full 8.2 mega-pixel resolution.

Speaking of "control," I'd like to emphasize the use of shooting in manual mode, in both the camera's shooting mode and the focus mode. It's very important to set everything to manual or your frames may encounter sporadic exposure levels, white balance levels and so on. Don't use a single auto-function on the camera at all! This means setting your ISO, your white balance, your F-stop, your shutter speed and of course, your focus setting. If you don't know how to use those functions individually, this is the perfect time to learn. Get out the manual!

formats comparison chart
This comparison shows the amount of picture information in each of the relative formats presented.


So now that you've got a ton of time-lapse photos taking up gigs of space, what do you do with them? For me, I throw the image sequence into Adobe After Effects. It's simple; you literally drag the folder containing the images right into After Effects and it knows that it's an image sequence. If it's an image sequence based off RAW images, then a popup window will ask you for image setting options. At this point, you have to know what frame-rate you want the sequence to be in. I prefer 24, but you can work in 25 for PAL or 29.97 for NTSC. By default, After Effects will conform the image sequence to 30 FPS, so change it to suit your own preference.

Next, which resolution do you want to work in? Obviously you can make a comp running at 2K if you have the hardware to play it back, but for this example, I'll talk about 1080 HD.

Since I like working in 24p, I make a new comp at 1080p24. You can just as well make a 1080p30 or 1080i60 comp, if you so desire. If you want to work in a true 60i format, you'll need to change your image sequence (the time-lapse photos) to 60 FPS. Why? So that each interlaced field gets its own temporal data. If you don't, then you will have a 1080p30 clip even though you think you're working in 1080i60. Obviously making your clip run at 60 FPS will increase the time-lapse speed two-fold, so keep that in mind. Confused? If so, don't worry about it and work in 1080p30 or 1080p24.

Here's something amazing... When you drop the image sequence into the new comp's timeline, you'll quickly see that the frame size of the images is quite larger that the 1080 HD frame size, at least with my 21 mega-pixel full-frame camera it is. I literally have to scale my images down to 35% to work in 1080 HD. Let me say that one more time: I have to scale DOWN my images to 35% for 1080 HD!

Part of the beauty of scaling down the image is that you have two powerful options at this stage of the game: For one, you can "crop" the image sequence into the 1080 HD frame exactly how you want it (sometimes you just can't frame the shot perfectly at the location, ya know?); Secondly, by having a larger source image than that of the sequence format, you can pan-and-scan the source in the HD frame. Imagine that, pan-and-scanning for HD! With this, you can digitally pan the frame across (faking a nice and perfectly controlled pan) or you can zoom into the shot while never going above the source's 100% zoom level.

Once you finish your sequence with the right framing and any potential keyframing of pan or zoom, you're ready to output to your favorite codec of choice for your NLE. But before you do, make sure your time-lapse footage looks good on a video monitor. I do a quick RAM preview and output it through my AJA hardware, a waveform vectorscope and at least three HD monitors from CRT, plasma, LED and LCD. This combined output exam quickly gives me feedback on image quality, dynamic range, broadcast legality and so on.


• 1280x720 - 720 HD (1 MP)
• 1920x1080 - 1080 HD (2.1 MP)
• 2048x1556 - 2K Cinema (3.2 MP)
• 2544x1696 - 4.3 MP DSLR
• 2880x2048 - D16 Video (5.9 MP)
• 3504x2336 - 8.2 MP DSLR
• 3656x2664 - Cineon/DPX (9.7 MP)
• 4368x2912 - 12.7 MP DSLR
• 4096x3112 - 4K Cinema (12.7 MP)
• 4992x3328 - 16.7 MP DSLR
• 5616x3744 – 21 MP DSLR  


The one thing you need to keep in mind when using a DSLR camera for time-lapse is the wear and tear you introduce to your camera’s shutter mechanism. Different quality DSLR cameras have varying shutter lifespans, which should be noted in your camera manual’s technical section. It’s this reason I still use my old Canon 20D for most time-lapse. I only use my Canon 5D Mk II when I don’t have my 20D with me, or need a shot that the 5D Mk II can truly excel better in than the 20D. Remember that as long as you’re higher than 1080 HD resolution (2.1 MP or more), you’re in good shape. Most DSLR cameras today, new and used, can easily get 8 MP or higher, like my old 20D. Better to beat on that shutter mechanism than a brand new, expensive DSLR that may not always produce drastically greater images.



If you really want your footage to stand out, use camera motion control to physically pan, tilt, truck or dolly the camera for a truly compelling effect. Even though you can pan-and-scan a lock-down shot in post, that does have its limits and it won't have the same dynamic perspective that a moving camera has. Using a motorized camera tripod mount, you can achieve this slow and steady motion control. You'll need a device that works at a whopping .1° per second like the Hutech AZM-100 motorized tripod mount. It's an alt-az (altitude azimuth) astronomy mount and serves my needs for such tasks.

By using a motorized mount like this, and panning across any static subject like a clear mountain vista or a city skyscraper, will make it appear that it's not even time-lapse in the first place - making people wonder, "how did they afford to shoot this super-high resolution footage?"

Your secret is good with me.

Marco Solorio is a multi-award-winning creative media developer. He owns OneRiver Media (, a video and audio postproduction facility located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Marco is a longtime Creative Cow leader and contributing editor. You can find him online in our Final Cut Pro and many other forums.

Media Batch

Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Dax Roggio
With my 16 megapixel GH-3, I shoot 4K time-lapse videos with resolution to spare, particularly on the vertical access, which allows me to animate the position in post. Here's an example: 4K Ultra HD time-lapse video: New York City Marathon 2013

I've also created a time-lapse interval calculator, which makes it quick and easy to determine the shooting interval: Time-lapse calculator.
Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Aleksey Tarasov
Great suggestions! I've bookmarked this article..
Thank you!

Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Mike Margolis
Thanks Carl! Time to get creative...
Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Carl Larsen
To work with jpg sequences, just about any version of AE will work. To use raw sequences from a 50d I think you'll need CS3 or greater.

You can check out my tutorial on working with image sequences for more specifics.

Carl Larsen
Which version of AE?
by Mike Margolis
Wicked cool stuff here! Just getting back into photog and animation after 25 years away... Amazing tools we have now! -- Question... What version of After Effects (trying to save a buck or two) do I need to be able to manipulate either RAW or jpeg shot with my Canon 50d?
Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Richard Kuenneke
Yes. Aperture priority for sunrises...the shutter will adjust as the light intensity increases and provide the most consistent results. You'll be surprised how fast the sun climbs into the sky. I'd shoot one frame every two-seconds. You can shoot kind of wide - and crop the image in post. You can even animate the time lapse without loss of quality.

Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by Bob Hager
I am shooting a sunrise timelapse in the morning on my 7d. Everyone suggests shooting in manual mode. My concern is the changing amount of natural light over the timelapse. I am not wanting to change aperture during the timelapse for fear of moving the camera. Would it be better to shoot in aperture priority mode instead?

Just a thought,
Re: Time Lapse Video Secrets: HD and Beyond with your Digital Camera
by John Aidiniantz

We've been using time-lapse for several years for CCTV purposes and couldn't be without it. We use Canon Powershot S2iS cameras although there are other models available.

Images of criminals in action can be seen at

All the best.
by Michael Cowan

Thanks for posting this. I've been using my D80 with a cheap Ebay intervalometer ($40), as that camera doesn't have anything built-in.

I had the most fun shooting with the camera bolted onto the handlebars of my bike and shooting 1 frame every 5 seconds. In my experience, as Bryan previously mentioned, manual exposure works well in a controlled environment with no more than three stops underexposure and about 1 stop overexposure. I've tried pulling aperture with varying degrees of success. Overall I find I'm willing to live with some sudden exposure changes, but everything is scene-dependent.

As well, I don't necessarily choose to shoot in RAW. If final distro is on the web, I've been very satisfied with shooting large JPEGs and dumping them into Quicktime and letting it assemble a sequence. I used a 32GB SD card and let it run for 12 hours, one exposure every 6 seconds. It captured 11,000 frames and there was plenty of space still available on the card.

And, lately I've been using David Eubanks' nifty PCam app for the iPhone. It's pricey at $40, but there are a lot of tools packed into the app, including Depth of Field, Field of View, Color Correction calculators, (a lot more I won't mention here) and a Time Lapse calculator. Plug in variables include Event Duration, Shooting Interval, Playback Speed and Screen Time. It calculates any one of those, provided you key in the other three. Huge time saver.
Some other ideas...
by Logan Needham
Fantastic article! I found that image size comparison chart to be wonderfully enlightening!

As far as built in interval shooting goes I think nearly all Nikon DSLR cameras come with this built in. (I even had a coolpix about 5-6 years ago that did it!) Right now I shoot with a D200 and a D300 both of which have very flexible built-in intervalometers.

Aside from shooting a locked down scene something I've done with some pretty good success is shoot time lapse of a process that takes weeks or even months. I shot 9 months of pregnancy with one shot per day, my wife stood the same way for each shot and I wrote down all my settings so I could reproduce the same shot each time. (being that we bought a new house and moved twice during the 9 months the changing background is an interesting added indication of time). There is much more post time involved because each shot needs to be registered to line up properly. On Christmas I wrecked a dirt bike pretty hard and I've been taking a daily shot of a wound on my arm as it heals - this one is not done yet but so far it looks really cool!

I don't want to get too windbaggy here but another effect of time lapse that can be pretty interesting is not using regular intervals. I shot a time lapse from a driving vehicle where I would release the shutter manually - when I approached a turn in an intersection or a specifically interesting part of town I would release the shutter faster which gave the effect of the video "slowing down" at those points.

Just some ideas!
Thanks again for the article!
Mike Wilcox: You can view some
by Marco Solorio
Mike Wilcox: You can view some of my examples here: Rocks
by Mike Willcox
Did I miss it or was there any examples of Marco Solorio using this process.
Thanks to Carl Larsen for sharing I enjoy photography work and have done some night stuff so I was super impressed with that time lapse stuff.
Does anyone know if Tom Lowe was using HDR images? I was just curious how he got the detail of the sky along with the detail of the trees. Just super impressive and cool. He must have spent alot of time out there. IS there any more information on how Tom is shooting to get that effect? Curious how many images he uses and how much time is between shots?
thanks.. for the very cool article and information!
by Richard Kuenneke
Manual is great if the light source is constant. I've read others who recommend using apeture priority to allow the camera to compensate for diminishing light.

by Mike Pell
I have shot the Canon 20D using their intervelometer for the past three years. Works great. Many of the TLs shot in 'Planet Earth' were done this way with a digital still camera. Using a DSLR allows you to take a TL of a scene and then while that is clicking away, you can shoot specific video shots with your HD video camera. Each set-up nets many shots that way. My DSLR and a small tripod always goes in my day pack on HD filming trips. Just make sure the wind doesn't hit it. For light wind I carry a small nylon bag and fill it with rocks or dirt and hang it from the bottom of the tripod to help stabilize it.
Mike Pellegatti
by Carl Larsen

Your original article on this topic got me going on high resolution lapses a couple years ago. Thanks!

If anyone is looking for some step-by-step instruction on how to get the best out of their images once they're shot - especially if you captured .jpg's - you may want to check out my tutorial on working with image sequences in After Effects.

Also, for those who are looking for some more advanced examples of what is possible with DSLR lapses, check out for some inspiration. Tom is an absolute master of the art.

Interesting Timing
by Buck Wyckoff
Interesting to see this article when I had just done this very thing three weeks ago at a homebrew club meeting:

I thought I had it all on manual. Everything was but the exposure, which varied depending on the people in the frame. I used a Canon 10D with Canon's interval timer. I also have the extended dual battery pack that attaches to the bottom. I turned off the beep and the LCD preview to save battery and speed up the camera's re-initialization time. I used a Canon 14mm prime lens.

I shot at the lowest setting of 1536x1024 in jpeg format. I took an image every 10 seconds for 4.5 hours. It was real fun bringing it into Premire Pro in a 640x480 sequence, scaling the video to actual pixels and then being able to pan around the image. Shooting at higher resolutions will really give you a lot of post flexibility. I'm not a still camera pro, but this is a great start. My friend just got the Canon 7D. We're having a lot of fun exploring the still & video options with that sweet device.
another suggestion for control gear
by Mike Ellenberg
I have an intervalometer called the Time Machine made by Mr Mumford:

I've only used it with my cheapo Pentax K100D, but it works really well. He will sell you a lead to fit your DSLR, plus various useful things like break-the-beam sensors so you can do fake ultra-slow-mo on e.g. water droplets - those 2000 fps shots of the drop hitting the water and raising a little crown of droplets...
manual modes
by Bryan Harvey
Informative and well written article. In regard to manual modes however, there are certain situations where this is not the best option. In many cases auto exposure or auto shutter can be used effectively, and in some cases may be the ONLY way to capture the shot you are after. Take this example: One of the more common uses of time lapse is to capture transitions from day to night of a cityscape with perhaps some movement of cars on a road. If you are in total manual mode, as the light dissipates from the sky, your image will simply become under-exposed frame by frame over time - not very interesting and not the effect we typically are looking for. If you want to maintain proper exposure throughout the transition into night, then you need to use some auto function on your camera. The effect typically sought when going for this kind of shot is a smooth transition from daylight, retaining the glow in the sky during "magic hour," and once the sun has completely set, have the city lights illuminate and expose your scene much the way your eye would see it, with car lights becoming a motion blur. There are different ways to accomplish this using the auto functions in your camera, but it is not possible in full manual mode. The best thing to do is get out there and experiment and learn how to use all of your camera's functions to get the results you're looking for.
DSLR Timelapse examples
by Tony Ostrovsky
If anyone is interested, here is a short video that I've assembled from multiple timelapses made with Canon EOS 350D, tethered into Aperture, running on a MacBook:

Timelapse Motion Control gear
by Barak Epstein
this is what you need if you wanna take your timelapse footage to the next level:
by Sanjib Panday

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