Time-Lapse Photography with a DSLR: A Primer

Text and Photos by Jon Hill, May 2007
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Soon after aquiring my Nikon D2x about two years ago, I started experimenting with its intervalometer feature. The intervalometer allows me to program the camera to automatically take a series of photographs (up to 999) spaced out by an interval of my choosing. The D2x also lets me choose the starting time, so I can set up a camera ahead of time and it will start taking shots at a predetermined time.

I've always been fascinated with clips in movies and documentaries that show dramatic clouds streaming across the sky in fast motion. The compression of time makes it possible to see clouds changing in unexpected or previously unnoticed ways. It's possible to make sequences like these with the D2x and slideshow software.

Here are the basic steps:

1) Set up the camera on a sturdy tripod and aim it in the direction you choose.

2) Set up the intervalometer feature to take a certain number of photos at a certain interval. I often take 100 to 300 photos spaced out at 20 second intervals. I usually set the camera to low resolution and basic quality to save space. Quality of image is not critical when each frame is only on the screen for a small fraction of a second.

3) Let the camera start shooting. I often monitor the exposures and make slight adjustments as the sequence progresses. It's possible but tricky to do pans and zooms during the sequence. A mechanized head would help in this regard. Be careful not to bump the legs of the tripod when making adjustments.

4) Upload the photos into a program capable of playing back slides with a very short duration. Windows Movie Maker works but doesn't play back fast enough for me (about 8 frames per second as I recall). I use Photodex Proshow (www.photodex.com). It allows me to set the slide duration to about 1/20th of a second.

5) Export the slideshow in your chosen format. I can get smooth playback of shows up to 1024x768 on my Athlon 3400-based system. The slideshows below are Flash-based shows created by Proshow Producer v3.0.


Of course, there are a multitude of uses for this technique. Tim Burton's recent feature-length animated movie "Corpse Bride" was shot entirely with Canon DSLRs using stop-motion animation techniques. Time lapse photography is also great for showing even longer periods of time than my examples show, for instance, the opening of a flower bud. Another classic subject for time lapse photography is city streets.

Check out the following links for more information on this interesting technique.

Time Lapse Tutorial (shows how to do it with QuickTime)

Time-Lapse (On Wikipedia, great overview of topic with more links)

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