What is Time Lapse Video?

Below, we've outlined the basics of time lapse, some history behind the popular technique, and how to shoot your own time lapse movies with a digital camera. 

What is time lapse video?

Typically, one second of video contains 24 still frames, which are stitched together like a flipbook to create motion. When shooting time lapse video, these frames aren't captured 
in real time. Instead, they're spaced farther apart so that your video speeds up dramatically. Here's an example: if you capture one frame of video per second, and then play it back at the standard 24-frame speed, the video will appear to move 24 times faster than normal. It's extremely boring to watch grass grow in real time, but if you're shooting time lapse video over a period of days, you can condense the entire process to a few seconds.    

Who pioneered the time lapse technique?

First used in an 1897 film called Carrefour De L'Opera, time lapse became more popular in the early 20th century for shooting nature photography. Photographer Arthur C. Pillsbury was known for his time lapse clips of wildflowers in Yosemite National Park, and he captured the entire life cycle with a custom camera setup. His videos clearly showed how fast the flowers were disappearing from the Yosemite meadows, causing the Superintendents of the National Parks to start active preservation efforts. Perhaps the most well-known example of time lapse is Koyaanisqatsi, a 1983 feature film that showed epic scenes of people and nature.       

Here are a few of the most popular time lapse subjects: 

  • Plants growing and flowers blooming
  • Stars in the evening sky
  • Day and night over a bustling city
  • Completion of a long-term construction project

How does time lapse work?

It's possible to shoot time lapse manually with a digital camera, but this will inevitably lead to exposure inconsistencies and timing errors. For more accurate video, we recommend using an intervalometer. This device syncs up with your camera's shutter, ensuring that each frame maintains a consistent look and timing. Today, you can find hardware and software intervalometers, and many consumer cameras have an intervalometer feature designed for that particular model.      

To figure out time lapse speed in mathematical terms, you can divide the "projection camera rate" by the "camera frame rate". Then, multiply it by the actual camera speed that you intend to use. 

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