By Emeric Le Bars – January 19th 2022

After shooting time lapses for the past 8 years, I often ask myself what makes a timelapse a good one? Is it your camera? Your lens? Is it your composition? your subject? your interval? Well actually, a little bit of everything, and more. 

Let’s see what are the ingredients to create a professional, high-quality time lapse video.

Your subject, angle and composition

Okay, those are 3 ingredients at once. But see them as salt, pepper and garlic, they mix really well together and make your food taste delicious! 

There is no secret, having a good time lapse subject is important. But having the right subject does not necessarily mean you will end up with a good time lapse video. Find the perfect angle to enhance your subject, preferably with constant motion. If you like cityscapes as much as I do, shooting towards the West at sunset will give you a beautiful sky above the city skyline, and same thing for sunrises while towards the East. The best light is always around Golden Hour, one hour after the sunrise, or before the sunset, so try to shoot your time lapse around that time if possible.

There are hundreds of timelapse locations in a city, specially big cities like Los Angeles or Chicago, they are amazing timelapse playgrounds, full of motion day and night. And whatever city you live in or travel to, make some research prior to going on location to find the perfect angle.

Once you are happy with your subject and angle, get the right composition for your timelapse. Make sure to include all the important elements, don’t crop buildings if possible, keep some space for the sky and create depth with foreground/background. The law of third can sometimes be useful, but you don’t have to stick to it. This is not THE law that will make all your timelapses better.

Be creative, and experiment. But remember, constant motion is key!

Shooting a sunrise time lapse in Las Vegas

Camera settings

First of all, set your camera to Manual Mode, always. Camera settings are also very important in time lapse photography. They will definite the entire look on your final video. Select the wrong shutter speed and the time lapse will look choppy and the fast moving elements will be out of frame before we can even find out where they are actually going.

Having the right exposure is also key but can can get tricky fast. You don’t want to end up with an under or overexpose area on your image sequence, and cannot really shoot HDR images. Shooting RAW photos will obviously help a lot, but make sure to find the right exposure when capturing a time lapse, especially when shooting towards the sun.

Always keep the right exposure for the brightness part of the scene, which is usually the sky. Shooting a little underexposed (around -1 on your EV) will usually be enough around sunrise/sunset and give you the best colors. It’s always easier to get information back from your shadows than your highlights. If the exposure is clipping, there is usually nothing you can do.

Capturing the sunset behind the Santa Monica Pier

To capture professional time lapse videos, you obviously need to understand photography and how the 3 settings affect each other and how they affect your final timelapse. You are capturing a sequence of images to create a video file!

What about AV mode?

Since AV is mostly a mode that has been designed for handheld shooting, I would not recommend it for time lapse photography.

But you can still capture a day-to-night timelapse with this mode as long as you set up your settings properly, which means having a minimum and maximum for every other setting on your camera (shutter and ISO).

You do not want your shutter speed to be slower than your interval at night, which would create conflicts between the camera and the intervalometer. This is why shooting with M mode is less risky and more crafty, especially when the light is constantly changing.

Even during the day, fast moving elements like cars or people can mess up a time lapse if you are shooting in AV, because they can easily affect the overall brightness of your image, so the camera will automatically change the settings. This is going to create flicker.

Capturing a double day-to-night of the Chicago Riverwalk

Your interval

No need to say that your interval is also very important when creating a time lapse video. It will affect the speed and smoothness of your subject, which also means the entire look of your final video. 

See your interval as your side dish. If it’s not a good one, it won’t really be a big deal, but it will not go well with the rest of the food on your plate. Same thing here! At the end of the day, you can shoot your subject with any interval, but only one or two will fit perfectly.

Ask yourself one simple question: How fast is your subject going? The faster your elements are in your composition, the faster your interval should be in order to get a smooth result. Seeing one element several times in your time lapse will make it much smoother and visually more pleasing.

Elements such as cars, people or boats usually go well with an interval of 1 or 2 seconds. Clouds usually move at the right speed with an interval between 2 and 4 seconds.

Full day-to-night transitions work great with an interval between 5 and 7 seconds without ending up with too many frames and crazy long videos.

Timelapsing a day-to-night above New York City (7″ interval)

At night, since you are already shooting with a slow shutter, use the fastest interval possible, such as 2″ shutter speed > 3″ interval  or 3.2″ shutter speed > 4″ interval etc…

There are tons of other subjects to shoot in timelapse photography, but day or night, just ask yourself how fast your elements are going, and you’ll be able to easily select the right interval.

If you need help with selecting the right camera settings and interval, watch my favorite course “The Perfect Settings for the Perfect Timelapse“.

Color Correction

Color Correction can be seen as your cooking temperature. Too much and it’s not going to taste really good, not enough and it will taste like raw food. Oh wait… raw… like your images, pun was not intended!

Over the years, my color correction style changed quite a lot. I often come back to some old image sequences and edit them with today’s style and tools I have access to. I am actually surprised how much the color correction really does affect the final video. It plays a HUGE role on the look of the final product.

Even though you are working with a sequence of raw photos, the final product is a video file. You cannot do as much color correction as you would do with one single frame, it just does not work! 

Stay natural, create contrast but not too much to avoid contrast flicker. Analyze your sequences to see what colors are more present than others and how you can make them more vibrant. Utilize filters in order to drag the attention to a specific area, and don’t forget to take the time to fully deflicker your corrected sequences with LRTimelapse before exporting the video!

Editing a beautiful sunrise timelapse on Lightroom Classic

The gear

When it comes to gear, having a camera with interchangeable lenses is key. I also suggest purchasing zoom lenses, and not prime ones as you will rarely have the option to move once on location. Cameras above 20 Megapixel will do a great job and make you create 4K professional time lapse videos you can end up selling online. 

Even though gear does not matter so much, I still recommend keeping a nice budget for a professional tripod such as the Manfrotto M55 series. They are pricey yet durable and sturdy. Since you are shooting for a long period of time, having a sturdy tripod is really important. It will reduce the risk of having blurry frames. You can still work with a missing or blurry image, but it is time consuming and never works with the “I will fix this in post” kind of mindset, this is never a good thing.

Take some time to clean your gear such as camera sensors or lenses. Most of the time, blowing up some air using a blower can make a big difference, and again, avoid spending so much time removing dust spots on After Effects.

Having extra batteries and big enough SD cards while on location will avoid you many issues. There is nothing worse than seeing your camera shut down in the middle of a great timelapse, or getting the “SD Card Full” message. Get ready before going on location and you will never be disappointed. 

Sharing a message

To be fair,  back in 2011, I did not start time lapse photography wanting to share a specific message in mind. I started shooting this kind of content because I loved it and I loved the way we could see the world through this one-of-a-kind art form.

The invisible became visible! 

It was a way for me to travel, meet people, spend some time outside and also make some money. But a few years later, I started to share a message along the way.

Timelapse Photography is the reason why I have been able to travel all around the United States and meet most of my friends, visit some of the biggest cities and fulfill my need of traveling, and you can see it through all my videos and content I share online.

I wanted people to see the world the way I see it through my lens, and time lapse photography was the best way for me to share that message. The combo was perfect and almost meant to be! 

Shooting timelapses from the top of the US Bank Tower (Los Angeles, CA)

So ask yourself, what are you shooting time lapse videos for? What is the reason you want to get better at it? This is a very unique art form that requires a lot of time, just to end up with a short video at the end of the process.

Timelapse photographers are somehow crazy. Who want to spend hours and hours working on a single 10 second video? So make sure you are aware of what your long terms goals are in time lapse photography, that way you will create some amazing content you will be proud of!

What to remember

Creating a time lapse video is like a recipe. You mix different ingredients together in order to create one single product. You can’t really eat your timelapse, but you can watch it, enjoy it and share it online with the world!

Take the time to think about those few tips in this article next time you go out shooting a time lapse, and you’ll see that you will be very proud of your work at the end of the process. My goal here is to make you create quality content over quantity, so if you want to learn more about the craft, check the other articles below or watch some of my online courses.

If you need more basic knowledge, watch my free beginner course “Introduction to Timelapse Photography“.

Merci et à bientôt !

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Emeric Le Bars
Emeric Le Bars
Timelapse Photographer

Emeric Le Bars is a French, now Los Angeles based, motion timelapse and hyperlapse photographer working in the industry since 2011.