RAW vs JPEG vs VIDEO: WHAT IS BEST FOR TIMELAPSE PHOTOGRAPHY?
By Emeric Le Bars – January 4th 2022
I will be honest with you, back in 2011, I was creating my time lapses from JPEG sequences. I was then creating the video using a free time lapse tool for Mac, to then import it in an editing software and do the color correction then…
Thinking about it today, it seems like a pretty destructive workflow… and it actually was! It’s 2022, and I still have a copy of those time lapses in my hard drives, and I can definitely see how bad this technique was. The highlights are clipping, the shadows are noisy and the overall quality is not here, even though this is a 4K video.
The resolution of your final clip is one essential tool for a great time lapse, but it’s far from being the only one. From your camera to the final clip, there is a process to keep the best quality possible. And it starts with raw photos! Let me explain why:
Timelapse photography is an entire process on its own, from shooting on location to creating a video file from hundreds of images. This is the most challenging and time consuming photography technique out there. The different steps of the workflow and the way you approach them will make the difference. And it starts by the image sequence itself.
A professional time lapse in 2022 is created from a sequence of raw photos for several reasons:
Cost and quality
Since you are shooting raw files, which all DSLR or mirrorless cameras do nowadays, you end up with very sharp and large images to work with. You can easily create a 4K or 6K video using a $300 camera. I personally started with a t3i back in 2013, and with raw files, I was able to create a very sharp 4K video at the end of my workflow, even using the basic lens kit 18-55mm.
Capturing a Day-to-Night Timelapse of the Griffith Observatory and Downtown LA with a T6s Camera.
So why not shooting a video instead of images?
Size of your content
Imagining filming a 4K or 6K video for over 2 hours. Can you imagine how big the file will be? You don’t need to capture what you don’t want to see in the final video. Capturing a 2 hour long time lapse with one raw picture every 7 seconds for example, will give you a sequence of images between 20 and 50gb maximum, depending on your camera and the size of your raw pictures, which is already way more manageable than a 2 hour long 4K video.
If you shoot a video, you will get very limited with your shutter speed, usually maximum 1/50 or 1/60th of a second, which is very dark at night without pushing the ISO and the aperture to the maximum. By shooting raw photos, you are able to use photography settings and don’t need to worry about having a maximum shutter speed. You can easily end up with 4 or 5 second long shutter speed at night (even more if you want, depending on your interval). This will create some really nice light trails, and allow you to use correct ISO and aperture settings.
And finally, the color correction, where raw files will make the difference over Jpg images or a simple video, and bring magic to the table!
Raw is amazing! It’s a file that is not compressed like a jpg photo. It allows you to change the white balance and do some crazy color correction in post, without actually losing any quality.
You understand that if you were shooting a video or a jpeg sequence, you could not do as much color correction as you could on a raw image sequence. The reason for it is that every single exposure setting is already written on the files. Jpeg images are already compressed and all the information, such as exposure, white balance and such are already engraved in it. So there is not much you can actually do once working on it in post-production. This is where raw becomes interesting, and whatever you do with the file, the quality will stay the same!
Edited raw image vs non-edited on Lightroom Classic.
In timelapse photography, it’s nearly impossible to capture HDR (High Dynamic Range) images, where you change the exposure several times for the same photo in order to get a properly exposed scene. Instead, you will need to find the right balance between the highlights and the shadows, in order to recover both of them. Most of the time, shooting a little bit underexposed is the best way to go, as you will get more information in your shadows than your highlights. If your highlights are burned, there is nothing you can do.
And this is where raw images are actually amazing, since you can recover most of the details while processing the sequence.
Raw images will also be very interesting when you need to change the white balance during the time lapse, which is always the case during a Holy Grail day to night or night to day transition. If you are shooting a day to night, the white balance will change every few minutes, going from sunny to something more tungsten at night. It’s not something you directly want to do on the camera, as you will see the white balance changing from one frame to another.
You want to keep the same all along and create a smooth transition in post using programs such as LRTimelapse and Lightroom. Shooting jpg photos for a day-to-night timelapse would then be a very bad idea, since the white balance is already written on the file.
Day-to-Night Exposure Ramping + Holy Grail Wizard in LRTimelapse
So next time you are going out to shoot a time lapse, make sure to set up your camera to shoot raw images. You are free to shoot raw + jpg if you want.
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Emeric Le Bars is a French, now Los Angeles based, motion timelapse and hyperlapse photographer working in the industry since 2011.