Complete Timelapse Overview
There are two specific actions to creating a stunning DSLR timelapse. First you need to get your camera to take a series of pictures at timed intervals, preferably in RAW so you can perfect the image later. Second, you need a method of coloring and rendering those individual images into a video file.
Let’s start at the beginning. First you need a camera and a lens. I prefer the Canon 6D because it performs well at night and is reasonably priced circa early 2017. I most often pair the 6D with a Rokinon 14mm f2.8. Why this lens? It has great glass for the price and is entirely manual. Fancy electronic components can ruin our timelapse. Got the camera and lens? Great!
Now you need an intervalometer. This is a device that talks to your camera and tells it to take pictures at intervals you select. I’ll shoot at intervals of anywhere from 1s during the day for fast clouds, to 35s for stars at moonless nights. An intervalometer can be as simple as software installed directly on the camera – though unfortunately Canon doesn’t include this feature on the 6D. There is an open source program called Magic Lantern that you can use to do this, but today I prefer to just attach an external one. You can either buy a simple generic intervalometer like this one I use (no need for expensive Canon branding):
Or one with advanced features for fine tuning your timelapse shot during sunrises and sunsets like an Alpine Labs Micron. If you’d like to add even more camera controls than that, including Bluetooth connectivity – get a Pulse (still cheaper than the Canon branded one and far more versatile):
So you’ve got your camera, lens, and intervalometer – now stick that on a tripod. Make sure it is a SOLID tripod. Tiny adjustments are unacceptable between timelapse frames because it will make your video jump and jitter! This ball head and tripod combination is the best balance of cost and performance I’ve yet found and currently own two of each. They’re rock solid even in wind and rain!
Now that you have your setup on a stable tripod – double check that the ground is stable. Set up your frame, adjust exposure, set to capture settings to RAW, focus the image, and get everything on your camera set to manual. Let me repeat – no autofocus, no auto-ISO, no auto-aperture. MANUAL EVERYTHING. You can use autofocus and similar features to find your settings, but then turn them OFF. Then pick your interval and start your timelapse! After you’ve captured the number of frames you want then head back to the studio! Hint: 480 is a good starter number of frames as it translates to 20s of 24fps video.
The basics are that you need to copy your files, put each stack of timelapses into it’s own individual folder, and then compile those stacks into an image. Most timelapse professionals I know use After Effects. The absolute simplest way of doing this is to just import your folder of timelapse files as an ‘image stack’ into After Effects. You can color right there in the Adobe Camera RAW import window, and then it appears as a colored clip in After Effects. You then add animation, export, and you’re done! Pretty simple right?
The problem is the speed. Even without noise reduction on a fast machine, it could take 45 minutes to render that timelapse. I instead use DaVinci Resolve to render the same shot in just a few minutes. Though all you need is the free version of Resolve to do this even for UHD export – timelapse files are so big that you’ll need a monster graphics card with greater than 8GB of graphics RAM. The one I use on my Windows system is in my gear guide here.
For most this is overkill – but to me it’s worth the cost because I render so much timelapse. Plus, Resolve natively recognizes and renders Canon .CR2 RAW files into video, which makes the process painless. For other cameras – you may need to convert them to generic .dng first with a converter. Then you take that image stack and import it, color, animate, and export from Resolve just like you did with After Effects.
And there you have it! That’s how to shoot and render timelapses. For my recommendations on a full starter kit, check out my gear guide. Unfortunately – there are so many little things that can go wrong during this whole process! So read the rest of this guide, and check out the TimeScapes forum – a wonderful timelapse resource. If you’d like to learn all the gritty details I use personally – you can find that in my video course collaboration from Story & Heart.