Something every photographer secretly wants to try is timelapse photography. We see the dreamy scenes made by others, and though it appears to be simple, good tutorials on the net are lacking. Worse, many of the tutorials send us off with our credit cards to buy tools that you don’t need to buy. You can easily make your own timelapse videos for free!
The only part I won’t cover in this particular article is how to set your camera to take repeated timed shots to get timelapse photographs. Each camera is different, and each camera will offer its own features and limitations. I have a Nikon D90, and whilst this camera is not provided with any capability to shoot timelapse photography, there are ways and means. I ended up making an intervalometer (device used for taking repeated shots at a set interval), though you could just as easily go and buy one or use computer control to do the same thing. I don’t recommend trying to do it manually unless you’re not chasing something particularly aesthetically pleasing. Any slight camera movement will be amplified in your finished timelapse video. I have since purchased a Nikon D7000 which has an intervalometer built in.
This article will teach you the following principles:
- some basic techniques for taking the photographs
- how to turn the photographs into a smooth video sequence
- adding credits
- choosing a soundtrack and fitting it to your finished production
Before we start, here is an example of a finished project. It is only my second test of the technique, and already the production is looking refined. Make sure you watch full screen in HD:
This is my production test that was little more than a proof of concept:
Note that the steps below are referring to this proof of concept video, not the boats one above (which uses different shutter speed etc.).
Tips for Taking the Timelapse
There are several factors you need to consider when setting out to create your masterpiece. Firstly, have everything charged up and clear your memory card. The next thing you need to do is setup your camera to handle the conditions. If you are going to transition from light to dark, or vice-versa, you need a camera setting that will deal with those conditions as they change automatically, and not over/under expose your final photos. For the above test, I set my D90 to Shutter Priority with a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. I was also using a circular polariser to help avoid over-exposure.
The next thing to do is to set the optimal image size. Because we’re doing a potentially long sequence, I don’t really recommend RAW – all that post processing is going to be very tiresome, but this is all about creativity, I’ll leave that to you. For starters, go for JPG and take a couple of snaps with different picture control settings until you see a nice result on the rear display. The final video size is going to be 1920×1080 for HD video, so set your JPG’s down to the smallest you can go above that size. This will dramatically increase the available space on your storage card for the timelapse.
Other settings I used are:
- Exposure Delay Mode – reduce vibration when the mirror slaps shut to take the photo
- Image Review Off – increase battery life by not displaying after each shot
- VR Off – vibration reduction uses lots of battery and shouldn’t be used on a tripod
- Manual Focus – set your focus automatically, then switch to manual – focus should not be changed during a timelapse unless it is controlled somehow
You will need a good solid platform for your camera, ideally a stable tripod. You don’t want the camera waving around in the wind and you need the ability to frame your shot. While you can place your camera on a table or something, it makes it more difficult to frame the shot – it’s hard to get the camera pointing at the right angle, and it’s difficult to get the platform out of shot. When setting your camera up, be aware of environmental factors. Kids and dogs running around an expensive and fragile camera setup is a recipe for disaster. Also keep an eye out for passing showers that can saturate your gear while you’re in watching TV waiting for your finished timelapse.
When you frame your shot, frame it like you would take a single shot of a pleasing location. The other thing you will like to consider is to have anything that can move in the breeze as far away from the shot as possible. Whilst we can deal with movement in timelapse photography, leaves and plants close by can look very jerky in the end result. Likewise you don’t want people/cars/animals moving right in front of the camera – you want them at a bit of a distance.
For my example timelapse above, I set the interval to 5 seconds. Depending on the look you want to get, you will want to vary this. 5 seconds seems to be short enough to capture motion naturally.
Once you download the captured photos to your computer, check the filenames. Each photo should have a frame number in the filename, and the numbers should be zero padded. If not, you can use a renaming utility like the Bulk Rename Utility.
Tools you will need to process your timelapse are as follows:
- VirtualDub - for processing your video. Get the 32bit version, even if you’re running 64bit
- Deflicker filter for VirtualDub - smooths out automatic camera adjustments. Get the latest beta
- Fadefx filter for VirtualDub - helps you create cool fade transitions in your production
- Inkscape - for making your cool credits screens
- Audacity - for editing the music clip you’re going to encode into your presentation
This article has the potential to get long and complicated, so I promise to stay on point and keep it as brief as possible.
Make the Video
Fire up VirtualDub, go to File->Open Video File and select the first photo in your timelapse sequence. Ensure ‘Automatically Load Linked Segments’ is checked and click Open:
Now, from the Video menu, select Filters… Click the Add button, select the resize filter and click Ok. Now, ensure resize is selected as the active filter and click Configure. The only thing we’re going to change beyond the defaults is the width for Absolute Pixels to 1920:
Once you click Ok on the resize filter, click Add on the filters dialog and add the null transform filter. This isn’t going to be configured at all, it is just a placeholder that carries the new image size from the resize filter through for use in other filters.
Next, click the Cropping button on the filters dialog. This will display a cropping dialog where we can crop the height down to 1080 pixels. Increasing Y1 offset and Y2 offset, get the top and bottom cropping where you want it so that enough pixels are removed to give a final height of 1080 pixels. Watch the preview image to see which parts of the image are being chopped off. Click OK when you’re happy with the crop. We’ve now prepared our video for HD 1920×1080 display!
Now, add the Deflicker filter that you downloaded earlier. I left this at the defaults, this is something you can play with if you’re not getting acceptable results. Deflicker smooths the transitions between light and dark that your camera will go through as it tries to adjust to changing light conditions. The filter does a brilliant job, you can try with and without to see if it helps your end result.
Add the Motion Blur filter. This filter has no configuration, so it’s default all the way with this one. Once again, this is another subjective filter that helps smooth the jerkiness inherent with creating a timelapse by attempting to blur between the frames. You can see it in my production test video where there is slight ghosting as the trees blow around. This filter assists in making the smooth sun movement, and would also assist in smooth cloud movement.
Add the FadeFX filter, and set it to fade out in the last 5 seconds or so of your video. VirtualDub shows the total number of frames; we’re going to produce our video at 10 frames per second, so you’ll be looking to set it to the last 50 frames or so. In my case I selected the last 44 frames for the sake of round numbers. Set the fade parameters to Fade out to black, and Extend effect to other frames. Be careful with that last option; if you end up blacking out more than what you expected, uncheck this box. In some cases you may need to encode video before attempting to use this effect, such as what we will do in producing our credits sections:
That’s it for the filters, you can click OK to exit the filters dialog.
The next step is to ensure the Video Framerate is set to 10 frames per second. This is the default, so we shouldn’t need to do anything. Go to the Video menu and select Frame Rate. You should see similar to the following:
Now we need to select the video compression. From the Video menu, select Compression. When the list of codecs displays, scroll all the way down to find Xvid MPEG-4 Codec and click the Configure button. The Profile @ Level should be set to Xvid 1080p and Encoding type should be set to Twopass – 1st pass. Click Ok to close this dialog, then Ok to close the Compression dialog:
Now we will save these configuration settings – you can reuse them for any future timelapse video, or go back to them if you make a mistake. The only thing you will need to change is the Fadefx frames.
The next step is to begin producing our video. From the File menu, select Save As AVI, call it whatever you like, but suffix it with ‘p1′. This will take a little while depending on the number of images you have.
When the compression has complete, we’re not done yet. We need to complete the Xvid compression. From the Video menu, select Compression, then click the Configure button with Xvid MPEG-4 Codec selected. We’ll leave everything the same except for Encoding type. We’ll set that to Twopass – 2nd pass:
Click Ok to close this dialog, and Ok again to close the Compression dialog. From the File menu, click Save As AVI and make the filename the same as before, except this time suffix it with ‘p2′. Once again, this encoding will take a little while. When it completes, you will have a HD encoded timelapse video. Go and play it back and check that it looks ok, and double-check the fade out to black and ensure it doesn’t seem to long/short. You can play with the settings from here; the settings I have provided are probably fairly standard for most timelapses. You can of course remove Motion Blur and instead use a longer shutter speed…
One thing in common with many good timelapse videos is they have a cool soundtrack playing in the background. To be able to publish your work without paying licensing fees, you’ll need some legal music. I sourced the soundtrack for my video from ccmixter. Just click through the categories and listen to tracks until you find one you like. Generally, the music there is free for personal use (with attribution), and commercial use can be negotiated directly with the artist. The attribution is something we’ll tag onto our final video further on.
Attribution and Credits
To add to the coolness factor of our video, we’ll make it look like it came from some pro production company. To do that is pretty simple, we will use Inkscape which is my favourite vector editing program. You can use any program, though I do recommend using a vector editor and keeping the original vector files for improvement/modification/reuse later. A vector image can stretch out to billboard size and still retain razor-smooth edges, whilst raster art gets bigger pixels as you grow it larger.
To begin, fire up Inkscape, then from the tool palette on the left, click the square, then draw a large rectangle on the screen – you don’t need to be too particular. While the rectangle is still selected, change the ‘W’ field up the top to 1920, the ‘H’ field to 1080, and set Rx and Ry to 0 and 0. What we’ve done is make our rectangle the same size as our HD video pixel for pixel, and the Rx and Ry set to zero means there’s no roundness on the corners. Note the ‘Z’ setting at the bottom right is your zoom level. Don’t worry about the page graphic in the background. You should have something that looks like this:
Click the black colour picker square at the bottom-left of the screen beside the maroon cross. The rectangle should now be black. Now from the Object menu, select Fill and Stroke. From the Stroke Style tab, set the Width to 0.00. This will remove the border that adds extra pixels. Close the Fill and Stroke box by clicking the [x] in the title bar of the Fill and Stroke box:
Select the text tool from the far left and draw a large rectangle in the middle of the black background you made. Type the word ‘Music’ and select the text you just typed (hold shift and press Home). Then from the size dropdown at the top, click 144, click the Bold icon beside the text size, and click the white square from the colour picker right down the bottom.
With the text tool still selected, draw another rectangle below the first, and enter the song name. Select the text as you did above, and set it to a smaller size (64 fits alright), and set the colour to white using the colour bar at the bottom. Repeat this, creating a 3rd rectangle below the other two and this time enter the artist name. Finally, click the arrow tool at the top of the tool list on the left so that no drawing tools are enabled (you make selections with the arrow tool):
We’re getting close now. We have the text we want, but it’s all out of alignment. Drag each field around so that you end up with the text relatively centred to where you want it – it should all be generally distributed in the middle of the screen. Now, press CTRL-A to select everything, then from the Object menu, select Align and Distribute. Find the option on the top row that has the tooltip “Center on Vertical Axis” and click that. Everything should be pretty-much centred now.
Close the Align and Distribute dialog. Save this as ‘Music Credits Master’ somewhere where you will find this file again if you create a new presentation. You can use the text tool to select the text and over-type it with new details.
With everything still selected (if it’s not, press CTRL-A to make sure), go to the File menu and select Export Bitmap. Make sure the size is set to 1920×1080 and select an output location. The extension here will always be png for Bitmap Export:
Now, make a copy of your Inkscape music credits by going to the File menu and selecting Save As. Save the copy as ‘Production Credit’. Now, click the text tool on the left side of Inkscape and select the large ‘Music’ text, and over-type it with words like ‘Produced by’, or whatever you think is appropriate for crediting yourself. Likewise, select the text on one of the smaller text lines and overtype it with your name. Delete the unused field and align everything like we did above when producing the music credit. Save your work and export the bitmap as ‘production credit.png’. Close Inkscape, we’re done with that now.
Attribution and Credit Videos
Now that we have png’s of the credits we want people to see, we’ll do some work to get them into our presentation. Close VirtualDub and reopen it if you had it open so that you have a clean slate. From the File menu, select Open Video and select your music attribution image, and click Open.
Once you have opened the image, you can right click the screen and select a smaller zoom so you can see what you’re doing. This is not really necessary though, it doesn’t affect anything. Press CTRL-A (select all) and press CTRL-V. You will see a new frame added to the timeline. Hold down CTRL-V in bursts and slow down at the end to get a total of 100 frames. At 10 frames per second this will make a total length for music credits of 10 seconds.
Now we want to run the compression the same as what we did for the timelapse sequence. From the Video menu, select Compression, then select the Xvid MPEG-4 codec, select Configure, and select Profile @ level Xvid HD 1080 and Encoding type Twopass – 1st Pass. Click Ok on this dialog and the compression dialog. From the File menu, select Save as AVI and save the video with a suffix of ‘p1′.
Go back to the Video menu, click the Configure button for Xvid MPEG-4 and select Encoding type Twopass – 2nd Pass. Click Ok on this dialog and the compression dialog. From the File menu, select Save as AVI, this time with a ‘p2′ suffix.
When this process completes, you will have a HD 1080p music credits video (the file with the ‘p2′ suffix). Go ahead and play it back. It won’t do much, but it should display for 10 seconds.
Close down VirtualDub and reopen it to get a clean slate. Repeat the above process that you performed to create the music credits video to create the credits video. All the steps are exactly the same bar selecting the other png you created for the credits. Check this video. You should now have two complete credits videos and a timelapse video. We’re close to a finished product now.
Assembling the Final Production
Close down VirtualDub and reopen it to get a clean slate. From the File menu, select Open Video File and open your main timelapse video. At the bottom of the VirtualDub screen, note the total number of frames, add 1 and write it down. We’ll use this number for setting up some new fades.
From the File menu, select Append AVI Segment. Select the music credits video with the ‘p2′ suffix and click Open. You should see the number of frames extend out by 100. Once again, from the File menu, select Append AVI Segment, select the second video you made (the production credits) and click open. The total frames down the bottom should expand out by another 100 frames.
Click the Move to Last Frame button right down the bottom of the screen – it looks like this:
Now down to the bottom-right in the status bar, you will see the total frames reported, as well as the total play time – similar to what you see here:
Take note of this play time, we will use it for setting up our music clip.
From the Video menu, select Filters and add the FadeFX filter. in the ‘from frame’ field, enter the number you wrote down above (the one you added 1 to). In the end frame, add 20 to that number. This will give us a total of 2 seconds fade-in. Change the fade parameters to Fade in from black and this time we want to un-check the ‘Extend effect to other frames’ or this will cause us problems. Click OK to close the FadeFX Configuration.
Repeat the steps above to add a new FadeFX Configuration. This time, we’ll use Fade out to black as the fade parameter, and the fade effects will be offset by 100 frames. We want the fade out to occur on the last 10 frames, so the ‘apply effect from frame’ should be calculated from the same figure you entered above + 80. Add 20 to that for the ‘to’ frame number.
That’s the fade-in and fade-out for the first credits clip. Add the same fade in to the second credits clip you added. This time we don’t want a fade out though because we want the production credits to be visible when the clip stops. That makes a total of 3 FaceFX configurations. If you start to get confused about frames or end up being a frame out or something, right-click the main video frame and select a low zoom level like 25%. You should now see a split in the middle of the window. Right click the right-hand pane and select a similar low zoom level. What you’re now looking at is the original on the left and the new output with effects on the right. You can move the split in the middle to your liking.
Click along the timeline right down the bottom of the screen to jump close to the frame number you want to check. Now you can use the frame skip arrows to move one frame at a time backward or forward. The frame skip buttons look like this:
The current frame number is displayed in the bottom status bar – you can use the numbers reported here to adjust the fade-in & fade-out points to get them frame-perfect. You can see in the above screenshot what it looks like a couple of frames in in a fade-in.
Now hold that thought, leave VirtualDub open while we deviate to the music. We’re almost done!
Preparing the Music
We could take our music that we downloaded earlier and stick it into the presentation, but assuming that the music goes longer than the presentation (like in my clip), if you don’t fade the music out, it will end abruptly leaving your viewers feeling that something was not quite complete in this presentation. This is where we’re going to use the total presentation length we wrote down earlier to create a nice smooth fade out exactly at that time.
Load Audacity, and open the music clip you downloaded. You will see two sets of sound waves representing the stereo sound (assuming your song is recorded in stereo). Audacity lets you select sound waves just like you select text in an editor, and thankfully it will select both stereo lines automatically if you select from just the left or right channel.
You can probably see where this is leading to. What you need to do is take a selection starting from roughly around the end time (the total production length) that you wrote down earlier, back to the right – all the way to the end. When I say roughly, that’s exactly what I mean. We introduce precision after the rough selection.
Now that we have our rough selection, look to the bottom of the screen, particularly at Selection Start. You can click directly on the numbers for minutes and seconds, and over-type them directly. What we want is a selection start time of 2 seconds shorter than the total production length we wrote down earlier. So, if you wrote down 1:24, you want Selection Start to show 00 h 01 m 22 s. The reason we’re taking it 2 seconds back is so that we create a short gap at the end to eliminate any abruptness.
Now, simply press the delete button and the whole end of the music clip will be chopped off. It will be quite evident that there is this big ugly flat cutoff at the end.
Now we want to produce the nice fade to silence that will be present in our final production. Select roughly (there’s that word again) 10 seconds of the end of the clip. You don’t need to be too particular here, but if you like, use the Selection Start numbers at the bottom to get it right. If you slip past the end with your selection, start again. If you move slowly, the selection will snap to the end point. Now from the Effect menu at the top, click Fade Out. You will see the end of the sound wave produce a nice fall-off – just what we want.
If you press the play button now you will be able to hear the fade out effect immediately, just on the selected portion of the sound wave that you applied the fade out to.
Now we save our changes. From the File menu, select Export… Leave the File type as MP3 Files, and click the Options button. We need to ensure that we have a high quality bitrate. I had to nuke my initial production upload when I discovered that the audio had been auto-reduced to 128kbs and it sounded like the music was coming out of a well. 192 is a nice quality, so we’ll use that.
Check the produced file. It should be the right length for our production and it should fade out nicely. You can now close down Audacity, we’re done with that.
Back in VirtualDub, from the Audio menu, click Audio from another file. In the resulting dialog, locate the file you created from the above Audacity edit and click OK. We can finally create the final production.
The first thing to do in the final processing is to set up the compression. From the Video menu, select Compression, select Xvid MPEG-4 Codec, then click the Configure button. Select the usual options here – Profile @ level 1080 HD and Encoding type Twopass – 1st pass. Click Ok on this dialog and the Compression dialog to close them, then from the File menu, click Save as AVI. Suffix the filename with ‘prodp1′.
When the encoding has completed, go back to the Video menu, select Compression, click Configure for Xvid MPEG-4 Codec, and from Encoding type, select Twopass – 2nd pass. Click OK to close this dialog, then OK again to close the Compression dialog. From the File menu select Save as AVI. Suffix this filename with ‘prodp2′.
When this completes you should have a final production video with all the bells & whistles – nice music, nice fade-outs and fade ins, and best of all, all in HD that looks and sounds crystal clear on the big screen! And it didn’t cost anything . Although the process is a little wordy as I presented it, the steps are often repetitive, rather simple, and wide open for creative interpretation. It will hopefully get people moving forward with timelapse videos instead of sitting back and appreciating the work of others, secretly wishing to be able to do them too.
Keep an eye on EditShare Lightworks. It is a free Non Linear Editor for video production. I don’t think it’s quite there for our timelapse videos (if it is, I’d LOVE to hear it), but I’m sure it will get there pretty rapidly. The advantage is that it should evolve into a one stop shop for doing all the editing.
For the final credits, I’d like rather than using self-contained clips, to use some kind of filter that allows you to build rolling credits.
You may have noticed that the credits we created during the tutorial used rather drab fonts. You can find fancier ones to spice up your productions on dafont.com.
To create this tutorial I relied heavily on ZScreen. It didn’t quite do what I needed it to do, so that was yet another task in the making of the tutorial – to code up a fix! The gory details of that are here. Yay for open source software!