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How to Create a Time Lapse Effect with Your Point & Shoot Camera

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/11/2010

Time lapse photography, contrary to popular belief, is not out of the realm of possibility for point & shoot cameras. With a little care to composition, settings and a little post processing work, the beautiful effects of time lapse photography, both long and short exposure types, are possible.

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    Into to Time Lapse Photography

    Some of the most stunning photographs out there are the result of time lapse photography—usually taken by expensive DSLRs. However, even if you own a simple point & shoot camera, you can still replicate something of the effects of a time lapse photo with a few quick tricks.

    There are two main ways to approach time lapse photography with point & shoots. The first is, frankly, long and complicated and probably well out of the mechanical know-how of most amateur photographers. If you're interested in this route, then there are a number of articles and DIYs out there detailing the technical nitty gritty of hacking your camera to do it.

    However, if you're like the majority of camera users and don't feel quite up to the complexity of the task, then read on.

    Most time lapse photography that you see is not time lapse photography in the strictest sense of the term. Time lapse photography technically refers to taking many frames a given period of time apart and then running them as a movie – it's an effect that you see most often in cinema, with flowers blooming and thunderstorms building and the like. In photography proper, time lapse photography generally refers to a single long exposure time, as opposed to many short exposures as with cinematic time lapse photography.

    Point & shoots are, from a hardware perspective, perfectly capable of the precise control over this whole process that DSLR cameras lay claim to. The previously mentioned “hack” take on time lapse photography basically unlocks this potential that the camera companies otherwise want you to dish out more monies for, merely for the appropriate software. Again, though, you don't have to be quite so hardcore to at the very least mimic these effects.

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    Time Lapse Photography by Camera

    Think of the typical time lapse photo, those long fluid lines of water rippling down a stream... The faster the movement that you are attempting to take time lapse photography of, the easier it will be for your point & shoot. While some time lapse effects may remain unattainable without more invasive means, like those wonderfully smeared clouds, some are still within your grasp without much effort.

    Depending on the point & shoot, you may or may not have some control over the exposure length. If you are at all uncertain, please read the manual, as unlocking such precision controls is imperative.

    Whatever control you do have over your settings, take advantage of them. Make the exposure time as long as possible, while to compensate make settings like ISO and f-stop lighten the image as much as possible so the image isn't overly dark. Make sure the flash is off!

    If you can't set exposure or otherwise don't have manual mode, try pointing the camera at a dark place so that the auto mode will set a longer exposure time, and then doing the shot itself at whatever you're trying to expose for. This will work optimally under twilight conditions, where the low lighting will be conducive to longer shutter speeds (seeing that this often involves beautiful sunset and sunrise colors, you're hardly put at any disadvantage!) Also, again, the faster the movement is, the better this will work. Waterfalls can turn out wonderfully at even a ¼ second exposure! This is a useful trick for manipulating non-manual cameras in general.

    If you want multiple short exposures instead, without extremely invasive hacks you're pretty much out of luck—unless you've got a timer and a lot of patience.

    For general tips on composing time lapse photography images, check out this article.

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    Time Lapse Photography by Post Processing

    Think of what makes time lapse photography so beautiful, the smooth lines of the flowing of water and so forth. Something of this effect can be mimicked in many photo editing programs.

    One possible way of creating this effect is by using time lapse stitching tools in your photo editing software. While not every piece of software has it (and seeing that so few people use it, it's often buried beneath many a menu), the software is certainly out there. This works best for stacking multiple short exposures on top of each other.

    If you want to create that blurred effect, then there are a number of tools at your disposal. The blur tool is the most obvious of them: by using long, smooth brush strokes, you can accentuate or create the time lapse effect. This works especially well when photographing bodies of flowing water.

    Similarly, the smudge tool can be used to stretch out features to create the blurred effect. With a little patience, this can duplicate cloud blurs fantastically well.

    The possibilities with software are limited only by your creativity and patience.