written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/24/2010
Learn how to display an event or sequence of slow changes fast enough to use in your digital video projects.
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Make Slow Things Fast
Documentary producers have utilized time-lapse photography for decades to show a slow process within an acceptable time frame. Whether it is the blooming of a flower or a caterpillar gracefully aging into a butterfly, the time-lapse method can be an effective tool when putting together a documentary project. The function itself is relatively simple when you have a digital video camera that can facilitate it, but you need to make sure you know what you want to capture and how long it will take.
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How Do I Do Time-Lapse?
Most high-end home digital video cameras have a time-lapse function within their menu system. Its location is different depending on the camera, but usually it is in the camera menu under video effects. What time lapse photography does is take a photograph on a pre-set time loop. For example, the camera may take a photograph once a minute for several days, depending on how long you set it. When setting the time frame you need to know how long the event takes that you would like to videotape, and how many pictures you can get away with in the period you would like to show. If you are showing an event, such as a party or gathering, and would like to see the set-up and the entry of the guests then you may want to only set it to two pictures a minute. If you would like to see a leaf on a tree change color you may be better off having one picture an hour taken. You must remember that no matter how long the event is, the less pictures you have to illustrate a given change in a setting, the choppier it probably will look. You can only fit so much material in an external storage device or on a mini digital video tape, so you have to make sure that you do not record too much to store the entire event. You also have to think about how long the final product will be. If you are using a time lapse sequence in your final digital video project you should consider how long you would actually expect the audience to watch it before they get bored.
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Get The Right Position
Since you are trying to capture an event or gradual change the most important thing you can do when actually recording is getting the camera in the perfect position. Decide exactly what angle will show the event the most broadly and clearly and try to position the lens there. Go through all the settings, including white balance and focus, to make sure the image looks perfect. This is even more important than usual because ignoring it won’t just mess up one clip, but an entire sequence. Make sure to never use auto settings for time lapse because it is inevitable that the light will change and that someone will walk in front of the camera. If you are using auto settings then any small change like this will disturb the visual theme you have already established in earlier clips from the time-lapse sequence.
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Limitations and Options
Before deciding to use time lapse it needs to be understood that it is not going to give you a clean and smooth video segment. This is why it is never used in narrative films because it is designed to capture real-life. If you want it to be a lot cleaner and you have the ability to change tapes quickly then you may want to just record the entire event at regular speed and then multiply that speed several times in your editing software. This should not be done for a very long event because speeding it up so fast that it would show the entire event in a short sequence would make the clip confusing and disorienting.
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Never Overuse It
Time lapse can be a great way to give the audience a sense of an event's magnitude, but it is not a perfect tool that should be used extensively. Try to never use the device more than once in a project, otherwise the audience will begin to get bored with it. Like any video effect, it should only be used if it absolutely has to be.