Making Time Lapse Movies

A common application of the Time Machine is to take pictures for time lapse movies. Many professional photographers use digital still cameras to shoot time lapse movies because the image quality is much better than video cameras. The Time Machine has been used for this purpose by the BBC Natural History Unit and many production companies, including people working on the television shows "Planet Earth", “LAX”, “Three Wishes”, "Myth Busters", etc.. Construction sequences for the HDTV “Dream House” were shot with the Time Machine.

To make a time lapse movie with the Time Machine you need the Time Machine and a camera whose shutter you can trip with the Time Machine.

Mount your camera on a tripod and frame the scene you wish to shoot. Set the camera to manual focus, exposure, and white balance.

Also consider how big you want each image to be. Your camera may shoot ten or more megapixels, but this is much too big for time lapse movies. HD video is 1920 x 1080. When movies are viewed on a personal computer, an 800 pixel image is pretty large. Many computers are not fast enough to display this more data as fast as is needed, and movie frames this big can generate huge files (hundreds of megabytes). You’ll probably want to set your camera resolution to a small image size for time lapse projects.

The frequency of exposures depends on how much movement there is in your subject, how long you want the final movie to be, and what frame rate you’ll use. For clouds we use an interval of three to ten seconds. Your camera may limit how fast you can shoot. There will be some minimum cycle time to shoot and store each image.

Put the Time Machine in Time Lapse Mode and set the "Period" (the interval between exposures) with the PLUS and MINUS buttons. You can set an "Exposure Limit" if you may not be around to stop the camera when you've taken enough pictures. Plug the camera shutter cable into the Time Machine and push the BEGIN button to start the time lapse sequence. The Time Machine will start shooting pictures and show you how many it has taken.

You may need to use an AC adaptor on your camera if the sequence is longer than the battery can manage. You can also use an external battery pack if you're away from AC wiring.

Take care not to move the camera during the sequence. Even walking near the camera might cause the tripod to shift a little, and this will put a visible jump in your movie.

Movies are commonly viewed at 30 frames per second. If you shoot 500 pictures, such a time lapse movie will be 16.6 seconds long. You can often view time lapse movies at 15 frames per second to make them last longer or to make the files smaller.

Making the movie
Once you have a few hundred frames captured you need to convert them into a movie file. There are many ways to do this but the least expensive and easiest way is with QuickTime Pro from Apple computer. QuickTime can be downloaded for free from Apple computer at this web site:

To get the Pro version of QuickTime you have to pay $30. It’s available for Macintosh and Windows computers. The movies created by QuickTime are very efficient in size and are file type “MOV”.

Transfer all of your still images to the computer and put them in a separate folder or directory that contains nothing else. You may wish to “preprocess” them in some way, but this is not necessary. For example, you might use a PhotoShop batch process to clip them all to some specific size, or make them more consistent with “Auto Color”.

When the images are ready, run QuickTime Pro. From the File Menu, choose “Open Image Sequence”. Navigate to the folder where all your still images are stored and open the first image file. QuickTime will allow you to enter a frame rate. Select the number of frames per second you wish to use for the movie. QuickTime will then load all of the images in that folder into a movie file.

Once the movie has been created it will be shown on the computer screen. If your image files were too big for the screen, the movie file will be too big for the screen. You can make the movie appear smaller by choosing “Half size” from the View Menu. You can play your movie now and see how it looks. If your image size is very large, your computer may not be fast enough to play it smoothly.

To save a movie file, choose Export from the File Menu. A window will open where you can configure the movie. Enter a name for your movie at the top. Don’t save the movie file in the same folder as the still images. At the bottom of the window you can choose what type of file to Export. You want “Movie to QuickTime Movie”. (There are other choices you can experiment with some other time.) Then click on the “Options” button. Here you can set several characteristics of the movie.

The “Settings” button will let you choose the compression type and image quality. For compression, use MPEG-4 (for wider compatibility) or H.264 (for smaller files and better performance). There are some filter effects you can add, like sharpening or brightness. You can also choose the size of the final movie. The smaller the frame size, the smaller the file will be. You should already know the frame size of your still images so you can choose a movie frame that has the same height to width ratio. QuickTime will let you enter any values, and you might end up stretching the frame from it’s true proportions.

Click on “OK” to save your movie. After the movie has been written to disk, check the file size to see if it’s what you want, and run the movie to see your time lapse. You can save additional copies with other parameters.

If you send the movie files to other people, they must have QuickTime installed on their computer to view them. Anyone can download QuickTime for free from the Apple web site. They don’t need to buy QuickTime Pro to watch the movies. You only need the Pro version to save movies. You must have QuickTime version 7 or later to watch movies encoded with the H.264 format.


updated 11-24-10