Creative photographers are always looking for new photo or video techniques that can help them see the world in a new way. One such technique is time-lapse photography, which used to be expensive and hard to do—but now can be accomplished much more easily and cheaply with smart phones, digital cameras, and camcorders.
For example, check out the very simple time-lapse video I created (embedded below), a clip of an early-evening storm as it develops during a two-hour time period. Thanks to the time-lapse technique, an ominous and dramatic cloud formation seems to form in seconds.
Here's a rundown on how time-lapse photography works and how to do it with various types of imaging gear.
How it works. When you capture video with normal movement, you shoot and play it back at the same speed, typically 30 frames per second. To get the speeded-up effect of time-lapse, you record at a much slower speed, such as one frame per second, than you play back. When you record that slowly, images are captured as individual still photos, which must be combined into a video clip either by the recording device itself, or by software after you transfer them to a computer.
Here's a summary of which devices have time-lapse features:
Smart phones. One of the most flexible ways to capture time-lapse videos is with an iPhone or Android smart phone. Simply download one of numerous time-lapse apps. I've found that these apps usually have more versatile interfaces and capabilities than you get with most cameras and camcorders.
Take, for example, the CameraTime app for iPhones and iPads. It lets you choose from a variety of recording intervals, output frame rates, and resolutions; lock the white balance or focus; and take advantage of a number of other settings. Without an app like this, most devices offer just a few settings.
Basic cameras. A few point-and-shoots offer time-lapse, including the Nikon Coolpix P510, though it doesn't combine the stills into a video. For that, you need video-editing software. The Pentax Optio WG-2 is more versatile. It can capture stills that you later combine using a computer. Or it can convert the stills into a video, but using just a few preset time intervals.
Advanced cameras. A number of pricey SLRs, such as the Nikon D7000, can capture time-lapse images with some versatility in their settings. But they don't automatically convert the stills into video clips.
Camcorders. Time-lapse is unusual on camcorders, although JVC is an exception, offering the feature on a variety of models, including the ability to directly generate video clips.
Software. To convert time-lapse stills into a video on a computer, you need video- or image-editing software. Some, like Adobe Premiere Elements, let you hook up a camera or camcorder to your computer and capture frames from a live camera feed.