What is time-lapse photography?

A technique that has been around since the late 19th century, we go back to the basics of time-lapse by asking what it is and what it does.

Time-lapse photography: a definition

Time-lapse takes its definition from the way in which time appears to be moving faster – or ‘lapsing’. This photographic technique involves images captured at a much lower, regular frame rate than when viewed together in a sequence, appearing as if time is accelerated.

Capturing an image of a construction site once every 15 minutes, for example, when played back at a rate of 25 frames per second, would result in viewing the construction of an office block in a matter of minutes. Processes that are subtle and almost invisible to the human eye because of the speed at which they unfold in reality – like celestial motion, or seeds germinating – appear more prominent and obvious through time-lapse.

History

Time-lapse photography has made a remarkable journey. Arguably still in its infancy, this extraordinary medium is thought to have had its inception back in the 1870s. English photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, reportedly documented the construction of the San Francisco Mint building over two years using photographs captured at regular intervals.

Muybridge’s sequence photography was also implemented to create The Horse in Motion, which was an animation of a galloping horse captured using 24 cameras along the edge of a track. When viewed collectively in a sequence the horse’s movements appear continuous but clear enough to prove the much-debated question of the time: whether a horse ever has all four hooves off the ground simultaneously when trotting or galloping.

The Horse in Motion-anim.gif
By Eadweard Muybridge, Animation: Nevit Dilmen – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; [Public Domain].
Time-lapse continued to develop through the years, with other scientific applications such as that by Arthur C. Pillsbury between 1911 and 1912, who used the technique to record the movement of 500 varieties of wildflower in Yosemite, USA.


A Brief History of Time-Lapse

  • 1870s – Eadweard Murbridge documents the San Franciso Mint under construction using periodic photography and later a horse galloping by a similar method
  • 1890s – Time-lapse used in a motion picture for the first time, in Carrefour De L’Opera
  • 1910s – 500 varieties of wildflower are captured in an attempt to identify the cause of their rapid demise
  • 1980sA Zed & Two Noughts popularises the use of time-lapse to capture decomposing life forms
  • 1990s – Time-lapse allows the life cycle of plants to be brought to the masses in a Sir David Attenborough documentary
  • 2010s – Animation and time-lapse combine in Walt Disney’s Big Hero 6

From the 1950s onwards, time-lapse was regularly used in conjunction with other mediums such as film and television. In 1995, The Private Life of Plants, written and directed by Sir David Attenborough, showed an incredibly detailed life cycle of plants which had yet to be shown in as much depth before on television. This was only the beginning for how time-lapse would, and continues to be, used to document the natural world.

In more recent decades, time-lapse can now be seen in computer-animated Disney films, award-winning TV series, advertisements and music videos. It is also commonly utilised as part of broadcast television reports.

Related & comparable techniques

As well as its varied uses as part of other popular mediums, there are many additional techniques that share affinities with, and can be used to enhance, the visual appeal of time-lapse photography:

Rapid interval capture

For some projects, a ‘standard’ rate of capture (like the one referred to near the start of this blog) will not be effective enough to document things moving at fast pace. Rapid interval capture, then, essentially means that the camera system is set up to take a greater number of images.

Particularly when tracking the progress of short-term work such as a shop fit-out, or special events due to take place over a day or two, rapid interval time-lapse ensures that important details are never missed.

Hyperlapse

Hyperlapse relies on the same basic principle as time-lapse in relation to the speed at which time is represented but allows for a much broader range of motion. While time-lapse can incorporate a steady pan or tilted movement, perhaps even a brief dolly, such movements are controlled by a motorised rig.

Hyperlapse, on the other hand, is is not restricted in this way. More complex motion paths are expected with this technique, over uneven terrains or through crowded contexts.

Tilt-shift

A tilt-shift, otherwise known as ‘miniature faking’, is a technique that creates a shallow depth of field in the image through the use of a particular kind of camera lens, or post-processing software. The resulting effect is that even the grandest of subject appear as they are tiny.

When utilised on time-lapse videos, the tilt-shift technique transforms certain visual narratives, depicting a particular town or city, for example, as a miniature, almost-fairytale world.

Stop motion

A comparable technique, and one that is quite often confused with time-lapse, stop motion animation refers to the physical manipulation of an object captured by photography.

Objects, such as LEGO minifigures, can be incrementally moved and then photographed which, when played back together as a sequence, gives the illusion of movement. Unlike time-lapse, which requires a fixed camera position, and photographs to be taken at regular intervals, stop motion forces inconsistent breaks between frames which are not limited to one position.

Time-lapse today: current applications

Along with these related photographic techniques, and its varied applications in other popular mediums, time-lapse is also an important mode of capture in key sectors of industry, including:

Construction & demolition

As well as the visual benefits of rendering construction and demolition processes in a two-minute time-lapse video, there are also practical advantages to capturing site progress in this way.

Professional, reliable equipment, ensures continuous capture, which in turn, means that time-lapse facilitates better management of site. It allows contractors to stay abreast of deliveries & progress, and share images with investors & the wider public.

The mode has developed in form and popularity, with the demand for time-lapse photography only continuing to grow. Becoming part of the everyday apparatus on construction sites, working to produce media in a genre of its own right: time-lapse construction.

This has also encouraged a global audience, with time-lapse videos showing construction and demolition processes functioning as a popular form of media shared widely on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

Leisure & events

Although utilised heavily in construction – one of the wealthiest sectors of industry – time-lapse has a far wider reach, having been successfully employed by leisure & event companies worlwide.

Professional camera systems can function in both internal and external environments, ideal for providing coverage of special leisure activities and events. Live concerts or special ‘one-of-a-kind’ events, for example, consist of different phases of work and action.

Time-lapse is an appropriate mode of photography to record incredible detail, as well as providing a way of preserving the memory of certain ‘iconic’ occasions in the form of a professionally post-produced time-lapse video.

Sports

Old Main Stand being demolished with the new Sir Elton John stand under construction
Above: time-lapsing improvements to sports venue & stadia provides interesting and alternative coverage of sport.

Another incredibly popular genre of entertainment in its own right, time-lapsing sport garners high levels of public investment.

Many exciting aspects of sport can be rendered with time-lapse, such as venue & stadia improvements, behind-the-scenes preparations at competitions and the mass movement of crowds.

In this way time-lapse not only opens up more of sport to the eyes of the public but also provides an alternative to the mode of coverage that audiences are accustomed to seeing on TV.

 

In the relatively short time that time-lapse has been a part of photography’s illustrious history it has certainly made its mark – a vibrant visual mode that will only continue to be developed and applied across a variety of sectors, genres and popular mediums.

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