Time-lapse photography: old or new technology?

Time-lapse is an increasingly popular mode of photography and arguably in its infancy in terms of its development. But even contemporary manifestations of time-lapse are rooted in over 140 years of history.

In order to consider the inception of this technique, we must go as far back as the 1870s. The work of English photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, is thought to be the one to have birthed sequence photography. Fascinated by the science of movement, Muybridge’s most famous work – The Horse in Motion – utilised multiple cameras along a race track to capture a horse galloping.

Stills of Eadweard Muybridge's 'Horse in Motion'
Above: stills from Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’ sequence which is thought to have birthed sequence photography.

The equipment available to carry out this study was cumbersome and heavyweight – very much unlike today’s compact DSLR cameras that do not require manual operation. In order to capture each of the 24 images of a horse along a racetrack, Muybridge used a tripping mechanism to trigger each camera at the correct time.

These sequence photographs were useful in two ways. Each image could be studied individually, with each movement of the horse visibly broken down. Secondly, when viewed collectively as a sequence it is possible to study the repetition of the horse’s movements over a short period of time.

In this way The Horse in Motion looks similar to a stop motion animation, which involves an object to be moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, thus creating the illusion of movement when played as a sequence. No manipulation of movement was necessary for Muybridge’s work, however, making this a purely scientific mode of photography.

With the basic principles that Muybridge utilised, which essentially synchronised the camera to the event being recorded, this technique continued to be applied and developed by others to study such things as people dancing and the trajectory of missiles.

Through the decades

Indeed, time-lapse has had an incredible journey from this point in the 1870s and through the decades.


A Brief History of Time-Lapse

  • 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

Applications of sequence photography after Muybridge – which is now commonly known as time-lapse – were manifestations of the same technique with the intention of studying movement, patterns and isolating segments of time that can be viewed at a much faster pace.

By definition time-lapse shows time to be moving faster – or ‘lapsing’. Capturing images at a much lower frame rate than when viewed together in a sequence, time appears to be accelerated significantly. It is still put to use in the same ways as its earlier applications but there are some obvious differences between then and now.

The faded black and white photographs that Muybridge was familiar with are now a thing of the past. We now watch time-lapse sequences that are made up of Ultra HD images with incredible colour and definition. Time-lapse camera systems are no longer cumbersome in their design but are made to be robust with bespoke specifications which are tailored to the subject of capture.

It is now possible to document events that take place over periods of days, months, even years at a time. Unlike Muybridge’s tripping mechanism which manually pulled the camera shutter button at the required moment, modern DSLR camera systems can be programmed to do this automatically at regular intervals.

The video below, for example, is the product of 365 days worth of continuous capture at the Royal Albert Hall in London, UK. Not only this, particular camera settings including shutter speed and exposure were controlled remotely via secure wireless networks, meaning that no hands-on was required.

 

As a venue with a reputable calendar of 390 events throughout the year – including shows like Cirque du Soleil and The Last Night of the Proms – accessing and closely monitoring the camera system remotely was essential for the job. As well as the practical benefits, remote capabilities ensured that the quality of capture was consistent in relation to the perpetual running of events which all come with changing lighting and atmospheric conditions.

Time-lapse videos are incredibly stunning and fascinating pieces of media to watch. Incorporating the very best of recent technological developments in photography, this is a vibrant visual mode through which to render significant periods of activity.

For these reasons it is easy to mistake time-lapse as a modern technique, thought to have come along with the advent of digital technology. Once traced back to its inception, however, it is clear that time-lapse is a more modern-day manifestation of a long established photographic technique.

Having said this, are we now at a point where the capabilities of time-lapse are only just beginning to be realised and thoroughly developed?

What’s next for time-lapse?

Today, time-lapse photography is as versatile as it is vibrant, used to capture subjects in a variety of sectors of industry and commerce, including:

Within these sectors and many more, time-lapse is an integral part of workflow for businesses. Progress can easily be communicated visually across a range of web-based platforms, including social media. Additionally, a fully post-produced time-lapse video can function as a tool used by clients to market their particular services.

Many recent developments of time-lapse in these sectors have been rooted in its conjunction with other mediums.

Grand aerial perspectives can be achieved with drone flight, for example, vastly widening the scope of what can be time-lapsed and how it is captured. Time-lapse is also becoming an increasingly popular method of storytelling on television in both fictional and documentary programming. There are also additional techniques that share affinities with, and are used to enhance, the visual appeal of time-lapse, including hyperlapse, tilt-shift and rapid interval capture.

Science continues to benefit from the ways in which time-lapse renders long-term periods into a matter of minutes.

In this sense, time-lapse seems to have come full circle. Having started with Muybridge’s early studies of motion, now over 140 years on, it is still being used to unearth natural and environmental patterns of behaviour.

 

In terms of its digital developments, time-lapse can still be considered to be in its infancy. How and where it is applied seems to know no bounds as technology continues to evolve. When thought about in terms of its humble beginnings, however, time-lapse photography has had an incredible lifespan. We look forward to seeing where this will lead.

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