The ‘slow’ process of time-lapse photography

Even with the most sophisticated and state-of-the-art equipment, time-lapse photography requires hours of preparation, research, and capture.

Our use of the term ‘slow’ is by no means a detriment, however, for this is the way to reap the best results.

Subject

Historically, time-lapse has been used to photograph processes which, in themselves, unfold at a slower pace in reality. A primary application of the technique during its humble beginnings in the 20th century, for example, was to record the movement and growth of plant life.

Describing something as slow in this regard, then, is merely making reference to the subject or process which time-lapse is used to capture.

Other classic subjects include landscapes, cityscapes, and the evolution of a construction project. Hours, weeks, months, and years can be played back in a matter of minutes, thus speeding up a process so that the human eye can easily identify progress.

Interestingly, however, the inverse of this was applicable at the time of the technique’s inception. Thought to be developed through the work of English photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, in the 1870s, simple sequence photography was implemented in order to isolate the swift movements of a horse galloping along a race track.

Stills of Eadweard Muybridge's 'Horse in Motion'
Above: stills of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Horse in Motion’.

Setting up 24 cameras to capture the horse’s movements incrementally, when viewed as a sequence of images, motion appears continuous but clear enough to reveal that the horse removes all four hooves from the ground simultaneously while galloping.

Method & execution

Regardless of the reasons for using time-lapse, which have evidently changed over time, the technical engineering required to implement this mode of capture must be carefully considered in advance.

Time-lapse is becoming more accessible in the 21st century than ever before thanks to the capabilities offered by the latest smartphone technologies. The ability to produce time-lapse videos of a standard is available to anyone with the relevant mobile device and application.

Most DSLR cameras on the market today also come equipped with a time-lapse function which do not require external equipment (except maybe a tripod).

Separating the hobbyists from the professionals, however, is the ratio of planning to implementation, and the final quality.

The amount of research and time spent planning to capture a project can be intense but unanticipated elements can easily undermine hours of work. Figuring out the logistics and specifics must be carried out well in advance to the start of capture so that each stage of the process can run smoothly:

Installation from height at RAF Brampton
Above: installing a camera system at height at RAF Brampton.

– What is required of the camera system(s)?
– How must they be equipped to capture as required?
– What other external factors must be considered before installation?

Some installations present more challenges than others, especially when environments present space or access restrictions. In such instances alternatives must be sought – but this takes time.

Assessing the needs of the client is also fundamental to successful workflow and reliable business practice. Being attentive to the needs of a client – before, during, and after project completion – provides a full end-to-end service.

The beauty of time-lapse capture is that it does not require manual handling for the full duration but can be executed using remote technologies. This does not mean that a camera system is simply left unattended, however, for continuous monitoring and micro-managed capture throughout is what guarantees quality at the other end.

Time-lapse video: the finished product

The proof is in the pudding. A completed time-lapse video representing a project incrementally and/ or in its entirety is the primary outcome of this technique. (As mentioned above, the site monitoring function of time-lapse photography is an added benefit.)

For professional time-lapsers, the amount of labour required to complete a fully post-produced video is considerably more extensive than the length of the video itself. Months of progress are carefully condensed into just minutes of footage; or according to the technical terminology behind this, images are played back at a much faster frame rate than what was used for capture.

Of course, there are those projects which are time sensitive – such as special events, or jobs with invested public interest – and thus require a quicker turnaround from start to finish. Nevertheless, the finished product will still require the same level of care and attention if it is to be of optimum quality.

Regardless of the duration or the purpose of capture, the editing process must be as meticulous each time: sorting through hundreds, if not thousands, of images, and arranging these into a fully customised narrative to deliver an industry standard.

Such work can be used by companies across various sectors, providing distinctive and engaging visual content for marketing campaigns on a multiple platforms, including social media.

Mastering the art

Balloons fall from the ceiling at the Royal Albert Hall

Leading on from this, another aspect of time-lapse photography which may also be described as slow is the time required to learn the art.

The technical decisions that are part and parcel of doing this job successfully are all dictated by the careful balance of variables, some of which we have discussed, including subject, location, duration, method, execution, and equipment.

Plus, it can be argued that time-lapse is part art, and part science, involving a considerable amount of mathematical and technical skill to deliver the most appropriate compression of time – as well as the creativity that is needed at the level of post-production.

But managing all of this at once requires knowledge, skill, and experience; and these are things which are not built up over night but are honed and developed over a number of years.

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