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Time-lapse photography is a cinematography
Cinematography is the making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for cinema. It is closely related to the art of still photography...

 technique whereby the frequency at which film
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

 frames are captured (the frame rate
Frame rate
Frame rate is the frequency at which an imaging device produces unique consecutive images called frames. The term applies equally well to computer graphics, video cameras, film cameras, and motion capture systems...

) is much lower than that which will be used to play the sequence back. When replayed at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. For example, an image
An image is an artifact, for example a two-dimensional picture, that has a similar appearance to some subject—usually a physical object or a person.-Characteristics:...

 of a scene may be captured once every second, and then played back at 30 frames per second; the result would be an apparent increase of speed by 30 times. Time-lapse photography can be considered to be the opposite of high speed photography
High speed photography
High speed photography is the science of taking pictures of very fast phenomena. In 1948, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers defined high-speed photography as any set of photographs captured by a camera capable of 128 frames per second or greater, and of at least three...


Processes that would normally appear subtle to the human eye, such as the motion of the sun and stars in the sky, become very pronounced. Time-lapse is the extreme version of the cinematography technique of undercranking, and can be confused with stop motion
Stop motion
Stop motion is an animation technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence...



Some classic subjects of timelapse photography include:
  • cloudscapes and celestial motion
  • plants growing and flowers opening
  • fruit rotting
  • evolution of a construction project
  • people in the city

The technique has also been used to photograph crowds, traffic, and even television. The effect of photographing a subject that changes imperceptibly slowly, is to create a smooth impression of motion. A subject that is changing quickly already is transformed into an onslaught of activity.

The first use of time-lapse photography in a feature film was in Georges Méliès
Georges Méliès
Georges Méliès , full name Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, was a French filmmaker famous for leading many technical and narrative developments in the earliest cinema. He was very innovative in the use of special effects...

' motion picture Carrefour De L'Opera (1897). Time-lapse photography of biologic phenomena was pioneered by Jean Comandon in collaboration with Pathé Frères from 1909, by F. Percy Smith in 1910 and Roman Vishniac
Roman Vishniac
Roman Vishniac was a Russian-American photographer, best known for capturing on film the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. A complete archive of his work now rests at the International Center of Photography....

 from 1915 to 1918. Time-lapse photography was further pioneered in a series of feature films called Bergfilms (Mountain film
Mountain film
A mountain film is a film genre that focuses on mountaineering and especially the battle of man against nature. In addition to mere adventure, the protagonists who return from the mountain come back changed, usually gaining wisdom and enlightenment....

s) by Arnold Fanck
Arnold Fanck
Arnold Fanck was a pioneer of the German mountain film....

, in the 1920s, including The Holy Mountain (1926).

From 1929 to 1931, R. R. Rife
Royal Rife
Royal Raymond Rife was an American inventor and early exponent of high-magnification time-lapse cine-micrography. In the 1930s, he claimed that by using a specially designed optical microscope, he could observe a number of microbes which were too small to visualize with previously existing...

 astonished journalists with early demonstrations of high magnification time-lapse cine-micrography but no filmmaker can be credited for popularizing time-lapse more than Dr. John Ott
John Ott
Dr. John Nash Ott was a photographer and cinematographer who developed many modern photographic practices, including time-lapse photography and full-spectrum lighting.-Photography:...

, whose life-work is documented in the DVD-film "Exploring the Spectrum".

Ott's initial "day-job" career was that of a banker, with time-lapse movie photography, mostly of plants, initially just a hobby. Starting in the 1930s, Ott bought and built more and more time-lapse equipment, eventually building a large greenhouse full of plants, cameras, and even self-built automated electric motion control systems for moving the cameras to follow the growth of plants as they developed. He even time-lapsed his entire greenhouse of plants and cameras as they all worked, a virtual symphony of time-lapse movement. His work was featured on an episode of the request TV show, You Asked For It in the late 1950s.

Ott also discovered that the movement of plants could be manipulated by varying the amount of water plants were given, and varying the color-temperature of the lights in the studio, with some colors causing the plants to flower and other colors causing the plants to bear fruit. Ott even discovered ways to change the sex of plants merely by varying the light source color-temperature.

By using these techniques, Ott time-lapse animated plants "dancing" up and down in synch to pre-recorded music tracks.

His cinematography of flowers blooming in such classic documentaries as Walt Disney's Secrets of Life (1956), pioneered the modern use of time-lapse on film and television. Ott wrote several books on the history of his time-lapse adventures, My Ivory Cellar (1958), "Health and Light" (1979), and the film documentary "Exploring the Spectrum" (DVD 2008).

A major refiner and developer of time-lapse is the Oxford Scientific Film Institute in Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

, United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

. The Institute specializes in time-lapse and slow-motion systems, and has also developed camera systems that could go into (and move through) impossibly small places. Most people have seen at least some of their footage which has appeared in TV documentaries and movies for decades.

PBS's NOVA series aired a full episode on time-lapse (and slow motion) photography and systems in 1981 titled Moving Still. Highlights of Oxford's work are slow-motion shots of a dog shaking water off himself, with close ups of drops knocking a bee off a flower, as well as time-lapse of the decay of a dead mouse.

The first major usage of time-lapse in a feature film was Koyaanisqatsi
Koyaanisqatsi also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke....

(1983). The non-narrative film, directed by Godfrey Reggio, contained much time-lapse of clouds, crowds, and cities filmed by cinematographer Ron Fricke
Ron Fricke
Ron Fricke is an American film director and cinematographer, considered to be a master of time-lapse photography and large format cinematography. He was the director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi and directed the purely cinematic non-verbal non-narrative feature Baraka . He designed and used...

. Years later Ron Fricke produced a solo project called "Chronos" shot on IMAX cameras which is still frequently played on Discovery HD
Discovery HD
Discovery HD is the international name of the high-definition television channels from Discovery Communications.The international Discovery HD first launched in Korea on February 2005 as a programming block...

. Fricke also used the technique quite extensively in the documentary Baraka
Baraka (film)
Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke. The title Baraka is a word that means blessing in a multitude of languages....

(1992) which he photographed in Todd-AO
Todd-AO is a post-production company founded in 1953, providing sound-related services to the motion picture and television industries. The company operates three facilities in the Los Angeles area.-History:...

 (70 mm
70 mm film
70mm film is a wide high-resolution film gauge, with higher resolution than standard 35mm motion picture film format. As used in camera, the film is wide. For projection, the original 65mm film is printed on film. The additional 5mm are for magnetic strips holding four of the six tracks of sound...

). The most recent film made entirely in time-lapse photography is Nate North's film Silicon Valley Timelapse, which also holds the distinction of being the first feature length film shot almost entirely in 3 frame high dynamic range.

Countless other films, commercials, TV
Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...

 shows and presentations have included time-lapse.

For example, Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway, CBE is a British film director. His films are noted for the distinct influence of Renaissance and Baroque painting, and Flemish painting in particular...

's film A Zed & Two Noughts
A Zed & Two Noughts
Elements of Michael Nyman's score invoke the "Dies Irae" section from Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Requiem ex F con terza minore. The Angelfish Decay/Swan Rot/L'Escargot theme was originally written for Childs Play, a dance work commissioned by Lucinda Childs. Performance of the soundtrack is credited...

featured a sub-plot involving time-lapse photography of decomposing animals and included a composition called "Time-lapse" written for the film by Michael Nyman
Michael Nyman
Michael Laurence Nyman, CBE is an English composer of minimalist music, pianist, librettist and musicologist, known for the many film scores he wrote during his lengthy collaboration with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, and his multi-platinum soundtrack album to Jane Campion's The Piano...

. More recently, Adam Zoghlin's time-lapse cinematography was featured in the CBS
CBS Broadcasting Inc. is a major US commercial broadcasting television network, which started as a radio network. The name is derived from the initials of the network's former name, Columbia Broadcasting System. The network is sometimes referred to as the "Eye Network" in reference to the shape of...

 television series Early Edition
Early Edition
Early Edition is an American television series that aired on CBS from September 28, 1996 to May 27, 2000. Set in the city of Chicago, Illinois, it follows the adventures of a man who mysteriously receives each Chicago Sun-Times newspaper the day before it is actually published, and who uses this...

, depicting the adventures of a character that receives tomorrow's newspaper today. David Attenborough
David Attenborough
Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM, CH, CVO, CBE, FRS, FZS, FSA is a British broadcaster and naturalist. His career as the face and voice of natural history programmes has endured for more than 50 years...

's 1995 series, The Private Life of Plants
The Private Life of Plants
The Private Life of Plants is a BBC nature documentary series written and presented by David Attenborough, first shown in the UK from 11 January 1995....

, also utilised the technique extensively.


The frame rate of time-lapse movie photography can be varied to virtually any degree, from a rate approaching a normal frame rate (between 24 and 30 frames per second) to only one frame a day, or even a week, or more, depending on the slowness of the subject.

The term "time-lapse" can also apply to how long the shutter of the camera is open during the exposure of EACH frame of film (or video), and has also been applied to the use of long-shutter openings used in still photography in some older photography circles. In movies, both kinds of time-lapse can be used together, depending on the sophistication of the camera system being used. A night shot of stars moving as the Earth rotates requires both forms. A long exposure of each frame is necessary to allow the dim light of the stars register on film, with lapses in time between frames providing the actual movement when viewed at normal speed.

As the frame rate of time-lapse approaches normal frame rates, these "mild" forms of time-lapse are sometimes referred to simply as fast motion or (in video) fast forward. This type of borderline time-lapse resembles a VCR in a fast forward ("scan") mode. A man riding a bicycle will display legs pumping furiously while he flashes through city streets at the speed of a racing car. Longer exposure rates for each frame can also produce blurs in the man's leg movements, heightening the illusion of speed.

Two examples of both techniques are the running sequence in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) in which Eric Idle outraces a speeding bullet, and Los Angeles animator Mike Jittlov
Mike Jittlov
Mike Jittlov is an American animator and the creator of short films and one feature length movie using forms of special effects animation, including stop-motion animation, rotoscoping, and pixilation...

's 1980 short and feature-length film, both titled The Wizard of Speed and Time, released to theaters in 1987 and to video in 1989.

An animated example is the clip from the show "The Simpsons" in which Homer Simpson takes a picture of himself a day for 39 years, although it is intended to be a comedy, thus not realistic.

When used in motion pictures and on television, fast motion can serve one of several purposes. One popular usage is for comic effect. A slapstick style comic scene might be played in fast motion with accompanying music. (This form of special effect was often used in silent film
Silent film
A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...

 comedies in the early days of the cinema; see also liquid electricity
Liquid electricity
Liquid electricity is a fictional liquid substance that often appeared in comedy short films of the silent film era. It is the "distilled essence of electricity" in liquid form, a glowing substance easily stored in bottles. It provides fantastic energy and super-speed when used as a fuel for...


Another use of fast motion is to speed up slow segments of a TV program that would otherwise take up too much of the time allotted a TV show. This allows, for example, a slow scene in a house redecorating show of furniture being moved around (or replaced with other furniture) to be compressed in a smaller allotment of time while still allowing the viewer to see what took place.

The opposite of fast motion is slow motion. Cinematographers refer to fast motion as undercranking since it was originally achieved by cranking a handcranked camera slower than normal. Overcranking produces slow motion effects.

How time-lapse works

Film is often projected at 24 frame/s
Frame rate
Frame rate is the frequency at which an imaging device produces unique consecutive images called frames. The term applies equally well to computer graphics, video cameras, film cameras, and motion capture systems...

, meaning that 24 images appear on the screen every second. Under normal circumstances a film camera will record images at 24 frame/s. Since the projection speed and the recording speed are the same, the images onscreen appear to move normally.

Even if the film camera is set to record at a slower speed, it will still be projected at 24 frame/s. Thus the image on screen will appear to move faster.

The change in speed of the onscreen image can be calculated by dividing the projection speed by the camera speed.

So a film that is recorded at 12 frames per second will appear to move twice as fast. Shooting at camera speeds between 8 and 22 frames usually falls into the undercranked fast motion category, with images shot at slower speeds more closely falling into the realm of time-lapse, although these distinctions of terminology have not been entirely established in all movie production circles.

The same principles apply to video and other digital photography techniques, however until very recently video cameras have not been capable of recording at variable frame rates.

Time-lapse can be achieved with some normal movie cameras by simply clicking individual frames manually. But greater accuracy in time-increments and consistency in the exposure rates of successive frames are better achieved through a device that connects to the camera's shutter system (camera design permitting) called an intervalometer
An intervalometer is a device which counts intervals of time. . Such devices commonly are used to signal, in accurate time intervals, the operation of some other device...

. The intervalometer regulates the motion of the camera according to a specific interval of time between frames. Today, many consumer grade digital cameras, including even some point-and-shoot cameras have hardware or freeware
Freeware is computer software that is available for use at no cost or for an optional fee, but usually with one or more restricted usage rights. Freeware is in contrast to commercial software, which is typically sold for profit, but might be distributed for a business or commercial purpose in the...

 intervalometers available. Some intervolometers can also be connected to motion control systems that move the camera on any number of axes as the time-lapse photography is achieved, creating tilts, pans, tracks, and trucking shots as the speeded up motion is viewed. Ron Fricke is the primary developer of such systems, which can be seen in his short film Chronos
Chronos (film)
Chronos is a 1985 abstract film directed by Ron Fricke, created with custom-built time-lapse cameras. Originally released in IMAX theaters, it is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, HD DVD, and for free on Hulu and YouTube.-Synopsis:...

(1992) and his feature film Baraka
Baraka (film)
Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke. The title Baraka is a word that means blessing in a multitude of languages....

(1992, released to video in 2001).

Short Exposure vs. Long Exposure Time-lapse

As first mentioned above, in addition to modifying the speed of the camera, it is also important to consider the relationship between the frame interval and the exposure time. This relationship essentially controls the amount of motion blur
Motion blur
Motion blur is the apparent streaking of rapidly moving objects in a still image or a sequence of images such as a movie or animation. It results when the image being recorded changes during the recording of a single frame, either due to rapid movement or long exposure.- Photography :When a camera...

 present in each frame and it is, in principle, exactly the same as adjusting the shutter angle
Rotary disc shutter
A rotary disc shutter is a type of shutter. It is notably used in motion picture cameras.Rotary discs are semicircular mirrors which rotate in front of the film gate, and thus expose the film. As the mirror spins it reflects the image onto the ground glass so that it can be viewed by the camera...

 on a movie camera. This is also known as "Dragging the shutter."

A film camera normally records film at twenty four frames per second. During each 24th of a second the film is actually exposed to light for roughly half the time. The rest of the time it is hidden behind the shutter. Thus exposure time for motion picture film is normally calculated to be one 48th of a second (1/48 second, often rounded to 1/50 second). Adjusting the shutter angle on a film camera (if its design allows) can add or reduce the amount of motion blur by changing the amount of time that the film frame is actually exposed to light.

In time-lapse photography the camera records images at a specific slow interval such as one frame every thirty seconds (1/30 frame/s). The shutter will be open for some portion of that time. In short exposure time-lapse the film is exposed to light for a normal exposure time over an abnormal frame interval. So for example the camera will be set up to expose a frame for 1/50th of a second every 30 seconds. Such a setup will create the effect of an extremely tight shutter angle giving the resulting film a stop-animation or clay-mation quality.

In long exposure time-lapse the exposure time will approximate the effects of a normal shutter angle. Normally this means that the exposure time should be half of the frame interval. Thus a 30 second frame interval should be accompanied by a 15 second exposure time to simulate a normal shutter. The resulting film will appear smooth.

The exposure time can be calculated based on the desired shutter angle effect and the frame interval with the equation:

Long exposure time-lapse is less common because it is often difficult to properly expose film at such a long period, especially in daylight situations. A film frame that is exposed for 15 seconds will receive 750 times more light than its 1/50th of a second counterpart. (Thus it will be more than 9 stops
In optics, the f-number of an optical system expresses the diameter of the entrance pupil in terms of the focal length of the lens; in simpler terms, the f-number is the focal length divided by the "effective" aperture diameter...

 over normal exposure.) A scientific grade neutral density filter
Neutral density filter
In photography and optics, a neutral density filter or ND filter can be a colorless or grey filter. An ideal neutral density filter reduces and/or modifies intensity of all wavelengths or colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color rendition.The purpose of standard photographic...

 can be used to alleviate this problem.

Time-lapse camera movement

As also earlier mentioned, some of the most stunning time-lapse images are created by moving the camera during the shot. A time-lapse camera can be mounted to a moving car for example to create a notion of extreme speed.

However to achieve the effect of a simple tracking shot
Tracking shot
In motion picture terminology, a tracking shot is a segment in which the camera is mounted on a camera dolly, a wheeled platform that is pushed on rails while the picture is being taken...

 it is necessary to use motion control
Motion control
Motion control is a sub-field of automation, in which the position or velocity of machines are controlled using some type of device such as a hydraulic pump, linear actuator, or an electric motor, generally a servo...

 to move the camera. A motion control rig can be set to dolly
Camera dolly
A camera dolly is a specialized piece of filmmaking and television production equipment designed to create smooth camera movements . The camera is mounted to the dolly and the camera operator and focus puller or camera assistant, usually ride on the dolly to operate the camera...

 or pan
Panning (camera)
In photography, panning refers to the horizontal movement or rotation of a still or video camera, or the scanning of a subject horizontally on video or a display device...

 the camera at a glacially slow pace. When the image is projected it could appear that the camera is moving at a normal speed while the world around it is in time lapse. This juxtaposition can greatly heighten the time-lapse illusion.

The speed that the camera must move to create a perceived normal camera motion can be calculated by inverting the time-lapse equation:

Baraka (film)
Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke. The title Baraka is a word that means blessing in a multitude of languages....

 was one of the first films to use this effect to its extreme. Director
Film director
A film director is a person who directs the actors and film crew in filmmaking. They control a film's artistic and dramatic nathan roach, while guiding the technical crew and actors.-Responsibilities:...

 and cinematographer
A cinematographer is one photographing with a motion picture camera . The title is generally equivalent to director of photography , used to designate a chief over the camera and lighting crews working on a film, responsible for achieving artistic and technical decisions related to the image...

 Ron Fricke designed his own motion control rigs that utilized stepper motor
Stepper motor
A stepper motor is a brushless, electric motor that can divide a full rotation into a large number of steps. The motor's position can be controlled precisely without any feedback mechanism , as long as the motor is carefully sized to the application...

s to pan, tilt and dolly the camera.

A panning timelapse can also be easily and inexpensively achieved by using a widely available telescope Equatorial mount
Equatorial mount
An equatorial mount is a mount for instruments that follows the rotation of the sky by having one rotational axis parallel to the Earth's axis of rotation. This type of mount is used for astronomical telescopes and cameras...

 with a Right ascension
Right ascension
Right ascension is the astronomical term for one of the two coordinates of a point on the celestial sphere when using the equatorial coordinate system. The other coordinate is the declination.-Explanation:...

 motor (*360 degree example using this method). Two axis pans can be achieved as well with contemporary motorized telescope mounts.

A variation of these are rigs that move the camera DURING exposures of each frame of film, blurring the entire image. Under controlled conditions, usually with computers carefully making the movements during and between each frame, some exciting blurred artistic and visual effects can be achieved, especially when the camera is also mounted onto a tracking system of its own that allows for its own movement through space.

The most classic example of this is the slit-scan opening of the stargate sequence toward the end of Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick was an American film director, writer, producer, and photographer who lived in England during most of the last four decades of his career...

's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), created by Douglas Trumbull.

Related techniques

  • Stop motion animation
    Stop motion
    Stop motion is an animation technique to make a physically manipulated object appear to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence...

  • Slow motion photography
    Slow motion
    Slow motion is an effect in film-making whereby time appears to be slowed down. It was invented by the Austrian priest August Musger....

  • Motion control photography
    Motion control photography
    Motion control photography is a technique used in still and motion photography that enables precise control of, and optionally also allows repetition of, camera movements. It can be used to facilitate special effects photography. The process can involve filming several elements using the same...

  • Bullet time
    Bullet time
    Bullet time is a special and visual effect that refers to a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed photography used in films, broadcast advertisements, and video games...

High-Dynamic-Range (HDR) Time-lapse

The most recent development in time-lapse cinematography is the addition of High-dynamic-range imaging (photographic technique) to time-lapse. One of the first experiments was an 11-second series completed in un-automated form by Nicholas Phillips on July 8, 2006 . Modern time-lapse enthusiasts have started to follow suit as of May 2007. Ollie Larkin (work) and Jay Burlage (work) have both shot and processed HDR time-lapse footage in High definition
High-definition video
High-definition video or HD video refers to any video system of higher resolution than standard-definition video, and most commonly involves display resolutions of 1,280×720 pixels or 1,920×1,080 pixels...

, with motion control, using digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras
Digital single-lens reflex camera
Most digital single-lens reflex cameras are digital cameras that use a mechanical mirror system and pentaprism to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder on the back of the camera....

. The first example of this technique in a full length film can be seen in Silicon Valley Timelapse (2008).

One method using a DSLR involves bracketing
In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different or the same camera settings. Bracketing is useful and often recommended in situations that make it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image with a single shot, especially when a small...

 for each frame. Three photographs are taken at separate exposure value
Exposure value
In photography, exposure value denotes all combinations of a camera's shutter speed and relative aperture that give the same exposure. In an attempt to simplify choosing among combinations of equivalent camera settings, the concept was developed by the German shutter manufacturer in the 1950s...

s (capturing the three in immediate succession) to produce a group of pictures for each frame; representing the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. The bracketed groups are consolidated into individual frames (see HDR
High dynamic range imaging
In image processing, computer graphics, and photography, high dynamic range imaging is a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods...

). Those frames are then sequenced into video
Video is the technology of electronically capturing, recording, processing, storing, transmitting, and reconstructing a sequence of still images representing scenes in motion.- History :...


External links