The Future of Time Lapse Photography

When it comes to genres, I think Time-lapse photography undoubtedly has a very bright future.  What makes time lapse videos so fascinating, is its surrealistic feature. Time lapse videos have the power to show processes which human beings can’t normally see, despite the fact that such processes are taking place all the time!  The fact time lapse videos enable people to go beyond their capacities, and experience something they normally cannot, is what keeps the genre alive. With technology growing every day, boundaries that define human capacity are also expanding. In the past, it was fascinating to watch time lapse videos of flowers blooming and fruits rotting; today, it takes videos of the entire earth rotating in a matter of 10 seconds, to fascinate the human mind. It’s in human nature to always want more, and since time lapse videos guarantee experiences beyond natural human capabilities, human beings would always be hungry for more. The boundaries will continue to be pushed beyond our imaginations, with time lapse videos not only becoming more sophisticated, but also a lot more common.

As mentioned before, time-lapse photography has grown with the development of technology. With science and technology growing at exponential rates today, the development of much more powerful equipment for time lapse photography is inevitable. As opposed to the countless hours it used to take to produce the simplest of time-lapses, today, not only has it become extremely easy to make such videos, but also very affordable. Camera’s built specifically for time lapse photography are sold for as cheap as only a couple of hundred dollars in the market. With automatic settings and built in timers, all that one needs to do do to produce such fantastic illusions, is press a couple of buttons on a tiny device and leave it in a place for a couple of hours. When it comes to processing the photos, everyday more and more user friendly software are being released, some of which available for free download. Unlike its early days, almost anyone can produce their own time lapse videos, without any sort of special training or skill.

Although it has already made its way into various other forms of media, such as TV Shows, commercials and movies, I believe that with time, time lapses would become even more integrated into other forms of media. More and more TV shows and films will begin to use this technique more frequently (Breaking bad makes extensive use of time lapses: More and more independent producers will begin to use this form of filming to produce their own work. Processes, that we’re probably not even aware of today may one day be discovered via time lapse photography (similar to how slow biological processes were studies in the past). Sub genres, such as construction time lapses, cross country travel time lapses, daily portrait time lapses etc.  may even branch out and become their own genres.

Unlike other genres, Time lapse has the advantage of developing hand in hand with technology. And they never fail to impress the viewers. With technology developing on a daily basis, I believe that time lapse videos will only get more enchanting, meaning that the genre will continue to exists and develop, reaching heights that are beyond our imaginations.

Who knew back in the early 1900s, that some thing like this could be produced:


History of Time Lapse photography

The history of Time-Lapse videos can be traced back to as long ago as the late 1800s. The first ever use of the Time lapse technique in a feature film was in Geothes Milies’ motion picture Carrefour De L’Opera (1897). Jean Comandon in collaboration with Pathe Freres also pioneered the study of biological phenomenon through Time lapse photography in 1909. F. Percy Smith in 1910, and Roman Vishniac from 1915 to 1918, also used the same technique to further study slow biological processes. In the 1920s, Time-lapse photography was further established through a series of feature films called Bergfilms by Arnold Fanck, including The Holy Mountain (1926) (The Holy Mountain [Full Movie]). From 1929 to 1931, R. R. Rife demonstrated high magnification time lapse cine- microscopy, thus astonishing journalists from all over the world.

However, when it comes to popularizing this genre of video, Dr, John Ott is the man to be credited. His entire life’s work was put together in DVD film called Exploring the Spectrum in 2008.

Exploring the Spectrum

Ott was a banker by profession, with a unique hobby of photographing subjects, mostly plants, using the time lapse technique. He started buying and building more and more time lapse equipment, eventually building an entire greenhouse of plants, who were constantly being monitored by cameras following their growth. He even built self-designed motors to control the movement of the cameras according to the growth of the plants. He used the gadgets to produce time lapse videos of his entire green house, creating a “virtual symphony of time lapse movements”. In the late 1950s, Ott’s work was featured in the TV show, You Asked For It.

Ott discovered how factors  such as the amount of water fed, or the color-temperature of the lights in the studio could affect the movement of the plants. He made discoveries of how some colors would cause a plant to flower, while others would cause it to bear fruits. He even figured out how simply by varying the color temperature of the light source, the sex of the plant could be changed.

Ott used his findings and the time lapse technique to produce choreographed animations of his plants “dancing” in a synchronized manner with pre-recorded sound tracks playing in the background.

Classic documentaries such as Disney’s Secrets of Life (1956) featured Ott’s time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, thus popularizing the modern use of time lapse photography on TV and films. He wrote books such as My Ivory Cellar (1958) and Health and Light (1979) where he spoke all about the history of his time lapse adventures.

The Oxford Scientific Film Institute in Oxford, UK has also been a major developer and refiner of the time lapse technique. They specialize in time-lapse and slow motion filming and even developed camera systems that can reach and navigate through places that were almost impossible to reach before. Their works have been appearing in Movies and TV documentaries for decades.

In 1983, the feature film Koyaanisqatsi used a lot of time lapse photography, including clouds, crowds, and cities. Years later, Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of Koyaanisqatsi, produced a called “Chronos“, a solo project that he shot on IMAX cameras, which even today is often played on Discovery HD.

Innumerable other films, advertisements, TV shows and presentations have used the time-lapse technique throughout history.Nate North’s film Silicon Valley Timelapse is perhaps the most recent film made completely using the time lapse technique.

Silicon Valley Time-lapse


Time-Lapse Video

Time-lapse photography is a method of filming, whereby a series of frames are captured at a low frequency, and then compiled together in a sequence to be viewed at a much higher frequency than the rate at which they were initially shot in. When the compiled product is replayed in normal speed, time seems to be moving much faster, thus highly speeding up the motion of the subjects and surroundings captured within the frame. Extremely slow processes which are almost negligible to the human sight become distinct, thus creating an effect where time appears to be highly sped up. When captured using the time-lapse technique, motions such as the movement of the sun, clouds, stars, the hour hand of a clock etc. appear to be very pronounced. The time-lapse technique is said to be the extreme form of the cinematography technique of fast-motion or undercranking. It can also be considered to be the exact opposite of the method of slow motion filming, or high speed photography.

As I mentioned earlier, while shooting a time-lapse video, the film-frames are initially captured at a very low rate. The frames are then placed in a series and then played back at a much faster frequency. For example, if the image of a particular scene is captured once every minute for a period of 4 hours, and then played back at 24 frames per second, the entire four hours will be compressed down to 10 seconds of film. Even the most subtle motions would appear much faster.

The steadiness of the camera is essential for a successful time lapse video. Tripods are traditionally used to ensure the camera remains steady for the long periods of shooting time. The steadiness of the camera enables a smooth transition from one frame to another when replayed in high speed. Other gadgets such as sliders can be attached to tripods for steadily moving the camera, in order to produce a time lapse with a moving frame. Failure to ensure the steadiness of the frames will greatly diminish the quality of the time lapse.

It is possible to produce a time-lapse video by manually capturing each frame. However devices such as ‘interval timers’ are more commonly used. An interval timer attached to a camera can be set to take photos automatically at constant intervals of time.  Such timers can be found build internally in various cameras such as the Nikon D7000. However, if the camera doesn’t come with a built in interval timer, they are also sold externally and can be attached to certain cameras. It makes the process of producing a time lapse video much easier, and the product turns out to be of much higher quality. Certain cameras such as the Brinno TLC100 are also designed specifically to automatically produce time-lapse videos.

The background audio or music is an essential element of a time lapse video. Because such videos are produced using a large number of still images, no sound is recorded.  Thus, to create an audio visual effect, the background music plays a large role in characterizing a time-lapse video.

Another classic characteristic of time-lapse imagery is the “stylized jerkiness”, where short-term changes in the scene appear as small and annoying jitters in the video, often clouding out the basic progressive events of interest. Thus, the time-lapse technique isn’t used to capture short term events, but rather long intervals as the small details of short term events are obscured.

Time lapse videos are usually made as individual works of art. Sometimes they are also used as transitional scenes in larger film projects. Some traditional subjects of timeless photography include cloudscapes and celestial motion, plants growing and flowers opening, fruit rotting, evolution of a construction project and people and cars in the city.

Examples of some interesting time lapse videos:

Terminal City- A Vancouver Time Lapse ( My own work)

Time lapse Dandelion flower to seed head

How to Draw a Realistic Eye (Time Lapse)

Time lapse from East of Ottawa to East of Quebec City at night.

Construction time-lapse samples HD