Why Use Photos for Time-Lapse?

Hill Sunset

After a couple years of making time-lapse videos, I often forget that people visiting this website for the first time might want to know the very basics. This post came from a conversation I had the other day. The person mentioned the Canon 60D takes good videos and suggested I might like that feature for time-lapse. When I said I make my videos from photos, he asked why. After thinking about it for a few days, here are the best reasons I can think of.

Quality

I assume any person interested in time-lapse as a hobby will be interested in consumer grade equipment. I’m sure high end video equipment, such as The Red One, would work well for time-lapse, but the popular consumer video equipment these days is more likely a Flip UltraHD or even a DSLR. It’s easy to record a video and then speed it up to create a time-lapse, but a time-lapse made from photos will look much better.

Exposure Time

One of the main reasons photos are preferably to video is the amount of light photos can capture. Imagine a movie camera as a film camera that takes pictures really fast. Because a movie camera is designed to capture real time movement and play it back at the same speed, it needs to shoot at least 24fps. That means no exposure can be longer than 1/24 of a second. No photographer would buy a camera with such a crippling limitation. My star trail videos often use fifty second exposures. Even when I shoot in daylight, I try to use a three second exposure in order to make movement more fluid and avoid jumpiness. Digital video cameras obviously don’t have film, but they have the same unsurmountable limitation of exposure time. If we relied on video, it would be impossible to capture many of the popular subject of time-lapse such as the milky way or light stencils.


Size

An HD video camera shoots at a maximum of 1920×1080 lines of resolution. A full frame DSLR, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, takes an image of 5616×3744. This gives you a lot more room to crop and even do post production pans without moving the camera or lowering the video quality.

Control

I’ve mentioned white balance and its importance to time-lapse before. This isn’t a big concern with video cameras, but it’s also something that can be harder to control. Additionally, a DSLR can shoot in RAW, which allows you to edit the color in post production. I don’t shoot in RAW because of the larger file sizes and need for additional editing software, but many people enjoy having this option available.

Time

A time-lapse can take hours, days, or weeks. While it’s easy to record for this long using a camera, it would be difficult to make a video for a week and even harder to compress it into less than a minute. The difference could be a thousand photos vs. 168 hours of video.

Lenses

This is less of an issue now that DSLRs can record full HD video. Consumer video cameras, however, usually offer one lens with a limited zoom range.

It’s the Industry Standard

When cinematographers make time-lapse videos for TV or movies, they almost always use a still picture camera. That’s because they know they can get much better results than with a video camera.

I hope I was able to make a good argument for using photos instead of video. If I missed any other reasons to avoid shooting with video, please let me know in the comments.


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3 thoughts on “Why Use Photos for Time-Lapse?

  1. Great article. I’ve just started time lapsing and I’ve tried both methods. I never thought about making a time-lapse of a week long, but you are right. it is easier to handle couple thousands photos than a couple hundred hours of video. Let alone the thought of rendering that insane amount of footage.

    However, I feel that it is very time consuming to make a timelapse out of photos. Because if you don’t have the right equipment, sitting in front of your camera to press the shutter every 30 seconds is your only option and it is VERY boring. So given that circumstance, leaving your camera recording for a straight 30 minutes is much more easier.

    I recently bought a Sony A7r and it has a built in time-lapse function and it is a joy to use.

    1. Thanks for the info and sorry for the late response. My email marked this as spam.

      I haven’t used the Sony A7r but I tried out the A7s and was impressed with it. Sony seems to have moved to downloadable apps to add functions such as time-lapse triggering. The time-lapse app was $10, which was a bit expensive for a rental camera, so I didn’t get a chance to try it. I’m glad to hear the A7r’s intervalometer works well.

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