Lightroom is probably the best piece of software for anyone who wants to make time-lapse videos. I’m going to show how I batch edit hundreds of RAW files into jpegs with very little effort. I don’t use Lightroom to convert the jpegs into video but I have tutorials for QuickTime, Virtualdub, Picasa, and Windows Live Movie Maker.
I’ve written a full article about why photographers should shoot in RAW for time-lapse, but I think you’ll see during this tutorial exactly how powerful RAW can be. Most of what I’m going to do to the files can’t be done with jpeg’s or else it can’t be done as well. I’m also sure, when I shoot in RAW, that any edits will be non-destructive. This is because photo editing software isn’t legally allowed to make changes to most types of RAW files including those used by Canon and Nikon.
My Lightroom Workflow
Start by importing the files you want to edit. Because I often do night photography, I sometimes have to select two folders if the shoot happened over midnight. I always take a few test shots before beginning a time-lapse sequence, so I usually take a photo of my hand to indicate where the actual sequence begins. I didn’t do that for the example photos so it took a little more work to find the beginning of the time-lapse sequence. The main window of Lightroom is called the “Library grid view.”
Once I’ve identified the photos I want to edit, I try to find one in the middle that seems similar to the majority of the photos. I’ll go ahead and open that file and see how it looks. I then need to select “Develop” at the top of Lightroom to open the editing side panel.
The side panel in Lightroom is designed to work from the top to the bottom with one huge exception. The very first thing I want to do is to correct for any warping, vignetting, or color aberrations caused by the lens. Toward the bottom of the right side panel, I’ll select the lens correction box. Many lenses will already have a profile and the type of lens and its settings should be in the RAW files’ metadata. If your lens doesn’t have a profile already, you can try updating Lightroom or import your lens’ settings by using a lens profile finder. I have a link to the lens profile finder I used for my Rokinon lens at the bottom of this tutorial. I don’t usually use the chromatic aberration checkbox, but it’s good to check a high contrast area of the photo to see if this is necessary. The chromatic aberration happens with every lens to some extent but tends to be stronger with cheaper lenses. You’ll see this as a slight blue or yellow fringe along bright areas next to dark areas. Because I try not to edit more than necessary, I leave this box unchecked unless I find these color aberrations in my photo.
The next step is to go to the top and select the right cropping. For most of my photos, I use the 16:9 aspect ratio because that’s what’s used in HDTV. I try to avoid rotating the photo, if possible, because it always gives a very small amount of blurriness to the photo. However, I almost always find that some rotation is necessary for aesthetics.
Next, I’ll select a white balance. I can do this in a few ways. I can let the camera select the white balance if I shot the photo in automatic, I can use Lightroom’s drop-down menu to select an appropriate lighting condition, I can use the slider bar, or I can use the neutral color picker.
I find my Canon 6D usually picks a white balance close to what’s appropriate. Unlike jpeg, I can shoot my time-lapse in automatic white balance because I can adjust the white balance as much as I’d like in Lightroom without harming the RAW file. I’ll copy whatever white balance setting I choose and apply it to every photo. Because of this, I won’t get the usual color shift in the video that I get if I shoot a time-lapse sequence in jpeg with auto white balance.
With all slider bars I like to move the slider to the far left and far right before trying to find a neutral point. This works to show exactly what the slider does and also prevents me from assuming the original setting was the best. As I’ve said, even the setting I come up with by moving the slider is usually close to the auto white balance setting. The other method I find occasionally helpful is the neutral selector. To use this, click on the color dropper next to the white balance slider and look for a neutral color in my photo, usually a gray. This isn’t a foolproof method because there’s so much variation in grays within a photo and because some grays have a slight tint to them. If you have a gray card and are shooting during the day, taking a photo of the gray card at the beginning of the photo sequence can make the whole process a single click if your lighting conditions are even throughout.
The next steps are a cross between technique and artistic choice. If you’re interested in shooting commercially, it’s good to at least know how to get a technically good photo. The first thing we’ll do is click on the triangles at the top of the histogram. This will make areas that are too white appear red and areas that are too dark appear blue. These are the areas to the extreme right and left of the histogram. If I have both blown out highlights and clipped blacks, the exposure slider won’t be able to correct this. Instead, I’ll adjust the “Highlights,” “Shadows,” “Whites,” and “Blacks” sliders. It’s easy to make the image flat during this step, so play with “Contrast” as needed. I only adjust “Exposure” if I messed up during a shoot and made the images too light or dark. Remember that completely removing the extreme sections means you’ve decided there are no whites and blacks in your photo. If the sun is in a photo, chances are it should appear completely white. Adjusting the settings toward the middle too much can make the photo look like HDR. This is where a well calibrated monitor and a good sense of moderation comes into play.
The other settings will depend on what you like in a photo and what your audience wants. The best way to see what every slider does is to slide it back and forth to the extremes. Remember to keep an eye on the histogram for a hint at what you’re adjusting. “Clarity” works like “Contrast” but only in the mid-tones. “Saturation” enhances all colors and “Vibrance” enhances lesser colors without blowing out the main colors. It also avoids the skin tone colors so people won’t look like aliens.
The other panels in the sidebar are good for occasional use but too intricate for an overview tutorial. The main time I use any of these is if I have one color that’s too distracting. For example, a woman walked through one of my time-lapse shoots wearing a bright red jacket and distracted form the main focus. Because nothing else was very red in the photo sequence, I went to the “HSL” panel and lowered the red saturation.
Before I exit the development mode, I like to click on the “Y/Y” box below the photo to show a before-and-after view. Usually the “after” photo looks better but sometimes I realize I’ve gone too far and the photo looks unnatural. If I’m happy with the look of the photo, I go back to loupe view and reenter the library grid view from the beginning of the tutorial.
I’ll copy the settings by right-clicking and selecting “Develop Settings>Copy Settings…” then “Check All” and “Copy.” Now I simply select all the photos in my time-lapse sequence, right-click, and select “Develop Settings>Paste Settings.”
Once the settings have been applied to all the photos, click “Export” on the left panel. Here’s what I do for each menu item:
Export Location – Create a new folder to make processing into a video easier.
File Naming – I only change this if the numbering resets midway (i.e. 9998, 9999, 0001, etc.)
File Settings – Image format is jpeg and default quality of 76 is fine. Color space should be sRGB. We’re using sRGB because these photos need to have the same color space as computer monitors and TVs. Remember to change this if you want to export photos to print.
Image Sizing – You can select 1920×1080 if you want but I prefer to resize in a video editor so I can do zooms without losing resolution. The “Resolution” only matters if you’re printing photos.
Output Sharpening – I choose “Screen” and “Standard” but I don’t see much of a difference.
I don’t change the other settings. Once everything’s right, click “Export.” The task bar in the upper-left corner will slowly start moving as your RAW files get crunched into jpegs.
That’s my entire Lightroom time-lapse workflow. If I missed any settings you think everyone should know or if you have any questions, please leave a comment below. If you’re interested in buying Lightroom, using my Amazon affiliate link helps support future tutorials. There’s no difference between the regular edition and the student edition except you have to provide proof you’re a student.