How Time-Lapse Videos Are Made With Still Images: Tips and a Tutorial

Note: This article provides basic information about how time-lapse videos are created and includes a tutorial (at end of post) showing how to use still images (taken with any camera) to make a time-lapse video with iMovie. If you are looking for detailed instructions for producing a time-lapse video with a GoPro (and GoPro Studio), see this article and video tutorial: Time Lapse Tutorial for the GoPro Hero 3+. Another video tutorial shows how to use a montage of still images instead of video footage to make a video: How to Make a Video without Film Footage: Montage Revisited.

Time-lapse photography is a technique whereby a scene in real time is sped up to play in a much shorter time-frame. An example might be a shoreline experiencing a tidal cycle in which the tide rises and falls, covering and exposing a mudflat, over a 24 hour period. A film of such a scene in real time would be too long to watch, and it would be difficult for a viewer to see the gradual changes in the water level. Instead, if the scene were sped up to play in a shorter time period, the change would be obvious. Hours of change would be compressed into a few minutes, i.e., lapsing time.

The time-lapse technique is particularly useful for displaying biological, chemical, and/or physical processes that are naturally too slow for the human eye to see in real time: a seed germinating, a flower unfolding, a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, colors changing seasonally in a deciduous tree, a glacier melting, a shoreline eroding, storm clouds gathering, and many other events that take hours, days, or weeks to unfold. If you wish to study or display such changes on film, you must know how to create a time-lapse film.

Below is an example of a time-lapse of decaying fruit.

To begin to understand how to capture and edit a time-lapse film, let’s analyze how the above film was created. A single photo was taken (from exactly the same position) of a bowl of fruit every 40 minutes for 74 days. This means that 36 photos were taken per day, and 2664 photos in all would be captured. If each photo represents a 1-sec frame in a film and all 2664 photos were played at 30 fps (frames per second), then the final length of the film would be 1.48 minutes (the actual length of the film was 1.37 min, perhaps because the frame duration was set to slightly less than 1 sec or not all photos were used).

Note that you can also create a time-lapse film by speeding up a video clip; however, this approach is usually limited to short-duration events (e.g., an hour) that can be filmed and later sped up to play in a few seconds. You can also splice together film clips shot at brief intervals throughout an event and then time-compress during editing by shortening the duration of the final film. In the video below, a decaying pig carcass was filmed at the bottom of the ocean over a 9 day period; the film appears to have been created by splicing together short film clips captured each day.

However, the creation of a time-lapse film with still images is the most common (and easiest) approach. To create a good time-lapse film, there are a few important points to keep in mind:

1. Use a tripod to ensure that all photos are taken from exactly the same position/angle. Otherwise, the resultant film will not be smooth.

2. Shoot the photos in manual mode; otherwise, the camera will try to automatically adjust for changes in light levels, etc.

3. Carefully calculate the time interval needed between photos. This calculation will depend on the process being filmed, how fast the changes occur, and how smooth you want the resultant film to be. The more photos per unit time, the smoother the result (if you want to create a jerky effect, then scale back). If you are shooting cloud movement, you might take one photo per minute. If you are filming something that unfolds over days or weeks, then you might take only one photo per day. For example, filming one year in the life of a tree might require only one photo per day (365 photos in all). If each photo is played for 2 sec at 30 fps, the resultant film would be 24.33 sec in length.

4. Be sure you have sufficient battery life and memory to accommodate all the photos. Use jpg and adjust the size so that you get optimum quality without running out of memory.

5. Before you launch into your project, do some test shots to make sure everything is set up correctly and you are getting what you need. It’s a good idea to take a few photos and edit them to get an idea of how the final version will look and to spot any problems.

In the tutorial below, I show how to turn a series of still images into a time-lapse video using iMovie (direct link to video on YouTube).

I used a point and shoot camera to take the photos manually, but you can use any still camera and purchase hardware and software that will automate the shooting for you. Also, you can even shoot time-lapse photos with your iPhone; there are apps that will help you do this (note: I’ve not tried all of these, so can’t attest to their quality or ease of use):

Lapse It Pro will record photos and render the time-lapse film (this is the app that I use–see this post in which I test it out)

iTimelapse will take the photos and assist in rendering the final film (note: some customer complaints).

Gorillacam will only do the shooting; you have to do the video rendering yourself (note: some customer complaints).

Are you interested in learning more techniques like this? If so, you may be interested in my ebook, The Scientist Videographer, which is an electronic guidebook packed with information, tips, and tutorials and designed for the 21st century scientist, teacher, and student. Available in iTunes Store (fully interactive version for iPad, iPhone, & Mac), Smashwords (text version), and Amazon Kindle (text version).

18 thoughts on “How Time-Lapse Videos Are Made With Still Images: Tips and a Tutorial

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  3. If you care at all about what people do after reading this, you should delete the recommendation for iTimelapse, it a useless waste of money. Once in a screen, there is no way to return to the previous screen. So, when you go to select the number of frames per second, you are stuck in that option screen. The only way to get back tot he menu or any other screen is to close the app. It is a total garbage app that makes me wish I had not read your article.

    • John, thanks for your comment. As I said in my post, I have not tried iTimelapse and cannot attest to its quality or ease of use–which is clearly not a recommendation. I mentioned it and another app as alternatives to shooting time-lapse images with a regular camera and rendering with a movie-editing program, which is what my article was emphasizing. There are customer reviews in the AppStore that note both pros and cons of the iTimelapse app. A later post recommended another time-lapse app. I modified the post to make this clearer.

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  5. I believe your article title is misleading. Its really something like “Ways to take still images to use in time-lapse”, rather than how to create a time-lapse once you have images (which is more what I need since I have > 10,000 images built up so far). But since I have been DOING just that for several months now, thought I’d toss my $.02 in.

    I tried LapseIt and it is very flaky, it stops taking pictures for no discernible reason pretty often, sometimes only an hour. The longest I ever got it to run was about 360 images.

    I switched to Tina Time lapse and pretty much recommend it, the image quality isnt great for the file size, but it has been in place for >2 months and taken over 10,000 consecutive images for me so far with almost no fiddling. Tina did freeze on me once (well, it stopped taking pictures, anyway – it did at least have an apologetic message tho so you didnt have to wait 5 minutes to figure out if it was still running), but I attribute the fail to having so many images on the SD Card that Android’s @#$! file scan (which can NOT be shut off no matter how desperately you need it to stop screwing up your phone and is triggered every time you take a picture) takes longer to scan than the 5 minutes available between images once you get in the >10,000 image range.

    • Thanks for your comment, but my article title is not misleading. In the article text, I described the general procedures used to create time-lapse videos, but I also embedded a tutorial showing how to take still images captured with a digital camera and edit them in iMovie to create a time-lapse video (perhaps the video player window was not visible on your device?). I additionally mentioned some apps, such as Lapse It, which facilitate making time-lapse videos with smartphones. Some smartphones (iPhone) now have native camera modes for creating time-lapse and slow-motion videos.

      The problems you describe with Lapse It could be due to a number of reasons, including memory limitations on your device. Perhaps you should look into using some other device to capture images–one that will accommodate the 10,000 images/2 months you described. For example, in this post you’ll find a tutorial showing how to set up a GoPro Hero camera to shoot time lapse and then how to edit with GoPro Studio.

      • I’ve got to agree with Bob. The title drew me here in expectation of a tutorial on how to render a time lapse after I’ve taken the photos, but once I got here I was disappointed….

        • Sorry you were disappointed, but without any details it’s hard to understand your reaction.

          • Juergen, if you read the post, you would have seen that I included a tutorial showing how to create a time lapse film from still images. Since several people seem to make this same mistake, I’ve changed the title of the post to make it crystal clear what it is about.

  6. Same problem here. Was looking to take a folder of about 600 photos taken on my GoPro and turn that in to a time lapse. Title was definitely misleading here.

    • Ryan, sorry you did not find what you were seeking. However, in this article, I did provide a tutorial showing how to use iMovie and still images taken with a point and shoot camera to create a time-lapse video–but this may not address your particular situation. Since writing this article two and a half years ago, I’ve produced another tutorial showing how to use a GoPro to create a time-lapse video, which may be more along the lines you were looking for. This is a direct link to that video on YouTube:

      It appears that search engines are pointing people to this older article, so I’ve modified the title slightly and added a note to the beginning to direct readers/viewers to other articles and tutorials that might be more relevant.

      Good luck with your time-lapse project.

  7. I think this was a good walk trough, but I actually figured this out by myself. What I was looking for, is how to take all my 106 single photos and define them to last for one second instead of the 4-second default in iMovie. I mark all of them, but when I try to reduce the duration, it only change one at a time. Anyone know how to do this? Glad its not 10.000 photos, then 😉

    • Thanks for your comment. If you have iMovie 09, select all images in your movie project (Command A), open the “inspector”, change the duration from 4 to 1 sec, and then check the box that says “applies to all stills”. In more recent versions of iMovie, select all images in the project window (not in your event library), select the inspector button (i), and in the box next to “duration” type in the number of seconds you want.

      One of these methods should work to convert all your stills in a project simultaneously to 1 sec duration.

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