By Lila King, CNN
March 5, 2010 11:58 a.m. EST
Time was, if you wanted to make a time-lapse film, first you had to build a machine.
In the late 1920s, John Ott was an American high school student with a passion for photography and a lot of time on his hands. He wanted to capture apple blossoms unfolding over time on film, and he knew he needed to take frequent pictures around the clock, even while he was sleeping or away at school.
So he wired together a kitchen timer, a camera, a paper clip and a pull cord, and voilà: Photos taken at regular intervals over time and sped back up revealed the beauty of the blooming flowers to the naked eye.
Ott went on to become a pioneer of time-lapse photography, filming incremental changes in flowers and insects, and helping to pave the way for scientific research that still today gains insights from slowed-down views of biology and the physical environment.
Time-lapse is a photographic technique that captures images much more slowly than normal video but plays them back at standard speed, which condenses long periods of time into a relatively short video. It's like "slow motion, seen from the perspective of eternity," says Richard Misek, a film professor at Bristol University in England who is writing a history of time-lapse. (See Misek's iReport time-lapse of a busy Melbourne lunch.)
When John Ott wanted to experiment with time-lapse, he had to build a contraption, but today's inexpensive digital tools make it easy for almost anyone to give it a try and share their results with the rest of the world.
All you need is a camera on a tripod, an idea and a healthy dose of patience. And a folding chair, recommends Raphael Rodolfi, an iReporter who took part in a time-lapse challenge on CNN iReport last weekend. Someone has to sit with the camera while it's filming an extraordinary sunset or clouds moving slowly across a sky.
Dozens of people shared their first time-lapse attempts on CNN iReport last weekend. Jim Dourney, who shot a day in the life of a busy Florida inlet, said he found time-lapse "surprisingly easy to do." Simple instructions for using the movie-making software that comes standard on may computers are just a Google search away.
Maarten Koner runs a group dedicated to time-lapses on Vimeo, a video sharing site popular among filmmakers and creative photographers. It's a wildly active group, where inventive new time-lapse videos from across the world pop up every few hours.
When people first pick up a digital camera and want to try video, "slow motion is the first thing you do," Koner says. "Time-lapse is the second." What's the draw? It's simple to make magic. "I think people are really surprised by the effect, and then it becomes an addiction."
Another attraction, says artist Keith Loutit, is that in some ways, time-lapse brings back some of the wonder of analog photography. "When people turn a camera on and it's firing away, there's a real wonder about what's going to happen. People are so used to looking at the back of the camera now." But with time-lapse, you don't see the result until you get back home.
Loutit is a photographer whose work uses time-lapse and tilt-shift techniques to turn the real world into what looks like meticulous animation. His "Bathtub IV," a piece shot over three months in Sydney, Australia, tells the story of a helicopter rescue at a busy beach. He was looking to cast a place he knows well in a different light.
When iReport asked its community to try time-lapse as part of a weekend assignment series, several participants remarked that it had made them think about the places they live and see every day in a new way.
"Waiting in the cold with my camera made me sensitive to subtle changes in the scene I might normally have missed," iReporter Hannah Slagle Palmer said. (Watch Palmer's video of gnat-sized airplanes hopping over the Atlanta, Georgia, skyline.)
That's what it comes down to: "The power of time-lapse," Misek said, is that it "shows you time frames that you can't normally perceive. When it's at its best, it shows you the world from another perspective."
Last week we challenged the community to try out time-lapse videos to tell a local story, with stunning, global results. You can see the highlights in a new piece on CNN.com today. (It's all part of our new weekend assignment project -- the next challenge starts tomorrow, jump in!)
Along with videos and local stories, several of the contributors shared tips on trying timelapse. If you’re thinking of taking the plunge yourself, take heed from others who’ve done it before:
Richard Misek, London
I'd just say if you want to shoot a time-lapse, experiment and put some ideas into it. Don't just shoot a time-lapse of something because it will look beautiful. Beautiful is boring. A sequence usually only becomes really interesting when the film-maker puts something of him/herself into it.
Elliot Darren, St. Etienne, France
Egberto Willies, Kingwood, Texas
I am not qualified to give advice on this issue. However, just do it. It is a rewarding project.
Wil Massenburg, Yorktown, Virgi
Have lots of time and be patient with the process and always use a tripod!
Keith Schomig, Annapolis,Maryland
The subject matter should be something that evolves over time at a rate too slow to perceive normally but obvious when sped up (e.g., weather patterns, rising tide, growing plants).
Lulis Leal, Cedar Grove, New Jersey
Patience. I realize there are many cameras today with a time-lapse feature conveniently built in, however, I wanted to show that even the simplest point and shoot camera can create a time-lapse effect. I will enjoy practicing and perfecting this new technique.
James Dourney, Fort Pierce, Florida
Don't be afraid of trying it – it’s not only fun, but surprisingly easy to do.
Hannah Slagle Palmer, Atlanta, Georgia
No need to get overwhelmed with intervalometers and extra software. You can do this low-budget and low-tech. Be patient. Commit to one scene and watch it unfold. The smallest changes are the most surprising!
Sabri Akin, Istanbul, Turkey
I'd suggest them to keep their tripods stable and being careful on 'f' value according to weather/light in the composition and I'd ask them to go with minimal compositions besides crowded flows.
Shawn Kendrick, Cambridgeshire, England
Use manual focus when capturing your frames, and make sure your tripod is steady; this will alleviate the jitter you sometimes see in time-lapse videos. A good friend tipped me off to this after a few lackluster attempts. Oh, and have fun!
Jose Maria Cuellar, Madrid, Spain
Try the camera settings I did: aperture priority and let the camera choose the exposure time. Auto white balance is also very important if the lights conditions are going to change. For example in my time-lapse, the first photo needs day-cloudy white balance and the last one tungsten white balance. If the exposure is going to last several hours, plug in your camera. The battery will not be enough.
Mark Leslie Cruz, Toronto, Canada
Always, always and always use a tripod. Use manual focus mode and white balance and have a lot of patience.
Charles Quinn, Sleepy Hollow, New York
Experiment. You don't need to buy lots of fancy equipment or software. A quick search of the internet or even the software that comes with your digital still camera, and you'll find ways to do some interesting time lapse.
Jamen Percy, London
Trial and error. Have a play and check google for tips and methods. Make the effort, you will surprise yourself at what is actually happening around you.
Raphael Rodolfi, Peoria, Illinois
Protect your camera from wind gusts. Be behind or next to a bigger object or use your body as a shield. And take a folding chair.
Kaard Bombe, Laguna Niguel, California
Find a good location and make sure it’s something that you won't mind filming; there's nothing worse then filming something boring for 30 minutes.
Jeffrey Martin, Coffs Harbour, Australia
Just experiment and enjoy this fascinating application ... making mistakes or not.
Miriam Cintron, New York
My advice would be to make sure to pick something that shows dramatic change over a period of time. I don't think it's necessary to shoot every few seconds as I did if the subject is one that takes a long time to change. The effect would be as dramatic if shot over a 24 hour period for example.
George Kuzni, Pocono Summit, Pennsylvania
As far as advice for time-lapse video makers, I would say, don't invest the money into the equipment, instead invest the time and discipline, and catch all those rare moments.
Owen Buckley, Pacifica, California
It's easy to do. Never touch the camera once you start taping. Use a wall outlet for power (never a battery).
James Brierton, Athens, Georgia
As outlined in the instructions: don't move the camera, don't change the interval and just let the video speak for itself. Trying to get too fancy with it will just make it that much more difficult to understand.
Joshua Shearer, Plainfield, Massachusetts
Find a good way to keep your camera powered! A batteries are good but they die quick.
Ash Davies, Melbourne, Australia
Photograph everything and keep everything.
Brian Pace, Marina del Rey, California
One thing I've found very helpful to do is just to experiment. I've been surprised at what actually moves over a long period of time. The first time I photographed a star I got a streak. I thought it was because the tripod was shaking, but it was because I was actually seeing the earth's rotation! I've photographed clouds before and seen them do strange things. In one video, the clouds were just traveling across the sky and then suddenly went downward. I have no idea why that happens! That was pretty cool. It all happened just because I took my camera out to just to see what happens, I had no idea it was coming.
The only other thing I would add is that it is a really good idea to understand exposure. One of the first things I wanted to do was shoot a sunrise from the balcony of my apartment. It took me three tries to get it right. The second one was almost there, but I was using longer exposures, which looked great ... until the sun came up. So the footage was several nice frames of the courtyard at night, then the sun started to rise and ... WHIIIIIIIITE. I have 300 frames that are all white. Woops. Once I worked out how the exposures worked in daytime photography, I was able to get my sunrise.
Kevin Palivec, Hawley, Texas
Be patient! When you're shooting a time-lapse, you tend to feel you could get a better shot or angle after it's started and you're tempted to stop or move the camera. DON'T! Trust your initial instincts when setting the camera up. Look at a scene or event and in your mind. Envision it moving at fast forward! Typically what happens is, when you play it back after moving your camera you find that the original placement was good and the new placement doesn't work as well.
John W. Oliver, Santa Barbara, California
If they want to shoot a time-lapse with the sun in frame they may have trouble getting a proper exposure throughout their shot. There are neutral density graduated filters out to purchase that will tone down the su
n to allow you to properly expose for both the sky and the foreground.