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What is a time lapse video?

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Even if you’re not quite sure about the terminology, we'll bet good money you know what a time lapse is because you've seen one before. While time lapses are a very specific photo and video editing technique, they crop up surprisingly often. That’s why we’ll be covering everything you need to know about time lapses in this article, including:

  • What is a time lapse?

  • Why is it important to understand time lapses?

  • When to use time lapses in photos and videos?

  • How to use time lapses?

  • How are time lapses used in social media videos?

Time lapse video

Understanding the types of time lapses

What is a time lapse video?

In videography, time lapses are a technique where frame rates

are slowed down. For example, instead of 24 frames a second, you may use 24 frames a minute. This means the action of the shot progresses much faster than in reality.

Time lapse videos may be filmed over a long period of time and sped up, or they may be assembled from a series of still shots.

What is a time lapse photograph?

Time lapse videos are accomplished through fewer frames over a longer period of time; time lapse photography is a different technique. In photography, the capture process of the individual image is slowed down.

In other words, you can use a slower shutter speed, which draws the exposure process out. This technique gives the viewer the impression of motion without movement. 

Why is it important to understand time lapses?

A time lapse can be a helpful technique for both photography and videography.

In photography, opting to use a time lapse can produce beautiful and impressionable photos. The most obvious example would be images of a city at night, with a blur of car headlights stretched across the roads in a continuous line. Time lapse photography of the night sky is also popular, particularly of the northern lights.

On the other hand, in videography, time lapses allow filmmakers to compress time. This means filmmakers can move through a narrative without jumping locations or scenes.

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When to use time lapses in photos and videos?

For photos, the time lapse technique isn’t the best for every situation. You should only use time lapses as necessary. It’s most often to capture prolonged processes that wouldn’t be very visually appealing to the human eye without a time lapse.

This includes things like sunrises and sunsets, planetary and constellation movements, and more.

For videos, time lapses are most often used for practical purposes. A great example of this is in nature documentaries. Time lapses are often used to show things like weather or seasons passing and plants growing and changing.

This said, there are times when filmmakers may opt to use time lapses for more artistic reasons than practical. Time lapse shots may enhance a particular character's narrative and allow for a unique view of their life. We’ll look at a few examples of both.

How to use time lapses?

The best way to learn how to use time lapses is by example, starting with Vince Gilligan. Creator and producer of Breaking Bad and spin-off Better Call Saul, Gilligan loves a time lapse shot. You can tell by looking at either show as the technique is liberally applied in both. These shots show time passing and work well in many instances to show the dry, relentless New Mexico heat. They're also used in a more artistic sense to display moments where Jesse is unaware of time passing due to his addiction.

Another hugely popular TV show, House of Cards, uses the time lapse technique in its intro. It shows time passing over the skyline of Washington D.C. It is a powerful introduction combined with the theme music and sets the tone for the show well.

Adaptation has one of the most famous time lapses in movies, and it’s a great shot. It shows plants growing in the city to cover the background behind. The filmmaker here would have used still shots to achieve this effect as opposed to slowed frames.

As mentioned above, nature documentaries often use the time lapse technique to show changing seasons or weather. But in this instance, the time lapse technique is used to show the viewer this stunning construction of a spider web.

How is the time lapse effect used in social media videos?

Time lapses have become very popular content on social media, particularly YouTube and TikTok, predominantly video content platforms.

The original kick start for this ongoing trend was users uploading time lapse photography of their face over several years. There are now videos of this content spanning a whole 20 years in some instances. For example, Dutch artist Frans Hofmeester has a time lapse video of his daughter from the day she was born until she hit 20 years old!

TikTok also loves the time lapse technique. You’ll find plenty of unique uses of the technique available on the platform, from stunning scenery to videos on growing plants.

Whichever social media platform you’re on, it’s easy to create a time lapse video or photo to share, even on smartphone devices. Android and iOS devices come with dedicated time lapse movie features now so that most smartphone users can create them with ease.

Alternatively, if you're looking to invest in a dedicated time lapse camera, Brinno does a great range of models for different levels of experience.

You can record a time lapse for as long as you want to achieve a given effect. You can use a time lapse calculator to help you achieve this. This can help you figure out how long you need to film something to get a given length of content.

For example, if you wanted to create 30 seconds of uninterrupted time lapse footage, you could film at 30 fps for 1.2 hours. Time lapse calculators can help you figure out how many hours you need to film to achieve your desired footage.

Create your first time lapse

Now that you understand what a time lapse is, make the most of this videography technique. If you'd like to learn more about video editing, dive into Clipchamp’s glossary for more video editing techniques and must-know terms.

When you're ready to give them a try, turn your video ideas and concepts into reality with Clipchamp’s online video editor.

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