Digital Focus: Make a Time-Lapse Movie

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Feature: Make a Time-Lapse Movie From Digital Photos

Time-lapse photography is an artful way to capture motion that's often too slow for the human eye to notice. The results can give slow-motion subjects a life of their own. Imagine snapping a picture of a morning glory every few minutes as it unfurls, or the sun as it rises above the horizon. Just string all your shots together, and you can watch the process magically unfold in a matter of seconds.

Time-lapse photography isn't the sole province of major motion picture studios: You can it do yourself using any digital camera and the right software. Want to try it out? Let's start by capturing some photos.

Use a Tripod

First things first: To take a series of time-lapse photos, you absolutely must have a tripod. Time-lapse movies look compelling because most of the image stays perfectly fixed, and only the subject changes from frame to frame. So if you try to hand-hold the camera and the background shifts between every single frame of the movie, it won't look convincing. In fact, you'll probably give your audience a headache--assuming they stay around long enough to watch the whole clip. So get a tripod, mount the camera, and frame the scene that you want to capture.

Prepare Your Camera

Before you start shooting your movie, you should reduce your camera's resolution.

If you've been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that I always recommend shooting at the camera's highest resolution and quality level. This is the one exception. To make a good movie that will play back smoothly on most computers, you should shoot your pictures at a resolution in the range of 640 by 480 to 1024 by 768.

Taking the Shots

Some digital cameras have a time-lapse mode built in; if yours does, I recommend that you read your manual to see how it works, and use it. My Olympus e-20, for instance, has a feature called "Interval Time" in its setup menu. To take a series of time-lapse photos, I just dial in the time lapse between each image; for example, let's say I have it configured for 3 minutes. When I press OK, the sequence starts. The camera takes one photo every 3 minutes until the batteries die or I stop it, whichever comes first.

But what if your digital camera doesn't have a time-lapse mode? No worries; you can still take the photos manually. In that case, you'll need to do a little more babysitting. Taking your series of photos is simply a matter of clicking the shutter release, then waiting the time interval and taking the next shot.

To get the best results, there are a couple of things to consider. First, if your interval is more than 1 or 2 minutes between each shot, you might want to turn the camera off between shots to conserve battery power. If you do that, be extra careful not to disturb the camera in any way while you press the power button. Second, you'll want to keep the camera still when you press the shutter release. It's best to use a wireless remote control to take each picture, if your camera has such an option. If that's not possible, make sure not to jiggle the camera when you take each picture.

Combine the Frames Into a Movie

After you have a dozen (or a hundred) frames that you want to turn into a movie, It's time to combine them using some sort of animation program. The most common format for these kinds of movies is Animated GIF, and there are all sorts of programs that can create one for you.

Older versions of Jasc Paint Shop Pro used to include a program called Animation Shop; Corel stopped including it in the latest version of the program. But there are other options. Personally, I like to use Microsoft Digital Image Suite, since it has a superb animation tool. You can find it for about $85 with the PC World Product Finder.

If you have Digital Image Suite, just load your time-lapse pictures into the editor and then choose Tools, Flipbook from the menu. Complete the wizard and you'll end up with an animation you can play on your computer, send via e-mail, or post on the Web.

Here are some other programs that you can use to animate your photos:

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