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Five Things You Need to Know About Smartphone Time-Lapse Videos

Before you shoot that Hyperlapse video, read this.


Time-lapse video has traditionally required a bunch of equipment — and time. But a new wave of smartphone apps is making the sped-up effect much more accessible to people who aren’t pro photographers.

Take Hyperlapse, for example. Instagram’s impressive new mobile app captures up to 45 minutes of smartphone video, stabilizes it, speeds it up, and lets you blast it out to your social networks, turning a shaky or boring video of someone walking down a street into a short clip moving at a frenetic pace. You can even apply Instagram’s same hipster-licious Instagram filters.

And Apple’s upcoming mobile operating system, iOS 8, is expected to bring a new time-lapse feature to the iPhone’s camera app. Of course, because it’s Apple, we don’t have all of the technical details yet, but the company’s current explanation is that the camera will snap photos “at dynamically selected intervals,” and then “show an accelerated sequence of the photos over time.”

Okay, so time-lapses look cool. And they’re now possible with smartphones, in addition to action cameras like GoPro. But before you go bonkers with your caffeinated video clips, there are some things you should know about time-lapse.

Time-lapse isn’t new — at all.

Filmmaker Georges Melies is often credited with producing some of the earliest time-lapse cinematography for his film “Carrefour de L’Opera” — way back in 1897. (It’s unclear which Instagram filter he used.)

Other early use cases of time-lapse emerged in scientific fields: Photographers would use intervalometers and early motion-control machines to capture a series of still images of plants, then speed up the images to show the plants reacting to elements like sun and water.

Fast-forward to the next century, and time-lapse is more popular than ever. It shows up in films, commercials, ominous opening sequences to popular Netflix series, and now it shows up in your Instagram and Facebook feeds.

Which brings me to my next point: There are apps for that.

I surveyed half a dozen professional photographers, videographers, app developers and camera makers for this column, and many of them named different mobile apps that they use for time-lapse effects.

Some apps are supplemental, like this time-lapse calculator that helps you figure out how much video/how many stills you need to shoot to achieve your desired effect. Other apps, like this Android app, allow your smartphone to act as a DSLR camera remote, so you can set and control your still-image intervals if you’re shooting with an actual camera.

Then there are the apps that allow you to actually shoot the time-lapse on your smartphone. TimeLapse for iOS offers some manual control around exposure and focus. Another one worth considering is iLapse, which a pro recently told me she used while on her bike, in lieu of attaching a GoPro.

The newest, buzziest app for time-lapse video is Instagram’s Hyperlapse. The app is free to download and, in my experience, it’s stunningly simple to use. It’s currently only available on iOS; the company says there are limitations around other smartphones that prevent it from working on other platforms.

There is some debate as to whether Hyperlapse enables “real” time-lapses versus sped-up video. Hyperlapse is cutting-edge because of its image-stabilization technology, which relies on the internal gyroscope in the smartphone. This allows you to walk around while capturing images, instead of keeping the camera still for the time-lapse.

But Hyperlapse captures video — not a series of stills at specific intervals — and speeds up that video by selecting every sixth or 10th or 12th keyframe. Instagram, the makers of Hyperlapse, explained it to me by saying the app is basically selecting these still images after the video is processed, not beforehand.

Other experts, when asked whether Hyperlapse creates “real” time-lapses, said “same difference.”

Shooting a professional-looking time-lapse on your smartphone is possible, but requires some skill.

Here are some tips that pros gave me for shooting time-lapse video with a smartphone: First, if you are setting up for a still time-lapse, get a tabletop tripod or another pair of “sticks” that will support your phone.

If you’d rather not invest in a tripod, gaffer’s tape works well for attaching your phone to something stable. Oh, and if you’re shooting in public, don’t walk away from your smartphone.

Next, determine a focal point. Are you trying to capture the movement in the foreground, or in the background? Some apps, like OSnap!, let you manually adjust the focus on newer iPhones.

Look for consistent lighting. This is difficult to do if you’re intentionally shooting something like a sunset, but otherwise, consider the lighting environment. One expert suggested that if you have some manual control, err on the side of underexposure, because you can always lighten up the video a little bit in “post-production”; once it’s all blown out with highlights, it can be difficult to reduce that kind of brightness.

Finally, if you’re planning on shooting a longer time-lapse video with your smartphone, put your phone into airplane mode to avoid interruptions.

Another point to consider: Time-lapse videos will take up space on your smartphone.

Kevin Lu, a biomedical-engineer-turned-pro-photographer who specializes in time-lapses, told me he has two smartphones — his everyday phone, and his iPhone 5s for shooting time-lapses. This is so he doesn’t have to worry about his videos taking up storage space on his phone.

It’s an obvious concern. The amount of space your time-lapse videos take up will depend on a few things: How long you’re capturing media for, the quality of the images or video you’re capturing, how long the finished clip is, and how compressed it is during the post-production process.

Lu said that a recent 15-second time-lapse video he shot took up just 40 megabytes of storage space on his phone. Instagram says the introductory 15-second time-lapses shown in the Hyperlapse app take up even less space. This handy time-lapse calculator for GoPro, which uses microSD cards and not internal storage, gives you an idea of how much space time-lapses of a certain length and quality will take up.

But in either case — it still might not be as much as you think.

One more thing: It’s easy to overdo the time-lapse effect.

One seasoned video producer I talked to opined that time-lapses have become a sort of joke in the video world, because they’re so overused. So, before you swipe to open that time-lapse app, you might want to ask: What kind of effect am I trying to achieve? Is this the best setting for a time-lapse video, or would a still image or “regular” video work better? Are my friends getting annoyed by all of my shared time-lapse videos?

You get the point.

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