Time-lapse photo projects for beginners

Explore the world of time-lapse movies within the comfort of your own home, or when you're out with the family. Your Canon EOS camera can make it easy!
Two ice creams designed to look like slices of watermelon, melting on a plate.

Time-lapse is a creative technique that lets you reveal a hidden world on the move, and it can produce some surprising and rewarding results. From speeding up storm clouds as they unfurl across a landscape to recording the slow march of stars through the night sky, time-lapse lends itself to an epic canvas – but it's a technique that's equally effective with small-scale objects closer to home.

To demonstrate that you don't need to travel far to get creative, we challenged two time-lapse photographers to shoot something beautiful from within the boundaries of their home.

Practise at home

Alex Nail is an award-winning landscape photographer and time-lapse filmmaker based in the UK. He is passionate about bringing the landscape to life and, as well as building an impressive portfolio of personal time-lapse projects, he has used the technique commercially for numerous organisations, including the British Tourist Authority.

Although Alex is normally found training his lenses on Europe's mountain ranges, he says that staying closer to home is a great way to familiarise yourself with the time-lapse technique. He shot the day-to-night time-lapse through one of the windows in his house to show how easy it can be.

A composite image representing a time-lapse of the scene through a window from day to night.

"The home is the perfect place to learn time-lapse because it's so convenient and controlled," Alex explains. "In the outdoors, time-lapse becomes a little more challenging, with strong wind, rain or unexpected light changes. But you can easily develop your time-lapse understanding within the comfort of your own home. Even now, having shot time-lapse for eight years, I still test things indoors.

"Of course shooting indoors presents some challenges too. Homes are generally fairly static places, so it's your challenge as a photographer to think about how you are going to introduce change or motion to a scene. You also might not live in a show home (I certainly don't), but that doesn't stop you capturing the motions of everyday life, or focusing on smaller details. If you're shooting at sunrise or sunset, consider how artificial lighting indoors will change (or not) in comparison to the significant changes outside."

Alex suggests using stationary objects to contrast against the motion you're looking to capture. "For example, you can contrast the static nature of a window frame and ornaments with the haphazard motions of trees outdoors blowing in the wind, or clouds racing across the horizon. The static elements help to focus the viewer's attention on the motion in the scene."

Capturing the motion of animals

After graduating from Central Saint Martins Collage of Art and Design in London, Scotland-born Camilla Rutherford escaped city life to spend time taking photos and making films of adventure sports athletes "chasing the snow around the globe". She subsequently settled in Wanaka, New Zealand, where she lives on a high country merino sheep farm with her family.

A flock of sheep grazing in a field of grass with brown hills in the background and blue sky above.

Camilla's time-lapse captures the flow of a flock of sheep on her farm. The contrast in pace between the rapid pulse of the feeding animals and the slow rolling of the clouds adds visual contrast, while the quality of light and dramatic backdrop give a cinematic twist to this commonplace scene.

While you might not have this level of rugged beauty on your doorstep, it's a technique that works equally well for capturing the comings and goings of a pet around a room, or birds visiting a garden feeder. Set up your camera on a tripod, set a lengthy time-lapse interval and record the daily movement of animals that you wouldn't normally see.

Making your own time-lapse

So, you can see how effective a small-scale time-lapse can be. You don't need an advanced camera or specialist lens either. If you have plenty of time on your hands and lots of patience, you can simply take a series of images at regular intervals and then combine these in video-editing software to create a finished time-lapse movie.

To make things easier, a number of Canon EOS cameras have a built-in Interval Timer that automates the whole process. Using this, you can specify how many images you want to take and how long a time interval to leave between each one – in seconds, minutes or hours. The camera will then take a sequence of shots at the preset intervals until it has taken your specified number of photos. These images can subsequently be used to create a time-lapse movie using suitable software, or the individual images can be used in other creative ways.

For the ultimate in convenience, some EOS cameras have a Time-lapse Movie option. This does all the hard work for you, as it combines the images in-camera and saves the finished time-lapse movie to the memory card, so that you can enjoy and share it straight away.

You'll find one of these features – and sometimes both – in a host of cameras across the EOS range. The EOS 250D and EOS RP are two beginner-friendly cameras that enable you to explore the creative world of time-lapse movies at home. From flowers blooming and wilting, to melting ice-cream and the movement of sunlight around your living room, there is a limitless supply of subjects that can be turned into captivating time-lapse videos.

Two ice creams designed to look like slices of watermelon, starting to melt on a plate.

Time-lapse tips

Once you've selected a suitable subject for your time-lapse, it's time to set up your camera. A tripod is recommended here, so that any stationary parts of your scene are sharp in the final sequence.

A Canon EOS 250D set up on a tripod facing an ice cream shaped like a slice of watermelon on a plate, with a desk lamp to one side.

To make sure the whole scene doesn't move around, only the parts of it that are meant to change, set your camera on a tripod.

Battery life can be a concern when you're shooting very long time-lapse sequences, so make sure you start with a fully charged battery. To keep power drain to a minimum, the rear display will be deactivated by default on some cameras, or it can be disabled in the Time-lapse Movie settings screen. For very long time-lapses, it may be better to attach a battery grip and additional battery to the camera, or use an optional power adapter for a steady power supply.

A battery being inserted into a Canon EOS 250D.

Make sure you start shooting your time-lapse with a fully-charged battery, especially if you're taking a large number of shots over an extended period of time.

When it comes to lighting an indoor time-lapse, it's often better to use artificial light rather than natural light for more consistent results. Daylight can change in intensity and colour temperature over the period of time it takes to record a time-lapse. While this change may be imperceptible to the eye when you're taking the shots, it will create a noticeable flicker in the finished film. A desk lamp is great for small-scale subjects, especially when the light is softened with a sheet of diffusing material.

A desk lamp shines through a piece of fine gauze fabric, illuminating an ice cream on a plate.

If you're making a time-lapse of an object indoors, artificial light can help ensure consistent lighting over the duration of the shoot.

The Interval Timer or Time-lapse Movie can be enabled in the red Shooting menu of an EOS camera that offers either of these functions. Some cameras have both options, but you will need to set the camera to video mode in order to access Time-lapse Movie – as shown here with the EOS 250D.

A Canon EOS 250D being set to Movie mode.

Set your EOS camera to Movie mode.

A user's finger selecting Time-lapse movie mode on a Canon camera's vari-angle touchscreen.

Select Time-lapse movie mode.

Some EOS cameras give you a selection of preset scene options in the Time-lapse Movie menu. These are optimised for different types of subjects, such as people walking or slow-moving clouds. For full control over the time-lapse settings, however, choose Custom. Here you can set the interval between each shot, and the total number of shots that will make up the finished time-lapse. These options determine the time required to record the images and the duration of the finished time-lapse, and you'll see these change on the screen as you adjust the parameters.

The Time-lapse movie Custom settings screen.

For complete control over your time-lapse video, select Custom – you can then choose the length of interval between each shot, and the total number of shots to be taken.

Select an interval according to the speed of the movement that you're trying to capture. If the action happens in a short time frame, such as your family playing a game or preparing a meal, then you might need to set only a short interval of just a few seconds or so in order to create a smooth sequence. With slower paced movement, such as the sun and moon rising and falling, you can choose a longer interval. Changing the interval will cause the recording time to increase or decrease.

The Time-lapse movie interval settings on the LCD screen of a Canon EOS 250D.

To capture faster action, select a short interval between shots. To capture slower events, such as a sunset, select a longer interval time.

The number of shots you capture will determine how long the finished time-lapse will play back for, according to the frame-rate of your video. For example, if you're shooting a time-lapse 4K movie at 25fps, then each second of your video will require 25 individual shots to be taken. This means you'll need to shoot 500 images to create a 20-second time-lapse movie. Changing the number of shots will affect both the recording time and the playback time – and dictate how much space you need on the memory card.

A Time-lapse video settings screen showing that 300 shots taken 10 seconds apart will take just under 50 minutes to shoot and last 12 seconds on playback.

The number of shots in your time-lapse, combined with the frame-rate of your video, will determine how long the time-lapse sequence will play for. A greater number of shots will naturally take longer to capture and will also result in a longer sequence on playback.

Setting the Time-lapse movie option to beep after every image is taken.

You can optionally set your camera to beep after every shot, making it easier for you to know when the capture sequence is finished.

Time-lapse Movie gives you additional control options, such as providing an audible beep after every shot. This is useful if your camera is in a different room, as you will know when the sequence is finished.

It's a good idea to set as many of the shooting parameters as possible manually, so that the time-lapse movie has a consistent look from start to finish. If you leave the Picture Style and white balance set to Auto, for example, the camera might adjust the settings for some shots.

The vari-angle screen of a Canon EOS 250D displaying the settings chosen for a time-lapse shoot.

To make sure the camera doesn't automatically alter exposure, white balance or other settings in response to small changes in the conditions over the course of the shoot, set as many of the shooting parameters as possible manually.

There's plenty of fun to be had with time-lapse, wherever you are. As with all photographic projects, it makes sense to master the basics first before moving onto more challenging subjects. Why not pick up your camera now and start to record movement outside your window? Or, set up a tripod in the kitchen next time you cook a meal and record as it all unfolds. The best thing about time-lapse is that it's easy to learn and rewarding to master. Before you know it, you'll be looking at everyday subjects in a creative new way.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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