Time-lapse Photography - Step-by-Step

Here is what you have to do to prepare your equipment for a successful run:

  1. Find a suitable spot for your time-lapse movie. Preferably a scenic one ;-) It can be nice to have some foreground object (e.g. a tree).
  2. Set up your tripod, ballhead, and camera. Weigh down your tripod to prevent it from toppling over in high wind. E.g. with a rock in a bag.
  3. Connect the external powersupply to the camera.
  4. Attach the timer remote controller.
  5. Power-on the camera. Check for an empty memory card (or with sufficient space left).
  6. Turn off image stabilization.
  7. Choose correct settings for image quality (see below).
  8. Turn off dark frame subtraction (depending on exposure intervals).
  9. Adjust the field of view. Tighten all screws of the tripod and ballhead!
  10. Use manual or automatic for focusing. But, do not forget to switch to manual focus afterwards!
  11. Now attach the lens heating. Be careful not to change the focus settings in this process!
  12. Choose your exposure and ISO settings (see below).
  13. Choose the timer settings (see below).
  14. Start your time-lapse movie!

Image Quality Issues

As you do not have unlimited space on your mermory card, it is highly recommended to choose Jpeg and not RAW. For my 40D I usually use medium/fine (2816x1880 pixels). Even for a full HD movie this leaves enough room to scale down the image to compensate for noise when high ISO and long exposure times are used. There are cetainly limitations with Jpeg when it comes to adjusting exposure afterwards. But, with the right settings and procedure and practise, this is necessary only to a limited extent.

With this setting the average file size is about 2 MB. A 12 hour run with exposures at 30 seconds intervals results in about 2.9 GB of data. So choose a corresponding memory card. As always: Test all this at home!

Exposure and ISO settings

Choosing the right exposure and ISO settings throughout a time-lapse movie that lasts from before dusk to after dawn is a difficult matter. During the day, you can use the automatic settings and a low ISO number. However, during the night, the automatic exposure mode will severely underexpose the images (except from very bright nights around full Moon). Therefore, at night, I use a fixed exposure setting. Then, there is a period at dusk and dawn each where I have to perform a manual transition from the automatic to the fixed exposure and back.

This requires a bit of trial and error to find the right procedure. If you increase the exposure time too quickly at dusk, the image will get brighter than the ones taken before and you get an abrupt change in brightness. From my experience, in the evening, you should start when the sun is about 12° below the horizon. In the morning this phase should end when it reaches 12° below the horizon.

Before and after these periods (not quite so important when excactly), you should slowly switch from the low ISO numbers to the high night time settings and back.


  • Low ISO number and automatic exposure mode.

Some time after sunset

  • Increase ISO number and leave it at the selected value for 4 to 8 exposures each.
  • If you want to prevent your camera to use the lense's lowest f-stop it is good to switch to Av mode.

Sun reaches -12° elevation

  • Set manual exposure settings to the value shown by the automatic mode.
  • Increase exposure time every 4-8 exposures until you reach your night time setting.

During the night

  • Use the fixed settings.

Some time before the sun reaches -12° Elevation

  • Decrease exposure time (reverse of evening process).
  • Watch the exposure metering of the camera. First the camera whill show over-exposure. When you reach the exposure time that corresponds to the value given by the automatic metering, switch to automatic exposure mode.
  • This mus be finished before the Sun gets above -12° elevation. Though, this also depends on which part of the sky you have in your field of view (towards or away from the Sun)

Some time before sunrise

  • Decrease ISO number. Reverse evening process.

Examplary fixed exposure settings at night

Days after and before New Moon

ISO number

Exposure time (s)





< 3.5




< 3.5













These values are all approximate and valid for a non-light-polluted environment. However, they should change with respect of your local conditions. Try it out.


Remote Timer Controller Settings

As you can see from the table above, timer intervals of less than 30 seconds are not sensible. Your camera needs time to save the image to memory card. So you should always try out before hand how long this takes (depends on camera model and memory card type). In case of my 40D and some cheap standard flash cards, five seconds are OK.

So always add this delay to your maximum exposure time and you are on the safe side.


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