April 28, 2022

How to shoot time-lapse video with your iPhone

Time-lapse is a common technique filmmakers use to show a passage of time, by capturing movement that’s usually too slow for the eye to see. It’s a simple, emotive technique. All that was needed for the “Resurrection Day” seen here was an iPhone, the built-in Camera app, a tripod mount and a little patience. This article will give you the step-by-step on how to shoot time-lapse videos.

How iOS time-lapse works.

The built-in Camera app’s time-lapse feature is the simplest way to do the technique on the iPhone. To create this 30-second, time-lapse video, a 15-minute time-lapse video was recorded at 2-frames-a-second. This video is then played back at the normal 30-frames-a-second. The result is a speeding up of cloud movement, jet contrails and slight movement of the sun. (The sun moves it’s width in the sky every five minutes so if you want it to reveal it from behind a silhouette as I’ve done here, you’ll have to take that into account when shooting.)

The iPhone automatically adjusts frame rate to create a final video between 20 to 40 seconds long. The longer you shoot, the fewer frames it saves. For example, A time-lapse recorded over 30 minutes will give you a 20-second video recorded at 1.5 frames per second. Apple says you can stretch this out to capture 30 hours at 10 frames a minute. Cool to know, but it’s unlikely you’d go 30 hours without your iPhone in you hand.

Here’s how to shoot a time-lapse:

1. Choose your ying and yang.

I think it’s easier to understand time lapse videos in term of Tao. (Stop laughing for a minute.)Yin is stillness and yang is movement. The most-effective, time-lapse videos have movement anchored by stillness. This can be either a still subject for the background to move against as in the video above. Or it can be a still background, like a street scene, to emphasize moving people.

2. Mount your iPhone on a tripod.

Time-lapse video requires a tripod to keep the camera perfectly still so it can provide both stillness and movement. Above, the tripod-mounted iPhone captures the path of the movement of the contrails and clouds while the sculpture remains still.

I’d recommend a full-size tripod when you shoot. I keep the Manfrotto Compact Action tripod handy for when the opportunity rises. You’ll also need an adapter to mount your iPhone to the tripod. I use the Manfrotto Twistgrip with my iPhone 13 Pro, though it may not fit the largest iPhone in a case. There’s another type of time-lapse called Hyper Lapse where the camera moves and doesn’t require a tripod.

3. Compose for the movement path.

It can be argued that the subject of any time-lapse video is always the movement itself since that’s what the eyes is attracted to. Even though the video above has a distinct subject of a group of strongly silhouetted statues, it’s the movement of the clouds that your eye follows. Since the camera is still, your composition needs to reveal the path of the movement.

4. Lock and shoot.

Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, lock the exposure of your video. Focus doesn’t seem to change when not locked, but the exposure will. So if you’re shooting a sunset the sky won’t darken and colors won’t saturate. To lock: Hold your finger on the screen on the spot you want to focus on and expose for. In a few seconds you’ll get a lock message.

5. Set a timer.

The speed of movement of your time-lapse will be based both on physical movement as well as how long the video is. As noted, the longer your record the time lapse for, the fewer frames will be saved. I typically work with 15-minute shots that yield 30 second videos and that’s a good starting point. But if the subject movement is fast you might want to go for a 10-minute video. Or if incredibly slow, like sun rays on the floor of a room, you may want to take an hour-long video.

One more factor is the lens of the camera. Movement of a cloud across the screen happens much faster in the Tele camera than it does the Ultra Wide camera. You may need to change your shooting time to compensate for view choice.

6. Edit.

Your video will likely benefit from a little editing. The Photos app is a good place to start. Open your video and tap Edit.

  • Cropping video means shortening it by trimming the ends. It’s common at the start or end of the video you may pick up a few frames of camera movement or extraneous video that you want to remove. When editing, tap the camera icon and drag in the ends of the video.
  • Adjust elements as necessary. Tap the Dial icon. All the same controls used for still images are available for video.

7. Further affect speed.

Sometimes adjusting speed can enhance your time-lapse video. You may want to speed up or slow down the clip. Both speeding up and slowing down can make the time-lapse choppy so you’ll need to experiment to get the look you want. I’ve made the free FPS Shortcut utility that can speed up or slow down your video and this works well on time-lapse.

My take.

Time-lapse creates a reality where time passes much more quickly. Creators of narrative videos (both fiction and documentary) often use time-lapses to show the time that’s has passed between the shooting of two clips. It’s a useful technique that you can now incorporate into your video storytelling tools.

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