Night time-lapses look unique because of the long exposure shots that are combined into a sequence that then plays back as a video. Most DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and even phones can do that as long as they have a mode that allows setting the exposure time manually.
Night time-lapses in the city can be especially amazing because of the amount of visual stimulus that’s moving or changing in just a brief amount of time. From cars driving down streets and stopping and going to the changing of traffic lights, pedestrians walking about, the moving reflections on water, or how the clouds illuminate over taller buildings, there’s a lot of opportunities to find an interesting story to share in video.
Choosing the location for your urban time-lapse
This brings us onto our first point is the location. What we want to try and do is get the effect where we’ve got a 2.5-second shutter so we get a nice streaming effect of headlights.
Settings for the urban environment
In general, we shoot time-lapses in manual mode. This avoids big light changes that cost time to deal with later on. When we’re shooting day to night time-lapses we can use aperture priority. Most cameras do a decent job nowadays with measuring light.
- Shutter speed: It’s important that movement looks smooth. In cities, it is recommended to use a bit slower shutter speeds of around 0.5 seconds. This will create motion blur when people are walking, and cars are driving. All movements will have motion blur which will look very smooth on video. A shutter speed of 0.5 seconds is often not possible during the day because you will have too much light. In this case, it is recommended to use an ND filter (6 stops will usually work fine)
- Aperture: It is recommended to use a wider aperture of your lens. Preferably f/4-f/5.6 or something fast. This is because a lot of sensors tend to have dust spots that become visible at narrower apertures (f/11 and slower). So, another tip would be to check if you have dust spots and clean your sensor! But to avoid seeing these dust spots, simply shoot at a wide aperture.
- ISO: Leave your ISO at the lowest native setting. Usually, that’s 100 or 200 (differs per camera). You can go lower if you want to achieve a slower shutter speed.
For day to night time-lapses, we can use aperture priority and set the aperture at its lowest possible number. You will get a very fast shutter speed, in the beginning, meaning you will not get that smooth movement from cars and people walking. Because we’re shooting in Aperture priority, the camera will automatically slower the shutter speed when it gets dark. Make sure your interval is set on a high enough timeframe so that the shutter speed doesn’t get longer than the interval set. It is also recommended to already set the ISO a little bit higher (200-320) to avoid this. MIOPS has you covered in this regard with the Smart+.
When shooting time-lapses it’s important to choose the right interval. The right interval determines how fast things move when you convert everything into a video later. Obviously, the faster the interval, the slower the movement. Here are a few tips on intervals for different kinds of movement:
- Fast-moving clouds: 1-2 seconds
- Slow-moving clouds: 3 seconds
- Cars: 1-2 seconds
- Boats: 2-3 seconds
- Day to night: 5-7 seconds
- Stars, milky way: 30 seconds
Notice that intervals are usually quite short especially when photographing in the city. A single time-lapse usually doesn’t take that long to photograph (15-30 minutes) except if you’re doing a day to night time-lapse which can take 1-2 hours.
If you are shooting a changing event for the first time and aren’t really sure what interval to use, it is usually best to use one that is faster than you need rather than slower. You can always speed up too many frames in post, but you can’t ever go back and capture those missing very slow intervals.
That’s it; now that you have the basics down, there’s nothing left to do but start shooting! Relax, enjoy yourself, and remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You will make mistakes; you will have images that you aren’t fully happy with. It’s all part of the process; don’t let it discourage you from continuing along your path.
Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.
Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany.