Time lapse tips for artists

Boy, I’m so easily side-tracked. I’d originally planned that this post would be a review of Jackson’s Eco 560lb watercolour paper. It isn’t. I had good intentions, but while trialling the paper, I somehow got side-tracked and tried out time lapse photography. Now I’m hooked, and thought I’d share my experience.

Painters often document their work in a sequence of photos. Time lapse photography is just an extension of this. It’s achieved by setting up a static camera to automatically take a sequence of photos at short intervals, typically around a second or two. When played back as a video, time is apparently compressed and a long painting session can be condensed into a watchable minute or two. The results are always compelling and a lot of fun.

Fancy trying it? If you already own a smartphone you need surprisingly little to get started:

1) A smart phone

iPhone 4 on tripod mount
iPhone 4 on tripod mount

The cameras on any smartphone are very capable. I use an iPhone 4 (and yes, that is a Spider-man case …)

2) Time lapse App

I used an App called Lapse it, and can highly recommend it.  Costs about £3, and is worth every penny. It’s also available for Android phones.

There are all sorts of settings to tinker with including frame rate, resolution, render quality, interval between shots, a filming timer, and more to play around with.

3) Video editing App

Once you’ve recorded your film you will need to press the ‘render’ button within Lapse it. This converts the footage into a format (mp4) you can watch or upload to YouTube etc.

If it turns out well, you can use this rendered file without any further editing. You’ll only need a video editor if you want to ‘weld’ various clips together. I use iMovie.

4) A support for your phone

iPhone on Benbo Trekker tripod
iPhone on Benbo Trekker tripod

The success of your time lapse will depend on how steady you can support your camera.  Propping it up somewhere convenient, a passing table or chair, will work, and you might be able to hold it steady with books or BluTak.  Unfortunately, this gives you little control to frame your shots, and with nothing very much holding your phone, you are risking an expensive tumble.

For me, a tripod is the only sensible option. I’m fortunate as I have several left over from a foray into photography back in the early nineties. My favourites are both made by Benbo: the lightweight Trekker and their back-breaking, but extremely sturdy Benbo One. These particular tripods have an astonishing range of movement and flexibility; you can adapt them to almost any situation.

A heavy tripod will be more stable than a lightweight.

5) A phone adaptor

iPhone tripod adaptor
iPhone tripod adaptor

You’ll need an adaptor to secure your phone to the tripod.  These are readily available, and several types are available on Amazon.

I chose this one at around £12. It seems well made and grips the phone gently but securely in landscape format.

The rubber jaws isolate the phone from the tripod and absorb any wee wobbles. This evens out any visual jarring caused by minor knocks. Be aware, in portrait mode the phone can slowly slide out of this mount…

6) A ball joint

Benbo ball joint
Benbo ball joint

Not essential, but you may find a joint like this between the tripod and the phone adaptor will give you more flexibility when positioning your phone. Again, search for one on Amazon or online photography store.

Working the math

Once you have your kit set up you can just plunge in and tinker randomly with Lapse it until you get a result you like; fun, but time consuming. Or you can be more methodical and plan your timings.

You’ll need to calculate how fast your phone’s camera needs to take individual photos/frames when it’s filming. For a mathematical bone-head like me this made my eye twitch a bit, but it is straightforward.

For the following I’ve assumed I want to compress 1 hour of real time video into 30s of time lapse (good length for Twitter):

  • Decide how long you want your final time lapse clip to last e.g. 30s.
  • Decide how many frames per second (fps) you want your final clip to run at. 30fps is a good default if you want to edit your clip into real time video at a later date. Plug this figure into Lapse it.
  • Calculate how many frames you’ll need to take to make up your final clip e.g. 30s x 30fps = 900 frames.
  • Decide how long you will need to film your ‘real life’ event e.g. 1h, and pop this into Lapse it in the settings menu under ‘Limit value’ as 60m.
  • Calculate how many seconds are in your event e.g. 1h equates to 60m x 60s = 3,600s
  • Calculate the interval in seconds you’ll need to leave between taking frames. e.g. 3,600s/900 frames = 4 seconds in between frames. Plug this figure into Lapse it’s interval settings.

If you set up Lapse it with the numbers above, your smartphone will take 1 frame every four seconds for an hour.  There will be a certain amount of ‘fudging’ depending on the speed of your smartphone meaning your final video might lose a second two overall. Don’t worry if this happens, it will still look great.

Setting up

For consistency, your camera and work position need to remain absolutely fixed throughout filming. This is particularly important if you intend to work over several sessions. Worth marking your set positions in case something gets nudged. I used masking tape.

Make sure your camera has a clear shot of your work. Take time to have a dry run, rehearse your movements and think: where will you put your palette, your brushes, your paints, your mediums? Are you likely to obscure or knock the camera when painting?

My set up for Chun Quoit Glow 2 time lapse
My set up for Chun Quoit Glow 2 time lapse

When I set up for my video of ‘Chun Quoit Glow 2’ I made the mistake of setting the phone up too close to my right shoulder. The result was a very awkward painting position, which made me conscious of the presence of the camera and literally gave me a stiff neck.

You will need to control your lighting too. Wild swings in brightness and colour temperature will be very distracting. I set up on a uniformly dull day with white window blinds drawn and an Ottlite daylight lamp pointed at the painting.

Once you’re ready and the camera is rolling, try to forget about it. I was concerned whether quiet times where I had to mix new colours would be noticed in the final film. However, they aren’t noticeable, so don’t worry about this.

And finally…

Don’t be disappointed should things not work out right away; the best laid plans and all that. I had many false starts.  Above all else, enjoy yourself!

8 thoughts on “Time lapse tips for artists”

  1. Nice post! I have a dedicated digital camera with a movie function. I’ll film for days, import to Windows Live Movie Maker and speed it up 64x or so…

    Art is so fun to do but the processes are not such great visual fodder. Time lapse makes it so fun, and funny! I also add them to my website to share my process.

    Can you add music to this? I use and find stuff that works with the particular work.

    Congratulations on a fine post and process! The building of the image really comes to light in your film.

    1. Thanks very much James, glad you liked it.
      Your longer time span projects sound interesting. Working over a longer period must offer a lot of scope but also, I guess, additional challenges.
      The trouble with painting as a spectator event is it literally is watching paint dry – not always that exciting.
      I had considered a backing track, but tbh wasn’t completely convinced it would add any value. However, the free music archive looks very interesting, and I will explore it, thanks for the link.
      Today I started work on another painting and set the camera up again. Not sure whether this will see the light of day yet. By necessity it features me in frame and I’m bouncing around like a hysterical jumping bean…

  2. You are British. We use ‘Maths’ as the shortened version of Mathematics. Americans use ‘Math’. When I got to that part it distracted me from the rest of the article. (You didn’t spell colour as ‘color’!)

    That aside, the video was interesting. Did you use the (very heavy!) paper unprimed, just putting the acrylic straight on top? Did you paint the orange layer first? What sort of paint / primer was it?

    1. I figured the paper would provide a perfectly sound base without resorting to primer or gesso, so I applied the orange base layer direct.

      Throughout I used Liquitex Heavy Bodied Acrylic straight from the tube applied either with a scrubbing action to push the paint into the texture or scumbling to catch its high points.

  3. This is such a useful article, thank you! The one problem I have with using my mobile phone is that it tells me I have run out of storage space way before I’ve finished filming. I have no idea how to deal with this… I really want to make some timelapse videos with voice overs too, but this is something else I need to learn. If anyone has any sites they could point me to with more info on this I’d be so grateful 😊

    1. Hi Sandra

      Glad you liked the article 😀
      Space management on smart phones is a common issue. There’s no one solution, but unless you are running lots of apps, usually photos and videos are the likely culprits. All I can suggest is looking into cloud storage like iCloud or Google photos (unlimited free storage if you’re happy to accept a compression in quality).
      On adding a voice over, although I’ve never done it, I think it will be fairly straightforward if you use a video editor like iMovie. Might take a bit of Googling to get chapter and verse on how to do it though.
      Good luck! 🙂

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