Tips: time-lapse filming

Jeff Wilson is a producer with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. He has filmed time-lapse sequences for series including Frozen Planet and Planet Earth.

Time-lapse is a technique for compressing time and movement. It involves taking a series of stills from a fixed position over a long period of time. It enables you to capture imperceptible changes like flowers opening, cloud movement or dramatic changes in weather patterns.

Here Jeff gives us his tips on capturing successful time-lapse.

Know your kit
Most people use DSLR cameras as this gives the most manual control over the final shot. You’ll need a decent camera body, a selection of lenses and an intervalometer. This will allow you to select the interval between the shots. And finally, make sure you have a heavy, stable tripod to give yourself the best chance of success.

"Use the most stable platform possible... and this really means the earth." – Jeff Wilson

On stable ground
Key to a good time-lapse is reducing camera wobble. You should position your tripod on the most stable ground possible. Usually this means the earth. Boats, planes or anything else that is moving, however slightly, will result in an extremely wobbly image. Jeff shares an example of a failed time-lapse he set up on sea ice. It felt solid underfoot, but over the course of a couple of hours the tide was rising and falling. And so was the frame.

Get the right frame
Choose your frame very carefully. Time-lapse is used to illustrate movement so ensure you know what is going to happen. For example, if you are time-lapsing movement of shadows, ensure you have left enough space in your frame for them to move through the frame. Jeff illustrates this using a spectacular example of a time-lapse of baobab trees shot by cameraman Warwick Sloss.

Take control
If you are filming over a period of months to show how a plant grows, the light and conditions will change enormously. So to even this out, you may need to move your set to a studio. Over a period of a year, the Life team took a number of different species and set them up in their own studio in order to illustrate how British woodland grows over a whole season. This requires very heavy resourcing and commitment.

Jeff’s final tip is personal and heartfelt - always leave your time-lapse running for a bit longer than you think. Inevitably, the best piece of action always happens a few seconds after you’ve switched off.