Time-lapse photography is a technique whereby the frequency at which film frames are captured (the frame rate) is much more spread out than the frequency used to view the sequence. When played at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. For example, an image of a scene may be captured at 1 frame per second, but then played back at 30 frames per second; the result is an apparent 30 times speed increase. In a similar manner, the film can also be played at a much lower rate than at which it was captured, slowing down an otherwise fast action, as in slow motion or high-speed photography.
Processes that would normally appear subtle and slow to the human eye, e.g. the motion of the sun and stars in the sky or the growth of a plant, become very pronounced. Time-lapse is the extreme version of the cinematography technique of undercranking. Stop motion animation is a comparable technique; a subject that does not actually move, such as a puppet, can repeatedly be moved manually by a small distance and photographed. Then the photographs can be played back as a film at a speed that shows the subject appearing to move.
Some classic subjects of time-lapse photography include:
The technique has been used to photograph crowds, traffic, and even television. The effect of photographing a subject that changes imperceptibly slowly creates a smooth impression of motion. A subject that changes quickly is transformed into an onslaught of activity.
The inception of time-lapse photography occurred in 1872 when Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge to prove whether or not racehorses hooves ever are simultaneously in the air when running. The experiments progressed for 6 years until 1878 when Muybridge set up a series of cameras for every few feet of a track which had tripwires the horses triggered as they ran. The photos taken from the multiple cameras were then compiled into a collection of images that recorded the horses running
The first use of time-lapse photography in a feature film was in Georges Méliès' motion picture Carrefour De L'Opera (1897).
F. Percy Smith pioneered the use of time-lapse in nature photography with his 1910 silent film The Birth of a Flower.
The first use of lapse-time to record the movement of flowers took place in Yosemite in late 1911–1912 by Arthur C. Pillsbury, who built a special camera for this purpose and recorded the movements of flowers through their life cycle. Pillsbury owned the Studio of the Three Arrows in the Valley and applied the technique to solving the problem of ensuring the survival of the rapidly shrinking varieties in the meadows. The United States Cavalry, then in charge of Yosemite, were mowing the meadows to produce fodder for their horses.
Pillsbury showed his first film to Superintendents for the National Parks during a conference held for them in Yosemite from October 14–16, 1912. The result was a unanimous agreement by the Superintendents to cease cutting the meadows and begin preservation. Pillsbury made lapse-time movies for 500 of the 1,500 varieties of wildflowers in Yosemite over the next years.
His films were shown during his lectures, which were scheduled first at garden clubs around California and then at most of the major universities across the country. Pillsbury also showed his films and lectured to town hall forums and the National Geographic Society.
In 1926 he was asked to present both his lapse-time motion pictures and his newly invented microscopic film to President Calvin Coolidge at a dinner given on March 15 in the president's honor at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. Pillsbury had been invited to present the films by Secretary of the Interior Herbert Work.
The use of photography in this form to obtain the preservation of natural resources was a first and followed his use of film to make the first recorded nature movie, shown to tourists in Yosemite in the spring of 1909.
Time-lapse photography of biological phenomena was pioneered by Jean Comandon in collaboration with Pathé Frères from 1909, by F. Percy Smith in 1910 and Roman Vishniac from 1915 to 1918. Time-lapse photography was further pioneered in the 1920s via a series of feature films called Bergfilme (Mountain films) by Arnold Fanck, including Das Wolkenphänomen in Maloja (1924) and The Holy Mountain (1926).
From 1929 to 1931, R. R. Rife astonished journalists with early demonstrations of high magnification time-lapse cine-micrography but no filmmaker can be credited for popularizing time-lapse more than Dr. John Ott, whose life-work is documented in the DVD-film Exploring the Spectrum.
Ott's initial "day-job" career was that of a banker, with time-lapse movie photography, mostly of plants, initially just a hobby. Starting in the 1930s, Ott bought and built more and more time-lapse equipment, eventually building a large greenhouse full of plants, cameras, and even self-built automated electric motion control systems for moving the cameras to follow the growth of plants as they developed. He time-lapsed his entire greenhouse of plants and cameras as they worked – a virtual symphony of time-lapse movement. His work was featured in a late 1950s episode of the request TV show, You Asked For It.
Ott discovered that the movement of plants could be manipulated by varying the amount of water the plants were given and varying the color temperature of the lights in the studio. Some colors caused the plants to flower, and other colors caused the plants to bear fruit. Ott discovered ways to change the sex of plants merely by varying the light source color-temperature. By using these techniques, Ott time-lapse animated plants "dancing" up and down in synch to pre-recorded music tracks. His cinematography of flowers blooming in such classic documentaries as Walt Disney's Secrets of Life (1956), pioneered the modern use of time-lapse on film and television. Ott wrote several books on the history of his time-lapse adventures, My Ivory Cellar (1958), Health and Light (1979), and the film documentary Exploring the Spectrum (DVD 2008).
The Oxford Scientific Film Institute in Oxford, United Kingdom specializes in time-lapse and slow-motion systems and has developed camera systems that can go into (and move through) small places. Their footage has appeared in TV documentaries and movies.
PBS's NOVA series aired a full episode on time-lapse (and slow motion) photography and systems in 1981 titled Moving Still. Highlights of Oxford's work are slow-motion shots of a dog shaking water off himself, with close-ups of drops knocking a bee off a flower, as well as time-lapse of the decay of a dead mouse.
The first major usage of time-lapse in a feature film was Koyaanisqatsi (1983). The non-narrative film, directed by Godfrey Reggio, contained the time-lapse of clouds, crowds, and cities filmed by cinematographer Ron Fricke. Years later, Ron Fricke produced a solo project called Chronos shot on IMAX cameras, which is still frequently played on Discovery HD. Fricke used the technique extensively in the documentary Baraka (1992) which he photographed on Todd-AO (70 mm) film. Recent films made entirely in time-lapse photography include Nate North's film, Silicon Valley Time-lapse, which is the first feature-length film shot almost entirely in three-frame high dynamic range, as well as artist Peter Bo Rappmund's three feature-length documentaries, Psychohydrography (2010), Tectonics (2012), and Topophilia (2015).
Countless other films, commercials, TV shows, and presentations have included time-lapse.
For example, Peter Greenaway's film A Zed & Two Noughts featured a sub-plot involving time-lapse photography of decomposing animals and included a composition called "Time-lapse" written for the film by Michael Nyman. In the late 1990s, Adam Zoghlin's time-lapse cinematography was featured in the CBS television series Early Edition, depicting the adventures of a character that receives tomorrow's newspaper today. David Attenborough's 1995 series, The Private Life of Plants, also utilized the technique extensively.