Using time-lapse video to tell a story April 19, 2011

Almost every day I come across a brilliant time-lapse video that I haven’t seen before. Just when I think they can’t get any better, I find an even better one in another beautiful location. One of my personal favorites was shot by photographer Terje Sorgjerd in Norway near the Russian border. The Gladiator soundtrack doesn’t hurt.

Less than a month later, Sorgjerd produced a second video from El Teide, one of Spain’s highest mountains, near the Teide Observatories. Beautiful once again.

Then there’s Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson’s video from northern Minnesota. Yet another beautiful piece!

After watching these brilliant videos, I started to wonder about the use of time-lapse photography as a storytelling technique. Sure, it’s great for showcasing the passage of time and capturing breathtaking images, but how can the tool be used for journalistic storytelling?

Using time as a storytelling tool

Every multimedia journalist should become comfortable using time-lapse photography as a tool for covering news events. Most events do not require a timelapse and I’ve seen plenty examples where they’ve failed. I’ve jokingly commented that all newspaper video lately has been either a timelapse or shot in slow motion. However, pulling off a successful timelapse is a skill that every multimedia journalist should have to cover events that occur over an extended period of time (especially in states with crazy weather!)

1) Crazy Weather

Are you about to get several feet of snow or have a tidal wave hit your shores? If so, it’s time to set up a timelapse!

2) Provide context for large events

NASA satellites captured images in the Gulf of Mexico to show the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The oil slick appears grayish-beige in the image and changes due to changing weather, currents and use of oil dispersing chemicals. It would be very difficult to show the scale of this event without this perspective.

3) Make the viewer feel small

Dan Chung used the combination of slow motion and time-lapse photography to document the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The result, a video capable of showcasing the size, scale and beauty of an historic event without relying on a narrative track to articulate its significance. The slow motion video was shot with a Canon 7D at 60fps.

4) Show how things work

Sean Stiegemeier used time-lapse photography to document the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010. In the description, Stiegemeier said, “I saw all of these mediocre pictures… so I figured I should go and do better.” As a result, Stiegemeier’s time-lapse video showcased the intricacies of the volcanic eruption in a way that many news stories could only hope.

5) Highlight details over time

We’re used to seeing time-lapse videos of huge events and beautiful locations, but what about minor changes over time? The Sydney Morning Herald used photos from a 12-month period to show the aging of President Barack Obama during his first year in office.

6) Document everything

If the previous projects aren’t large enough, how about shooting with 14 time-lapse cameras for eight years to document the construction at ground zero? It’s offiically the world’s largest time-lapse project. This way, if anything happens, you’re sure to have it covered.

7) Create a timelapse of a timelapse

This wouldn’t be a complete blog post unless I found a gorgeous time-lapse video of a time-lapse video. So here it is!

If you enjoyed these videos, you can also check out my previous on the art of baseball time-lapse video. Please add your personal favorites in the comments as well.

McKenna Ewen

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