How to prevent time lapse flicker

Time lapse flicker is the enemy of every time lapse photographer. In this tutorial, we teach you how to defeat it before it even arises!
Thomas Poecksteiner

Thomas Poecksteiner

Co-Founder of FilmSpektakel and Time Lapse Magazine
Website: www.filmspektakel.com

Congratulations! You being here means that you thought one step ahead and paid some attention to time lapse flicker before it even occurred!

This article is about what you can do to prevent flicker during production so that you don’t face any trouble during post-production. Is it too late for you and you’ve already got a flickering time lapse clip you want to save in post-production? Fear not! In most cases, it is possible to rescue your clip. We are going to release this article next month! So make sure to subscribe to our time lapse-newsletter to get informed about new articles!

However, it is best to pay attention to this problem before you hit the record button to save you some trouble later on.

What is flicker and where does it come from?

Flicker in time lapse videos are rapid changes in light for each frame, like this:

This can happen for several reasons:

  • Automatic camera settings (automatic ISO, aperture, shutter speed or other camera settings)
  • The wrong mode on your camera
  • A lens with electronic aperture control
  • Flickering light sources

Let’s take a closer look at each of these possible causes of time lapse flicker and how to prevent them.

Flicker because of incorrect camera settings

I’m sure you’ve come across several sources by now telling you to never use any automatic features on your camera or lens when shooting time lapses. Read here about how to shoot manual.

Choose the manual mode of your camera

The reason for this is that when shooting time lapse videos, you don’t shoot a continuous stream of frames: you shoot photos (=frames) with gaps in time between each picture (also known as intervals). As a result, in these time gaps, light changes occur in your scene. So, your camera has to quickly analyse each scene before it takes a photo. For every picture your camera takes, it starts from scratch to determine what settings to use without taking into account what settings were used for the picture before. Therefore, it might choose other values for picture number two than it did for picture number one.

Don’t let your camera determine the settings for each frame. Choose your own values at the beginning of your time lapse recording and only change them when needed.

Conclusion: In most cases, time lapse flicker is caused by automatic camera settings. Deactivate all automatic camera settings, such as automatic ISO, automatic shutter speed, automatic aperture, automatic focus and automatic noise reduction.

Flicker because of incorrect shooting mode

This one is very similar to above. Your camera usually offers several shooting modes: full manual mode, aperture priority mode and so on. Yes, everybody (including us) tells you that you must always shoot in manual mode. However, that is not entirely true. Pretty confusing, I know. But there is a scenario in which you can “risk” using some automatic features of your camera: the aperture priority mode, for example.

In aperture priority mode you determine a fixed value for your aperture and your camera keeps that consistent throughout shooting your time lapse clip. But your camera calculates the ISO and shutter speed for each picture, doesn’t it? Yes, you’ve read enough times not to use any automatic features when shooting time lapse. However, we at Filmspektakel use the aperture mode a lot for time lapse shooting!

In recent years, we have found that cameras have improved a lot in this regard. Particularly the Sony R and S series perform great in shooting in aperture priority mode. So, our experience is that shooting sunrises and sunsets in aperture priority mode today eases our lives tremendously.

However, be aware that using aperture priority mode for sunrises and sunsets only applies to a certain type of subject. Otherwise, this will result in flickering which you might not be able to fix in post-production.

Only use aperture priority mode when no light sources other than the sun or the sky appear in your frame. If people or cars appear prominently in your shot, stay away from aperture priority mode. This is because the automatically calculated shutter speeds and ISO values will vary significantly depending of the number of people in your frame (=taking away light) or headlights of cars in your frame (=increasing the amount of light).

Conclusion: Think about what camera mode is best for your subject before starting a time lapse recording to prevent time lapse flicker.

Flicker because of electronic aperture control

Nowadays, lenses broadly use electronic aperture control. This has the big advantage that when looking through your viewfinder or on your live screen, you always see your scene in perfect brightness, because your aperture is wide open at all times – even when your camera display tells you that your aperture is set to a closed state like F11 or even F22! These values only describe the state of your aperture at the exact point of time when the picture is taken.

So, your camera only closes the lens’ aperture for the short time frame the picture is actually recorded for. Pretty cool, right? Yes, but this has a big disadvantage for time lapse photographers. Because of little inaccuracies of this mechanical operation, which has to happen usually within a very short time frame, there are small variations in closing the aperture.

We tested this out with one of our Canon cameras. Take a look:

How do you fix this? You can simply use lenses with manually controlled apertures. However, most people, understandably, don’t want to buy an extra set of lenses for time lapse shoots, so there’s another way.

Usually your DSLR or mirrorless camera features a little button next to the lens. By pressing this button, the lens’ aperture closes to the set value. By pressing and holding this button and slightly unscrewing the lens from your camera, the lens loses its electronic connection to the camera. As a result, the lens has no electricity left to open up the aperture again when releasing the little button on your camera. Your aperture stays closed at all times.

But to be honest, deflickering tools in post-production have become so advanced these days that this step is not necessary in our opinion. Electronic aperture control usually causes so little time lapse flicker that we personally don’t take this step and simply fix the resulting flicker in post-production.

Conclusion: Limit the use of electronic aperture control by using lenses with manual aperture control or cut the power supply to your lens when your aperture is closed.

Flicker because of flickering light sources

Yes, this seems obvious. But we thought it would be good to include it on this list anyway. You can take all the steps described above but still get a flickering time lapse video.

The reason for this might just be beyond your control. Rapidly changing light sources might ruin your subject, and there’s hardly anything you can do about that other than avoid these kinds of subjects.

This troublemaking light source might be a flashing traffic light somewhere near you; an old light bulb which generates a slightly different amount of light every now and then; or perhaps some strobe lights at the event you would like to shoot a time lapse of! Just stay away from these subjects if you can’t do anything about these flickering light sources.

Conclusion: Take a good look at your subject and the light sources around it. Is there anything around which could cause flickering? Can I control it? If not, this subject is probably not suited for time lapse.

This article comes too late?

You’ve already shot a time lapse clip that flickers like hell? No worries, there are several ways to fix flicker in post-production. We will write an article teaching you how to fix flickering in post-production. Sign up for our newsletter to be informed as soon as it is out!

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