A time stack image showing a tulip blooming.


Moments in time: turn a time-lapse into a print with this time stack technique

Shooting hundreds of images showing time passing in a time-lapse sequence can be wonderful, but you can't put the resulting videos up on your walls. However, it is possible to turn a time-lapse shoot into a single image to print. Creating a time stack image involves shooting a series of photos – just as you would with a time-lapse. But instead of creating a video, you take different areas from individual frames and merge them into a single, striking image that shows the transition, for example, from day to night.

Here we'll explain the basics of setting up your camera for a time-lapse shoot, using a camera with a built-in interval timer. It’s a simple camera technique that you can easily try out from your own home/garden. We’ve captured the fascinating movement of tulip petals throughout an afternoon and evening, but you can apply the same technique to any subject that changes slowly over time, from a melting ice-cream to a day/night landscape sequence. Once done, we’ll go on to merge our frames then produce an eye-catching print for the wall.

1. Shoot your time-lapse

Choose a position

A photographer frames up his subject: a tulip growing in his garden.
When choosing a spot for shooting your time stack, consider changes in the weather and protect your camera from the elements.

Set up your camera on a tripod and choose an angle to shoot from. Keep in mind that the camera will need to stay still for several hours, so an out-of-the-way spot is best. If there's a chance of rain, position your camera undercover or shoot out of a window. A calm day is best, as strong wind can cause unwanted movement in the flower. Make sure you have a fully charged battery. Tulips are fully open around midday to catch the sunlight on their spread petals, so this is when we set up our shot.

Set up a plain backdrop

A black back drop is used to make tulips stand out.
A plain background will make blending the time stack images together much simpler.

If you’re shooting a subject like a flower then try placing a plain background behind it. Not only does this single the flower out from a busy garden background, it also makes it easier to seamlessly combine several shots into one later on. We draped a piece of black cloth behind the flower here, but you could experiment with all kinds of background colours. To keep the background dark we also made sure that no direct sunlight was spilling onto it.

Set the exposure

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The Aperture priority mode settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Aperture Priority (Av) mode is ideal for shooting time stacks – the camera will adjust the shutter speed in response to the changing light, but still shoot at the aperture you choose.

Your choice of exposure will depend on the subject and the lighting. In general, Aperture Priority is a good choice for time-lapse sequences where the light levels are changing throughout the day. It means you can keep the aperture and ISO fixed while the camera adapts the shutter speed to suit the conditions. A mid-range aperture like f/8 is ideal, and a low ISO like ISO 100 helps to keep noise to a minimum. After focusing on the subject, switch the lens to manual focus so that it stays locked on throughout the sequence.

Think about image quality too. RAW images hold extra detail in the highlights and shadows, giving you more of a safety net for correcting over- or underexposure. If you're not confident with RAW, choose RAW+JPG, but remember that this option will require more space on your memory card.

Control the lighting

A reflector blocks light from hitting the tulips in frame.
Blocking the sunlight from hitting your subject and compensating with artificial light will help you maintain a consistent effect.

Consistent lighting will help your shots gel together, but this can be difficult when shooting at different times of day. The key is to negate the daylight so it plays a minimal role in the overall lighting environment. You have a couple of options here. Firstly, you could temporarily block out the sunlight with a reflector or blanket and light the flower using a lamp or strong torch. Alternatively, you could use a speedlite or external flash to overpower the daylight.

Set your intervals

The Interval settings screen on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Creating a time stack is a lengthy process. To make this easier, use a camera with the option of interval shooting – such as the Canon 5D Mark IV, which we're using here, the Canon EOS 90D, EOS RP, EOS 250D, or EOS M6 Mark II.

Go to the Interval Shooting settings in your camera menu. There are two key controls here. The Interval setting determines the length of time between shots, and the range you can choose will vary according to your camera: some permit intervals of up to 30 seconds, some up to 59 minutes 59 seconds, some a number of hours, minutes and seconds (here the camera is set to take a shot every hour). The number of shots can be set to a specific number or 00 Unlimited (if your camera allows it) to shoot continuously. Once all this is set up, you can start the sequence by pressing the shutter.

2. Merge your shots

Build the time stack

A tulip on the edit screen in Canon's Digital Photo Professional imaging software.
Select your sequence of shots in the Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) imaging software and merge them with the Adjustment and Compositing tools.

Once you have a sequence of photos taken over several hours you can merge them into a single image that shows the subject transitioning through the day. Choose the images you'd like to blend – you can pick as many or as few as you like, but the more images, the longer it will take. Process the images to enhance the colours and tones as you would with an individual photo. To save time, you can batch-process them in DPP using the Recipe function.

Make sure the background is consistent

An image of a tulip is tweaked in Canon's Digital Photo Professional imaging software.
Use the Adjustment tool to make the background consistent across every image that's being merged together.

If, like the flower here, there are areas of the background that aren’t completely black, you can paint over them with the Adjustment tool then darken the area selectively. Next, begin merging the photos using the Adjustment and Compositing tools in DPP. With the Adjustment tool, blacken the areas in an image that you don't want to use, then use the Compositing tool to choose another image and blend using the Lighten or Add setting. Save the blend and continue in the same way, image by image, to build the effect.

Blend your images

Two images of tulips are merged together in Canon's Digital Photo Professional imaging software.
You can choose how you blend your images in DPP. Here we've chosen a flower in noticeably different stages of bloom.

There are lots of image editing programs and apps you could use to blend your photos, but the principles remain the same. Stack the photos on top of one another and choose the areas on each you'd like to use in your blended image. You could choose a transitional blend, from one side of the frame to the other, or experiment with other types of transition, such as a series of slices as shown in the example picture of a landscape time stack below.

Once you've mastered the basics of blending images in DPP, you can try different effects such as slicing images together.

3. Print your time stack

Prepare your image

Now that these photos have been blended together into a single image, they're ready to print.

Once your time-lapse photos have been blended, why not take the process one step further and print out your photo? A framed print of a flower in several stages of bloom could make a striking addition to your wall or mantelpiece – or even a gift for a loved one. Preparing an image for print is a simple task that can be accomplished in most image editing apps. Whichever one you choose, it's crucial that the colours on your display are calibrated so what you see on-screen is what you get from your printer.

Choose the correct settings

A time stack of tulips shown in a frame on a mantelpiece.
Choosing the correct settings ensures that your print matches the colours shown on your screen, resulting in a beautiful decorative addition to your home.

The printing process can vary a little depending on which printer you’re using. Pro printers offer advantages such as poster-size prints with greater longevity. The Canon PIXMA PRO-10S can produce prints up to A3+ size using a 10-ink pigment-based system for beautiful colour reproduction, while the PIXMA PRO-100S uses an 8-ink dye-based system for potentially even longer-life prints. Or take it up a level with the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 for prints up to A2 size using Canon’s 12-ink pigment-based LUCIA PRO ink system.

If you’re using one of these or any other Canon pro printer, then use Print Studio Pro to guide you through the print process. This plug-in works with DPP and other editing apps, and with it you can tweak colour management settings and paper profiles to achieve an accurate screen-to-print match.

If you’re using a home photo printer such as the Canon PIXMA TS6350 we used, then DPP can manage the process: select Print, then Properties, and choose the paper type you’re using and the correct settings. For best results, use specialist paper such as Canon Pro Photo Papers and a printer with at least a 5-ink system (like the Canon ChromaLife100 ink technology used in the PIXMA TS6350) to produce high quality prints.

Written by James Paterson

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