Menus Subscribe Search

Our Machine Overlords

dog-time-lapse

(Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr)

The Beginning of Time-Lapse

• July 11, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr)

With Apple soon to introduce time-lapse photography to its phones, could we see the end of the selfie?

The future of photography is the past. Both as subject and technique. Time-lapse photography is coming to your smartphone, and when it does, expect to see the passage of time take over all your albums, feeds, and streams.

“Capture the experience of the sun setting, a city street bustling, or a flower blooming with the new Time-lapse mode in Camera,” Apple teases in their iPhone operating system preview: “iOS 8 does all the work, snapping photos at dynamically selected intervals.”

Time-lapse already appeals to one of our strongest cultural desires. An agent of nostalgia, time-lapse lets you move quickly between the past and the present, or if you go backward, between the future and the past.

If you’ve ever walked a hallway’s worth of school portraits in some friend’s home, a year passing with every stride, then you already have a sense of how time-lapse works. By slowing the frame rate, leaving more time between each shot, photographers can speed the passage of time between photographs. Slower than video but faster than the clock, time-lapse is almost as old as photography itself, though it was perfected in the first two decades of the 20th century by nature photographers.

It’s possible to simulate the effect by staging the same shot across time, like annual school portraiture, and these simulations are popular: The Guardian has a feature where you lapse time by clicking between historical and contemporary photographs taken from the same viewpoint; BuzzFeed debuted a similar slider tool last week, illustrating the evolution of websites by letting viewers drag themselves backward and forward in time. Professional photographers have also been shooting these sequences for some time now, but they take real dedication: like this father who staged the same photograph with his daughter on a New York street corner every year for 15 years.

Vine can be used for time-lapse, but even that takes real concentration to seam the shots; it’s more often used for stop-motion, creating illusions rather than documentaries. There are already a few apps that let you play in the space between Instagram and YouTube, making multiple pictures into streamlined cuts, but when time-lapse comes to smartphone cameras, you’ll be able to make these photographs automatically. Instead of 40 photographs of the same sunset, you’ll have a 20-second film of the sun setting.

So many of the things we love to photograph aren’t easily captured in a single picture. That’s why our photo libraries are cluttered with dozens of pictures of the same litter of kittens or single night of fireworks. We took many pictures trying to get just the right shot, but because the subject was alive or animated, no one picture represents the experience of seeing what we saw. And we never watch the videos we made because it’s like watching a live stream of life, 10 minutes for every one second we’d actually care to revisit.

Those are the kinds of experiences that time-lapse documents so well, but they require patience. We’ll have to learn to use our phones differently, leaving them alone long enough for time to, well, lapse. Time-lapse is better the longer the frequency between frames, so rather than using the camera for 10 seconds and then returning to all our other apps, we’ll have to learn to use our phones with a singular purpose.

If time-lapse starts to take the place of the single shot, there will be a lot fewer selfies, too. Portraiture doesn’t lend itself to time-lapse unless the interval is seasons instead of seconds. Landscapes and light, which change dramatically, but slowly, are some of the best subjects for time-lapse; crowds or mobs can work, but the more people the better. Our documentarian impulses will have to focus on objects and others rather than ourselves.

But time-lapse already appeals to one of our strongest cultural desires. An agent of nostalgia, time-lapse lets you move quickly between the past and the present, or if you go backward, between the future and the past. Merge time-lapses and you’ll be able to watch your block or street change over a few weeks or a shoreline erode across years.

Two of our greatest cultural fears, gentrification and climate change, will be instantly visible in time-lapse in ways that even sequences of photographs, those juxtapositions of before and after, couldn’t accomplish. Just play the video or drag the slider to watch as sea levels rise, hurricanes rage, or glaciers melt. Front-facing cameras gave us selfies, but adding time-lapse to our phones will make this kind of photography even more popular.

Perhaps time-lapse will be the photographs that come closest to capturing the experience of digital time: instant and infinite updates of local and global news colliding with encyclopedic and epic archives of personal and public information. Time endured, but edited; lived, but lapsed.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.