The Beginning of Time-Lapse

With Apple soon to introduce time-lapse photography to its phones, could we see the end of the selfie?
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(Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr)

(Photo: Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr)

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.

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