Make Cloud Time-Lapses with a Smart Phone

David HookSTEM Tools & Toys

still frame of a video of a time lapse of a rainbow forming

This is one of my all-time favorite activities! Why?

  • Turn those brain-sucking mobile phones into powerful tools of creation!
  • Cloud time-lapses are beautiful
  • This project teaches a trove of lessons about science and nature – more on that below

First, let’s look at a few cool cloud time-lapses I’ve made with various kids to give you an idea of what it’s all about.

Look at the interesting lines of clouds here:

Still of lines of clouds in sky

This one actually caught a rainbow forming!

Photo of Rainbow caught in time-lapse

What You Need to Make a Time-Lapse

The tools you’ll need are a smart phone or tablet and time-lapse software. There are lots of good time-lapse apps. I like Stop Motion Studio and it’s free for iOS and Android. Download this puppy or any other one and get ready to go. (See end of post for specific instructions using Stop Motion Studio.)

Note for iPhone users – I recommend against using the iPhone’s built-in time-lapse setting because it’s not very configurable.

Time-lapses require that the camera stays still, so a tripod or stand of some kind is recommended. Or heck, just prop it against something. It needs to be facing upwards toward the clouds.

Time-lapse Settings

The key setting here is how many seconds or minutes to wait between photos. Time-lapses speed UP motion by slowing DOWN the rate at which the phone takes photos. A regular movie snaps 30 images per second. Here you want to set the timing to be something more like taking one photo every 5 seconds. Do a test and adjust as you see fit.

Once you’ve taken your movie, it’s important to adjust the playback rate to make the movie play as fast or as slow as you want it. You can adjust this in movie editing software after the fact, but instead we recommend using a time-lapse app that does this right in the phone. We usually pick a playback rate of 24 frames per second, but experiment to see what you like.

Finally, you’ll export the cloud time-lapse video from the app to a movie format you can post on YouTube or share in email or on social media.

Often you’ll have an option to save as either a movie or an animated GIF – a GIF will loop over and over again but won’t be as high-quality.

Tips

Your movies will be most interesting if the clouds are doing something more than just sitting overcast in the sky. Thunderheads and puffy summer clouds can do mind-boggling things. (But as always it’s more important to just get out there and get started than to worry too much about the perfect setup.)

Leave the phone taking photos as long as you can stand it! You’ll be sorry if you stop it too soon and it was capturing really amazing footage. Try 15 minutes to start.

IPhones for some reason can get very hot if they’re taking time-lapses in direct sunlight. Sometimes you can shade the phone itself which helps.

STEM Lessons

There are many science and technology avenues to explore when making time-lapses. Here are some prompts in case you want to integrate this with your STEM curriculum.

  • Do you see how the time-lapses are just a series of still photos? Why does our eye see a collection of images as a moving picture? How many frames-per-second in playback make the movie look smooth?
  • What kinds of clouds did you see? How did they change? Did you see any cloud evaporation or cloud formation take place in your movies?
  • Do you notice that when you watch the time-lapses you see an entire landscape of change that we don’t notice in real life? What does this say about time? What other kinds of changes do you think are happening around us that are too slow to notice? Can you think of a kind of time-lapse that would be interesting on a much longer time-frame?

Using Stop Motion Studio for Time-Lapses

If you use the Stop Motion Studio app, follow these steps:

Open the app and tap the “+ New Movie” button at the top left of the home screen.

Screenshot of Stop Motion Studio
Click camera icon at upper right.


Select small clock icon below big red button and slide slider to set your time-lapse photo rate – try 5 seconds.

Screenshot of Stop Motion Studio
Tap big red button to begin. Tap big red button (now a square) to stop time-lapse.

Tap left-hand arrow at upper left to get back to overview screen. Tap gear icon at upper right to set playback speed – try 24 frames per second.

Screenshot of Stop Motion Studio
When you like the playback speed, tap the left arrow at upper left.
On app home screen select “share” icon.