Simple time lapse video in Linux

Time lapse (or stop-motion) video is really cool, and this post explains how to make a simple time lapse style video in Linux using entirely free open source software.

There is more than one way to skin a cat and when I was searching for how to do this I came across many different methods and suggestions but not really anything that suited what I wanted. Andrew Wells suggests making a movie and then processing it with ffmpeg to only store 1 in every n frames. That seems a neat solution but I wanted to take a series of still shots and string those together into a movie. Tim Nugent published a teaser of some nice looking time lapse software he wrote but as yet there is no published source or binary. There were various other suggestions dotted around the web but each one I tried had some problem or other. So here’s how I did it.

First of all, you need a working webcam. Webcam support has really improved recently in Linux and I found the built-in iSight on my MacBook and my cheapo Logitech USB webcam work just fine without any intervention from me.

Next we need some way to save an image from the webcam every x seconds. I found that camstream does the trick just fine despite it’s sucky 1996-looking website and lack of a release since 2006. Under Fedora 10 to install camstream just use yum or your favourite GUI package manager:

yum install camstream

Camstream is pretty easy to use. Really, a child could do it. Just use the “File” menu to open up your webcam device. Then click the little configuration icon (it looks like a spanner) to adjust the file settings you’d like to use for capture. I found that JPG images work much better than PNG.

As the “Basename” enter the full path of the filename you’d like to save your images as, for example if you want to save your images as “/home/yourname/Pictures/Webcam/MyTimeLapse/image001.jpg” (and so on) then set the basename as “/home/yourname/Pictures/Webcam/MyTimeLapse/image” then choose “Number sequence” and set the maximum sequence number to something pretty big (like 100000). Close the settings. Click the icon to “show last snapshot”.

Now click “take snapshot at regular intervals” and set your interval. I chose 3 seconds. Choose whatever you think is appropriate. Now you’re all set. Camstream will take images at the interval chosen and save them into the directory you configured. Sweeeeet.

Ok, so now we have a directory full of images that looks something like this:

$ ls
image000.jpg  image003.jpg  image006.jpg  image009.jpg  image012.jpg  image015.jpg  image018.jpg
image001.jpg  image004.jpg  image007.jpg  image010.jpg  image013.jpg  image016.jpg  
image002.jpg  image005.jpg  image008.jpg  image011.jpg  image014.jpg  image017.jpg

We’re gonna feed these files to mencoder for it to pull together into a movie. To do this we need a text file containing a list of the files in the order that we want them. You could write this file yourself (boring) but we can create it using something like this:

ls -1tr > files.txt

This provides a listing (ls) of the current working directory outputting 1 file per line (1) sorted by modification time (t) in reverse order (r) and sends the output (>) to a file named files.txt. In the example above my files.txt looks like this:


Now download and install mencoder. Again it’s available on nearly all modern distros. For Fedora 10 just do “yum install mencoder”. Now all we need do to make our move is issue a command like this:

mencoder -nosound -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=mpeg4 -o test.avi -mf type=jpeg:fps=20 mf://@files.txt

This will encode all the files listed in files.txt into a movie called test.avi using the mpeg4 encoder with no sound and a framerate of 20 frames per second. Messing with the fps gives very different results. See “Encoding from multiple input image files” in the mencoder documentation for more info.

Here’s an example video made using this method:

17 thoughts on “Simple time lapse video in Linux

  1. Ken

    Thank you so much for sharing this technique. I have tread the same path as you looking for a solution to combining a list of images into a video and you saved the day for me.

  2. Ziddan

    Thanks for this great guide!

    I got the idea to do a try making a time lapse video today and you solved my problem of how to do it :D

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  4. Eriza

    Thanks for the guide! Probably just a little tip, when doing the ls command, one additional line “files.txt” is added to the top of the file files.txt. I think you can avoid this by doing: “ls -1tr | grep -v files > files.txt” instead.

  5. Peter

    camstream didn’t work with my webcam, but I found streamer which worked great for taking frames at set intervals. On Ubuntu you can get it w/ a simple ‘sudo apt-get install streamer’.

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  7. Thonixx

    Hi, thanks for the guide
    But streamer didn’t work with my Ubuntu, it crashed every time.
    But I found the best solution: “sudo apt-get install webcam”, it’s a simple and powerful application which works great with almost every webcam I think.

  8. Chnadler TSW

    Thankyou!! I couldn’t find a Linux GUI to do this anywhere and your method was very easy. Made my movie on the first try.

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  10. Pavan Kumar Kaushik

    Thanks a ton. Works amazingly well. A great yet simple guide! Keep up the great work. Worked so well when i just used my old Nokia Java 2Mp mobile camera. Cool!!

  11. Andrew Denbury

    Do you think it will work on the Raspberry Pi – I think that runs a version of Fedora, and has good graphics capability (in principle). I would like to use that to run a stills camera and upload images via ethernet to 3G router i.e a remote timelapse system. Many thanks, Andrew

  12. Peter Warholm

    Thank you so much for ths post – you got me started on Time lapse, and using Linux command line !!!

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  15. Gary White

    I used this to create my timelapse videos and thought I’d post my finished (and working) product. The first line finds all files older than 720 minutes and puts them in a list as you described. The second line encodes it. The third converts it from an .avi to a .flv format. I hope this will hope someone!

    find /var/motion/elp/data/archive -maxdepth 1 -cmin -720 -type f -name *.jpg -exec ls -1tr {} > /var/motion/elp/data/archive/webcam.txt \;

    mencoder -nosound -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=mpeg4 -o /var/motion/elp/data/webcam.avi -mf type=jpeg:fps=10 mf://@/var/motion/elp/data/archive/webcam.txt

    ffmpeg -i /var/motion/elp/data/webcam.avi -b 800k -s 640×480 -r 10 -y /var/motion/elp/data/webcam.flv

  16. Carsten

    Thanx a lot for this great guide. Have searched quite some time to find this to make my webcam pics convert into a timelapse video.
    Good work, you have finished a long way of trying and frustrating searching.

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