Make Your Own Time-Lapse Photography System

Body: 

Movies were born when Auguste and Louis Lumiere (and ultimately Thomas Edison) projected a series of still photos in rapid succession, causing the viewer to perceive motion where there was none.

Matching the projector's speed with the speed of the camera made the motion lifelike. Undercranking (running the camera slowly) and overcranking (running the camera faster than the projector) caused a film to appear faster or slower than reality. It wasn't long after the invention of motion pictures that camera operators and directors intentionally ran the camera faster or slower than normal to create special effects.

Time-lapse photography is a variation on this. With time-lapse photography, it's possible to compress time into short periods, making days or weeks pass by in seconds. Hackneyed examples include flowers unfolding in the sun and clouds passing across scenic horizons. But cobble together a cheap digital camera, a $129 timer, and a motorcycle battery, and you've got the basics of a system that can go far beyond clich├ęs.

Old School "Educational Experience"
The traditional time-lapse photography materials include motion picture film; cameras with one or two pin-register mechanisms to keep the picture accurate relative to the sprocket holes; and an intervalometer, an electronic timer that exposes a frame or series of frames at a set interval.

I first attempted a time-lapse film more than 20 years ago. I rented a 16mm time-lapse camera with a double pin-register mechanism and an electronic timer to expose the frame and advance the film (Figure 1).

20060911_fg1.jpg
Figure 1. This old-school time-lapse camera is a Mitchell 16mm animation camera with an electronic intervalometer.

My plan was to photograph the launch of a dozen hot-air balloons. I set the camera on a tripod on the hill above the event, loaded it with 400 feet of 16mm motion picture film, and set the timer to take one frame every few minutes. That calculation was based on how many frames there were on 400 feet of film (16,000 frames, running time about 11 minutes) divided by the number of hours I estimated the event to last (about three).

I started the camera before sunrise on the appointed day, then joined the balloonists. But the wind picked up, making balloon launches dangerous, so only two pilots chose to fly. My film, after processing, suffered from several problems. The most significant was that it ran way too quickly; the balloons were inflated and disappeared out the top of the frame in less than a second. I had chosen too long a period between frames. Double-or triple-speed would have been fine. This turned out to be an "educational experience" -- that is, a flop.

Documenting GlobalFlyer
Years passed before the next time-lapse opportunity: to document the construction of Global Flyer, an airplane designed and built by the legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. (The plane flew non-stop around the world in March 2005, setting numerous world records). My project partner Jim Sugar and I had been given exclusive photo access to that plane, and we were there when the first spar of carbon-fiber epoxy was removed from the curing oven. We attached two Nikon F3 35mm film cameras on the hangar walls and began a time-lapse project that lasted well over a year (Figure 2).

20060911_fg2.jpg
Figure 2. One of the Nikon F3 cameras with a long-roll film back affixed. The lens is a 20mm wide-angle. The other camera was fitted with a 15mm lens. The camera is on its own mount, which was then attached to the limpet mounts on the walls of the hangar.

Jim and I bought two 250-exposure long-roll backs for the film cameras we already owned and soon were up-and-running with intervalometers custom-made by D.K. Philbin and Harold Hallikainen in San Luis Obispo, California. We calculated the interval between frames, 19 minutes, by dividing the number of frames on 33 feet of film into the working hours in a two-week period.

We positioned one of the two cameras to look down the fuselage of the plane, almost perfectly centered. The second camera looked across the right wing at an angle. They each shot the same number of frames daily (Figure 3).

20060911_fg3.jpg
Figure 3. The camera's view of Hangar 63, in which GlobalFlyer was taking shape.

Every two weeks, a technician put in fresh film and mailed the exposed film cartridges to a processing lab in Burbank, which sent me the processed film. I reloaded the film cartridges and mailed them back to the hangar for the next two weeks. Over 15 months, the cameras made a total of about 11,000 frames.

It all would have worked fine except for mechanical problems with one of the cameras. Nikon F3s are not frame-accurate because they don't have a pin-register mechanism. The relationship between the image and the sprocket holes varied considerably during the project. Sometimes one camera skipped a sprocket while advancing the film, which was fatal to the film from that camera. Converting the film frames to video requires a device called a telecine machine, and these devices presume frame-accuracy. The inconsistent feed was beyond the range of correction possible on the telecine machine. The film exposed by the second camera worked quite well.

Why didn't I fix the problem? It took five months to accumulate enough processed film to make a test of the telecine conversion (a pricey $300 per hour). By the time I could see the extent of the problem, I was five months into a 15-month project. Any change or movement at that point would have made a visible difference in the film, so I stayed with the status quo. I thought I would be able to solve the problem with a little ingenuity.

That ingenuity took the form of a digital copy stand, which I still use today. It comprises two 35mm film rewinds, a Nikon D1 digital camera, a 55mm macro lens, and a Nikon film transport and diffuser. I run the film, which is held in place by two spring-steel tensioners, through the transport mechanism by hand. Several things never moved during the 15 months, so I can look through the viewfinder to position the film and shoot a copy of each frame. Later, I convert the frames from negative to positive, make color corrections, and batch process them for the time-lapse video.

At my current rate of copying, I estimate I'll finish in 2016! But the results are quite good, as you can see.

Raising the Roofs
Despite the technical problems I had with the GlobalFlyer shoot, I was hooked. I started looking for opportunities to make more time-lapse photography, this time with more stable and frame-accurate digital cameras.

My next assignment was to document the construction of a barn and house over a period of years. I built a weatherproof box for the new digital time-lapse camera and mounted the box on top of a telephone pole on the property in view of the construction sites (Figure 4). To power the camera and its intervalometer, I employed two 12-volt motorcycle batteries. I installed a solar panel on top of the camera box to keep the batteries charged.

20060911_fg4.jpg
Figure 4. The camera in its weatherproof box sits atop a telephone pole. With its 19mm equivalent lens, the camera has a wide view of the construction site. The solar panel on the top of the box charges the batteries.

The intervalometer, Harbortronics Digisnap, is wired via USB cable to control the Nikon Coolpix 5400 digital camera (Figure 5). Digital video (DV) standard frames are 720 x 480 pixels, so even the modest Coolpix 5400 can record images of adequate resolution for time-lapse.

20060911_fg5.jpg
Figure 5. The Nikon Coolpix 5400 on its bracket. The slotted bars let me position the camera vertically once it was inside the weatherproof box. Lock-nuts ensure it doesn't move once it's in position.

The DigiSnap (Figure 6) is a delightful piece of technology, hampered only by its reliance on conventional serial communications for programming. I find serial communication to be a black art that requires a fair amount of experimentation. I succeeded with a freeware terminal emulation program called ZTerm, a Keyspan USB-to-serial adapter, and a cable that came with the unit.

20060911_fg6.jpg
Figure 6. The Digisnap electronic camera controller is fully programmable and can control accessories, such as external lighting, in addition to the camera.

The camera is programmed to take one frame every 12 minutes during work hours, and it's recorded over 50,000 frames so far. The barn is now complete, but the house has about a year to go. When I'm finished, I'll have a magnum opus of time-lapse imagery.

I use a 512MB Compact Flash card, which holds two weeks of images. I change the card every other Saturday. The camera box needs occasional cleaning because spiders spin webs around the lens. (One spider makes a four-day appearance in my video!)

When I collect the memory card, I download the images to a folder on my disk drive, creating thumbnail images simultaneously using the Macintosh application ImageCapture. After transferring the images, I weed out obviously underexposed images -- the camera records a few frames in darkness each day.

The images are JPEGs, each 1024 x 768 pixels in size. The camera numbers the frames automatically, so they're always in a four-digit sequence. I sort the photos into folders by month, then I use Adobe Bridge to renumber them with the month name and a five-digit sequence number. (For more on my workflow, see "Find Your Photos Fast.")

From Still to Motion
Combining a series of still images into a movie is the simplest part of the process. I use Apple's QuickTime Pro ($29 for Mac or Windows). It can assemble a movie from a folder of images (Figure 7), set the frame rate to a speed of your choice, and then create a QuickTime movie in a few moments. It's that easy.

20060911_fg7.jpg
Figure 7. QuickTime Pro combines sequences of images into complete videos. Simply direct the application to a folder of sequentially numbered images, and it does the rest.

When the house is finished next year, I'll assemble the frames (more than 100,000 images by then) into a complete time-lapse story of the construction. I'll probably discard the stunningly boring sections -- whole months where nothing happens. I'll choose the playback rate then to correspond with the apparent speed of the video.

Demolition Derby
For another project, I made a time-lapse video of the demolition of my friend Chris's house. He had built a new house in front of the old house, and the time came to demolish the old. I placed my Canon digital camera on the balcony of the adjacent house, installed a time-lapse timer (Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3), and shot for three days as Chris and a group of his friends dismantled the house (Figure 8). My frame rate was set by the capacity of my memory card: 4GB, which stores more than 900 frames at the JPEG quality I selected. I divided eight hours into 900 and came up with 25 seconds per frame.

20060911_fg8.jpg
Figure 8. Chris's residence is demolished in my time-lapse QuickTime video.

I clamped and taped a tripod to the balcony so it wouldn't move, and I put the camera on the tripod each morning. Then I left it to snap a frame every 25 seconds until I retrieved it each evening. I copied the frames to my computer and went back the next day to start again. When finished, I had 2,700 frames and an amusing short video of the destruction of the old house that's also a visual event impossible to enjoy in real time, unless you want to camp out on a construction site for three days.

Opus 129
This summer, my local performing arts center got a new C.B. Fisk pipe organ with 2,768 pipes (Figure 9). This colossal instrument, named Opus 129, was erected in about eight weeks. My friend Bert and I put two time-lapse cameras in the hall to photograph the installation. We chose an exposure interval of approximately two minutes.

20060911_fg9.jpg
Figure 9. The beautiful pipes of the C.B. Fisk Opus 129 organ at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. My time-lapse camera recorded just under 10,000 frames during its construction, culminating in a ten-minute time-lapse video.

For this project, I used the Harbortronics DigiSnap, the Nikon Coolpix 5400, and a single motorcycle battery backed-up by a trickle-charger connected to 110V power. I mounted the camera on a very sturdy video tripod and weighted that down with three sacks of lead shot to keep it from moving during its 56-day assignment. I placed the camera in Row C, Seat 17 in the hall (Figure 10).

20060911_fg10.jpg
Figure 10. The time-lapse camera in the hall of the Performing Arts Center.

The DigiSnap was connected to the Coolpix camera by a USB cable, and it received its time of day from the camera. I programmed the device with start time, interval, and count of photos to take (as opposed to stop-time). For the organ project, I programmed the Digisnap to take a photo every 2:18 in a series of eight 90-minute programs so that I could interrupt the operation of the camera if necessary without losing much. Digisnap can't begin in the middle of a program; on this schedule (Figure 11), the most I would miss was 87 minutes of action.

20060911_fg11.jpg
Figure 11. My eight camera programs each ran for 90 minutes and made 34 photos. If the camera was interrupted, it started again no more than 90 minutes later. Click on this image for a larger version.

Every three days, I changed the 1GB memory card and transfered its 340 frames to my computer. Every few days, I posted that video to my Web site so anyone could view the organ's progress. To watch the final movie, go to http://www.lawlervideos.com/Video/Organ_1.mov.

Digital vs. Film
My digital time-lapse efforts are so superior to my film experience that it's hard to say it more emphatically: I will never use film again. Ever! The digital process is more accurate, and it results in better exposures and better color. The detail is much better. There is no grain. ISO speed is not a big issue, and the files are easier to manage. It's a heck of a lot less expensive, too!

Anyone Can Do It
If your curiosity has been piqued, try your hand at time-lapse photography. All it takes is a digital camera (consumer cameras work fine) and a method for exposing a frame on an interval. The Canon Powershot line of consumer cameras, among others, has a built-in interval timer controlled from the camera's menus. With that ability, you don't need anything else except a tripod to take a series of time-lapse photos. Then assemble the frames into a movie using QuickTime Pro or the equivalent.

One note of caution: Beware of battery failure! A consumer camera will run for just a few hours on a standard battery. An external power supply is a necessary investment. Motorcycle batteries, for example, run a camera for several days without failing.

With the right vantage point, a time-lapse camera system, and enough storage, you too can make time fly with professional-looking results.

Liked This? Read These!

Now that many digital cameras, from point-and-shoots to high-end SLRs, can shoot video, you might not think that time-lapse movies are relevant. But there's something unique about time-lapses that... Read More
Some digital cameras are very stylish. Others simply take great pictures. Those looking for the best of both worlds will enjoy the latest addition to Nikon's award-winning line-up of Coolpix digital... Read More
Even if you've never shot with a digital camera, it's not hard to see the advantages over shooting with film. Instant feedback, no film processing, speedy transfer to your computer for instant... Read More
If you took photos before digital cameras, you remember the pain of throwing away blurry print after blurry print. Then came LCDs on the back of digital cameras, which let you confirm whether the... Read More