I have used a bunch of timelapse controllers, with a bunch of different cameras. Collected here are various unorganized things that I've found.
It doesn't take anything fancy to to make a timelapse sequence: pressing the shutter every few seconds is fundamentally about as complex as it gets. The setup I have is a bit more involved, although fundamentally just the same. I use various digital cameras for these sequences. You could use an analog camera -- in fact, one analog camera I had (Samsung ECX-1) even had a timelapse mode built in. I used it only occasionally, although of course historically most timelapse was done this way. I've used a variety of digital cameras, in combination with a few `timelapse controllers,' which are external boxes which tell the camera to fire the shutter at regular intervals.
I assume you could do some good stuff with a webcam and a laptop, but I've never played with them. Most of them are auto-exposure and fixed focus, but they could still be plenty entertaining.
Digital video cams (`DV') often have timelapse-type capabilities built in; I've never played with them either.
This is the one to get. It's cheap ($130), small, easy to program, and runs forever on a watch battery. (There's not even an on-off switch.) It has a `keep alive' function which handles the half-press and full-press properly on most digital cameras with an external shutter connector. The cord it comes with is set up for a Canon SLR, but it'd be a simple matter to hack it off and put on the connector for anything else with a shutter connector. It has a display, can be set up for any arbitrary number of shots, has a programmable shutter-length, etc.
A minor disadvantage is that it's not programmable to come on at a certain time of day. However, you could easily interface it with an external clock to turn it on and off like that. I've done this put just plugging the camera into an AC adaptor and using a $10 appliance timer. A battery-powered option would be to get a cheap, wall-mount-style digital thermostat, which has a programmable timer to turn on/off an external circuit.
This is a more serious unit which is overkill for what I use it, but works reliably and is tremendously flexible. Several features:
The details are too much to get into, but it's a great unit, even for $300. If you're just doing basic timelapse, though, the Canon TC-80N3 is probably better. The Time Machine eats through batteries, has no keep-alive feature, and is big and expensive.
This is a tiny, low-cost ($130) controller that works with many cameras which use a standard `serial protocol' command language. This seems to be mostly Olympus and Nikon cameras, with some other odd ones thrown in. Not too many accessories use this protocol, so the manufacturers don't advertise its existence very heavily. Nikon does make a remote unit / intervalometer -- the MC-EU1 -- which uses it. The Digisnap is more reliable, more capable, and cheaper than the MC-EU1.
Unfortunately the protocol itself is buggy. The cameras frequently lock up; exposures come out wrong; there are a lot of modes to play with before finding one that works like it's supposed to. My understanding is that it's more the fault of the camera manufacturers than of the Digisnap. But it's frustrating.
The Digisnap runs forever on a single AAA battery. It can be programmed to some extent in the field through an often-confusing series of button presses and LED flashes, but for complete programming it needs to be hooked up to a computer, where it's programmed through the serial port. (Therefore, it works fine under Linux -- unlike the Della unit below, which is similar but requires Windows for programming.)
The Digisnap 2100 ($150) adds a mode where it can talk to any camera that can be triggered with a switch contact -- not just the `serial protocol' ones. I haven't used this yet, but in theory this makes the Digisnap line significantly more flexible.
I've never played with this, but it looks to be similar to the Digisnap. Accessing most of the features requires Windows, so it's useless to me. Cheap, though ($89).
Digital SLR. Expensive, big, heavy, and loud. But for timelapse it's the one to get. I use Canon's wide-angle 10-22 mm lens for almost everything I do, and no compact camera has near the wide-angle coverage that this does. Also, the camera remembers all of its settings when powered off -- something the others do only to varying degrees. After a power failure it'll start up right where it was before with no problems, every time. The SLR's are the only cameras that do night-time photography well (e.g., stars), and the 20D is great here. Battery lasts forever (thousands of shots).
A possible disadvantage is that the smallest files are still several megapixels, which is overkill and just means you need a larger memory card and must downsample everything afterwards. But memory's cheap, so that's no big deal. Also, the shutter mechanism really is quite loud, so that may limit where it can be used. Interestingly, the shutter mechanism is rated for 200,000-some exposures, and I imagine I'm as close to pushing that limit as any professional is. But no problems so far...
I use this for everything I do now.
A good timelapse camera. I used this for a lot of my timelapse shots, and a lot of my regular photography too. Check out the review. (It's of the Dimage A2 -- essentially the same camera.)
This has an external shutter release port which triggers the shutter when two pins are shorted together. This makes it simple to interface to the Time Machine. I couldn't come up with a reliable plug for the shutter release socket, however, so I had to spring the $40 for Minolta's shutter release cable. I connected the Time Machine's output to the release cable with a simple transistor circuit. (The Time Machine closes both the half-press and full-press shutter buttons simultaneously, which works almost all the time. The only time it doesn't work is in waking the camera up from sleep mode -- for this, it reqires a half-press. Odd, but whatever.)
This camera has a built-in intervalometer (like the G5) but it is broken by poor design in exactly the same ways as the Canon! The A1's lens does not retract, however, so the issue of random image motion on the G5 is fixed here. Still, it's limited to 100 shots at minimum 30 second intervals.
Battery life is fantastic -- one charge will give me about 2000 images at 5 second intervals, or 800 photos at 30 second intervals.
The camera allows manual-everything mode with no problems. It's a fine camera for taking non-timelapse shots, too -- 7x zoom, image stabilizer, beautifully-designed interface.
Cons: detector is pretty high-noise and basically useless above ISO100 (and even at that, thermal noise swamps the detector after 15 sec or so). The lens is sharp, but does poorly when shooting near a bright light source. Too bad -- my Canon S30 from 2001 does better in both regards.
The Coolpix 995 does seem to have lower noise during night-time shots -- timelapses of stars with the Minolta are frustratingly difficult as they require a good deal of post-processing to reduce the noise. I sometimes take manual dark frames (by covering the aperture) and remove them with an IDL program. Note that as the night progresses the air cools, and thermal noise gets to be significantly less of a problem by early morning! Sky & Telescope had an article in 2002 (?) about this effect, and some tips on modifying cameras to let the cool easier.
One reccomended accessory for the Minolta: Phoenix makes a lens called the Super Fisheye which screws right on and can be found for around $75. It's not a 180 deg lens as advertised (more like 150 deg). Still, decent image quality, and it's cheap.
I use the Time Machine to control this camera. I was unsuccessful in making a suitable plug to fit the Minolta, so I bought their shutter release cord and used the plug from it. The A1 has a three-pin shutter-release port, with ground, 1/2-press, and full-press. For almost everything, the 1/2-press and full-press lines can be tied together; pulling them to ground together takes the picture. In AF mode, it needs to be held low for a second or two (til it focuses) for the picture to take. In MF, it just needs a short pulse. There is one place where tying the two shutter lines together does not work, and that's in waking it up from sleep. To wake it up, the 1/2-press needs to be pressed, without the full. Whatever. This hasn't really mattered to me yet, but I can see it mattering in some cases -- e.g., when setting up the camera to shoot during the daytime only, and then sleep at night. Three possible solutions: (a) Just keep the 1/2-press grounded all the time to keep the camera from sleeping; (b) wire up a 555 (or better, the `Impossible Oscillator' et al. here) to `tickle' the 1/2-press every few minutes; (c) connect up a simple circuit that activates the two shutter lines in sequence when the input signal is received. I used to use the Time Machine and the Dimage A1 for a lot of my timelapse work. I also still have and use the Digisnap and a Coolpix 950, which were used for most of the movies on the web page, and I use for a second camera when I need one.
This camera has a built-in timelapse controller (or an `intervalometer' by Canon's terminology). It almost works, but unfortunately it's essentially useless for three reasons.
The Canon does not have an external shutter release or serial-protocol port, but it does have an IR remote. I requested a specially-modified Time Machine which was able to output the Canon IR codes, and it works well. The only hitch is that the camera shuts down (into a `sleep' mode but not off) after about 3 minutes. It can be woken up with two presses of the IR remote; a third then triggers the shutter.
Also, the G3's manual focus mode does not work with the display off! The G5 has very low power consumption with the display off. But unfortunately for timelapse shots, one usually wants to use manual focus. The comparably short battery life with the display on is a bummer, severely limiting the number of shots that can be taken.
The Canon S45 & S50 also have the broken intervalometer, although since they can't be triggered remotely, they're not relevant here. (Still, nice tiny cameras though -- most of the older non-timelapse shots on my web pages came from the S30.)
John Spencer uses this, and reports it works fine with the Digisnap. Images in `Bulb' mode have some variation in their frame-to-frame exposure time (24 sec, 28 sec, 27 sec...). The Nikon cameras are nice because there is an excellent set of add-on lenses available for them (e.g., the great FC-E8 180 deg fisheye for $200).
John mentions that the 995 (and 950 -- but not the Nikon SLR's) appears to have a nearly-continuous shutter speed variation, making exposure of usually challenging subjects like sunrises or cloud motion appear very smooth. I will agree -- the auto-exposure mode on the Nikons seems to work very well.
This looked like it would work fine with the Digisnap. But unfortunately it seems that Nikon's serial protocol is buggy and has gotten moreso with time. The camera underexposes (by a randomly fluctuating amount!) every exposure taken in the Manual setting. I worked with the people at Harbortronics and it doesn't seem to be a problem with their implementation -- it's a Nikon issue.
The camera has little else going for it, so mine went back on ebay.
An older model Nikon. No fully-manual mode, and limited to 8-sec exposures (and ISO 200 or so). No noise reduction. Good IR sensitivity. Continually-variable shutter (I think). Works fine with the digisnap. Camera needs to be taken off the tripod to extract the memory card -- since there's no USB port this is the only practical way to download images.
An odd advantage of it is that it stores billions & billions of pictures on a memory card! I haven't looked into the details, but it will store many many more 640x480 images on a 256MB card than the CP4500 or the A1. I imagine this is because its lowest-quality JPEG compression settings are lower than those on the other cameras -- this is an old camera, and memory cost more back then. Still, for timelapse work I usually find the number of images to be more important than the quality of each one -- compression in the movie is usually more visible than compression in the input images. The smallest image sizes it generates were roughly 60K, as opposed to 150K for the smallest images on the A1.
Also, the 950 runs for days and days on a set of AA batteries with the display off.
Works with the `serial protocol.' But, it only works in auto-everything mode. One can find this camera cheaply on ebay, but it's only useful for simple sequences.
Recently I've started using Quicktime (the $40 `Pro' version) to make the movies. It'll take a series of JPEG's, and create an MPEG at a specified frame rate. It's fast and easy.
Compressing movies under Linux is a bit more awkward than it feels it should be. I use the standard Berkeley MPEG mpeg_encode program. I use a few short scripts to set the frame rate, resize & rotate the images, change the brightness when necessary, etc. In general, I've reduced the size of most of the images; using full-size images reduces the playback speed (and also makes monstrous files). Unfortunately the frame-rates of MPEG's cannot be arbitrarily set to much below 24 (?) frames/second, which is too fast for me. So, some of these files are slowed down by inserting duplicate frames. I imagine that other formats allow more flexibility.
Playing back MPEGs under Linux is also occasionally difficult, although it's gotten easier recently. Both xine and mplayer work quite well and are reasonably easy to install. They both work in full-screen mode and can play Quicktime movies using the appropriate codec's. Xine lets you change the playback speed on-the-fly; Mplayer handles plug-ins easily in Mozilla using mplayerplug-in and Plugger.
Last modified 29-Nov-2005