Picture of How to make a long term time-lapse
A single, standard battery in a DSLR camera will suffice for making most time lapses- but, what if you want to capture a time lapse for a week, a month, or an entire season while being far removed from any source of power?

Well, for a recent documentary called Watershed, produced by Kontent Films, I did just that.  I built 4 time-lapse camera rigs that ran, unassisted, for up to 4 months. 

I made this at Techshop in San Francisco where there were lots of tools available.  But really, it can be built at home no problem.   

Check out the video and then take a look at how I did it.

Step 1: Gather Materials

Materials  (links are to possible options, not necessarily the items I used- please be smart and make measurements, look at reviews etc…)

Camera.  We chose to purchase used Canon 20D cameras through KEH.  You want something solid and high quality, and remember, megapixel count isn't  super essential because the likely final output is HD video.   

Lens.  As with all pictures, the better the glass the better the time-lapse.  But, like the cameras, I'd recommend not going too crazy- balance your risk and benefit.  We chose cheap zoom lens from KEH so we could change the shot as needed from where we were able to place the cameras. If you know what your shot is before hand, a prime lens in this situation might be appropriate.    

- Media card.  Get a big one because you don't want to run out of space!  

Intervalometer.  Depends on what model of camera you choose.  I'd definitely recommend not skimping out here; just get the one made by Canon so you don't have to worry about it (my knock off failed on me)   

- Battery.  How long do you want this time-lapse to be?  We used a car battery (really, a slightly larger RV battery) for our rigs.  They didn't run out of juice, so we don't really know how long they would have lasted.  Probably a lot longer.  Try to find a battery that isn't built to deliver massive amounts of power all at once (starter battery), but rather one thats used to releasing a small charge (like a battery used for RV appliances or what they call a marine battery)  We were able to get one for cheap at a place that recycles old batteries:   

- Battery Case.  Plastic shell for the car battery that can be purchased at West Marine or other places.  Its not technically water proof, but it does help keep the rain off the electrical components while still allowing it to off gas in extreme weather.  It's also helpful for attaching various components.  Make sure its the right dimensions for the battery you get.  

- Dummy battery.  Goes in your camera in the battery slot and has a cord the extends out.  You can make your own if you know how (read all of my instructions before you build that), or you can do what I did and buy a cheap AC adapter for the camera. 

Voltage converter.  Your camera operates on around 7 volts of DC power, where as a car battery runs at an average of 12v DC.  (household power is 120v AC)  Look for a variable DC converter that takes 12v power and makes it something close to 7v (7.5 works fine).  Again, higher quality here is better.  The linked to item is fairly low quality...

OR a Voltage converter, dummy battery combo.  This guy in England makes really high quality ones for about the same price.  I only found out about them after I had placed our cameras.  If I were doing this project again I'd use these.

Pelican case.  This is a standard water/weatherproof case for your camera.   You don't need the foam if it makes it cheaper.

- Mounting plate.  Not essential, but it certainly does make mounting your camera easier.

- 20 Amp fuse

- Electrical connectors of the appropriate size (terminal ends, butt splices etc)

- Large diameter PVC pipe.  For the Lens snout; I purchased at Home Depot.  The interior diameter needs to be bigger than the diameter of your lens.

- Clear, UV lens Filter.  This covers the opening in the PVC pipe making it weather proof.  It can be purchased at a camera store; bring in the pipe to make sure it fits… 

- Epoxy.   some sort of really strong, really gooey substance to fill up holes and hold some things together

- Silicone moisture packets 

- Mounting hardware (screws, bolts, nuts, washers, rubber washers, brackets etc) and misc scrap wood

- Velcro

Wire cutting and splicing tools.
Large diameter circle cutter (slightly smaller diameter as exterior of  PVC pipe)
bpfrocket2 years ago
There are HD trail cameras available from most hunting retailers that will run for 6-12 months. Mine will run for a year on 8 AA batteries. It would be pretty easy to hack a lens change.
Just a thought for a cheaper, easier alternative
fpound (author)  bpfrocket2 years ago
hmm... perhaps, though I'd be suspicious about the quality of image that comes out of one of those cameras- worth a look though....
GonzoCooper2 years ago
A small change in the mounting of the rig to the tree may go a long way toward less impact and less negative attention. Instead of using nails or screws to mount the box to a tree, use sturdy straps or rubber bungie cords. As for a disguise, maybe a rough wooden box enclosing the entire Pelican box, that looks like a bird house, complete with a perch in front of the lens opening). Make sure the bird house looks like some sort of serious bird breeding structure, not something you would find in an urban back yard.
fpound (author)  GonzoCooper2 years ago
great ideas- you wouldn't want birds to become too fond of the box or else they'll start posing for glamour shots... I definitely like the idea of using straps instead of screws etc...
wgrube2 years ago
Great instructable!
well done!
rusty01012 years ago
Great job.

ideas already as I've already built one intervalometer for some cameras, and I'm thinking of doing something similar except using a myfi card to feed the images to a home server. For that I could build a setup that charges off the house but has a battery for power outages, etc. Considering using a simple point-n-shoot as the camera in such a setup. If I can figure out how to get all of that working, it's time to write up an instructable as well I suppose. (and yes the intervometer is probably worth an instructable as well.) Thanks for the writeup.
fpound (author)  rusty01012 years ago
Thanks- sounds like a good set up you have there! good luck, and yeah, you should definitely write an instructable for the intervalometer...
diy_bloke2 years ago
Haha, where I live, if it survived vandals and thieves, it would probably be removed by the forestry service and destroyed because you did not have a licence to operate an unmanned camera, or to hang it on a tree, or not ask general permission from the Mayor, the Interior department, The social arts and healtcare ministry and you'd find a summons in your inbox to pay a fine for all of the above+ for failing to have done an ecological impact study for hamering a nail in a tree + fine for damaging a tree.

Now if you would have raped 3 little girls you'd probably only get a slap on the wrist and six hrs community service :-)

My trust in authorities is far less than my trust in humanity as a whole
fpound (author)  diy_bloke2 years ago
yikes! We definitely considered the legality of putting the cameras on federal land. we thought about asking permission first, but decided to ask forgiveness after the fact if it came to that...
Well, you still live in a reasonably country whereas I live in a seemingly free country where the government wants to have a say in the color of yr frontdoor, the size of your door INSIDE your house, wants to track every car and no doubt would prefer to store daily stool samples from everyone, just in case :-)

Anyway, great project, I may try something like that but probably use a casing that blends into the environment. I may try to create an artificial rock or something, but definitely want to try this. May set the interval for just once a day. That might be sufficient
fpound (author)  diy_bloke2 years ago
good luck to you!
cory.smith2 years ago
Voted and Favorited. This is well done.

fpound (author)  cory.smith2 years ago
Thanks Cory!
I've been wanting to build one of these for a long time to observe the decay of animals I occasionally find while hiking. Thank you so much for posting this. It cleared up a few questions I had about the process.
fpound (author)  ampersand20062 years ago
Umm.. Gross. But really cool too :) We joked around a lot that we were going to catch a murder (human or animal) in the time lapse and then see its decomposition over time. Glad it didn't happen that way for us, but good luck on your project- I'd love to see it when its done!
Yeah, suppose he would see your camera.... and your address. He might just wanna make sure there are no loose ends :-)
Interesting (depending on yr objective) I have seen that done by a Sheriff somewhere in Montana I believe who wanted to debunk the 'animal mutilation myth'. He produced some interesting footage of how regular decay, without any aliens or chupacabra's produced a carcass akin to the 'mutilated' carcasses
lluckey12 years ago
just saw this, will only work for the city but a good way to keep an eye on your stuff
fpound (author)  lluckey12 years ago
It doesn't have to just be the city: just not the remote wilderness. For example, a lot of the California state parks get OK cell coverage (enough, perhaps to transmit a high res photo every 30 minutes.) So really, with a three minute hike off the beaten path, you could create a great, nature based time-lapse, within a cell covered area...
lluckey12 years ago
Great tut! not to get too complicated... but will anyways. What about adding an arduino or cheap pocket laptop, a cheap cell phone with 4G, and an automated follow focus system, set up a network and transmit camera function and still frames from sd card to your home computer allowing you to remotely view and control focus zoom and other functions, giving you more usable shots, this way you can get multiple timelapses out of one placement. Much more expensive but more versatile, just the ability to see what you have taken without having to travel back multiple times is probably worth the extra expense.
fpound (author)  lluckey12 years ago
The idea of having a phone and laptop (or 4g connected laptop!) in the case to control the camera and download the photos would be pretty great. I want to see a long term time-lapse that also includes a rack-focus reveal! Sure it adds complexity and expense, but it also adds security and realtime troubleshooting / monitoring. Great idea!
Ralphxyz2 years ago
First thing thank you, I have been thinking about doing time lapse for a long time. This takes me a hundred steps closer.

fpound (author)  Ralphxyz2 years ago
Woop woop! glad to hear it- Good Luck!
fpound (author)  Wroger-Wroger2 years ago
Yeah, it'd be great if the final video would last longer than a few seconds... I really like the idea of having the sun change position throughout the course of the time-lapse. Not exactly sure how to select the right photos to get a smooth transition. Nor, actually how that might lengthen the final shot. can you explain? I'd love to try it out and see if it works!
How did you combine the still images into a video? Did After Effects do this for you? After Effects is expensive.
fpound (author)  Wynfordeagle2 years ago
we did use After Effects- but I think Quicktime 7 on a mac can do it, and I'm sure there are other free (or cheaper) programs out there that would perform well...
first of all, nicely done.
i am a photographer myself and was looking for rig like this, yours is one of the easiest i have seen.
one thing i would like add to your rig is a data cable, because nowadays cams are equipped with USB connectivity, you can get your data from media card via laptop, that will increase the storage/picture taking capacity as you can erase the previous data on media card.
fpound (author)  Bilal Bin Siraj2 years ago
hmm... the idea of adding USB to the case is really interesting. We interrupted the river time-lapse to swap out cards and though we tried to match it exactly, we inevitably bumped it some (and introduced a fly into the case which we had to smoke out!)... so, for a really data intensive shoot (a really long, long term time-lapse) incorporating a USB Data cable into the case that you could plug a laptop into with out opening would be great...
londobali2 years ago
very nice instructible and clearly done..
Excellent Job! Great, I love taking time lapse photos. Just awesome, I made my own intervalometer. I was thinking about how to take extended period time lapse photography now I have a great idea to use from. The cost of the materials doesn't seem that bad at all. Could you give the details of your aperture, iso ,etc that you used in some of these timelapse? And how did you adjust your fine zoom of the lens after the box was closed, sealed, and mounted?
fpound (author)  SharadScience2 years ago
Wow- your own intervalometer. I'd be curious to learn how you did that! I looked into making one for a GoPro that uses a micro controller to turn the camera off in between rather than draining battery- went this route instead... We set the whole rig to auto aperture and shutter because we didn't know what time of day we were going to be using. ISO was set to its lowest setting I believe... To adjust the zoom / focus you need to open the box, change and then close/seal again. Cheers
Hmm interesting, thanks! Yeah, I will be posting an instructables on how to make your own intervalometer very soon. I made the first version of prototype, now I need to tweak it.
Wow great job! Very well done with excellent results.
fpound (author)  matt.e.jenkins2 years ago
chucksfc2 years ago
Great, concise instructable - I am inspired.
fpound (author)  chucksfc2 years ago
spiny2 years ago
brilliant images :)
by the way, the type of battery you describe is also known as a 'leisure battery' (In the UK at least) it's designed to run flat without being damaged, unlike car batteries which are designed to start cars and stay charged.

cheers :)
fpound (author)  spiny2 years ago
Thanks for the tip! Definitely worth going with this style of battery whatever the name: leisure, marine, RV etc... Thanks-