Introduction: 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)

Step 2: Plan

Once you have all your materials, you should start to map out how they'll all fit within the case.  It tends to get crowded in there so careful planning is a must. 
For balance, I put the Camera's lens roughly in the center of the Pelican case.  With this established, make sure that there would be enough room for the voltage converter and the intervalometer on either side.
Consider leaving enough room for the camera mounting plate, mounting hardware etc.

The picture shows the placement of the different items in the case.  IF I were building this camera again, I'd trim off a lot of the wire and make it nice and tidy inside…

Step 3: Hardware

I can't tell you exact measurements, or show you pictures of every step of this process.  But, with the age old advice of measure three or four times and cut once, you shouldn't have any issues.

Using a circle cutter drill bit thats a tiny bit smaller in diameter than your PVC pipe, cut a hole in the front of your Pelican case.  I used a drill press as you can see, but a hand held drill would work fine.

File away at the hole until the pipe will fit in snugly. 

Mount the camera.  Attach the Manfotto quick release plate to a small piece of wood with a screw.  Then attach that to the pelican case with two 90 degree angle brackets, a couple of bolts and rubber toilette washers to make it more water proof.  Make sure the height is correct so that the camera and lens are properly positioned in the large hole. 

Cut the PVC pipe so that it extends not much more than 1/2 to 1/4 of an inch beyond the end of the lens.  The beauty of the quick release plate is that you can slide the camera forwards and back some to ensure a good fit, but at a certain point, the camera won't slide any further.  Just know that the further the lens is from the end of the PVC pipe, the more risk for reflections and vignetting…  If you care about aesthetics or camouflage, spray paint your pipe to match the color of the Pelican case.  Use the epoxy/silicone sealer to secure the pipe in place.

Attach the clear UV filter to the front of the lens pipe using some of the epoxy.  Careful, because the case is probably front heavy at this time and a direct nose dive will shatter the glass-  I speak from personal experience unfortunately.

Attach mounting hardware to back of the pelican case.  I used long bolts through the back of the case that connected to flat metal brackets.  With nuts and washers (some rubber ones for water proofing) this became adjustable to suit the needs of mounting the case to trees, posts, rocks etc.

Drill a hole in the back of the case for the wires to the battery.

In some installation configurations, you'll want the battery box directly attached to camera box to act as a stabilizing weight and anchor.  Drill four holes in one of the long sides of the battery box matching the position of the mounting hard ware from the pelican case.  I used two pieces of wood (approx 8'' x 10'') on either side of one of the battery box's longer walls with the same hole pattern drilled into them to give it rigidity and an anchor point for the mounting bolts.

Also, drill holes in the battery box's walls and lid so that you can use a couple zip ties to secure the lid.

Step 4: Electrical

The diagram I've attached is more of a wire diagram versus a circuit diagram.  I'm not an electrician and don't really know how to draw these things.  But, it does explain the basic set up.  Car battery, two wires coming off it (remember, reds hot [positive], blacks not); put an inline fuse in to the positive wire; both wires come off and go into the voltage converter; wires come out and attach to dummy battery wires; goes into camera.

BE CAREFUL.  At 12 volts, risk of electrocution is fairly minimal as I understand it, but you can melt a wrench if it makes contact between the two terminals on the battery.  You can also fry your camera I'm sure.  And make sure you don't cross your wires.  As I said above, red = positive; black = negative.  sometimes though, consumer electronics don't have red wires, they have a white stripe on a second black wire instead…

Cut your wires.  Cut the black box off the dummy battery if you're using an AC adapter.
Strip the insulation off the last 1/4 of each wire.  I used butt splices to hold the wires together, but a wire nut will also work- but might take up more room inside the case.  Try and get connections that are the right wire gauge- too fat and the wires will fall out, to small and they won't fit. 

Attach terminal connectors to the wires that will attach to the battery.  Pass the other end through the hole you drilled in the back of the case.  Install the fuse- might as well keep that inside, so make sure you have plenty of wire to connect the camera box to the battery box.  A couple of times we placed the camera about 6 feet away from the battery box to aid in mounting the thing, so plan accordingly.

Attach these two wires to the wires going into the voltage converter.  Then attach the other side of the voltage converter to the dummy battery wires.  (if you got the astronomizer kit - recommended - your set up will be a lot easier.)

I kept the extra wire coiled in the case, but if you wanted to trim off your excess, it would make for a much cleaner rig.  You can use the velcro to secure the voltage converter to the side of the case- keeps it from rattling around and disturbing the camera.

Step 5: Moments of Truth.

Turn on your camera. Hopefully you don't smell smoke or see sparks…
If your camera does work, congratulations, you're almost done! 

Mount your camera on the quick release plate.
Plug in the intervalometer, and velcro it to the side of the case as well.  I wouldn't try and trim these wires- you'll just have to live with them in there. 

Plug up any holes with epoxy or silicone- this box will need to survive the elements after all. 

TEST the rig before you commit to a multi week time-lapse.  I ran ours for a few days on my roof to test both the length, but also the weather durability of the rig.  I learned a lot from those experiments…

Step 6: Ready to Place

Particular care must be taken when placing the camera.
First, you need to figure out what sort of subject matter you'll be capturing and what angle will best accomplish that.  For example, we knew we wanted to cover the annual snow melt in the Rocky Mountains, but we needed to decide how to photograph it.  We knew we needed to photograph an area that would experience spectacular change- not subtle change.  We chose two very different locations to accomplish this- one camera was placed on a hillside over-looking a snow covered landscape miles away; the other was in a small, snow filled ravine down which flowed an ice covered creek.  When the snow melted in both shots, we knew (ok, hoped) that the change would be dramatic and informative.

When you're ready to place your camera, you'll find that precise placement and mounting will be key- and difficult.  We traveled with several different mounting options and used a few on location.  The default set up was of the Camera box attached solidly to the battery box.  We used this configuration to place the rig on that hillside and also inches from the edge of a 300' cliff overlooking Lake Powell; we covered both cameras with rocks for camouflage and to protect them from the wind.

Our other mounting arrangement was to attach the camera box in a tree and run wires to the battery box resting on the ground (or itself mounted to a tree separately).  Attach the mounting bolts on the camera box to the flat metal brackets.  With long bolts, nuts and washers, you'll be able to mildly adjust the position of the camera by lengthening and shortening the bolts connecting the camera and battery boxes.  Then, using long wood screws, attach the brackets (and camera box) to the tree, post etc.

Once generally mounted, you'll want to double check your shot.  set your intervalometer to a short interval; close the case, take a few pictures and then open the case back up and take a look at what you just took.  If you like what you see, great, if not, adjust the position and framing as needed. 

Focus and zoom are especially tricky, depending on the type of lens you're using.  Once you've dialed that in, tape the lens so it can't accidentally adjust.  Again, take test shots of your focus and zoom before sealing the case up for good. 

Set your intervalometer to the desired interval-  Once an hour? once every 30 minutes?  Every 5?  The decision is a combination the size of your media card, the size of the pictures you camera takes and the length of your time-lapse (in video time and it real time)

Once you close it up for good, I'd suggest waiting the time of the interval and listening close to the case to see if you can hear the camera click. It really pays to write down the time of day and come back to check in on it the next day or even every couple of weeks.  I heard a that a competent of the Extreme Ice Survey's long term time-lapse rigs malfunctioned and when they came to check on them 6 months later, they'd captured no images.  Now, I'm not saying they weren't fastidious in their double and triple checking, just that might be able to avoid a little heart ache of your own by really making sure everything is working properly before you leave the camera for good.

Step 7: Security

Now, you'll probably be wondering, won't my camera be vulnerable to thieves as well as the weather?  that was my most common comment when I was making these.  We planned ahead and prepared this little laminated note to try and convince a potential vandal or thief to move along…  I think its enough to stop the curious.  We also locked some of the cases, and left some unlocked.  We figured that in high traffic areas, casual hooligans would be less likely to try and open a locked case, where as in the middle of no where, vandals would be far rarer and in case they did find the camera, a little pad lock wasn't going to stop a determined thief. 

We also included a self addressed stamped envelope inside the case pleading with a potential thief to send back the media card so that our work wouldn't be completely for naught.

Luckily when we returned to the cameras, they had not been tampered with at all and my trust in humanity prevailed.

Step 8: Ingesting and Editing

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this section because I don't think this is the time nor place, but I did want to mention a couple of things.

When setting out to do a longer term time lapse, consider what the end product will actually look like.  We set the intervalometers on our rigs to take pictures every 20 minutes for months.  That resulted in a lot of images.  If we were to lay all those out together, we'd get day to night to day to night to day to night etc.  It'd be a little nauseating to look at.  We chose to select only images taken at a specific time- 6p for example.  That way, the sun was always roughly in the same spot (we shot around the summer solstice, so daily sun position didn't change as much as it would have around the equinox). 

Once we'd selected our images and weeded out a few that were too different from the others (lens covered in snow for instance), we took them into After Effects for a little  sweetening-  exposure balancing, color correction, stabilization and in a few instances, sky replacement masking.   I know, I know, a blasphemy for purists, but honestly, if it comes down to a shot looking good and being used or being distracting, too flickery and thrown out; I'd choose a slight digital manipulation that helps to convey the concept and enhances the story any day.

Step 9: Good Luck

An image shot on a different time scale from every day life- wether it be super slow motion or time lapse, can have a profound impact on a person's perspective of the world around them.  Some of the most inspiring shots I've ever seen are time lapses that explain a natural process.  When I see clouds forming and colliding in the wake of a mountain I understand a little piece of the mystery of weather.  A  beautiful night time shot with the stars making their circle around the north star does more to explain astronomy and our place in the universe than any physics text book could.  Plants sprouting from the earth seeking the sun- wow.  Just phenomenal.

With a long term time-lapse camera, we can stretch the human conception of time even further.  I used these long term time-lapse rigs to shine light on processes that happen too slowly to notice in our daily lives.

I envision these long term time lapse rigs used for art and for film of course, but also for scientific observation like the Extreme Ice Survey or, in our case, to document the Sonoran Institute's efforts to re-water the Colorado River Delta.  They could be used in any case where there is a need for consistent observation and understanding of a plot of land and the intricate systems within it: a farm, ranch or garden for instance.  The observation of remote building projects is a common use, but ultimately, these cameras can be used to satisfy the curiosity we innately have about the world around us. 

This design is a good start, but there are many different variations that I could imagine and I'd love to see and hear about what other people come up with.  The first, and most obvious would be to scale down the size of the battery and add a solar or wind based power source to supplement the power.  You could use different cameras, GoPros for instance for an especially mini rig.   

Good luck making your long term time-lapses and have some fun with it.  I'd love to see what you come up with, so be sure to share pics of your design and the resulting long term time lapses in the comments below.

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