Cheap and Easy Time Lapse Video (Intervalometry)




Introduction: Cheap and Easy Time Lapse Video (Intervalometry)

About: depotdevoid is short for The Depot Devoid of Thought, the place where you go when you lo...

Time lapse, also known as intervalometry (as in measuring intervals between photographs), is a method of taking pictures slowly over time and then compiling them into a video of compressed time.  I've always been fascinated with time lapse videos.  I remember when I was very young, seeing a time lapse video of a vine growing and creeping around at night.  I was amazed!  A good time lapse video can change your whole perspective and understanding of seemingly uninteresting everyday things.

I always assumed that making these videos would require specialized equipment that would be out of my price range.  Turns out, you can produce high quality time lapse videos with a very small investment, my own output was just $45 for a spare camera, though you may have to pay more or less depending on your situation.

I had purchased the equipment I needed a while back, but then let this project sit on the back burner.  When I was down at Maker Faire in spring 2011, I got to talking to mikeasaurus about the idea--he was working on his own time lapse videos involving a shoulder mounted webcam.  We talked about it and played with his rig, and we were originally going to make a collaborative project, but sadly his effort suffered from some technical difficulties and had to be shelved.

In the mean time, I returned to Oregon and started seriously working on my own time lapse stuff.  Take a look at the videos below, the first is all my best stuff up to about mid August of 2011, and the second is some longer term stuff I've worked on since then.  Read on if you'd like to learn how to make your own cheap and easy time lapse videos!

I highly recommend you make this full screen and full resolution to get the total effect:

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Step 1: Gather Materials

For the videos, you will require:
  • A Canon brand digital camera that is compatible with CHDK (see step 2)
  • An SD card, the biggest compatible with your camera
  • An AC adapter for your camera (not required but very useful)
  • A computer with an SD card slot or an SD card reader and simple movie making software
I also built a simple water resistant case so I wouldn't have to worry about the constant Eugene rain, for something similar you'll need:
  • A waterproof tupperware (or whatever) container
  • A small piece of clear plastic
  • Hot glue
  • Silicone caulk

Step 2: CHDK: Where the Magic Happens

The secret to all of this is the Canon Hack Development Kit:  CHDK.

CHDK is an open source, alternative firmware for many Canon digital cameras.  Much like Rockbox or various ports of Linux, CHDK overrides the standard operating system of your camera, allowing for much greater user control.  Most Canon cameras, from the low end point and shoots all the way up to the high end DSLRs run on the same Digic processors, and contain much of the same internal hardware.  The functions of these processors are limited in the low end cameras by the native firmware, but their capabilities can be unlocked by the CHDK firmware.  

Specifically, CHDK allows you to create and run macros, or a series of commands that are set in motion and continue without requiring you to be there at all.  Rather than requiring an expensive high end camera or an analog intervalometer, CHDK allows you to set an interval for pictures, and it will continue taking them as long as it has power and space on the SD card.

Step 3: Choosing the Right Camera

This is very easy--just pay attention to Craigslist.  Find a Canon brand camera that is on this list (check the details of the specific camera to make sure it is fully compatible) and snap it up!

I ran a search on CL every couple of days for a few months until I found a camera that matched my specs.  I wanted to pay less than $50 for it, and I wanted it to be new enough that I could use it as a backup for my main camera.  I ended up with a Canon A570is, a model that's currently about six years old, but still takes high enough resolution photos to serve as backup for my other camera.

If I hadn't been picky about it, I could have had one the first week for about $20.  You don't need phenomenal resolution for time lapse, so don't get hung up on megapixels if all you want is a machine dedicated to this project.

*** Please note--a lot of older cameras can't read the larger SD cards available today.  Make sure you check the specs before you pick up a 32GB card, in case your camera can only do 4!

Step 4: Installing CHDK

Fair warning, I suspect this violates any warranty you might have on the camera!  It could also possibly brick your camera, but the impression I get from the CHDK site is that is extremely unusual.

Installing CHDK is very simple, and takes just four steps--you can see a comprehensive installation guide here, or just follow these directions.

1.  Find your camera's firmware version
Plug the SD card into your computer and create a plain text file on it called ver.req.  Make sure you've got the ability to see file extensions so that you don't end up with "ver.req.txt or something--on a PC you can turn this ability on in the folder options menu, I'm not sure how it's done on a Mac.  Remove the card and place it back in your camera.  Turn on the camera in playback mode and press the func.set and disp buttons at the same time (or the func.set and down buttons on some cameras).  You'll see something along the lines of "Firmware ver GM1.00E", it's the 1.00E or whatever that you need.  Write that down and move on to the next step.

2.  Install and run the CardTricks software
This program (again, this is for PC, I'm not sure how to do this on a Mac), both makes the SD card bootable and installs the proper version of CHDK on it.  Follow this link, download, install, and run.
  • Click "Format as Fat" (remember, this will delete everything on your SD card, so save any pictures first!)
  • Click "Make Bootable"
  • Click "Download CHDK" and choose your camera and firmware version, download and save the zip file
  • Click "CHDK ->Card" and choose the zip file you just downloaded
3.  Install the time lapse macro (known as a "Script" in CHDK)
In the CHDK/Scripts/ folder on the SD card, create a plain text document called "timelapse.bas" and put the text located here into that file, then save it.  This is the time lapse macro I use, and it's served me quite well so far.  Again, make sure the file name ends in .bas, not .txt.

4.  Eject the card from your computer, and install it in your camera
Make sure before you put it in the camera, you switch the lock tab on the card to the locked position!  From now on, if the card is locked, CHDK will load on your camera, and if it's unlocked, your standard Canon OS will load.

Step 5: Finding a Good Subject for Time Lapse

I've been playing around with this rig for the last several months.  I've had some successes, and some failures.  I've found a number of good subjects:
  • Clouds
  • Stars
  • Wide panoramas
  • Car trips
  • Plants growing
  • Flowers as they open and close
  • Fruit growing
  • Bugs of various sorts
  • Traffic
  • People/parties
  • The transition from day to night and night to day
I suspect having a small device to slowly pan the camera would enhance a lot of these effects as well.

One thing to take into account when choosing your subject is how much time you'll require to get a decent time lapse video.  For instance, when making a video of a car trip, you'll want to take pictures as fast as you can--usually about 1/second with this setup. However, when taking video of a plant growing, maybe one picture every five minutes over the course of a month might be required.  I found myself misjudging things a lot over the course of this project, and had to scrap more than one video.  Practice makes perfect, and trial and error is at the heart of this process!

A couple of problems I have found, but haven't been able to fix yet:
  • For anything lasting more than a day, artificial lighting is best.  The constant day/night shift is a bit difficult to deal with.  However, finding a dedicated area where the lights are always on and the curtains never opened is difficult.
  • Long term projects are sensitive to people interfering.  Apparently, a sign reading "DO NOT TOUCH!" isn't enough for some people, and one of my longest-term projects had to be totally scrapped.

Step 6: Building a Simple Water Resistant Enclosure

While definitely not a required step for everyone, I knew I'd be taking pictures outside in Eugene weather.  It rains here constantly, so I figured I'd better have a way to keep the camera outdoors without worrying about water damage.

I started with a good sized rubbermade food storage container and marked off where the camera sat inside of it when turned on.  Next, I drilled a hole in the opposite side and cut a section of the front off.  

I installed a piece of clear plexiglass in the hole I'd cut in the front and hot glued it in place.  I arranged it so that the camera, when turned one, would push the lens right up against the clear plastic.  Using silicone caulk inside and outside I sealed that off.

I pushed the power chord through the hole drilled in the back and then caulked that in place as well.  This setup worked out pretty well, allowing me to leave the camera outside for several days at a time without worrying about the weather.

Step 7: Taking a Time Lapse Video

Once you've found your subject, turn on your camera in picture mode.  I generally turn off the auto flash, as this often takes a while to recharge and annoys the neighbors if it's going all night.  Also, you can choose your base picture resolution at this point.

Next, hit the print/ALT button (generally up and to the right of the directional pad, and with a blue LED built into the button).  This activates the CHDK alternate buttons, allowing you to change parameters.  Hit menu, then select scripting parameters from the list.  Choose timelapse.bas, and change the timing parameters offered there.  

With the software you've already installed, you'll be able to set a delay before the first picture, and also force change the picture resolution.  Most importantly, you can choose the delay in between pictures, from tenths of a second to several minutes.

Once you've chosen the scripting parameters, hit the shutter button, leave your camera, and check back when you think it's going to be ready!

Step 8: Compiling Your Video

After the appropriate time has elapsed, gather up your camera, switch the SD card back to unlocked, and put it in your computer.  Pull the pictures off the card and delete them so you've got space to fill it up again!

Using simple video editing software like Windows Movie Maker, you'll be able to add the pictures to a video project, and then determine the duration of each picture.  I prefer using the version of Movie Maker included with Windows 7, it allows much finer control of the picture duration.  Generally, I take .05 seconds/picture as a default and then see if it needs to be slowed down or sped up.

Save the resulting video to your computer before making your final judgement--Movie Maker sometimes has difficulty showing the full frame rate before the whole video is processed.

Step 9: Some Videos I've Made

Here are a few videos I've made with this process.

First, the "Best Of" videos from before:

Next, the very first video I made, India and I playing Uno:

Here is the first cloud video I made, about 5 hours worth of me working on a Saturday:

A day in my back yard:

This one is me taking a walk in the wetlands at lunch:

Here is the first video I considered good, make sure you go full screen and full res for this one:

Step 10: Final Thoughts

I really loved this project.  In fact, I'm still working on it!  I've been making videos fairly constantly since I returned from Maker Faire last year, and I'll continue to do so . . . as long as the camera lasts, that is.  After taking around 3-4 hundred thousand pictures, it seems the autofocus is starting to go out.  I may have to retire this camera soon, though I think I may be able to revive it for an astronomy project I've got in mind!

Thank you for reading!  Please take a minute to rate, comment, and subscribe, I live for feedback from my readers!

If you should use this project to make your own time lapse video, post it in the comments below, and I'll send you a digital patch and !

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    27 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Very nice. I ended up using my GoPro (as that's what I already had) to complete my time lapse and one of these solar power kits from Cam-Do as power was not available. Worked well for me.


    4 years ago

    This tutorial was very interesting. Are you still doing time lapse photography? I destroyed a Canon T3i on a kayak trip last summer and I was mad because I wanted to do some time lapse with it. I like the idea of using an inexpensive camera for time lapse because I can't afford an expensive one at this point. I'm wondering which cameras you would recommend now, since it's been two years. Any updated information you could share?


    Reply 4 years ago

    To be honest, I haven't been doing much time lapse for a while. I don't have a specific camera recommendation, but I did put CHDK on a newer model Canon for a friend (can't remember the exact model). Basically, I just recommend finding the best used Canon you can afford, check that list of compatible models, and go for it. I'd love to see the results!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    This is a great tutorial but needs to be updated. Be aware that only newer PowerShot cameras can use a SD card higher than 4Gb easily. Read through this CHDK WIKI: The STICK program is here:

    I bought a A1000is model that is pre 2011 and I struggled for a while with my 32Gb SD card wondering why I could not use all of the space on it. There is a way to create a dual partition card that will allow this camera to use more than 4Gb for pics (I think) but am still trying to find out to do that. I am trying to time lapse a pool construction so the camera runs from sun up to sun down. I have had to sacrifice image quality/shots per minute to avoid the SD card from filling up all 4Gb available before the day is over.

    That being said this was a great Instructible and I am on day 2 of my first "real" time lapse capture. Thanks for creating this!


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Hi vorhauer,

    I did have a brief note in the "Gather Materials" step that you should get the biggest SD card your camera is compatible with.  However, after you comment came through I put a more prominent note in step 3.  

    My own camera can only handle 2 gigabyte SD cards!  It's a pretty severe limitation in some situations.

    I'd really love to see what you come up with, please share your time lapse videos when they're done!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    For mac users, there is a program called Stick that can set up the sd card for you. I haven't figured it all out yet, but I did get that far! ;-)


    7 years ago on Step 4

    Hey buddy, good tutorial;

    I had a question, how did you do the port cord setup?

    I mean, in the car. How'd you hook it up so it'd stay on,

    I'm lookin to get a camera as a backup like you said, so I'm still hunting,

    But I like the little plastic device you made,

    pretty sick,



    Reply 7 years ago on Step 4

    Thanks! Regarding the car trips, they are short enough that I just used batteries. No need to hook up any external power!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Very well done. When you shoot your next batch you might want to try to lower the ISO settings on the camera to reduce graininess. Here is a video I made a while back following your tutorial...I believe I had it running a picture a second or something around that interval:


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I forgot to mention I was using the same camera as worked great.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, that was the same camera? That looked absolutely great!

    The ISO vs. shutter speed thing is definitely tricky, especially with this camera--have you played around with night time photos at all?  That was where I had the most trouble.

    I see that I wrote that I'd send you "a digital patch and !" That ! was supposed to say a three month pro membership, so I'll send you a code for that. Thanks so much for posting this video, if you've got any more, please post them!

    As a special bonus, here's a super secret link to my latest time lapse video:


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Man, I love time lapse too. Your clips are great!!!
    I'm glad this is recent, I'm always going on YouTube, wanting to make a comment, then I see the video is like 3 years old and the author never responds any more.
    Anyway, enough of my soapbox, I'm currently trying to build a mechanical intervalometer, the things are soo expensive to buy. It's for my 16mm camera I think I'm gonna buy and actuator and a control box plus timer, like the MK111, actually I could go the easiest way and buy a 6rpm motor to hit the lever that takes a single frame shot but I don't know enough to tell if a 110 ac motor will work on a 120 house current.

    ANYWHOO, my question is how many frames per minute did you use in the clips on video #2, if variable per clip can you give me a couple of examples then I can watch it again to get a mental picture of what I want to try. I'm thinking every 10 seconds would be good, maybe slower depending on the subject and desired effect?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hi, I'm glad you liked the video! I had lots of fun making them, so it's always great to hear from people who liked the result.

    Regarding video #2, it was pretty various. For the part with the plants growing, it was something like 1 picture every 10 minutes over several weeks. For the driving part, that was the max shutter speed of my little canon, something like 1 picture every second or 1/2 second.

    What I found is that it's best to take as many pictures as you can fit in your camera's memory over the duration of the stop motion. You can always speed things up in post editing later!

    I would of course really love to see the results of your efforts! Please drop me a link when you've got some video!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Ah! But I'm dealing with a film camera, but I get your point. Thanks for the info. Thomas


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    P.S.: Sorry, movie film camera, a 16mm Bolex.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Oh, that changes things! I spent a lot of time playing with the final frame rate in the editing software afterwards, actually doing this on film will take a lot more finesse!