Time-lapse camera automation
April 1, 2013 3:17 PM   Subscribe

What's the easiest way to set up a time-lapse camera that takes a picture at regular intervals over the course of many months (and possibly years)?

I just moved into a new office building, and a new one is being built across the street that will be over 20 stories tall. This building will take awhile to complete, and I think a time-lapse would be cool to put together. I have a pretty good vantage point to take photos from, but I don't know what I'll need! I'm willing to buy a cheap digital camera and a tripod (suggestions welcome), but don't know how to automate this process so it will just take photos at a given interval.

So I'm looking for suggestions on equipment to buy (on the cheap side of things - I don't have a set budget but I'd prefer not to spend more than a couple hundred bucks max), the frequency of pictures I should be taking for this project, the software I should use to put this all together (I have access to both OSX and Windows 7) and anything that I may be forgetting. I also have a Raspberri Pi if making use of that makes anything easier. Thanks!
posted by antonymous to Technology (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you want (and have an iPhone), there's an app that can help you out.
posted by xingcat at 3:21 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

One app to take a look at for OSX is Gawker, which is free and lets you create time-lapse movies pretty easily.
posted by jquinby at 3:22 PM on April 1, 2013

I did this with ZoneMinder on Linux once. Just a cheap webcam and some configuration. It was kind of a pain to set up, but once it was working it did the job. But this was just over a weekend; I can't vouch for how it would work over months. Seems like it would be a good job for the Raspberry Pi.

Don't forget: aim the camera accounting for the the final height of the building! You'll be annoyed if halfway through the project you realize that the building is rising out of frame. When setting up the camera, make note of some landmarks in the four corners of the view that you choose, so that you can re-setup the camera if it gets moved. Also, make sure to take more images than you think you'll want. If you want to do an image an hour, take them every 30 minutes so you'll have spares.
posted by gjc at 3:26 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also - Picasa has the ability to make time-lapse movies from a set of photos. I used the feature to knit together a series of pictures I did with a DSLR camera I had, and it was dead simple.
posted by jquinby at 3:29 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd get a cheap used dSLR and an intervalometer. The intervalometer can is like a remote shutter release that has a timer in it. You can set them to go off as many times, and at whatever frequency, you like.

I bought an intervalometer for a nice Canon dSLR for something like $20 shipped from HK.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:29 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

CHDK runs on a lot of Canon cameras, has a bunch of ways to tweak timelapse pictures.

But I also like gjc's suggestion: I recently set up a Raspberry Pi with a webcam, I think I used fswebcam (system's at home, that computer isn't on right now), a cron job to hit that every n minutes and dump the image to disk sounds like it'd be perfect.

And ffmpeg will make quick work of turning a directory full of images into a movie.
posted by straw at 3:35 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding CHDK. I have it running on a $100 Canon and it works great. You can get an AC power kit for most Canon P&S cameras for less than $50 on eBay so you need not worry about batteries. You may want to plug it in to a cheap UPS so it won't stop if the power goes out.

I had problems with smartphone intervalometers, but I was taking a picture every 5 seconds, not every 1,800 seconds.
posted by wierdo at 4:08 PM on April 1, 2013

Thanks for the advice on projecting the final height of the building - the window I can see this from is at about half the elevation of the finished building so that might be an issue. Because it's directly across the street it's going to be tricky to get it all in perspective.

I like the idea of a simple webcam and my Pi - I could hook it up to a network and ssh in if I need to monitor the quality/frequency of the photos. I can imagine wanting to put together some shorter timelapses of a single day/week/month's worth of work...the only thing I don't like about this idea is that it ties up my Pi for the indefinite future, but I suppose I could use an excuse to buy a second one.

CHDK also seems right up my alley too - I'm definitely going to look into that more before making a final decision. Thanks so far, keep the suggestions and advice coming!
posted by antonymous at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2013

.the only thing I don't like about this idea is that it ties up my Pi for the indefinite future, but I suppose I could use an excuse to buy a second one.

What about installing debian on an old desktop or laptop and using that to run the camera?
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:28 PM on April 1, 2013

Probably overkill but this Time Lapse Pi rig is a great project to play around with.
posted by brilliantmistake at 1:51 AM on April 2, 2013

Your biggest problem is keeping the camera stable for a year. Build a system that hopefully you don't have to touch, and if you do have to touch it you don't have to move the camera, and if you do have to move the camera you have some way to realign it.

I'd say a wireless webcam would be your best option. Mount it on a tripod, or at least a stable bolt. A wired camera hooked to a Pi should work too. CHDK is a great hack, but I wouldn't want to rely on a little camera operating without intervention for a year or more.
posted by Nelson at 8:25 AM on April 2, 2013

What about a GoPro? Put it in once-every-ten-seconds exposure mode, stick it on a window frame, plug in a USB power supply, and leave it to run.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:56 AM on April 2, 2013

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