Shooting time-lapse video?
August 21, 2006 1:05 AM   Subscribe

I want to shoot some time-lapse video. No video camera or editing software purchased yet.

I want to shoot a couple of time-lapse videos. Specifically two commonly seen shots: a sunset-to-sunrise progression in a static location, and one of those driving-in-a-car down the open highway shots.

I haven't purchased (and have never owned) a videocamera, though of course I've used several before, nor do I own yet what I think will be my editing platform (a MacPro desktop running Final Cut Express HD). When I do go to the pull the trigger on a video camera, I'm kinda eyeing one of the consumer-grade HD-capable models from Sony. I expect I will need a crap-ton of hard drive space as well, especially if I'm shooting HD.

Anyway, the main question is: how does one shoot time-lapse video? Is it a function of the camera, or is it done via software in post-processing?

I understand that the most popular format for digital video is tape-based MiniDV, which brings me to my first quandary: can you capture an entire 12-20 hour sequence onto a single tape? Or do you have to bite the bullet and do a tape change or two midway through the shoot?

Or do most/all cameras have a special mode that will only capture 1 frame every x seconds, or a "slow-motion" record that would play back the video in hyperspeed when watched at regular speed?

I imagine it's preferable to use AC power for the camera to avoid battery issues.

If it's better (or preferred for practicality) to achieve time-lapse effects with software, can most of the major editing packages create the effect easily, or is there a special niche software application designed for this purpose?

Any other caveats I should be aware of in shooting time-lapse? (other than obvious ones like use a tripod, don't move the camera, and expect lighting conditions to change.)

Any hardware/software purchasing tips differing from my proposed setup (a Sony HD video camera and a MacPro running Final Cut Express HD) are welcome.
posted by robbie01 to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Or do most/all cameras have a special mode that will only capture 1 frame every x seconds?

Yes. Or it may not be 1 single frame, but 1 second or something. Most have some sort of variable on the duration as well, capturing y frames every x seconds.

Any other caveats I should be aware of in shooting time-lapse?

If you're out in public and have to sit with your camera, it's really really boring. Make sure to have someone who can watch it when you need a bathroom break.
posted by dogwalker at 1:21 AM on August 21, 2006

You should check out Boinx's iStopMotion program, if just to get a feel for how they do it. I've made a few time-lapse videos and have used a few techniques:
- Shoot regular DV on camcorder to tape, select every Nth frame to make resulting movie
- Use DV camera or iSight in pass-through and have a program like iStopMotion only capture every Nth frame
- Use a digital still camera and remotely command it every N seconds to take a picture and save it to the hard drive.

The first method is the easiest because it requires no extra computer to lug around. Don't worry about the time it takes to swap tapes. For most time-lapse frame rates (1 frame every minute, say), you won't notice or may not even capture a tape swap. I believe iStopMotion is smart enough to ' frames from a DV stream so you don't have to import all the video to your computer first.

The last method gives you HD-quality movies cheaply ($200 for digicam), but is the most laborious and hacky. Only a few digicams are remotely commandable.
posted by todbot at 1:29 AM on August 21, 2006

that "to ' frames" is supposed to be "to skip frames". oops
posted by todbot at 1:31 AM on August 21, 2006

This seems like overkill. When I did this, I used a Canon digital camera, controlled by the Cam4you freeware application (the camera was tethered to and controlled from the computer). The resulting images I stitched together with JPGVideo (er, PC-only, I guess, but no doubt there're similar things for apples). Pretty simple. This gets you higher-than-HD quality-- for normal video you could probably get away with a webcam and a very simple webcam program.

A quick Google search came across this.

Here's the video I made. My main limitation was battery life-- AC adaptor is definitely required.
posted by alexei at 1:33 AM on August 21, 2006

Digital camera, taking stills once a minute.
Quicktime pro, to easily process the stills into a video.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:36 AM on August 21, 2006

Thanks for the tips so far. I should mention that I'll be purchasing a (probably HD) video camera regardless for use outside this project. I also don't own a still digital camera (yeah, I'm the one) which is why I was looking to use a video camera for this project.
posted by robbie01 at 1:43 AM on August 21, 2006

Before you go and spend $5000 on equipment, you might try shooting some tests with a digital still camera. We shot a quick test a few months ago with some stuff we just had lying around. Find someone who has one of those Canon cameras with the IR remote or that allows triggering over the data cable. Put a gig card in it and you'll be able to get 500 4 megapixel frames which can be cropped/downsampled to whatever HD resolution you want. Why bother with a minidv cam when you can shoot HD with a 4 year old point and shoot? Quicktime Pro (and I'm sure all sorts of other software) will take the photos just as they are straight from the camera and make a movie out of them.
posted by iloveit at 2:26 AM on August 21, 2006

If you're controlling a cideo camera from software, be aware that many cameras will drop into sleep mode at inconvenient times (like in the middle of a time lapse shoot). Older Sony cameras have this feature, but it could be disabled by opening the tape drive (which has the side effect of leaving that exposed to the elements for your shoot).
posted by plinth at 3:41 AM on August 21, 2006

The second "time lapse" (in a car), realistically prohibits computer use (as a capture device). A still camera will 'fall asleep", but would be a better choice.

You're going to want to make sure your camera has the ability to shoot time lapse.
This will be (based on what you asked) a DV or HDV camera that shoots 1 frame per minute (or so.) Some cameras have the ability for you to set this interval. Many cameras on the market do not have the ability to work time lapse at all, so check first.

The only HD consumer models are HDV - that's HD on a DV tape, at DV storage sizes (25mb/sec, 3.9M/sec, or approx 5 min/gig, or 12 gig to the hour.) Yup, the consumer HD format is so compressed, that it uses the same storage rates as DV.

What you don't want to do is capture 24 hours and time lapse it in post.
Here's why:
You'll have to capture 200+ gigs of footage....for something that will be less than 1/9000th of that size (1 frame a min is reduced by 30fps and 60 sec to the min.) And it'll take forever.

I suspect, you'll still have some post work to do.
HDV is a long gop MPEG-2 data stream. For it to build a frame, (simplifying), it requires the surrounding frames to make this happen (If you need details, ask.) The post work will be the question on the quality if you cut it back to the camera.

I'd wanna work in FCP and recreate this as completely uncompressed HD (or as DVCPRO HD), which would be more robust of a format (in post.)

I'd be very curious about how/if HDV has this ability - it might take 3-4 seconds on each exposure. (I'm avoiding the discussion of Long GOP MPEGs)
posted by filmgeek at 4:55 AM on August 21, 2006

filmgeek: to my understanding, yes, that's how they do it -- they wake up, shoot a few seconds, then go back to sleep. So if you want single frames, you do have to do *some* post... but not 200GB worth.

And yes, only certain (typically upscale) models do this.
posted by baylink at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2006

I made this video using the burst feature on my digital SLR, and iMovie. (The film plays back fast because I was snapping a ton of photos at a time.) Photojojo had a little tutorial on making stop motion movies, which is why I made my little clip in the first place.
posted by chunking express at 7:06 AM on August 21, 2006

I second iStopMotion. A quality program, and very nice if you start dabbling in stop-motion animation as well. Additionally, your video camera doesn't need to be able to do anything special beyond not blanking out after being on for a while [which you can generally set models to do.] Essentially, you attach your camera to the laptop via USB/whatever, your camera sends a continuous feed to the computer, but iStopMotion only accepts frames every n seconds [or, if you're doing animation, whenever you tell it to take a frame.] If you have [or can borrow] a laptop, you could easily run iStopMotion on it for the car shots and export the final .dv file to your desktop if further editing is needed.

On the other hand: your setup sounds good for video-editing in general, but are you planning to do anything other than shoot a few time-lapse videos? That's a lot of expensive equipment. Are you likely to do other sorts of video work, or will it mostly be time-lapse? If you have no real intention to do really complicated editing [video from a zillion sources with lots of effects and fades over it], you could go for a MacBook Pro laptop with a large hard drive and lots of memory - it'll certainly be sufficient for editing stop-motion videos, and it'll be portable enough for you to use iStopMotion in odd places. [I use my Powerbook for this, with iStopMotion to take the video and Final Cut Pro to polish it up, though I do editing for long/complicated/non-time-lapse videos on a desktop.]
posted by ubersturm at 7:11 AM on August 21, 2006

I echo the responses with a digital still camera. The quality will be better and you can go extremely low tech by just setting it up on a tripod and coming by to power the camera up and take a snap every half hour or so.

I've done something similar with mine by taking pictures of an office building under construction. I have taped marks on the window sill where I can consistently set up the tripod and always set the zoom to wide. Every couple days I take a picture usually with different lighting. Over the space of several months I get quite an interesting progression. Then I use Fireworks to piece them together into an animated GIF. It's just a short movie and not cinema quality but is interesting.
posted by JJ86 at 7:16 AM on August 21, 2006

I've made time-lapse movies using both Nikon Camera Capture on OSX, and gphoto on linux. Using a digital still camera was really quite easy, and concatenating the frames was trivial. (The only trick with gphoto was setting the camera to manual focus, or else it would die when trying to take the picture if it was unable to focus.)
posted by headlessagnew at 7:37 AM on August 21, 2006

Higher-end canon stills (not necessarily DSLRs, but the 'prosumer models') have a built in "intervalometer" which handles all of this, you just set the time interval and it wakes up, focuses and shoots and goes back to sleep for you. No computer or software necessary.
posted by neustile at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2006

To pick up a point that a couple people glossed over: the quality of a digital still camera will be *incredibly* better than even the most expensive DV cam, if for no reason other than that the lens you can get get on a still cam (like the 62mm lens on my Olympus E-10, for which I paid $330 used) will cost you upwards of $5k for on a video camera... and you're *still* stuck with the lower pixel count, by a factor of 2 or 3.

If you shoot your intervals with a still, you can actually *pan across them*, if you like, and still maintain NTSC, if not HD res.
posted by baylink at 8:19 AM on August 21, 2006

filmgeek writes "A still camera will 'fall asleep", but would be a better choice."

Many more pro cameras like Nikon DSLRs don't fall asleep like this, they are always on.

Anyone know of a free remote software like the cam4you for Nikon DLSRs?
posted by Mitheral at 9:06 AM on August 21, 2006

For the amount you are spending you could hire a proffesional video crew to shoot it for you.
posted by ryanissuper at 10:24 AM on August 21, 2006

You guys are starting to talk me into a still camera. But just to be clear: these are just the first two projects I would use a video camera and the editing hardware for. I'm not buying them JUST for this project, and they will continue to be used once the project is finished. I don't have THAT much disposable income ;)
posted by wubbie at 12:00 PM on August 21, 2006

Get a copy of EvoCam. It can do time lapse Quicktime videos using nothing more than an iSight. it works pretty good - I have a sunrise -> sunset that I took from the 25th floor of an office building in San Francisco. Fog over the Golden Gate Bridge and everything. I'll bookmark this thread and post a copy of the video if I can find it so you can see what you get out of it.

but you don't need to go too hog wild with software just yet. :)
posted by drstein at 4:30 PM on August 21, 2006

Actually, mitheral, baylink - I was reading the post about what the poster asked. Not a still cam. I've used a sony dvx1000 to do time lapse before.
posted by filmgeek at 9:58 PM on August 21, 2006

I think the still camera is the best route, most cameras are larger than HD so you can have a bit of leeway if you want to zoom, rotate, etc. A friend of mine has done quite a bit of timelapse with his still camera and he uses this. Its quite flexible to shoot intervals as low as fractions of a second. Some of his timelaspses have been linked here before.
posted by phirleh at 7:55 AM on August 22, 2006

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