Timelapse on a Budget ~ 100 €

I always loved the look of Timelapse videos, as I found the ability to squeeze several hours of time into a short video interesting and beautiful at the same time. Until some time ago, timelapse photography would require the use of DSLR, mirrorless or some other camera, either with a built-in method to shoot an image every couple of seconds, or with an external intervalometer. It would also require a sturdy tripod, and for longer time lapses some way to extend and enhance the power supply, as the batteries in DSLRs or EVIL cameras are good for a couple of hundred shots on one charge (around 500 in the best case) and the entry-level cameras made by most manufacturers normally don’t have provisions for powering them externally while shooting. Workarounds and hacks, like 3D-printing external-powered dummy batteries that can provide continuous power are out there, but they still don’t remove the inconvenience of carrying a lot of relatively costly, bulk and heavy equipment. Also, the shutter on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will wear out. Manufacturer data ranges from 50.000 for consumer cameras to 250.000 shutter actions for professional gear. That´s nothing when you get heavily into timelapse, and shoot an image every second for 6 hours, you’d already be at 21.000 shutter releases (some cameras have an electronic shutter to avoid this effect, but this has other drawbacks, like increased sensor noise) .

The humble Sports Action Camera comes to the rescue, and, believe me, you don’t need to spend 400 € on the latest Go Pro and some accesories, just to find out after some tries that Timelapse videos just aren’t for you.

Here comes my list of ingredients:

  • Cheap (60€) Action cam. Pick one from this page, any of them will probably do fine, if you want to shot only Timelapse in nice and dry weather, or from the inside of your car, you don’t even need the waterproof housing, but it may as well be a plus. It´s included anyways.

I bought this one “offline” at Media Markt:

Camera

A word of warning on low-light performance: The cheapest cams on the market perform well in good (daylight) lighting conditions, but lose quality at night. Depending on what sort of timelapses you want to record, this could be an issue.

  • A small tripod like this one. This one has the flexible and padded pods that bend any way you want them, so you can easily twist it to attach to many different places. It’s optional, I started fixing my camera with Patafix, you know, the sticky stuff used to put stuff (posters, pictures…) on walls which costs 2 € a pack maximum, but the tripod will add flexibility.

  • IF you want to take time lapses that take longer than the battery life of your camera, get some generic external power bank. Most action cams will do anything from 60 to 90 minutes on a single charge, the typical battery capacity being around 750-1200 mAh, if one can believe the manufacturer’s claims. A cheap 3-5000 mAh power bank for a tenner will get you 5-8 hours, possibly longer, scale up as needed for longer time, when shooting timelapse from your home or a place where you have a wall socket, the recording time will only be limited by your patience.

  • A micro SD card. Action cams come without internal memory, get the largest size your camera can support, check the documentation. Don´t be cheap, get a couple of them to save frustration if you´re out there taking a time lapse of a wonderful sunset, and one of your cards suddenly stops working. Get at least Class 10 cards, class 3 or 4 are not suitable for action cams.

So, with all this, we´ve reached our budget of around 110 €. This is really all you will need, any frills and bells and whistles are optional.

A quick introduction:

Timelapse is the opposite of Slow Motion. Slow motion stretches a movement in time, by recording more images per second than the normal frame rate of a video, so movement in the video is slowed down and takes longer, Timelapse is shooting only one image every 0,5, 1, 5, 10, or how ever many seconds so that when played back at the normal frame rate, time is compressed. In the times before advanced digital cameras, this was achieved by taking many, many individual photos at a constant interval with a digital camera, well-mounted on a tripod, and then assembling the individual pictures into a movie with software. More modern cameras already have functions for a time-lapse, that will take the individual pictures and some of them will even produce the ready-made video you can download straight to your PC. Consumer cameras are normaly limited to a maximum of 999 pictures to assemble a time-lapse. At 2 images per second and an interval of 0,5 seconds and a frame rate of 30 fps for the finished video, that would give you a meager 16,5 seconds of video, 33 seconds at 1 second interval, something over a minute at 2 second interval, and so on.

Actions cams don´t have this limitation. The ones having the Timelapse function will happyly shoot and assemble a video of any lenght at the interval once it´s been set. Assuming a frame rate of 30 fps for the finished video, here is a table with some data on the intervals my camera has:

Interval Real time for 1 second of video Real time for 1 min of video Time Compression Recommended use
0,5 s 15 s 15 m 15:1 Driving, crawling animals…
1 s 30 s 30 m 30:1 Baking, cooking, clocks, manual work, people
2 s 60 s 60 m (1 hour) 60:1 Fast clouds, sports, traffic, crowds
5 s 150 s 150 m (2h 30m) 150:1 Normal clouds, sunset and -rise
10 s 300 s (5 min) 300 m (5 h) 300:1 Sunrise and -set, slow clouds
30 s 900 s (15 min) 900 m (15 h) 900:1 Path of the sun, moon, flowers opening…
60 s 1800 s (30 min) 1800 m (30 h) 1800:1 Plant growth, change between day and night…)

This table has been inspired by the excellent infographic on this page. He can´t be all that serious when he said to do timelapses for office workers at 60 seconds interval. We don´t move that slowly, not even in my office.

These values are, of course, starting points which I hope will be useful. If in doubt, always shoot at the shorter interval, you can always fix that later accelerating the video in most (even free) video editing software, whereas slowing a video that was recorded too fast down will get you a bumpy video without that nice “flowing” motion.

Also, as you can see, when shooting at longer intervals we will run into the limitations of our camera’s internal battery, designed to last 60 or 90 minutes very soon. When setting the interval at 0,5 seconds, our battery will be drained after recording a video roughly 4 to 6 minutes in lenght, only half of that at 1 second, and so on. Some cameras will consume less in Timelapse mode, some others won´t so test it out at home before going out on important recordings, so power conservation or external power is quite important. Switch off the display and WiFi on your action cam, disable any status indicator LEDs and use an external power source (Powerbank) whenever possible.

Getting it on:

  • Get your ass out of that chair. Yes, I know you like sitting there, in front of the computer or on the couch with a beer in your hand, but grab your gear, go outside and find a worthwhile motive for your first timelapse. Good examples may be:

    • A busy street in town, be it with cars or people
    • Moving clouds on a clear day without many of them
    • Storm clouds
    • A harbour bustling with boats and ships
    • A sunset or sunrise by the sea or ober the mountains
    • A busy street at night
  • Set your action cam on the tripod or on a very steady location. Make sure the camera can´t move at all when filming a static scene (now, filming traffic from inside your car is a whole different story…) and make sure it can´t move or be knocked over.

  • Set the camera to one of the suggested intervals. I suggest you start with 0,5 seconds or 1 second, the impatient will see results quicker, and as I said, you can always speed up the playback later in software to create a fastar video. Also, don´t forget to turn the display off or set it to the shortest timeout in your camera menu

  • Start your timelapse. Leave it some time, remember, 15 seconds of recording time will only be one second of finished video at 0,5 seconds interval.

  • When done, enyoy your creation. Share it proudly on your video platform of choice, show it around to your friends, whatever you like.

  • Start over, keep trying stuff and have fun!

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Volker Kerkhoff avatar
About Volker Kerkhoff
Just another DevOps Engineer. Because international IT Mystery man isn´t a job description
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