While we have written on the challenges of using a DIY construction camera for large construction projects, we know that it doesn’t always make sense to purchase a full construction camera solution for every project. When it comes to small projects — whether it’s renovating a kitchen or building a new deck — almost anyone can document their experience with a time-lapse video using budget-friendly equipment, planning, and a little arithmetic. This article details what you should keep in mind and what investment decisions you’ll want to make so your time-lapse video will be polished and worth sharing.
What you’ll need.
First, you need to determine what equipment you want to use. I recommend using an SLR camera, as these provide higher quality pictures and color than a typical point-and-shoot smartphone camera. They’re also relatively affordable and provide a great value for the price point.
Check out the SLR.
Second, you’ll want to use a basic tripod. Be sure you place it in a stable location where it won’t rock or vibrate and the camera won’t shift between shots. Consistent photos make for better time-lapses.
Finally, you’ll need a piece of equipment that automatically tells the camera to take multiple pictures. An intervalometer can be programmed to make the camera take pictures at whichever interval you set (hence the name). Again, consistency is key here; automating the intervals at which your photos are taken will ensure an even pace throughout the time-lapse.
Here’s an intervalometer we recommend.
Setting up for the best shots possible.
Many time-lapse professionals will use a time-lapse dolly to pan the camera and add a swooping touch. These motorized dollies tend to be expensive and can come with a price tag of up to a thousand dollars. It probably doesn’t make sense to make that kind of investment if you’re documenting, say, a kitchen renovation.
Luckily, there is at least one budget-friendly alternative for smaller projects. You can achieve a similar panning effect with strategic placement of the camera. You’ll want to position the camera with enough distance from the construction project so that you can easily capture the whole project while including some extra space on all four sides. Ideally, the project work should be 80% of the image’s main focus.
It seems counter-intuitive to place the camera further from the project. One might be concerned about being unable to capture the same level of detail and getting lower image quality. This is where the high resolution of an SLR camera becomes crucial. For example, the Canon EOS Rebel T5 (an entry-level SLR camera) will take an 18-megapixel image that is 5184 pixels x 3456 pixels. Even if you were to export an image at the upper end of the high-definition video (1920 x 1080) it would still use only half the pixels that a digital camera records.
In addition to framing, another factor to consider when positioning your camera is lighting. If the project you’re capturing is outdoors, the sun should ideally be behind the camera. So in the northern hemisphere, that means the camera should be pointing north. If that isn’t possible, try to at least avoid shooting directly into the sun. This may mean that you can only work on the project in the morning or afternoon, but ultimately your time-lapse video will look significantly better with proper lighting.
Another consideration when determining your camera placement is perspective. You’ll need to make sure that the camera will continue to have an unobstructed view of the project as you work towards completion. Make sure that early phases of the project or project materials, such as wood or debris, won’t hinder or block the image.
The logistics: Image storage and interval timing.
Once you have determined the best mounting location for your camera, you’ll need to do some basic math. You should enter the project with an idea of how many images you want to take. For a 60-90 second time-lapse, a safe number range to work with is 2,000 – 4,000 images. If you have over 2,000 images, you can delete the less ideal images and still be able to produce a high-quality video at 24 frames per second. Note: Make sure the SD card in your camera has the capacity to store the desired amount of images. We recommend a 25% buffer between the size of the images you’ll need to store and the card’s capacity.
Refer to this chart to see how much you can safely store on a typical SD card.
Next, it’s important to figure out at what interval you need to set the intervalometer. Take the number of seconds in the project’s duration (there are 3,600 seconds in an hour), then divide those seconds by the number of photos you want to take.
For example, say I anticipate that demolishing an old porch, cleaning it up, laying the new foundation, building a new deck, and staining it will take 40 hours. I would like to take 3,000 photos of the project. Using the formula below, I determine the intervalometer needs to trigger the camera to take a photo every 48 seconds:
(40 hours x 3,600 seconds)/3,000 photos = 48-second interval
Putting it all together.
You’re finally ready to start recording your time-lapse! Before you begin your construction project, power up the camera and see that everything is working properly. Ensure that you hear the camera shutter clicking and can see it taking pictures at the interval programmed on your intervalometer.
Turn the camera on for the start and duration of your work, then turn the camera off at the end of the workday. Charge the battery each night to prevent the camera from running out of power while you’re recording the project. By following these steps, you will be on the way to a great time-lapse video.