I’ve never attempted a long construction project time-lapse, but it’s one of the questions I’m asked the most. I’ve found a few ways others have approached this challenge and included videos to show the final results.
Key elements of making your own setup include access to reliable power, protecting against changing weather, putting your camera in a good vantage point that still affords access, and finding a way to control the camera.
The Cheap and Easy Way
– UPDATE: I didn’t mention the Brinno camera system in my original post but more readers buy it after reading this than Webscapes. I haven’t tried either system so I’d love to get feedback if you purchase either camera. And a big “Thanks!” to those who support this website by using the Amazon affiliate links. –
When I get an email about a month or year-long construction project, the person usually has a project ready to go but no real sense of how to begin photographing it. After spending some time researching this, I’ve decided buying a purpose-built housed camera is the easiest and most reliable method. Wingscapes, a company best known for making cameras to capture birds and plants, has a product called TimelapseCam 8.0 that sells for $100 on Amazon and the Wingscapes website.
This is an eight megapixal camera housed in a sealed unit and seems easy enough to use. No one’s going to mistake your final video for art, but this might be the way to go if you’re only interested in capturing the build for posterity. At $100 each, you could probably afford a multi-camera setup to ease your worries of camera failure or simply record the project from different angles. The official product video is below, but you can see a cloud time-lapse here and another sky time-lapse here that were made with one of these.
You’ll need to put the final photos into a video using any of the free methods mentioned on this website. I’d also recommend finding a deflicker filter such as the free one for VirtualDub. Please let me know if you have had any experience with these cameras.
For the Person with Money
While there are plenty of manufacturers of time-lapse cameras, EarthCam is one of the more popular companies. They have cameras on some of the best known construction sites, including the new Oakland span of the Bay Bridge where you can see a live shot or view the the entire project to date as a three and a half minute time-lapse.
They don’t have prices listed (which is never a good sign), so you’ll have to contact them if you’re interested. What you get for your money is a high quality camera in a weather resistant housing (some even have windshield wipers), software to control it, internet access, and peace of mind.
The Hard Core, Old School Way
Here’s the setup: A few months after 9/11, someone comes to you and says, “I want you to record the demolition and construction of the buildings at this site over the next ten (now fifteen) years. You have money, you have expertise, and you have access to surrounding buildings’ rooftops whenever you need.” Project Rebirth had just this scenario and decided to use 35mm film cameras from the 1950s in custom made boxes. The cameras are tapped into the buildings’ power supplies and have batteries as backup. Tom Lappin, the Director of Photography, gives a pretty thorough description of his setup in the video below.
Make Your Own
I’ve never made anything like this, but I’d start by getting a decent point and shoot camera because they have fewer moving parts. I’d then hook it to a netbook and run a cheap or free tethering program. I’d put both in a sturdy box, paint the inside matte black, and run a power strip along one side to power everything. Then I’d find a way to add a heater and vent to prevent condensation. In hotter climates, I’d also include some type of cooling device on a thermostat. I’d put a plexiglass window on the front at a 45 degree angle to prevent too much rain from interfering with the pictures. Finally, I’d find a safe spot, preferably with wifi, where I could put the box. I think I could finish the whole unit for under $1000.
Again, I want to say I’ve never done anything like this and only offer these tips as suggestions. For more in-depth discussions from people who know, check out this tutorial by Ted Kinsman. Kinsman took down this post for a while a couple of years ago because he was getting too many requests for information, so I’m glad to see it’s back up. And, as always, you can turn to the Timescapes forum and search for construction techniques or specifics such as powering your unit in the field.
If I missed anything or if you have your own construction time-lapses, please post them in the comments.