Everything You Need to Know About Intervalometers

Settings

Even though intervalometers differ in look and function, they all have some similar elements. Here’s a breakdown of the settings on the intervalometer I use with my Canon 60D. This is a NEEWER Canon RS-60E3 and retails for about $14 on Amazon. It’s compatible with a lot of different makes and models of cameras. Check the Amazon description for a partial list. Click the photo above for a larger version.

Description of Settings:

Delay – This adjusts the time between pressing “start” and the first photo.  I keep it at three seconds to give the camera enough time to stabilize after pushing the button.

Long – This affects how long the shutter remains open.  This setting’s only relevant if you’re shooting in bulb mode.

Interval – How long between shutter clicks.

N (Number) – The total number of shots.  It’s tempting to set it to the 399 max but I’d recommend setting it to infinity in case you decide to prolong your shoot after you start.

Sound – For goodness sake, set this to mute.  Two hours of evenly spaced beeps is enough to drive a man insane.


What’s an Intervalometer?

An intervalometer is an external camera attachment that takes photos at set intervals. These devices have gone by different names, but intervalometer seems to have stuck now that they’ve become more popular for time-lapse. Sometimes they’re simply referred to as timers, but I’ll use the first term to avoid confusion.

An intervalometer is usually a handheld device with a long cord that plugs into a camera’s auxiliary port. It looks and works very similar to a remote trigger release.

The type of intervalometer you’ll need depends on your type of camera. A quick search on Amazon.com or another shopping website should offer compatibility lists and user testimonials.

Because these devices weren’t popular until very recently, the price was always surprisingly high. Now, however, more manufacturers have entered the market and the price for an intervaolmeter has dropped to easily affordable levels. I can report no difference in function or quality from the cheap model I use and the $125 model I used to rent.

Intervalometer Limitations

A common setting among intervalometers is total number of exposures. It can be tempting to use this setting if you know how many photos you want to take. For example, if I want to make a ten second clip at 24fps, I know I’ll need at least 240 photos. The problem with setting your intervalometer to 240 or even 300 is you might miss out on unexpected events. One of the wonderful things about time-lapse is catching the unexpected. Some of my favorite videos were made by extending a shoot because something unique happened such as birds landing in a tree or the moon finally appearing from behind clouds. By presetting the total number of exposures, you risk losing out on these opportunities as you fumble with the intervalometer once the sequence ends.

Another problem is the intervalometer doesn’t get feedback from the camera and can’t make adjustments. If you set it to trigger the camera every two seconds, it will do just that, even if you’ve set the camera for ten second exposures. In this case, you’d want to set the frequency to twelve seconds if you want a two second gap.

There’s also a minimum time between photos, usually about one second. This might not seem like a big deal if you’re photographing clouds, but there are plenty of times where one second between shots is too long. On these occasions, an acceptable workaround is setting your camera to slow continuous mode and simply locking down the manual trigger button. If you want three exposures per second, set your camera to a fixed shutter speed of around 1/30. For this to work, you’ll need a camera that can take bursts for three hundred exposures and a memory card that can accept data at a high rate.  I use the SanDisk Extreme 32GB and have had good results.  To extend the length of each shot, consider using an ND filter or shooting at night in order to get exposures at least a couple seconds long.

Software and Firmware

A few years ago, I was playing with my Canon Powershot S3 IS when I found a menu setting for timed shots. The camera was programmed to take pictures at a minimum of one minute apart and a maximum of one hundred exposures.

This type of program built into the camera is called firmware. Some cameras have a rudimentary intervalometer built into their programming but it’s often far less than what’s needed for high quality time-lapses. Thankfully for me, I discovered that many Canon Powershot cameras can take an open source firmware add-on that allows many more options for time-lapse and will even allow you to shoot in RAW and for longer than the camera’s native programming. This software is called CHDK for “Canon Hacker’s Development Kit” and you can find a link to step-by-step installation instructions on my blog. CHDK is the only firmware hack for time-lapse I know of, but expect intervalometers to become a standard feature as people realize how easy and fun time-lapse can be.

Mechanical

There are dozens of “maker” videos on the web showing how to make a mechanical intervalometer out of everything from pieces of wood to Lego sets. A mechanical intervalometer physically presses the shutter button at intervals. Because these are often complicated and only made to fit one particular brand of camera, they’re less useful than the other intervalometers mentioned. A device with a motor that presses a button will also cause at least a small amount of camera shake. For these reason, I’d only recommend attempting a mechanical intervalometer if there are no other options available for your camera.


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