What’s the Best DSLR Camera for Long-Term Construction Timelapse?

(Or, why you don’t need a Nikon D850!)

Almost daily we have conversations with photographers about what camera is best for long-term construction timelapse.

The great advantage of our construction timelapse equipment, the photoSentinel Mach II, is that you, the photographer, can control the quality of the photos by choosing your own camera and lens.

Of course, everyone wants the best quality photos, so does that mean you should use your Canon 5D Mark IV with L-series glass, or a Nikon D850 with a Sigma Art Series lens?

No, for a number of reasons.

Watch the video below and read on to learn what to consider when choosing the best camera (and lens) for your long-term construction timelapse project.

1. The highest quality cameras come with the highest price tags

It is an expensive business decision to lock up a costly, high-end camera in a timelapse box for a two year timelapse.

If you’re taking photos every 15 minutes, eight hours a day, five days a week over two years, you will have triggered the camera less than 17,000 times.

That’s hardly enough usage or, to put it in business terms, not enough ROI, for a high quality camera that may be obsolete by the time you finish the project.

Ultimately though, this is guided by your budget, or what you’re able to charge your client. If the client is happy to pay $4000 more for a better camera and lens, then great!

In our experience though, people are more likely to be trying to keep costs down, and the choice of camera and lens is a good place to cut out some dollars.

2. You’re not going to use 99.9% of the features you pay for

Every now and then, a camera comes along that changes the industry landscape.

If you’ve been a professional photographer for a while, you can probably remember the buzz around the likes of Canon 5D Mark II, the Sony a7R and a7S, and, more recently, the Nikon D850.

These are the sorts of cameras that see die-hard fanboys of one brand throw their entire kit up for sale on Facebook and jump ship for the radically better technology.

But, for the most part, each new camera is better only by increments: a few more auto-focus points, an extra frame per second continuous shooting, a little more weatherproofing.

And for the most part, these features bring little to no benefit for long-term timelapse.

As far as shoot requirements go, long-term timelapse is pretty boring – there’s no requirement for fast auto-focus, an extra couple of frames per second continuous shooting, or slow motion video.

You don’t want to pay more money for more features when you won’t actually be using those features.

There are, of course, a number of exceptions to this principle.

Most notably, if your client wants an 8K video, then you’ll have to use a camera with a high enough resolution to capture it.

Importance of Dynamic Range for Construction Timelapse

Some shooters also insist on the usefulness of higher dynamic range to help decrease flicker in the final timelapse video.

For me, the jury is still out on how important this is.

The differences in lighting conditions across a long-term timelapse sequence are extreme, and a higher dynamic range will only help so much before you need to resort to other measures like frame-blending.

And, of course, a more expensive camera doesn’t guarantee greater dynamic range; the US$1200 Nikon D7200, for example, has a full stop greater dynamic range than the US$3500 Canon 5D Mark IV.

3. Entry-level DSLRs still produce really high quality images

You don’t need the best quality camera to capture great photos.

As DigitalRev TV perfectly demonstrated in their “Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera” Series, it’s not an expensive camera that makes someone a photographer.

We can get so used to shooting large raw photos with our expensive fullframe and L-series setups, that we forget a standard JPEG shot on an entry-level DSLR can still be an amazing photo.

In terms of resolution, all the entry-level DSLRs are now at least 24MP, which gives you more than enough pixels to play with to generate 4K video.

It helps to remember also that what is standard now in the entry-level cameras, is often what was ground-breaking in the flagship cameras only a few years ago.

Camera technology evolves super fast and, more often than not, doesn’t take that long to get passed down the chain to the cheaper cameras.

Just look at how much of what was revolutionary with the Sony a7R III and the Sony a9 was passed then down to the much cheaper Sony a7 III, which was released less than twelve months later.

4. For long-term timelapse, post-production is much more important

One of the best construction timelapses I’ve seen was compiled from webcams that were originally set up without construction time-lapse in mind.

The timelapse was engaging because the creative post-production made it dynamic and interesting.

Would it have looked even better if it had been shot at a higher resolution with a better sensor?

Of course.

But after watching countless construction time-lapses, I can assure you a well-edited and engaging low-res timelapse beats the pants off a badly edited, high-res timelapse every time.

Among photoSentinel users, some of the best videos have been shot on Canon Rebels and entry-level Nikons; it’s all in the editing! 

5. The client doesn’t have high expectations

It’s not what we want to hear, but if we’re honest, 95% of the time the client won’t notice the difference between a timelapse produced using photos from an entry-level camera and one using photos from a high-end camera.

As photographers, it’s good that we self-critique and work hard to present work of the highest standard, but so often we’re aware of differences in quality that non-photographers wouldn’t even notice.

Once, at a photography competition, I watched judges disagree over the quality of a photo because part of the subject was slightly out of focus.

And when I say ‘slightly’, I mean they almost had their noses pressed to the photo to analyse it.

While a client may (hopefully!) notice the difference between a construction timelapse shot on a terrible webcam and one shot with a DSLR, they’re unlikely going to notice the difference between one shot on a crop-sensor and one shot on a full-frame.

So, what camera?

There are times – like when you need 8K content, or your client has money to burn – when it’s appropriate to use a more expensive set up.

But, when we’re asked what cameras someone should use with the photoSentinel Mach II, we recommend the entry-level, crop-sensor Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

With these cameras you get full DSLR functionality, lens flexibility and high quality photos, yet at a price that is reasonable for equipment that will be locked-up in a timelapse box for years on end.

Also, they have been used on thousands and thousands of long-term timelapse projects around the world, so we know they’re solid workhorses, fit for the job.

Lastly, for some more concrete proof that you really can shoot great timelapse with entry-level DSLRs, check out this timelapse created by Finnish photographer Riku Karjalainen, using a Canon Rebel T3i (600D).