Long-Term Construction Timelapse: Best Camera Settings
(HINT: under no circumstances use auto-focus!)
Using the right camera settings in construction time lapse is essential to get consistency across your photos.
Choosing the wrong camera settings for time lapse will give you troublesome variations in colour and lighting across photos.
This inconsistency can massively increase your post-production workload and cause a lot of frustration in the editing suite.
But, we’ll cover everything you need to know about camera settings so you can be confident you’ll get consistent results.
(This article looks at camera settings like focus and white balance, but for advice on the best intervalometer settings, go here.)
These settings will work regardless of which DSLR you use; Canon, Nikon, or Sony.
Watch the video below and read on for the best camera settings for long-term construction timelapse.
Which Camera Mode for Construction Timelapse?
When shooting long-term time lapse you’ll experience every lighting condition possible over the lifespan of your project.
And because of this huge variance in lighting, aperture priority is the only viable camera mode to shoot in. It’s a must.
Specifically, aperture priority gives you consistent depth of field, but keeps the shutter speed appropriate to the lighting.
Even when shooting in aperture priority, the flicker in your long-term timelapse sequence is going to be terrible.
Sadly, there’s no way around this completely, but aperture priority will at least mitigate it.
With long-term timelapse, flicker is something you have to deal with in post-production (with frame blending and other techniques), rather than during shooting.
Best Aperture for Long-Term Timelapse
Commonly in construction time-lapse, the camera is mounted close to the worksite, and the area of activity is relatively deep.
So, a narrower aperture for a longer depth of field is usually most suitable.
As a guiding principle, standard landscape photography advice is solid: Choose an aperture between f/8 and f/11.
If you go narrower than f/11, you start to run the risk of bringing your depth of field too close to the camera…
…and picking up dust spots that might appear on the window of the timelapse housing.
Manual Focus, Manual Focus, Manual Focus
If you ignore all other time lapse camera settings recommendations in this article, do this one at least:
Set focus to manual.
If your camera and lens set-up has both a focus switch on the lens and an in-camera focus mode, ensure both are set to manual.
Then double and triple check that you have set focus to manual.
Then check again.
Because nothing will ruin construction time lapse like auto-focus.
Most of the other camera settings we’ve covered can be compensated for in post-production if they are set wrong.
But there is no way to fix shifting focal lengths.
As well as shifting focal length, with auto-focus there’s also the risk you will miss photos completely.
To explain, sometimes the intervalometer won’t hold down the trigger long enough to both focus-hunt and take the photo.
Use a Manual Focus Ring
While it’s not a camera setting, it’s also worth mentioning that you should use a manual focus ring if possible.
Manual, mechanical focus rings can be secured with tape in a set focus position, never to move.
By contrast, an electronic switch focus ring (identified by the fact it has no hard stop when you spin it), can change focus unexpectedly.
To learn more about focus rings, go read our article on the Best Camera and Lens for Construction Timelapse.
Other Camera Settings for Long-Term Timelapse
Other than setting shutter speed to automatic with aperture priority, you’ll want to lock all other settings down to manual.
The goal here is to make sure that the camera is not automatically processing one image differently from another.
Thereby, you’ll ensure consistency across your whole sequence.
The important thing is that you set White Balance to a manual option, so that colour balance remains the same across all photos.
Because the light hue will change all the time, the specific manual option doesn’t matter. The choice is yours.
Your picture profile (or picture style) settings will be largely determined by whether you’re providing an online gallery service, or just the final timelapse movie.
For an online gallery, you’ll want to leave your picture profile on a setting that looks good straight out of the camera.
However, if your client won’t see individual images and is only concerned about the final timelapse video…
…then you’ll want to flatten the profile to get a greater dynamic range.
The simple option for flattening the image is to select the Neutral picture profile.
Alternatively, for greater control, you can tweak each parameter individually to your own preference.
For daytime shooting, setting ISO to auto is usually fine.
But, if your project could involve nighttime shooting, then you should set it to manual.
If you set ISO to auto for night shots, the camera will prioritize increasing ISO rather than shutter time.
And this can result in noisy, high-ISO images that are unusable.
There’s no need for a high ISO if shooting during the day, and shutter drag can be nice at night.
So, stick with something in the 100-400 range for best results.
Your specific subject and scene will determine if and how you adjust the Exposure Compensation.
If shooting into the sun, there’s lots of sky in the scene, and the subject is in shadow, you may need to lift Exposure Compensation.
Conversely, if your subject is a bright spot among a group of dark high-rise towers, you may need to drop Exposure Compensation.
The key is to meter for the subject (the construction), and not necessarily for the whole scene.
You will also need to account for not just what the scene is like at the beginning of the project, when you’re setting up your camera…
…but also what it will be like at later stages of the project.
For example, a vacant lot might have sunlight across the whole scene at the start of the project.
But once built, the façade of the building may be in shadow during the day and would benefit from lifted Exposure Compensation.
Image courtesy of Lily and Moon.
Other Image Processing Settings
To maintain consistency across photos in a sequence, turn off or set to manual any other image processing functions.
These include things like Active D-Lighting, low light noise reduction, and in-camera HDR.
There are plenty of camera features that aren’t necessary when you’re doing construction time lapse.
To save power, reduce screen brightness and turn off non-essential settings like GPS, Wi-Fi and image review.
On newer cameras, the easiest way to ensure all connectivity functions are off is to switch the camera into Airplane Mode.
Below are some other settings you’ll want to change.
File Number Sequence
Set this to auto-reset on Canon cameras, and off on Nikon Cameras.
Turning this on can sometimes result in numerous folders being created; when the max file limit is reached, it will cause the camera to stop taking photos.
Use Evaluative, Pattern, or Matrix Metering, unless your subject is quite small compared to the rest of the scene.
If this is the case, use one of the other metering settings.
Enable auto-orientation to set the orientation flag in photos, so that photos have the correct orientation by default.
Disable auto-power off (sometimes called “camera sleep”) so that the camera remains awake during power-on.
How to Save Your DSLR Settings
To save changes to camera settings, a camera needs to go through its ordinary shutdown process.
But if you just cut power by pulling the battery out, it will lose those changes.
Once your camera is set up, make sure you save all your settings by turning the camera off and back on using the ordinary power switch.
Only after that should you set the construction time lapse intervalometer to control the power to the camera.
The concise takeaways to remember when setting up a time lapse camera is to remember the following three things:
- Shoot in Aperture Priority.
- Lock every other setting down to manual (especially focus).
- Turn the camera off and back on to save the settings.
BONUS: Should You Use an ND Filter for Construction Timelapse?
While not strictly a camera setting, ND filters are related to exposure settings, so it made sense to include it here.
It’s common in short term time lapse to drag the shutter with an ND filter.
This blurs fast moving objects that are in only one or two images, and so reduces the staccato effect of object flicker.
Many photographers reasonably assume that an ND filter will be useful in construction timelapse because of the amount of activity and movement on-site.
But, in practice, two things work against the usefulness of an ND filter and shutter drag in long-term timelapse.
First, most things on a construction site don’t actually move very fast at all, so a really long shutter won’t result in much motion blur.
(An exception to this is when your scene includes a busy motorway running next to the construction site.)
Second, there is so much change between photos taken even ten minutes apart that a little motion blur on each photo really makes no difference to the overall object flicker.
Using an ND filter also runs the risk of missing night-time photos.
In aperture priority, the longest shutter time the camera will use is 30-seconds.
And if your ND filter is too dark, this may not be long enough to get the night-time shots you need.
For long-term timelapse, object and lighting flicker are best dealt with in post-production using frame-blend and other techniques.