Long-Term Construction Timelapse: Best Camera Settings
Choosing the wrong settings can result in inconsistent colours, lost details and grainy nighttime images.
This inconsistency can massively increase your post-production workload and cause a lot of frustration in the edit suite.
Even worse, if you get some settings wrong, your camera may be unable to trigger photos.
If you’re going to lock your camera inside a box, up a 20-foot pole for three years, you really want to make sure you’re using the best camera settings for your long-term construction timelapse.
So, what do you need to know to protect yourself from missed photos and post-production headaches?
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 timelapse you’re going to experience every lighting condition possible, across the days, weeks and seasons of your sequence.
Because of the huge variance in lighting, Aperture Priority is the only viable camera mode to shoot in. It’s a must.
Aperture Priority allows you to keep a consistent depth of field, while letting the camera choose the shutter speed suitable to the lighting conditions of any specific moment.
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; 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
Most commonly in construction time-lapse, the camera is mounted close to the construction site, 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
Even if you take nothing else from this article, remember this: Set focus to manual.
If your camera and lens set-up has both a focus switch on the lens and the in-camera focus mode, ensure you set both of them to manual.
Then double and triple check that you have set focus to manual.
Then check again.
Because nothing will ruin long-term timelapse like autofocus.
Most of the other 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 autofocus there’s also the risk you will miss photos completely if the intervalometer doesn’t hold down the trigger long enough to both focus hunt and take the photo.
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 on your camera down to manual.
The aim is to make sure that the camera is not automatically processing one image differently from another, thereby ensuring consistency across your whole sequence.
The important thing is that you set White Balance to a manual option, so that your colour balance remains the same across all your photos.
Because the light hue is going to change all the time, which particular manual option doesn’t matter: Direct sun, cloudy, shade… the choice is yours.
Your choice of settings for picture profile (or picture style) is going to be largely determined by whether you are providing an online gallery service, or just the final timelapse movie.
If it’s important that your images look good for your client using the online gallery, then you’ll want to leave your picture profile on a standard setting that looks decent straight out of camera.
If, however, your client is not going to see the 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-time shots, the camera will prioritise increasing the ISO rather than increasing the shutter time, which 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.
Your specific subject and scene will determine if and how you adjust the Exposure Compensation.
If you’re shooting into the sun and there’s lots of sky in your scene, but your subject is in shadow, you may need to lift the Exposure Compensation.
Conversely, if your subject is the only bright spot among a group of darkly coloured high-rise towers, you may need to drop the 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 then, once built, the façade of the building may be in shadow for much of the day and would benefit from lifting the Exposure Compensation.
Other Image Processing Settings
To maintain consistency across all the photos in a sequence, turn off or set to manual any other image processing functions, such as Active D-Lighting, low light noise reduction, or in-camera HDR.
There are plenty of camera features that aren’t necessary for long-term timelapse, when your camera is locked up in a box, thirty feet in the air.
To reduce power usage, drop the LCD screen brightness and turn off any other non-essential, power-consuming 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.
How to Save Your DSLR Settings
To save changes to settings, a camera needs to go through its ordinary shutdown process; if you just cut power by pulling the battery out, it will lose those changes.
Long-term timelapse systems, like the photoSentinel Mach II, often turn the camera on and off by supplying and cutting the power to the battery.
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 long-term timelapse intervalometer to control the power to the camera.
The concise takeaway to remember when settings your camera up for long-term timelapse is to remember the follow 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.
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BONUS: Should You Use an ND Filter for Construction Timelapse?
While not strictly a camera setting, ND filters are related to exposure settings, so we thought it made sense to add it here at the end of the article.
It’s common with short term timelapse to use an ND filter to drag the shutter.
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 a construction site.
But, in practice, two things work against the usefulness of an ND filter and shutter drag in long-term timelapse.
Firstly, most things on a construction site don’t actually move very fast at all, so even a really long shutter won’t result in a lot of motion blur. (An exception to this is when your scene includes a busy motorway running next to the construction site.)
Secondly, there is so much change between photos taken even just ten minutes apart, that a little bit of motion blur on each individual 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 flicker, as with lighting flicker, has to be dealt with in post-production using frame-blend and other techniques.