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Construction Timelapse: The Complete Guide | 2020 Edition

New to construction timelapse or long-term timelapse?

Spending ten minutes reading this guide will teach you the basics from 25 years of combined industry knowledge… Not a bad time investment.

This is your number one place to start learning how to do amazing construction timelapse photography.

This guide will give you an overview of everything you need to know.

It will also teach you how to maximize your income and wow your clients.

Let’s get straight to it.

Differences Between Short and Long-Term Timelapse

If you have a short-term timelapse background, you will be happy to know some of the skills involved are transferable.

But there are four major differences between short and long-term timelapse.

  • Equipment
  • The Shoot
  • Post-Production
  • Business

You NEED to take note of these differences, or you’ll run into all sorts of problems.

We’re going to break them down one-by-one.

A photographer posts papers on a wall, planning his long-term timelapse

Equipment

Specialized equipment is required for long-term construction timelapse.

Generally, there are six pieces of equipment needed.

This equipment includes: a controller, a power source, the protective housing, the local hard drive, and of course, both the camera and lens themselves.

We’ll examine each of these in turn. 

We’ll also look at the qualities which make a company a good candidate for partnership, and why the DIY route isn’t recommended for construction timelapse.

The Controller

Number one is the controller. This is the brain of a long-term timelapse system.

The controller is what turns the camera on and off at set intervals to take photos, for years at a time.

Additionally, it’s what connects your timelapse system to the cloud.

This allows it to be configured remotely, report status, and upload photos.

But not all controllers connect to a cloud service, and those that do, may offer different features.

So, investigate controllers before purchase to make sure it has the right features for your project.

The Power Source

Number two is the power source.

There are three types of power source for a long-term timelapse system: AC, solar power and a battery pack.

  • With AC power, a unit can easily handle a standard or fast shooting regime (keep in mind data restraints).
  • With solar power, a unit can usually handle a standard regime but may struggle if shooting regimes are too aggressive.
  • Battery power is best used as a back-up power source; use AC or solar power as a primary. An external battery pack will typically last between 50-60 days. Recommended for northern or underground environments where there is little or no sunlight.

Remember, using multiple power sources will help prevent your system from running low on power.

Prepare your system for any environment with an external battery box.

A photoSentinel Mach II with solar panel surveys a dusty construction site

The Protective Housing

You’ll want housing rated at IP-66 weather-proofing to keep out dust and moisture for the life of the project.

If you’re using a zoom-lens, you may need bigger, specialist housing for the camera. If this is a concern for you project, talk to one of our staff about ‘Beast’ housing.

The Local Hard Drive

It’s impractical to upload RAW to the cloud, so a large local hard drive is essential if you want to shoot JPEG + RAW.

Some photographers want to save on data usage by only uploading every second or third photo.

Again, you’ll need large local storage if you intend to do this.

Keep in mind that if you’re storing photos locally, you’ll need to make regular site visits to collect them or arrange a site contact to collect them on your behalf.

JPEG vs RAW: What’s the Best Photo Format for Long-Term Timelapse?

Camera and Lens

And of course, a camera and lens are needed to shoot the actual timelapse.

An entry-level DSLR, combined with a Canon Sigma wide-angle 10-20mm, Tokina 12-28mm or 11-16mm, is ideal for most projects.

A high-end, $4,000 full-frame camera might seem like a good idea for your project at first.

But do you really want to trap a piece of equipment like that up a pole for 3+ years when you could be using it on other projects?

So, in 90% of cases, a crop sensor is a better choice for long-term timelapse.

It’s a fraction of the cost and will still let you work with high-quality photos.

What’s the Best Camera for Long-Term Timelapse? (or why you don’t need a Nikon D850.)

A close-up of a Nikon camera

Choosing a Company to Partner With

We obviously think you should go with photoSentinel.

But, if you are weighing up options of different companies, here are some questions to ask.

  • What level of technical support do they provide?
  • Is support 24/7, or restricted to certain times/timezones?
  • Is there on-going R&D to future-proof your system?
  • What resources do they offer beyond the main hardware? (tutorials, eBooks, videos, etc)
  • Can they provide the resources necessary to manage larger fleets and scale your service?

photoSentinel offers 24/7 global tech-support, dozens of high-value resources for free, and has a sizable R&D team committed to on-going innovation.

You can also manage large photoSentinel fleets with our service, allowing you to continuously grow your business over time.

Why You Shouldn’t Go DIY for Your Long-Term Timelapse

While the idea of saving money through the DIY-route may be tempting, we advise against that.

Because long-term timelapse projects can run for one, two, three, four years…

…there’s no way for you to be certain your self-made equipment is 100% reliable unless you’ve tested it that long.

Professional, industry-grade equipment like the photoSentinel Mach II has years of experience behind it.

So, you can be confident that your equipment is reliable.

How to Choose the Best Equipment for your Construction Timelapse Project.

A heroic shot of a photoSentinel Mach II against a sunset

The Shoot

Production of a long-term timelapse has many moving parts. You’ll need to:

  • Select the shooting intervals
  • Set camera settings
  • Manage cellular data usage
  • Scout out a location
  • Install your unit
  • Acquire the right accreditation for site access
  • Manage the project timeline

And of course, the final timelapse video needs to be engaging and exciting.

(Skip to the section on Post-Production for the technical aspects of shooting a timelapse video)

Interval Settings for Shooting

In short-term timelapse, intervals are only a few minutes apart.

This is necessary to document rapid change so that you don’t miss any of the action.

This is sometimes appropriate for construction timelapse when energetic activities are happening on-site.

Concrete pours, swarms of workers, cranes moving, and so on, are all fast-paced events.

You’ll want to be aware of these events well in advance so you can prepare short intervals for them, perhaps as small as 1-3 minutes apart.

However, 95% of the time on a construction site, change between photos will happen extremely slowly.

This is because you’ll document the change in the construction itself.

For this ‘business-as-usual’ pace on a construction site, we recommend intervals between 10 and 30 minutes.

If you constantly shoot at short intervals, you risk blowing up your cellular data costs.

Get Great Results With These Interval Settings for Construction Timelapse.

Which Camera Settings Are Best?

The three golden rules of setting a camera for long-term timelapse are:

  1. Shoot in Aperture Priority.
  2. Lock every other setting down to manual (especially focus).
  3. Turn the camera off and back on to save the settings.

Aperture priority allows you to keep a consistent depth of field between shots, while letting the camera choose a suitable shutter speed shot-to-shot.

Auto-focus will completely ruin a long-term timelapse.

For other settings (like white balance), the exact setting is not important but picking a manual setting will ensure consistency across photos.

And don’t forget to save the camera settings by turning it off and back on again.

Complete Guide to Best Camera Settings for Construction Timelapse Photography

A construction worker pours carefully pours concrete through a tube

Cellular Data Usage

A long-term timelapse system with web connectivity and cloud services will require cellular data.

Photographers new to long-term timelapse often approximate their data costs.

This is a huge mistake, and one that we see too often.

Obviously, no photographer wants the shock of opening a cellular data bill to find massive charges.

But it’s really quite easy to calculate your data costs, and you can do it in five minutes.

Use the formula below, or click on the link at the bottom of this section to be taken to a data calculator.

photo file size   x   photos uploaded in a month                         +   10% buffer
 =   monthly data requirement

That’s all there is to it; work out your average file size, times it by your total photos for that month, and add 10%.

Using a buffer will protect you if your data usage spikes unexpectedly or you need to shoot fast for a key site event.

Click Here to Use Our Data Calculator and Avoid Bill Shock.

Accreditation

You may need accreditation or certification to enter or do work within the construction site.

This varies country-by-country, so investigate well in advance what the requirements are.

Scouting and Installation

Your long-term timelapse unit will remain in the same spot for years.

To pick the best spot possible, there are several questions to ask first:

  • Will you need to purchase a pole for mounting?
  • Is this part of the site easy to access?
  • Will it be easy to access for the entire project for when maintenance or photo collection is needed?
  • Where will the sun’s position be during the different times of the year?
  • Where will you put the solar panel?
  • Will it give you the best field-of-view and framing of the site?
  • Will this spot still give good framing as the construction grows taller and expands?

The takeaway here is make sure you take the time to do your scouting and planning properly.

That’s why The Complete Project Planner is your best friend. It’s a free resource we’ve created exactly for photographers like you.

Download Your Free Project Planner eBook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning a Successful Construction Timelapse

Leaving Enough Time to Set Up Your System

It could take three to four weeks from the moment you order your system for it to be up and running. This includes:

  • Order fulfilment lead time takes photoSentinel two weeks on average, but systems can be dispatched faster if we’re given advanced notice that a job is likely.
  • Shipping time usually takes 3-5 business days, in addition to however long the system takes to pass through customs.
  • Testing your system is recommend for 24 hours before, during, and after it’s installed to be sure it’s working properly.

Factor these into your timeline so you don’t have to work under time pressure.

Other Questions to Ask

Some other key questions you should ask when planning the shoot are:

  • Which cellular provider will give you the best reception in your unit’s location? (don’t forget to activate the SIM card).
  • If your client can’t provide site-contacts, how often will you need to make visits to the site for maintenance or photo collection?
  • In addition to your web gallery, will you forward photos elsewhere? (Dropbox, Google Drive, a private FTP server, etc)
  • In the event of serious system malfunction or missed photos, what are the expectations of the client?

Let’s move on to the main event: making a timelapse video that engages and excites.

A construction worker installs a photoSentinel unit

Making an Incredible Timelapse Video

Technical considerations aside, the final timelapse video itself needs to hold interest and engage viewers.

As much as we love long-term timelapse, we’re the first to admit that a straight three-minute timelapse video of a building gets boring quickly.

That’s why it’s important to intercut your timelapse with B-roll.

Plan for B-roll in advance so you have plenty to play around with.

Slo-mo welding, interviewing key personnel, aerial shots, and others, will make your final video much more captivating.

Motion graphics are also a great way to make a video that’s compelling and educational.

But we’re the equipment professionals, you’re the creative professional; we’ll leave it to you to work out the nitty-gritty of B-roll.

B-roll - A worker controls a drone to take photos of construction site

A Final Point About Production: Murphy’s Law

In a perfect world, nothing ever goes wrong.

In reality with long-term timelapse, you need to plan for maintenance visits.

Because the last thing you want to do is to not budget for them and lose money instead of gaining it.

We recommend budgeting for maintenance visits at least every three months.

Again, a site contact can be tremendously helpful if your client can provide you with one.

Either way, don’t be an optimist; factor Murphy’s Law into your budgeting and planning.

10 Rookie Mistakes Construction Timelapse Photographers Must Avoid!

Post-Production

The main post-production challenge with long-term timelapse is dealing with huge variations from photo to photo.

Or as photographers generally call it, flicker.

Lighting flicker and object flicker are the two greatest perpetrators.

Lighting varies hugely hour to hour, day to day, and season to season.

These big variations cause an undesirable strobing effect.

Object flicker is similar but involves personnel and vehicles popping in and out between frames.

There may be truck in one photo, but not in the next photo, for example.

Stitching these photos together unedited creates an unwatchable disco-ball effect.

We’ll look at some ways you can approach these flicker issues in post-production.

But let’s first look at a general principle which will make editing your timelapse video/s easier: Overshooting.

Edit an Amazing Construction Timelapse with these 10 Post-Production Tips.

B-roll - A worker controls a drone to take photos of construction site

Overshooting

Life will be much easier in post-production if you overshoot during production.

You’re going to be culling lots of photos due to flicker and other issues.

While editing software can help, some photos just have too much variation and will need to be scrapped.

So regardless of your post-production methods, shooting more photos than you think you might need is recommended.

Just make sure to balance overshooting with your cellular data budget.

Manual Post-Production Editing

If you plan to edit all the footage yourself, we recommend LRTimelapse*.

LRTimelapse is the undisputed king of timelapse editing software.

The latest version has a dedicated workflow for long-term timelapse.

Gunter, it’s creator, has also done a full tutorial on how to edit long-term timelapse in LRTimelapse and Lightroom.

Adobe After Effects also has tools like Warp Stabilizer which are great for tackling flicker in post-production.

There are two more things you should do during manual post-production: Maintain Full Photo Resolution, and Use Frame-Blending.

The best software for editing construction timelapse: Download LRTimelapse here.

Two photographers edit a long-term timelapse in post-production

Maintain Full Photo Resolution

Work with the full resolution of your images right up until you drag them into your video editing software.

When making a construction timelapse sequence, you’ll be moving the sequence around everywhere – from Lightroom to LRTimelapse to After Effects to Premier Pro…

Anytime you export or render that sequence, make sure you keep it as lossless as possible, and maintain the full, original resolution of the photos.

As well as limiting the impact of multiple compressions, by doing this you’ll maintain enough pixels to zoom in and pan around the shot in your final edit.

Use Frame-Blending

With short term timelapse, object flicker is often dealt with during shooting by using an ND filter.

However, an ND filter is of little use for long-term timelapse.

So, the best way to deal with object flicker in post-production is to use frame-blending.

In After Effects, you can use CC Wide Time, and LRTimelapse has its own in-built frame-blending feature.

As both programs have multiple levels of frame blending, experimentation is the best way to find what works for your project.

Don’t frame-blend until AFTER you’ve stabilized your footage, or you’ll end up with a complete mess.

​​

Automation of Timelapse Movie Generation

The second approach to post-production is automation, so that you don’t have to do it all yourself.

The photoSentinel Timelapse Generator does all of the post-production work for you with the click of a button.

You read that right; it does all of the post-production processing automatically and delivers a fully edited timelapse movie.

Beginners might not have the skills, time, or facilities to completely edit a timelapse movie from scratch.

So, it’s perfect for photographers who are just starting out in long-term timelapse.

Check out how the Timelapse Generator can cut your post-production by 85%.

Business

Let’s cover four aspects of the business side of construction timelapse.

One, how should you pitch your service to clients so that you can win jobs?

Two, what are the hidden costs you need to know so that you can factor them into your fees and budgeting?

Three, how can you upsell your client through bonus deliverables and add-ons?

Four, what should you charge your clients for your services so that you can maximize your income?

Let’s zoom in on each aspect.

Pitching to Clients

A common mistake during a pitch is to explain features, not benefits.

Features are factual information about what your service does. A feature would be saying that bananas are high in potassium.

Benefits are how those features make life better. The benefit is that the potassium in bananas helps prevent painful cramps.

You can see at a glance that it’s the benefit here which is the more powerful of the two.

Benefits resonate even more strongly with clients if they speak to their needs and fears.

So, if you can identify their needs and fears and tailor the benefits to those, your pitch will make a strong impact.

The needs and fears of clients will depend on who you’re talking to.

The marketing department has different needs and fears to the project manager.

How to Nail the Pitch and Win Construction Timelapse Jobs.

A photographer discusses the long-term timelapse with a project manager

Hidden Costs

Knowing the hidden costs of construction timelapse will help you make an informed decision about what to charge clients.

Hidden costs include but are not limited to:

  • Import duties
  • Site accreditation fees
  • Maintenance visits
  • Travel to and from the site
  • Regular deliverables (time-cost)
  • Insurance
  • Monthly cellular data usage cost
  • Installation costs

Installation costs in particular sometimes catch photographers off-guard; mounting poles, hiring EWPs, and hiring specialised personnel are all costly.

Project Deliverables and Add-ons

Earlier, we touched on way you can spice up your final video with B-roll.

Similarly, you can increase your project’s revenue by upselling your client through bonus add-ons and deliverables.

In addition to the final timelapse video, you could deliver:

  • Aerial photography/videography
  • On-site short-term timelapse
  • Live action video
  • Regular on-site progress photography
  • Architectural photography of completed building
  • 360° VR site tour
  • Regular edited photos for social media marketing
  • Regular progress reports

Offering this type of content can let you negotiate higher fees, and also give you a satisfying creative challenge during the project. 

What Should You Charge for Your Services?

Sometimes, long-term timelapse beginners will charge a client a one-time fee for their service.

But we strongly caution against that.

What if the client’s project goes way overtime, for example? That would be terrible for your cashflow.

Your service doesn’t have to be just one video you’re providing to your client at the end of the project.

It can be a powerful monthly service, offering clients marketing resources and utilities.

Thinking about it this way completely changes how you charge and add value to your service.

You can offer up-to-date site monitoring so they can make key decisions about their project.

Historical photo logs can be used for security, to resolve legal disputes, and keep contractors accountable.

A web gallery is also an endless supply of instant marketing assets.

Pitch your service like an on-going monthly subscription.

That way, the project will be a constant revenue stream for you for the life of the project.

Learn Best Practice for Charging Clients for Construction Timelapse.

A photographer and a client plan out a long-term timelapse together

Construction Timelapse: The Basics

This guide was your primer to long-term timelapse, but your education doesn’t have to stop there.

There are dozens of moving parts in long-term timelapse; we’ve created resources to teach you about all of them (LEARN).

Want quick answers to common questions? Check out the FAQ page.

And if you still have questions, call or email our team of experts any time.