Long-Term Construction Timelapse: Best Camera + Lens
With the photoSentinel Mach II you have freedom to decide on your camera and lens set-up.
But, with so many cameras on the market, which is best for your project?
Of course, you want the best photos possible…
…but you also want to keep costs down.
It’s a tricky balancing act.
In this guide we’ll tell you how to choose the right camera and lens for your construction timelapse project.
(Spoiler alert: It doesn’t have to be a Nikon D850!)
Canon and Nikon: The Heroes of Construction Timelapse
When choosing your camera and lens for long-term timelapse, the most important factor is reliability.
With this in mind, Canon and Nikon are the two undisputed workhorses of construction timelapse.
Photographers have used Canon and Nikon cameras on thousands and thousands of projects… since the dawn of long-term timelapse!
So, for cameras that have stood the test of time (lapse), Canon and Nikon are your absolute best options.
What About Sony?
Sony have had a stratospheric rise in popularity among photographers, and for good reason.
But, if Canon and Nikon are the workhorses of construction timelapse, Sony is the dark horse.
At this stage, there simply isn’t enough information to determine how Sony cameras will perform over years of long-term timelapse.
So, even if you’re a Sony fan, we recommend you stick to Nikon and Canon until more field testing has been done.
Top-of-the-Line or Entry-Level?
As a professional photographer, you use professional equipment – full frame cameras and high-end lenses.
But that usually isn’t the best option for construction timelapse.
For most projects, an APS-C camera and lens is enough, and even preferable.
High-Quality Cameras Have High Price Tags
Can you or your client afford $4,000 worth of equipment for this project?
You’ll be locking your camera in a box, up a pole, for months or even years on end.
If you’re taking photos every 15 minutes, eight hours a day, for two years, you will have triggered the camera less than 23,500 times.
That’s hardly enough usage for such a high-quality camera.
And, by the time the project is over, the market value will have likely depreciated significantly.
Of course, sometimes, like when your clients wants 8K video, they may be willing to pay for a top-shelf camera.
Generally though, clients want to keep costs down, and the camera and lens is a good place to save some dollars.
You Don’t Need 99% of the Features
Every now and then, a camera comes along that changes the industry.
These are the sorts of cameras that see die-hard brand fanboys jump ship for another brand.
But, for the most part, each new camera is better only by increments:
A few more focus points, an extra frame per second of continuous shooting, or a little more weatherproofing.
And all these incremental improvements have little-to-no benefit for construction timelapse.
You simply won’t use 99% of the special features that come with high-end cameras.
High-resolution EVF… fast burst mode… zebra focus assist… face detection… HDR exposure bracketing…
Useful features but totally unnecessary for long-term timelapse.
You don’t want to pay more money just for features you won’t actually use.
Entry-Level Cameras Still Produce Amazing Photos
It’s important to remember that what was ground-breaking a few years ago is standard today.
Camera technology evolves fast and quickly gets passed down to the cheaper cameras.
Less than 12 months later, many of those features were passed down to the much cheaper Sony a7 III.
Besides, we all know it’s not an expensive camera that makes someone a photographer, as DigitalRev TV demonstrated in their series Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera.
We can get so used to shooting large RAW photos with our expensive full-frame and Sigma Art Series…
…that we forget a standard JPEG shot on an entry-level DSLR can still be an amazing photo.
Most entry-level DSLRs are now 24MP – more than enough to zoom in and still generate 4K video.
You could use 50MP photos to build that video, and it might look incredible.
But can you, or your client, afford the higher costs of equipment and uploading much large files?
Or could you achieve a great result at a lower cost using a cheaper camera.
Because, the other uncomfortable reality is…
Your Client (Probably) Doesn’t Have High Expectations
The professional eye might notice the difference between a timelapse shot on a $500 APS-C camera versus a $3.500 full-frame.
But clients probably won’t.
It’s not what we like to hear.
As photographers, it’s good that we self-critique and work hard to produce content of the highest standard…
…but so often we’re aware of differences that non-photographers don’t even notice.
Once I watched competition judges argue about 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.
Hopefully, a client would notice the difference between a timelapse shot on a terrible webcam and one shot with a DSLR.
But, they’re less likely to notice the difference between timelapse shot on a crop-sensor and a full-frame.
Post-Production is More Important Than the Camera
One of the best construction timelapse videos we’ve seen was compiled from webcams that were originally set up without timelapse in mind.
That timelapse was engaging because creativity in 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?
But a well-edited and engaging low-res timelapse beats a badly edited, high-res timelapse every time.
With long-term timelapse, even more than other forms of photography and video, it’s all in the editing!
How Important is Dynamic Range?
Some photographers insist on the usefulness of greater dynamic range to help decrease flicker in the final timelapse.
For us, the jury is still out on how important this is in long-term timelapse.
The differences in lighting conditions across a long-term timelapse sequence are extreme, and a greater dynamic range only helps so much before you need to resort to other measures like frame-blending.
Of course, a more expensive camera doesn’t guarantee greater dynamic range.
There are some situations where high dynamic range is definitely useful.
For example, if your project is happening predominantly at nighttime.
In that case, the low-light capabilities are invaluable.
You will typically be very close to the subject in a long-term construction timelapse.
If so, you’ll definitely want a wide-angle lens.
When using an APS-C Nikon or Canon, we recommend the Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle lens.
They are at the cheaper end of the spectrum, and so the build quality and image quality may not be as good. (We’ve seen mixed results.)
They also both have an electronic switch focus ring, which can sometimes cause issues (see next section).
Beware Electronic Switch Focus Rings
Wherever possible, use a lens that has a manual focus ring.
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.
Every time the camera is turned off and on (thousands of times over the course of a project!), the camera resets the focus on the lens.
It does this even when the camera is set to manual focus mode.
On some setups, the focus is reset to a factory default, and on others it is reset to the last configured focal length.
Even where it resets to the last known focal length, we’ve seen instances where it occasionally fails, resulting in an out-of-focus and unusable image.
It doesn’t always happen; the Fuji camera used in our photoSentinel Mini has an electronic focus ring, and we’ve never seen it fall out of focus.
The Nikon 10-20mm lens resets each time, but it does so to a focal length of infinity, making it perfect for long-term timelapse.
Our testing with the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM, often the kit lens with their APS-C cameras, unfortunately shows it has this focus consistency problem.
So, to stay on the safe side, we recommend a manual focus ring.
The Sigma and the Tokina lenses above all have manual focus rings.
If you do choose a lens with an electronics switch focus ring, be sure to test it first for focus resetting.
Your Camera Set-Up
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 someone asks what camera they should use with the photoSentinel Mach II, we generally recommend the following:
- Canon or Nikon brand
- 24MP APS-C camera
- Sigma or Tokina wide-angle lens
This set up gives you full DSLR functionality and high-quality photos, at a price that is reasonable for equipment that will be locked-up in a timelapse box for years on end.
This setup has been used on thousands of long-term timelapse projects around the world, so we know we can always count on them.
- JPEG vs RAW: What’s the best photo format for long-term timelapse?
- Complete Guide to Best Camera Settings for Construction Timelapse Photography.
- The 10 rookie mistakes you MUST avoid when shooting construction timelapse.
- Avoid bill shock with this Timelapse Data Calculator.
- Follow these 8 ESSENTIAL project planning tips to get started right.