Long-Term Construction Time-lapse: Ten Mistakes Photographers Must Avoid

If you’re new to long-term timelapse or construction timelapse, it’s easy to underestimate what’s involved.

While you don’t need to be the world’s expert in long-term timelapse before undertaking your first project, educating yourself on some of its unique challenges and requirements will help you avoid common pitfalls, create better content, and keep your clients happy.

To get you started, here's a beginner's how-to guide in the form of ten common mistakes made by photographers new to the long-term timelapse game.

Watch and read on to learn how to avoid them.

Mistake #1 - Not appreciating the differences between short-term and long-term timelapse

While there’s crossover between long-term timelapse and short-term timelapse, photographers new to the medium should note there are some key differences in both the production and the business of long-term timelapse.

Long-term timelapse requires significant pre-production planning (see Mistake #2), constant monitoring over months or even years (see Mistake #8) and has range of unique issues that can arise (see Mistake #3 and Mistake #5).

Business-wise, you’re not just providing clients with an end-product (the final timelapse movie), but a service (on-going site monitoring and progress timelapse movies).

This means that you can charge your clients for a monthly subscription rather than just for the final creative output (see Mistake #10).

Mistake #2 – Failing to Plan

The saying “those who fail to plan, plan to fail” is epitomised in long-term timelapse.

There’s no undo button or time-machine feature on a construction site; errors in planning result in headaches and missed opportunities later.

The sort of questions you need to ask in planning include:

  • What’s the best equipment to use?
  • What camera and lens set-up will suit the project?
  • Will I have easy site access for installation?
  • Can my client provide me with an on-site contact to do basic maintenance?
  • Have I talked to my client and understood the scope of their project?
  • Are there key periods of busy activity during the project I should change shooting regime for?

To help you out, we’ve created the Project Planner to help you ask more of the right questions before you start your long-term timelapse project.

Ask more of the right questions before you start your long-term timelapse project.

Mistake #3 – Undershooting

Long-term timelapse differs from short-term timelapse in that you can’t pre-calculate with precision how long your final video will be, or how many photos you will require.

When the day comes to produce your final, end-product timelapse video, you’ll discover that many of the photos you have are unusable.

Unforeseen events that can spoil photos include:

  • Inclement weather (heavy rain, thick fog, heavy snowfall, etc.)
  • Long periods of site inactivity (a workers’ strike, internal works, etc.)
  • Different lighting at different times of the day and different seasons of the year

These and other issues mean you’ll end up with many photos which simply aren’t workable.

To counteract this, it’s best to shoot more photos than you think you might need.

A caveat: Uploading terabytes and terabytes of data each month presents a different problem, as you’ll find your cellular data costs going through the roof.

As a rule of thumb, we’ve found 10 to 30-minute intervals between photos provides a good balance between a supply of usable photos, and not blowing out your cellular data budget.

Mistake #4 – Not Testing the Equipment

There are many working parts in a long-term timelapse system; one setting configured wrong or an issue with hardware can result in weeks or months of unusable or missed photos.

While the hobbyist or amateur photographer can afford mistakes, there’s no margin for error as a professional photographer, especially in construction timelapse where you can’t go back and reshoot.

There’s nothing worse than having to tell your client that you’ve failed to capture critical junctures in their construction project.

Save yourself from strife later by thoroughly checking and testing your equipment pre- and post-installation to ensure it’s taking and uploading photos properly (see Mistake #8).

Mistake #5 – Not Budgeting for Maintenance Visits

In a perfect world, your long-term timelapse system would be ‘set-and-forget’, bringing in a revenue stream for you with little to no maintenance or monitoring required.

In reality, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme: spiders making their web over the glass, lightning strikes and other “acts of God”, technology failure, and tons of other unforeseen issues.

No matter how optimistic you are about your construction timelapse project, we recommend budgeting for maintenance visits at least every 2-3 months.

That way, when you do need to perform unexpected maintenance, it’s not eating into your profits.

It’s also a great idea to ask your client to provide an on-site maintenance contact who you can contact to perform minor maintenance, and so save yourself a trip; essential for projects a long way from home.

Mistake #6 – Poor Choice of Unit Location

Because you will need to access your equipment throughout the projects, you want to install it in an easy to access location.

If you install your unit in a location that is difficult or expensive to access (for example, somewhere requiring a scissor lift), that can be a big blow to your budget and time.

Even simple maintenance tasks like collecting photos from the on-board storage or cleaning the glass suddenly become an expensive hassle.

You might not have luxury of choosing where to install the camera, but wherever possible, choose a location can be accessed without paying fees or hiring equipment.

Mistake #7 – Choosing the Wrong Camera Settings

With long-term timelapse you will get a huge variation in lighting conditions, so you need to shoot in Aperture Priority.

All other settings should be set to manual. In particular, you want to make double sure that ISO, colour balance, and focus are not left on auto.

Auto ISO can result in noisy pictures in low-light conditions. Auto colour balance can wreak havoc when the same sequence includes dawn and dusk photos.

And auto-focus can cause focus shifting or even result in missed photos if the intervalometer doesn’t hold the trigger down long enough to both focus hunt and take the photo.

Setting your camera settings to manual will generally give you more consistent photos to work with in post-production.

Mistake #8 – Using an Offline Long-Term Time-lapse System

While offline long-term timelapse systems exist, they’re not ideal for two reasons.

First, if something goes wrong with your unit, you won’t notice until your next visit, meaning you risk losing the weeks or months of photos between visits.

Second, if you need to view images or change settings, that’s another unnecessary site visit.

A connected system, like the photoSentinel Tempo, offers a range of invaluable functions that make life easier:

  • Pro-active status reporting
  • Remote configuration changes
  • Online gallery to view photos

A connected system means saving time, cutting down on visits, and finding out about issues before they become a problem.

You can easily, quickly provide your client with updates and photos, meaning you can offer and monetise an ongoing site monitoring service.

Mistake #9 – Not Changing Intervals for Periods of Busy Activity and Action

In construction timelapse, sites will not always be hubs of activity and movement.

Sometimes, nothing will appear to change for weeks – perhaps workers are doing electrical work inside the structure or the whole workforce has gone on temporary strike.

Other times, such as during a concrete pour, the site will look more like a beehive, as the activity and number of workers increases tenfold.

It’s important to communicate with your client about when these periods of action and noteworthy events are happening on-site, and slow or speed up your intervals appropriately.

Mistake #10 – Charging Your Client for a Product, Not a Service

While both you and your client eagerly look forward to the day when you can give them a polished, beautiful timelapse video, you have a lot more to offer them than a one-off, end-of-project creative product.

Connected long-term timelapse is a valuable service which can be used to track day-to-day progress, resolve legal disputes, and quickly provide clients with marketing materials for their own investors and stakeholders.

The online gallery will often also have extra features like a calendar navigation to search through photos, a compare tool, temperature and weather data (useful if a worker tries claiming heatstroke on what was a 23° day!).

These and other features mean you should be charging clients a monthly subscription for using your service, rather than just charging them for the final timelapse video.

What Next?

If you can avoid these ten common mistakes, you’re off to an excellent start, but don’t stop yourself there.

Investing in your knowledge of long-term timelapse will help you delight your clients, build a great professional reputation, and grow a successful business.

Be more knowledgeable than your competitors; educate yourself further on long-term timelapse by checking out the helpful resources below: