Construction Time Lapse: The Complete How-To Guide | 2021 Edition
New to construction time lapse or long-term time lapse?
Spending ten minutes reading this guide will teach you much of what we’ve learned from deploying over 4000 long-term time lapse cameras across the globe… Not a bad time investment!
This is your number one place to start learning how to do amazing construction time lapse photography.
The guide will give you an overview of everything you need to know.
It will also teach you how to maximise your income and wow your clients.
Let’s get straight to it.
- Differences Between Short and Long-Term Time Lapse Equipment
- The Shoot
- Construction Time Lapse: Next Steps
Differences Between Short and Long-Term Time Lapse
If you have a short-term time lapse background, you will be happy to know some of the skills involved are transferable.
But there are four key differences between short and long-term time lapse:
- The Shoot
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.
Specialised equipment is required for long-term construction time lapse.
Construction time lapse equipment can broken down into five key components:
- The time lapse controller, aka intervalometer
- The power source
- The protective housing
- The local storage
- The camera and lens
We’ll examine each of these in turn.
And we’ll also look at the qualities which make an equipment manufacturer a good candidate for partnership, and why the DIY route isn’t recommended for construction time lapse.
The Time Lapse Controller
Number one is the time lapse controller, or intervalometer, the brains of a long-term time lapse system.
The controller is what turns the camera on and off at set intervals to take photos, for years at a time.
It’s also what connects your time lapse 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
There are three types of power source for a long-term time lapse system:
- AC power: With AC power, a unit can easily handle a standard or fast shooting regime (keep in mind data restraints).
- Solar power: With solar power, a unit can usually handle any standard regime but may struggle if shooting regimes are too aggressive.
- Extended battery power: Battery power is best used as a back-up power source; use AC or solar power as a primary. photoSentinel’s external battery pack will last up to 60 days on a standard regime, and is recommended for far northern or underground environments where there is little to no sunlight.
The Protective Housing
You’ll want a housing rated at IP-66 weather-proofing to keep out dust and moisture for the life of the project.
If you’re shooting in extreme conditions (sub-zero or desert environments), pay attention to the system’s maximum operating temperatures.
If you’re using a zoom-lens, you may need a bigger, specialist housing for the camera. If this is a concern for your project, talk to one of our staff about our larger ‘Beast’ housing.
The Local Storage
It’s impractical to upload RAW to the cloud, so large local SSD storage 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.
Camera and Lens
And of course, a camera and lens are needed to shoot the time lapse.
An entry-level DSLR, combined with a wide-angle lens 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, an APS-C camera is a better choice for long-term time lapse.
It’s a fraction of the cost and will still let you work with high-quality photos.
Choosing a Company to Partner With
Obviously, we think photoSentinel is the best company to support photographers doing long-term time lapse!
But, if you are weighing up options of different companies, here are some good questions to ask:
- What level of technical support do they provide, and during what 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?
- How many years of industry experience do they have?
- If you’re going to be using more than one system, what fleet management functionality do they have?
photoSentinel offers tech support across multiple timezones, has a ton of free, high-value resources, and has deployed over 4000 cameras world-wide.
We have an expert R&D team that’s always working on new, high-value features, updates and products.
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 Time Lapse
While the idea of saving money through the DIY-route may be tempting, we advise against that.
Because long-term time lapse 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, premium equipment like the photoSentinel Tempo has years of experience behind it.
So, you can be confident that your equipment is reliable and time-tested.
Production of a long-term time lapse 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 time lapse video needs to be engaging and exciting.
(Skip to the section on Post-Production for advice on editing your construction time lapse video)
Interval Settings for Shooting
In short-term time lapse, intervals are only a few seconds apart.
This is necessary to document rapid change so that you don’t miss any of the action.
And it is sometimes appropriate for construction time lapse when energetic activities are happening on-site.
Concrete pours, swarms of workers and cranes moving can all be all fast-paced events.
You’ll want to be aware of these events well in advance so you can prepare short intervals for them.
However, 95% of the time on a construction site, change between photos will happen extremely slowly.
This is because you will document the changes 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.
Which Camera Settings Are Best?
The three golden rules of setting a camera for long-term time lapse are:
- Shoot in aperture priority.
- Lock every other setting down to manual (especially focus).
- 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.
For other settings (like white balance), the exact setting is not important but picking a manual setting will ensure consistency across photos.
Never use auto-focus as it can completely ruin a long-term time lapse.
And don’t forget to save the camera settings by turning it off and back on again.
Cellular Data Usage
A long-term time lapse system with web connectivity and cloud services will require cellular data.
Photographers new to long-term time lapse 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.
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 time lapse 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.
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: Generally (depending on stock levels and other orders) we can ship within 48 hours. But, we recommend allowing two weeks, because there’s no guarantee.
- Shipping time usually takes 3-5 business days, though this may blow out if the equipment gets held up at customers, so make sure you factor that into your time line.
- 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 before installing.)
- 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 time lapse video that engages and excites.
Making an Incredible Time Lapse Video
Technical considerations aside, the final time lapse video itself needs to hold interest and engage viewers.
As much as we love long-term time lapse, we’re the first to admit that a straight three-minute time lapse video of a building gets boring quickly.
That’s why it’s important to keep things interesting, and one of the best ways to do this is with B-roll.
Plan in advance to shoot B-roll throughout the project so you have plenty to play around with.
Slo-motion welding, interviews with key personnel, aerial footage, and more, will make your final video much more captivating.
A Final Point About Production: Murphy’s Law
In a perfect world, nothing ever goes wrong.
In reality with long-term time lapse, 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.
The main post-production challenge with long-term time lapse is dealing with the huge variations in lighting 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.
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 time lapse video/s easier: 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 time lapse editing software.
It has a dedicated workflow for long-term time lapse, and a full tutorial on how to edit long-term time lapse using LRTimelapse and Lightroom.
There are two more things you should do during manual post-production: Maintain Full Photo Resolution, and Use Frame-Blending.
Maintain Full Photo Resolution
Work with the full resolution of your images right up until you drag them into your final video time line.
When making a construction time lapse 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.
The best to deal with object flicker in post-production is to use frame-blending.
In After Effects, you can use the CC Wide Time effect, 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 Time Lapse Movie Generation
The second approach to post-production is automation, so that you don’t have to do it all yourself.
The photoSentinel AI Timelapse Composer does much of the post-production work – best image selection, histogram equalisation, stabilisation, frame blending – for you with the click of a button!
Beginners might not have the skills, time, or facilities to completely edit a time lapse movie from scratch.
So, it’s perfect for photographers who are just starting out in long-term time lapse.
Let’s cover four aspects of the business side of construction time lapse.
- How should you pitch your service to clients so that you can win jobs?
- What are the hidden costs you need to know so that you can factor them into your fees and budgeting?
- How can you upsell your client through bonus deliverables and add-ons?
- What should you charge your clients for your services so that you can maximise 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.
Knowing the hidden costs of construction time lapse 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)
- 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 time lapse video, you could deliver:
- Aerial photography/videography
- On-site short-term time lapse
- Live action video
- Interviews with key personnel
- 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 time lapse 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? Your costs would blow out and east significantly into your profit.
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.
Construction Time Lapse: Next Steps
This guide was your primer to long-term time lapse, but your education doesn’t have to stop there.
There are dozens of moving parts in long-term time lapse; we’ve created resources to teach you about all of them.
And if you still have questions, call or email our team of experts any time.
- The 10 rookie mistakes you MUST avoid when shooting construction timelapse.
- WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW to choose the right camera and lens for construction timelapse.
- Avoid bill shock with this Timelapse Data Calculator.
- Follow these 8 ESSENTIAL project planning tips to get started right.
- Download Your Free Ebook: How to Make Money With Construction Timelapse