Operating a time-lapse camera system outdoors

The British weather is often lambasted for its apparent unpredictability and constant cycle of rain, sun and snow. And rightly so indeed. From John O’Groats to Land’s End, changing weather is always guaranteed.

If there is one thing going in the isle’s favour it is probably the diverse scenery spread far and wide (perhaps that rain is good for something after all!) And the UK’s rich history means there are plenty of examples of it through the centuries – from paintings to drawings and from photographs to films.

With technology improving, the ways of capturing the differing landscapes of the country are increasing. Time-lapse is just one of these, but is arguably now the most popular. In a nutshell, creating a time-lapse is as simple as setting up a camera and – usually using an intervalometer – programming it to capture images at set intervals. For flowers blooming this might be every few minutes, for clouds moving this could be as quickly as every few seconds or for long-term changes over seasons hour-long intervals might be more appropriate.

But all technology has its limitations. So what are the pitfalls when it comes to capturing outdoors?

Firstly, it is that pesky weather. As almost everything else has improved with time, electronic gadgets still seem to be limited by their inability to operate in wet conditions. A single drop of water can turn even the most self-respecting, moderately priced camera into an expensive paperweight. Couple that with the erratic temperature changes and extreme weather events and it amounts to a huge challenge.

It is a challenge that most hobbyists or amateurs might struggle to take on. Fortunately, professional time-lapse companies have spent years developing and perfecting protective systems for the most up-to-date and expensive professional cameras. As well as ensuring no water can get into their camera systems, particular control hardware is also installed to regulate temperature, ensuring consistent operation through the depths of winter and at the height of summer.

Powering the camera is a further issue. Where possible, mains power is naturally a preference for most people. But solar and wind systems can also be utilised to extend a camera’s battery life. After all, even the most up-to-date cameras can have their batteries run dry after a few hours. Not ideal for anything long-term!

Why-DIY-time-lapse-systems-or-hiring-a-set-up-is-a-bad-idea

How many coverings of snow will we get this year?

When fixing outdoors – and the elements above are under control – security is another factor. Leaving thousands of pounds worth of equipment out in the open is likely to lead to a theft or two. In the short-term it might be possible to stay with your set-up, but if you want to capture anything over a number of days, months or even years, you are going to need to consider whether it is viable.

Insurance and risk assessments should also be in your mind when operating a time-lapse camera system outside. These three elements are exceptionally relevant for professional companies, who might operate on building sites and in high-footfall areas. Construction photography is rapidly growing in popularity, but having a bulky camera system in place can also be cumbersome and unsafe unless secured safely.

Because of this it is tempting to look into ‘off-the-shelf’ ‘solutions’, but be wary of the quality and applications of them. A video created from these sorts of cameras will not provide the high quality time-lapse edit you might expect. At best, it will be of webcam standard. It certainly cannot match a professional video created from Ultra HD images. Companies that specialise in time-lapse can fix camera systems in a safe and secure way, without interfering with on-going works or events.

In addition to that, they also have control methods in place that allow them to monitor the camera system and the images, as they are taken in real-time. An ‘off-the-shelf’ camera cannot do this. Being able to change every setting – from focus to f-stops and shutter speeds – means every image captured can be perfect.

It also means that, if for whatever reason the camera system stops functioning correctly, you know about it. Because images are sent remotely across a secure 3G network, they are also backed up. And storage space is not an issue.

Imagine setting up a standalone camera, leaving it for three months. You return to find that it has not captured anything; it has but the images were out of focus or over-exposed; the battery ran out earlier than expected or that the storage was full after a certain period of time and you have missed vital changes. You then also have to deal with turning the images into a time-lapse video.

Getting outdoors with your camera and capturing the world is both an exciting and daunting task. As a hobby, it can be great to experiment with different equipment and methods, but when it comes to capturing a significant project or historic moment, perhaps a helping hand from or simply leaving it to those with years of experience might be the best way to go about it.

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