Lapse of Time

Time-Lapse. What is it?

According to Wikipedia:

‘Time-lapse photography is a cinematography technique whereby each film frame is captured at a rate much slower than it will be played back. When replayed at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. Time-lapse photography can be considered to be the opposite of high speed photography.’

At the end of 2010 a client asked me if I could make a time-lapse of some changes going on at their factory, ‘of course I can‘ was my reply. ‘It’ll have to be spread over a year, shot from a few angles‘ he added… Wow. Up till that moment my idea of time-lapse was pretty much dominated by the short clips everyone has seen of clouds flying through sky or cars whizzing about like toys. All shot in during a relatively short space of time, compressed into a few seconds of fascinating action. A year though.. I clearly needed to open my R&D dept, and quickly! The project was starting at Christmas 2010.

Brief: To capture factory internal redevelopment from multiple angles and locations within the plant. Project duration, 12 months.

After poking around the web and asking around, I realised that these types of time-lapse exposures aren’t that common. Deep capture time-lapse seems a very vague area dominated by rather low quality images captured by web-cams or similar. I’m a photographer so I do have certain self-imposed quality requirements. This left a few options open to me, using a decent compact camera or a DSLR. The choice was made quickly, the price and availability of entry level DSLR’s swayed me.

A few questions my R&D dept threw at me:

  • How to mount the cameras.
  • How to control the cameras.
  • How to protect the cameras.
  • How to retrieve images from the cameras.

Mounting the cameras seemed pretty straight forward, the cameras have to be in high positions, between 4 and 6 metres, well out of the way and with good vantage points. By it’s nature, the factory has plenty of high steel constructions, supporting columns and gantries, ideal places for the cameras. Using a commercially available photographic clamp would solve this, albeit modified a little with some metal brackets and a solid, but adjustable tripod head.

To control the cameras there are a few options. Many cameras have built in time-lapse tools but these are not geared towards the type of capture I need, neither are most commercially available remote control handsets. I really needed to control and capture images by and to a computer. This is called tethered capture, often used in a studio situation, the camera shoots and image and it’s transmitted directly via a USB cable directly to a computer. This is great but there is an issue. USB is a connection protocol that cannot be transmitted over long cables. The suggested maximum length of a USB cable is 5 metres. Bearing in mind my cameras are at least 4 metres in the air this doesn’t leave much cable to connect to a computer. After, testing I found that I can get a reliable connection over 8 Metres of cable. Enough for what I need. Any further and I would need further hardware signal boosters.

Not only do the cameras need a data cable tether, they need power too. Battery power just isn’t an option, they’d last 2 days or so on a battery and that would require a lot of access and batter swapping, inevitably knocking the camera each time a battery was changed, altering it’s position, not good for a time-lapse. The only other option is AC power, this requires an adaptor of course and a long cable to reach the nearest power outlet. Luckily I have full cooperation from the client’s IT and technical services so together we have installed a computer and power supply within 8 metres of every camera installation.

The project is indoors which solves many of the time-lapse photographers nightmares, varying lighting conditions. However, the environment isn’t the friendliest, It’s a huge factory that has robots welding car components for 24hours a day. There is a huge amount of microscopic dust that settles everywhere so any equipment needs to be protected. Not only from dust though, but from potentially light fingers. The cameras are securely clamped in place but as a safety precaution they are bound to the structure with steel cables. The whole setup is then wrapped in plastic, cables are all safely tied away with tie-wraps and just the camera lens pokes through the plastic protection.

Retrieving the images would normally require visits to the factory, I’d have to manually download all the images from the host computers to a portable hard drive. I do still have to do this but due to that good cooperation with the client’s IT dept I have complete and total remote access to all cameras and their host computers. This allows me to log-in to each camera’s host computer, check it’s working, adjust any parameter on the camera, start, stop or adjust the time-lapse capture rate and even download the captured images. A huge time-saver for me. Now I just have to visit the factory on scheduled trips to check the hardware, move cameras if needed and backup all the images to a portable hard drive.

That’s about it really, an outline of one of my latest projects. At the beginning of 2012 I’ll have all of the images and together with video and other ‘shop-floor’ images made throughout 2011 I’ll be editing the complete factory re-fit into some manageable and entertaining video films. Exciting times ahead.

Many people will want to see the setup for real, however this is one of those typically awkward commercial projects where client privacy remains critical. I will endeavour to make some shots of cameras in-situ and with client consent, I’ll try to publish clips as and when I’m able to.

Here’s an image of the basic gear needed for one camera setup.

  • Jef Janssens - Great job Rob! Just wondering if the vibritions of the machinery don’t cause focus and/or POV shift.

  • Rob Mitchell - Thanks Jef,
    There’s no problem with vibration, even though the factory is dealing with large welding jobs, all the robots are very smooth in actions. The mounts I have for the cameras are all huge ‘I’ section steel girders so very stable. Focus is all pre-focused and set on manual too. I noticed the AF systems cause very slight variations in image framing.

  • koen - Hi,

    I just read about this project. I was wondering if the time-laps was available for the public.

    Kind regards

  • Rob Mitchell - Koen,
    The final product is essentially ready however the client wants to show it at the Frankfurt car show so we’re going to shoot some extra video footage in Germany to be edited into it. Once it’s been shown at the car show I should have general release on it and will post on the blog.

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *