Make Your Own Time-Lapse Photography System

Movies were born when Auguste and Louis Lumiere (and ultimately Thomas Edison) projected a series of still photos in rapid succession, causing the viewer to perceive motion where there was none.

Matching the projector’s speed with the speed of the camera made the motion lifelike. Undercranking (running the camera slowly) and overcranking (running the camera faster than the projector) caused a film to appear faster or slower than reality. It wasn’t long after the invention of motion pictures that camera operators and directors intentionally ran the camera faster or slower than normal to create special effects.

Time-lapse photography is a variation on this. With time-lapse photography, it’s possible to compress time into short periods, making days or weeks pass by in seconds. Hackneyed examples include flowers unfolding in the sun and clouds passing across scenic horizons. But cobble together a cheap digital camera, a $129 timer, and a motorcycle battery, and you’ve got the basics of a system that can go far beyond clichés.

Old School “Educational Experience”
The traditional time-lapse photography materials include motion picture film; cameras with one or two pin-register mechanisms to keep the picture accurate relative to the sprocket holes; and an intervalometer, an electronic timer that exposes a frame or series of frames at a set interval.

I first attempted a time-lapse film more than 20 years ago. I rented a 16mm time-lapse camera with a double pin-register mechanism and an electronic timer to expose the frame and advance the film (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This old-school time-lapse camera is a Mitchell 16mm animation camera with an electronic intervalometer.


My plan was to photograph the launch of a dozen hot-air balloons. I set the camera on a tripod on the hill above the event, loaded it with 400 feet of 16mm motion picture film, and set the timer to take one frame every few minutes. That calculation was based on how many frames there were on 400 feet of film (16,000 frames, running time about 11 minutes) divided by the number of hours I estimated the event to last (about three).

I started the camera before sunrise on the appointed day, then joined the balloonists. But the wind picked up, making balloon launches dangerous, so only two pilots chose to fly. My film, after processing, suffered from several problems. The most significant was that it ran way too quickly; the balloons were inflated and disappeared out the top of the frame in less than a second. I had chosen too long a period between frames. Double-or triple-speed would have been fine. This turned out to be an “educational experience” — that is, a flop.

Documenting GlobalFlyer
Years passed before the next time-lapse opportunity: to document the construction of Global Flyer, an airplane designed and built by the legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. (The plane flew non-stop around the world in March 2005, setting numerous world records). My project partner Jim Sugar and I had been given exclusive photo access to that plane, and we were there when the first spar of carbon-fiber epoxy was removed from the curing oven. We attached two Nikon F3 35mm film cameras on the hangar walls and began a time-lapse project that lasted well over a year (Figure 2).

Figure 2. One of the Nikon F3 cameras with a long-roll film back affixed. The lens is a 20mm wide-angle. The other camera was fitted with a 15mm lens. The camera is on its own mount, which was then attached to the limpet mounts on the walls of the hangar.


Jim and I bought two 250-exposure long-roll backs for the film cameras we already owned and soon were up-and-running with intervalometers custom-made by D.K. Philbin and Harold Hallikainen in San Luis Obispo, California. We calculated the interval between frames, 19 minutes, by dividing the number of frames on 33 feet of film into the working hours in a two-week period.

We positioned one of the two cameras to look down the fuselage of the plane, almost perfectly centered. The second camera looked across the right wing at an angle. They each shot the same number of frames daily (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The camera’s view of Hangar 63, in which GlobalFlyer was taking shape.


Every two weeks, a technician put in fresh film and mailed the exposed film cartridges to a processing lab in Burbank, which sent me the processed film. I reloaded the film cartridges and mailed them back to the hangar for the next two weeks. Over 15 months, the cameras made a total of about 11,000 frames.

It all would have worked fine except for mechanical problems with one of the cameras. Nikon F3s are not frame-accurate because they don’t have a pin-register mechanism. The relationship between the image and the sprocket holes varied considerably during the project. Sometimes one camera skipped a sprocket while advancing the film, which was fatal to the film from that camera. Converting the film frames to video requires a device called a telecine machine, and these devices presume frame-accuracy. The inconsistent feed was beyond the range of correction possible on the telecine machine. The film exposed by the second camera worked quite well.

Why didn’t I fix the problem? It took five months to accumulate enough processed film to make a test of the telecine conversion (a pricey $300 per hour). By the time I could see the extent of the problem, I was five months into a 15-month project. Any change or movement at that point would have made a visible difference in the film, so I stayed with the status quo. I thought I would be able to solve the problem with a little ingenuity.

That ingenuity took the form of a digital copy stand, which I still use today. It comprises two 35mm film rewinds, a Nikon D1 digital camera, a 55mm macro lens, and a Nikon film transport and diffuser. I run the film, which is held in place by two spring-steel tensioners, through the transport mechanism by hand. Several things never moved during the 15 months, so I can look through the viewfinder to position the film and shoot a copy of each frame. Later, I convert the frames from negative to positive, make color corrections, and batch process them for the time-lapse video.

At my current rate of copying, I estimate I’ll finish in 2016! But the results are quite good, as you can see.

Raising the Roofs
Despite the technical problems I had with the GlobalFlyer shoot, I was hooked. I started looking for opportunities to make more time-lapse photography, this time with more stable and frame-accurate digital cameras.

My next assignment was to document the construction of a barn and house over a period of years. I built a weatherproof box for the new digital time-lapse camera and mounted the box on top of a telephone pole on the property in view of the construction sites (Figure 4). To power the camera and its intervalometer, I employed two 12-volt motorcycle batteries. I installed a solar panel on top of the camera box to keep the batteries charged.

Figure 4. The camera in its weatherproof box sits atop a telephone pole. With its 19mm equivalent lens, the camera has a wide view of the construction site. The solar panel on the top of the box charges the batteries.


The intervalometer, Harbortronics Digisnap, is wired via USB cable to control the Nikon Coolpix 5400 digital camera (Figure 5). Digital video (DV) standard frames are 720 x 480 pixels, so even the modest Coolpix 5400 can record images of adequate resolution for time-lapse.

Figure 5. The Nikon Coolpix 5400 on its bracket. The slotted bars let me position the camera vertically once it was inside the weatherproof box. Lock-nuts ensure it doesn’t move once it’s in position.


The DigiSnap (Figure 6) is a delightful piece of technology, hampered only by its reliance on conventional serial communications for programming. I find serial communication to be a black art that requires a fair amount of experimentation. I succeeded with a freeware terminal emulation program called ZTerm, a Keyspan USB-to-serial adapter, and a cable that came with the unit.

Figure 6. The Digisnap electronic camera controller is fully programmable and can control accessories, such as external lighting, in addition to the camera.


The camera is programmed to take one frame every 12 minutes during work hours, and it’s recorded over 50,000 frames so far. The barn is now complete, but the house has about a year to go. When I’m finished, I’ll have a magnum opus of time-lapse imagery.

I use a 512MB Compact Flash card, which holds two weeks of images. I change the card every other Saturday. The camera box needs occasional cleaning because spiders spin webs around the lens. (One spider makes a four-day appearance in my video!)

When I collect the memory card, I download the images to a folder on my disk drive, creating thumbnail images simultaneously using the Macintosh application ImageCapture. After transferring the images, I weed out obviously underexposed images — the camera records a few frames in darkness each day.

The images are JPEGs, each 1024 x 768 pixels in size. The camera numbers the frames automatically, so they’re always in a four-digit sequence. I sort the photos into folders by month, then I use Adobe Bridge to renumber them with the month name and a five-digit sequence number. (For more on my workflow, see “Find Your Photos Fast.”)

From Still to Motion
Combining a series of still images into a movie is the simplest part of the process. I use Apple’s QuickTime Pro ($29 for Mac or Windows). It can assemble a movie from a folder of images (Figure 7), set the frame rate to a speed of your choice, and then create a QuickTime movie in a few moments. It’s that easy.

Figure 7. QuickTime Pro combines sequences of images into complete videos. Simply direct the application to a folder of sequentially numbered images, and it does the rest.


When the house is finished next year, I’ll assemble the frames (more than 100,000 images by then) into a complete time-lapse story of the construction. I’ll probably discard the stunningly boring sections — whole months where nothing happens. I’ll choose the playback rate then to correspond with the apparent speed of the video.

Demolition Derby
For another project, I made a time-lapse video of the demolition of my friend Chris’s house. He had built a new house in front of the old house, and the time came to demolish the old. I placed my Canon digital camera on the balcony of the adjacent house, installed a time-lapse timer (Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3), and shot for three days as Chris and a group of his friends dismantled the house (Figure 8). My frame rate was set by the capacity of my memory card: 4GB, which stores more than 900 frames at the JPEG quality I selected. I divided eight hours into 900 and came up with 25 seconds per frame.

Figure 8. Chris’s residence is demolished in my time-lapse QuickTime video.


I clamped and taped a tripod to the balcony so it wouldn’t move, and I put the camera on the tripod each morning. Then I left it to snap a frame every 25 seconds until I retrieved it each evening. I copied the frames to my computer and went back the next day to start again. When finished, I had 2,700 frames and an amusing short video of the destruction of the old house that’s also a visual event impossible to enjoy in real time, unless you want to camp out on a construction site for three days.

Opus 129
This summer, my local performing arts center got a new C.B. Fisk pipe organ with 2,768 pipes (Figure 9). This colossal instrument, named Opus 129, was erected in about eight weeks. My friend Bert and I put two time-lapse cameras in the hall to photograph the installation. We chose an exposure interval of approximately two minutes.

Figure 9. The beautiful pipes of the C.B. Fisk Opus 129 organ at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. My time-lapse camera recorded just under 10,000 frames during its construction, culminating in a ten-minute time-lapse video.


For this project, I used the Harbortronics DigiSnap, the Nikon Coolpix 5400, and a single motorcycle battery backed-up by a trickle-charger connected to 110V power. I mounted the camera on a very sturdy video tripod and weighted that down with three sacks of lead shot to keep it from moving during its 56-day assignment. I placed the camera in Row C, Seat 17 in the hall (Figure 10).

Figure 10. The time-lapse camera in the hall of the Performing Arts Center.


The DigiSnap was connected to the Coolpix camera by a USB cable, and it received its time of day from the camera. I programmed the device with start time, interval, and count of photos to take (as opposed to stop-time). For the organ project, I programmed the Digisnap to take a photo every 2:18 in a series of eight 90-minute programs so that I could interrupt the operation of the camera if necessary without losing much. Digisnap can’t begin in the middle of a program; on this schedule (Figure 11), the most I would miss was 87 minutes of action.

Figure 11. My eight camera programs each ran for 90 minutes and made 34 photos. If the camera was interrupted, it started again no more than 90 minutes later. Click on this image for a larger version.


Every three days, I changed the 1GB memory card and transfered its 340 frames to my computer. Every few days, I posted that video to my Web site so anyone could view the organ’s progress. To watch the final movie, go to

Digital vs. Film
My digital time-lapse efforts are so superior to my film experience that it’s hard to say it more emphatically: I will never use film again. Ever! The digital process is more accurate, and it results in better exposures and better color. The detail is much better. There is no grain. ISO speed is not a big issue, and the files are easier to manage. It’s a heck of a lot less expensive, too!

Anyone Can Do It
If your curiosity has been piqued, try your hand at time-lapse photography. All it takes is a digital camera (consumer cameras work fine) and a method for exposing a frame on an interval. The Canon Powershot line of consumer cameras, among others, has a built-in interval timer controlled from the camera’s menus. With that ability, you don’t need anything else except a tripod to take a series of time-lapse photos. Then assemble the frames into a movie using QuickTime Pro or the equivalent.

One note of caution: Beware of battery failure! A consumer camera will run for just a few hours on a standard battery. An external power supply is a necessary investment. Motorcycle batteries, for example, run a camera for several days without failing.

With the right vantage point, a time-lapse camera system, and enough storage, you too can make time fly with professional-looking results.


Posted on: September 11, 2006

Brian P. Lawler

Brian P. Lawler is a graphic arts and prepress consultant and writer based in San Luis Obispo, California.

23 Comments on Make Your Own Time-Lapse Photography System

  1. I’m in the midst of a time lapse project that involves the construction of a building that will eventually house a Saturn V rocket. This is my first time lapse effort! My primary camera, a Nikon D200, is mounted in front and just to the side of where the building is going up. I’ll use one, maybe 2 others, to capture the actual moving of the 36-story tall rocket into the building next year. I’m trying to find software, other than Quick Pro, to merge the individual images together for editing since I’ll be editing in shots from the other cameras at some point along the way. Thanks for the article.

  2. I’ve been fascinated by time-lapse for nearly 50 years. When I was a kid, my dad had a movie camera with single-frame capability. We used to do animations with toys, driving model cars around roads drawn on a chalkboard that appeared in front of the toy car and disappeared behind. Fun!

    I’ve done a fair bit since then, including some documentation for a step van that I painted:

    I also was an instructor in a natural building program, and did a five-week sequence of building a cob (mud & straw) art studio. Unfortunately, I had battery problems near the end, and it gets choppy:

    This is nearly 15 minutes long, made up of over 5,000 frames. Titles and effects were done in Photoshop, a frame at a time. The large version is 1.2GB!

  3. i am so much interested and willing to learn

  4. I am going to try to record using a Ricoh r10 camera a fungi growing over 12 hours. Any ideas to make this a success. I am a little worried over exposure over this period.
    Brian Harvey Australia
    email fungi ( remove this )

  5. Could you provide more instructions on how you built your weather proof box?

  6. Gday, I am looking for a manufacturer of a similar type of weather proof box. Yuo say you made your own…care to elaborate or let me know if anoyone helped? I have a visual device I need to secure into a weatherproof container so that it will still be viewable inside.

    Can you help?

    Please contact Dave Clare ASAP at

    Many thanks

  7. Very informative article! It has given me some news ideas. Here is one of my beginners attempt at t time-lapse: Valley Clouds and Lake Time Lapse, with camera settings

  8. Nikon DSLR series such as D200, D300, D3 etc also have built-in time-lapse.

    You mentioned connecting the DigiSnap to a Coolpix camera via a USB cable and that it received its time of day from the camera. I have a DigiSnap, which I would like to use witha Coolpix 5000. Do you connect the Digisnap directly to the camera using a USB to Serial adapter? Where does the terminal emulation program come into this?

    I’d greatly appreciate your help.


    Behzad Olia

  9. I have just started to get into and study all the time lapse stuff. I think it is some of the coolest stuff. Thanks alot for this article and good job….now for the semester project of a weather (thief) proof box.

  10. Great website and nice timelapse movies!

    I ordered an electronic intervalometer which will be used on my Canon Eos 450 with 17-40 f4.0 L. I was wondering if there are timeschedules and tips how to make a timelapse while the camera is going from one side to the otherside (do you make 5 pictures then on 1 position, then another 5 pictures of the next position or is it (for example) 1 picture on 1 position each 25 seconds (or whatever time interval you use in this matter). If i am correct, you always need to use the same diafragma right (f11 for example with the exposure time on automatic)?

    If someone has info or tips, pls mail them to




  11. Brian, this was both very informative and entertaining. Thanks for sharing your efforts.

  12. It sounds like you have been successful in this process! I am glad that I found this article, it is very helpful and inspiring. I initially learned of this process when I heard Robert Harrison’s story on NPR, photos from space. I would like to create a time lapse video (put together with digital stills) to document the growth of flowers in Deckers, Colorado. How would you recommend going about this in the most economical way? Which camera/how do you program it? I would have to make sure it’s waterproof because I plan to leave the camera outside for one wee or more. Thanks so much for your help!! Anna K.

  13. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences in this field. I am just getting ready to get started in this fascinating subject. Your sharing is much appreciated.

  14. Hello, and thank you for this inspiring and informative article (I’m still amazed by the ability of the internet, combined with the good will of people like yourself – to bring me the right piece of information when needed!)

    About a year ago I’ve made an indoor time lapse of 5 hours, depicting a bread rising / swelling in an oven. Then I got hooked, as many mentioned here…

    I am about to create a year long, outdoor time lapse for an artistic project, and the system you’ve built for the barn’s built time lapse matches all my demands.

    Could you please advice me on the total costs for the construction of the box? (I am currently applying for funding for this project and need to write an estimated cost for the whole project)

    if possible, please mail your reply to rassava[at]
    Many thanks!

  15. Very interesting and clear

  16. Google “CHDK” and you will find open source (free) software which will allow your camera (only applies to Canon compacts) to function as a time-lapse camera + a motion detection camera.

    Terry Dillon

  17. Hi , I am an electrical contractor and have just been awarded a job involving the construction of a new service station , my client has approached me to set up a pole and camera to develop a time lapse movie of the construction progress over a six month period . I have seen what you have done and i am very impressed and interested to learn how to do such a thing . I have no dramas with power supply but lack the knowledge of what type of camera and equipment to use . If I could ask for a few minutes of your time to contact me with this information it would be grately appreciated . I would insist on paying you for this time . My contact details – Look forward to working with you .

    Michael R

  18. Nice article, thanks for posting! I made a very basic time lapse using only Gorillacam (iPhone app) and VirtualDub (free windows) and posted a how-to as well as the result here:

  19. about the trigger? what type of intervalometer did you use? did you use something like this? (mechanical intervalometer: )

  20. Sorry guy. Only the last 14 lines were worth reading.
    All the other material here is out-of-place.

  21. Date: Jan 19, 2012 18:00 EST
    Title: Reviving an old Coolpix 5400 for Time Lapse Photography
    By: MikesMultiMedia
    Remarks Follow:
    I was about to ebay my old Nikon Coolpix 5400 and started wondering about what it can do now which may be useful. A couple of years ago I used it as a random time lapse camera at events I was photographing. I’d put it somewhere high and spread the photos out at a reasonable rate of capture.

    I started also looking at web cam options (like I really do a lot of webcaming – not), and then I ran into a couple of articles discussing time lapse photography (TLP) (like this one) which then discussed cameras capable of TLP.

    Moreover, I began wondering what other features of this camera could be exploited to put it to some creative good use. I do recall that Nikon makes camera control software (never used) which may provide some remote “security” camera style operation around the house (back deck stuff) – landscapers, dogs pooping in back common area grass – traffic patterns in our townhome community – so yes, this looks like an interesting “reviving” of the life of this old Coolpix 5400. Mind you its been in a box for about 3 plus now.

    Battery power would be another issue (other than exposure issues, and start – stop times (during daylight hours for best exposure practices).

    I didn’t like the idea of using a power adapter depending on 120v outlet “somewhere” so the external battery power is more up my interest alley. Perhaps a 12v source (motorcycle, or that power jump starter automotive product which is portable and self containted with a built in lighter outlet for the “converter” which could be adjusted for the camera’s power requirements.

    Next would be the housing – to avoid insect issues and moisture issues as well and other environmentals such as dust, temperature).

    I’d like to see if I could install it on a remote controllable device to adjust its framing as needed (so you didn’t ahave to do it mannuall – because, it will be most likely put somewhere not to easy to get too daily (roof top attic hole, or other area that provides a good view of soemthing.

    The battery seems shot for the camera anyway, and I can’t tell if its recharging properly – so that is an issue.

    I’ve also noticed you have a wide angle lens on your coolpix – what is the brand / model/ cost… if possible.

    So, got to go, thanks for the article, and I hope this comment provides some useful insightful feedback.


  22. Now, six years later I watch with awe. Makes me want to run out and buy a timer. Now, with 32 and even 64 gig SD’s time lapse would be even easier. Good work!
    Tim C.
    London, Canada Nov. 10/2012

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