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Intro to the Intervalometer: Time Lapse Lessons for Nikon’s D800

1/18/2013 10:48 AM Eastern

I’ve never had a call in my cinematographic career to shoot time lapse footage. Time lapse is something I’ve been interested in, something I wanted to do, but I never had a project that required it, nor were the tools easily accessible to me.

One of the wonderful features in Nikon’s D800 HDSLR camera is a built-in intervalometer that allows time lapse still photography in the “interval timer shooting” mode and time lapse HD video in the “time lapse photography” mode.

An intervalometer is a fairly simple tool: it’s basically a combo timer and automated trigger you can set to take an exposure at given time intervals for a set period of time. If you set the camera to shoot one frame every minute for 24 minutes, you will condense nearly half an hour into one second of video (at 24 frames per second).

In the D800’s still camera mode, you set up the interval timer shooting function to take a certain number of frames at a set time interval. You can set this sequence to begin at a specific time of day or to begin immediately.

In the interval timer shooting mode, you set the time between exposures in hours, minutes and seconds, from one frame every second to one frame every 24 hours. Next, set the total number of times an image should be taken and now many exposures should be taken at each interval (between 1 and 9). For example, you can direct the camera to shoot four pictures every five minutes until it has taken 100 sets of five images (500 pictures).

Then you select OK and the camera does the rest.

A blinking “interval” light shows up on the top display along with a time indicator in hours and minutes noting how much time is left in the interval.

The D800’s time lapse photography mode not only shoots still frames at given time intervals, it combines them into a QuickTime movie at your movie settings (720/1080, 24/30/60 fps, etc.). When the shooting is done, you can play back the time lapse as a movie in the camera.

You can adjust the interval timer shooting mode settings without a media card in the camera, but you can’t access the time lapse photography mode without a card. I presume this is because the time lapse photography mode is limited to creating the maximum of a 20-minute video file and the camera requires a media card to calculate the size of the card, space left on the card, and the maximum size of a movie that can be recorded—but it gets a little funkier than that.

When you select the interval in time lapse photography mode, you’ll find that the options are significantly limited; you can choose intervals between 1 second and 10 minutes, but no longer—as opposed to the 24 hours available in interval timer shooting. The full duration of the shooting can’t be longer than 7 hours 59 minutes. For the longest time I couldn’t fathom a rationale for this.

Finally I realized that if you shoot at the highest frequency, one shot per second, for the longest duration, 7:59, you would have a 19:58.8 movie—which is just under the camera’s maximum movie duration of 20 minutes. So that makes some sense, but why can’t you go beyond 7:59 if you’re shooting less frequently than one frame per second? You just can’t. The reality is that I’m rarely if ever going to want to make a time lapse movie of 19 minutes or longer, but I’m likely to want to span a period of time that is greater than eight hours. Unfortunately, in time lapse mode you just can’t.

Also, like a big tease, the indicator on the time lapse photography screen shows the length of your movie to be created against the total length of movie recording time left on your media card. This confused me for a while: I was looking at a 19:58.8 time lapse movie and it said /30’31.0”—which I believed meant that my movie was almost 20 minutes out of a possible 30, but I knew it wasn’t possible to record a movie longer than 20 minutes. I later realized this second number represents the space left on the card, not left in the movie.

All of my complaints here are nitpicky. Just having a built-in intervalometer that not only does the automated shooting for me but also wraps it into a pretty little QuickTime package? That’s amazing.

There is another funky aspect that tripped me up early on, however—and the manual does not tell you about it. The time lapse photography mode slaves to the still camera settings. If you are in movie mode and you set your ISO and aperture and shutter speed, they have no effect on the time lapse photography. I found it hard to believe that the camera settings didn’t carry over between still camera mode and movie mode, but indeed they do not. You have to switch the camera into still mode, set your ISO, aperture and shutter speed, then go into the menu and set up the time lapse functions.

I also made the mistake early on in my experimentation of leaving the auto-focus on. The manual casually warns you not to do this, but it doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why. The camera’s intervalometer will trigger the shutter at a given interval, but if the camera is in auto-focus mode and cannot instantaneously get focus (and it will attempt to find focus for each exposure), it will not take a photo. It will ship that exposure until the next intervalometer trigger, when it will again attempt to find focus.

Before I figured this out, I was convinced my D800’s time lapse function was broken. Instead of exposing every five seconds as scheduled, my camera was waiting sometimes 10 seconds, sometimes 20 and as much as 30 between shutter clicks. When I turned off the auto-focus on the lens, the camera took an exposure every five seconds like clockwork.

Obviously the time lapse photography mode is of most interest for video shooters. It’s handy, built-in and, although limited in some respects, it’s versatile.

Let’s return to the interval timer shooting function for a moment. Why is this of interest to filmmakers and video shooters? Well, for one thing, the time lapse photography function makes a 24 Mb/s H.264 1920 x 1080 QuickTime video. This is great for many applications—although I am frustrated by Nikon’s use of such a low bit rate—but the camera has a gargantuan 36.3 megapixel sensor that’s capable of shooting 7360 x 4912 pixel count images. That’s a 7K image! It will also shoot in 14-bit raw, uncompressed .tiff or low compression .jpeg.

Instead of relying on the camera to automatically create a 1920 x 1080 QuickTime from your time lapse footage, you can shoot a 7K still image sequence using the interval timer shooting function, bring the sequence into software like Adobe After Effects and create a 7K movie. There’s more than enough resolution for you to reframe, crop or blow up as needed. Even if you integrate it into a 4K workflow, you still have almost twice the image size for repositioning.

I tried some moon footage with the 24-120mm Nikkor lens—which is really far too short to shoot the moon—but I was able to crop the 7360 to 1920 and turn my 120mm into the equivalent of a 460mm lens!

The file sizes of the still images produced by this camera are epic in nature: 74.4 MB per frame for 14-bit raw, 16.3 MB per frame for the lowest (“fine”) compression .jpeg and a whopping 108.2 MB per frame for uncompressed .tiff files. The amount of information and detail you can extract from these files is truly extraordinary. You can also bracket your exposures automatically during interval timer shooting and you can incorporate the D800’s high dynamic range (HDR) mode—which will significantly stretch the camera’s latitude. Neither of these functions is available in time lapse mode.

The time lapse photography mode is handy: it’s compact and it really works. The interval timer mode is a professional tool appropriate for any set, from low-budget indies to big-budget features.

I should also note that the D800 has an auto-crop from the full-size sensor to the DX sensor (equivalent of a Super 35mm film frame or Canon’s APS-C). Doing so in time lapse photography mode adds a 1.6x crop factor to your lens’ field of view, so you have an automatic lens extender in the camera that will allow you to get a longer apparent focal length from your existing lenses. As needed, you can shoot the full-frame sensor and have a 1:1 relationship with your focal lengths, or crop down to the DX sensor and extend the lenses by 1.6x while gaining a little depth of field.

Nikon was a bit behind the 8-ball in terms of HDSLR camera functionality until the release of the D800, which features some extraordinary tools that Canon has yet to integrate. These two time lapse functions are definitely stand-outs in that department.