Many years ago, I first played with a Canon Powershot G3. I knew little about photography but I understood animation and image sequences. Most of the functions on the little camera were utter gibberish to me except one feature that had me in awe: the Intervalometer.
An intervalometer, or remote timer, is basically a way to take a sequence of many photographs automatically. You sometimes find this feature in your camera menu or you can use an external device.
With the intervalometer feature I could effortlessy produce live stop-motion or time-lapse sequences by programming the G3 to take photos automatically. I would then stitch my sequences together and viola: video. Watching the world whizz by in variable speeds was magical, but the quality wasn't great.
forward some years and I now own a couple of DSLR’s, the functions are
no longer gibberish, instead they are my friends, giving my quality
level a well-needed boost.
However, neither of my DSLR’s
contained an intervalometer feature. Denied of my passion for time-lapse
photography I grumbled a bit and finally invested in some external
devices to fill the void.
As much as I think intervalometers
should be a basic feature in any camera, even my iPhone can do this, I
learned there are actually some advantages to having a remote trigger or
‘off camera’ intervalometer.
So why would you need one?
Almost all intervalometers will come with a large trigger button.
This is useful because even a stills camera on a tripod is prone to shake when you hit the button. Of course you can always set the camera’s delay timer to take a shot after 2 or 10 seconds but you might miss a perfect moment. Even more annoying is forgetting to set the camera back again and missing more perfect moments.
Using a trigger button on a intervalometer takes away the risk factor of shaking the camera and also gives you the opportunity to trigger the camera exactly when you want to without touching the camera.
The other benefit of taking your hands off of the camera is when taking portraits. Particularly with nervous subjects or children. After taking a moment to set up your shot you can step away from the camera and focus instead on getting your subject to relax or behave. With your finger firmly on the trigger its just a matter of waiting for that perfect moment to happen and then fire away.
Other than manually triggering the camera you can also set a delay to decide when the camera begins shooting.
camera will usually have a time delay of 2 or 10 seconds. With an
intervalometer you can decide to trigger the camera pretty much whenever
you want. Maybe you want the camera to trigger in a couple of hours or
maybe a few days. The trigger delay setting is most useful for times of
day where you might be either too busy or possibly sleeping.
you’re on holiday and you know you are going to get an epic sunset from
your hotel balcony but it’s also your last night and you should
probably be taking your significant other out to a classy restaurant.
Assuming you took a tripod and an intervalometer with you on your
holiday, no problem. Simply set up the shot and configure the timer to
fire off some shots when the magic begins, cross fingers and review
later on. You can always use your smart phone to calculate sun positions
Of course there is an increased element of chance when relying on the camera to begin automatically without your supervision. The most common use for a trigger delay is for setting off a time-lapse sequence. Whether its sunset, sunrise or simply not shaking the camera when a sequence begins. An intervalometer really comes into its own when used for time-lapse.
camera to take automatic sequences with a set time between photographs
is really the killer feature of an intervalometer. The interval setting
is where you determine how much time passes between each photograph is
taken. This is essential for time-lapses.
Maybe you want to capture clouds whizzing past or watch crowds dashing around like crazy. In these circumstances you could set a relatively low interval such as 3 to 5 seconds.
Or maybe you want to capture movement that can’t be
seen by the human eye such as shadows creeping over buildings. In those
situations you would use an extended interval, maybe 15 to 30 seconds.
only thing to keep your eye on is that your interval time does not
exceed your exposure length. Your camera will still be controlling the
shutter speed and your intervalometer doesn’t really care about this.
Worst case scenario you end up with less images than you expect because
the camera is still busy processing an image whilst trying to trigger
the next image.
Bulb (or Long)
Maybe time-lapse isn’t
really your thing and instead you’re more interested in light painting
and star trails. Most cameras will come with a mode known as Bulb. Bulb
mode is essentially exposing an image for a longer time than others
modes such as Manual will allow. It’s pretty useless in the daytime but
at night and in darker conditions it’s a great feature.
mode you essentially hold down the shutter button for a really long time
and let go when you think your image is exposed. The concept is great
but counter-intuitive. If you are shooting a super long exposure the last
thing you should be doing is touching the camera.
control Bulb (often called Long just to add to the confusion) on an
intervalometer you simply program how long the image should expose
without touching the camera. Using a hands-free shutter speed reduces
the shake and prevents you from holding down the button for a really
long time freeing you up to paint light or enjoy a warm cocoa.
last feature you will find on an intervalometer is the number feature.
Often depicted by a large ominous N. The N stands for the number of
Assuming that you are going to shoot a timelapse
sequence then you’ll probably need to take a few hundred photographs to
turn your sequence into a video. The number function will allow you to
do just that.
Depending on what brand of intervalometer you have
the number limits will vary. My official Canon intervalometer goes up to
99 photographs. At 25 frames per second this gives me a measly four
seconds of video.
What might not be instantly obvious is that
setting the timer to 0 will actually take an infinite sequence. Infinite if your memory card never fills up or your camera
battery never dies, that is.
Other intervalometers seem to be programmable up to about 399 frames which will give you a more generous 16 seconds of video.
this point everything starts to get a little bit too mathematical, at
least you can always turn to some smart apps and various time-lapse
calculators to ease the headache.
range from ridiculously cheap to insanely expensive but should be in
every photographers toolkit. Taking a dongle approach is super
convenient but not the only way you can remotely control your camera.
you’re not lucky enough to have an intervalometer built into your
camera you can always look into installing firmware hacks like Magic
Lantern. You can check the software that came with your camera
and see if there’s a way to tether your camera to a laptop and trigger
it via USB or wifi. If you’re super lucky you might find compatible apps
for your smart phone that can communicate with your camera. The super geeky amongst you can explore using light and sound to trigger your camera.
Whatever your approach, taking your hands off the camera and experimenting with triggering your camera remotely opens up endless new ways to increase your creativity and improve your photography skills.