In the Field: Producing DSLT Timelapses with the Pclix LT Intervalometer
Using a DSLR for video may be a relatively new trend, but DSLRs have been creating video for years, one picture at a time. Time lapse is finding a new life in creative media. The night before I wrote this article, I saw a TV commercial for an insurance company that used a time-lapse-like sequence. You see these sequences increasingly in feature films, and they're catching on in event filmmaking as well to represent the passage of time in an artistic and arresting manner. To create these fascinating images, you need a tool called an intervalometer. Some of the modern DSLRs have this feature built into their menus. However, using your brand new DSLR to produce these sequences can be a poor allocation of resources-that is, unless you own a Pclix LT intervalometer. The Pclix LT can be used to trigger most cameras at regular intervals through time. The Pclix LT has been used by scientists and special effects specialists for years. The Pclix is an affordable answer for the event filmmaker who wants to start creating these spectacular time-lapse effects.
Getting Started With the Pclix
The Pclix LT is a not much larger than a deck of cards, but it does a ton of tricks. It can communicate with many types of cameras, not just DSLRs. Its infrared LED can be programmed to trigger any camera that has an infrared sensor, including Canon PowerShots, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax cameras. It can also trigger a camera by connecting the correct shutter release cable to your camera (sold separately). For a complete list of supported cameras, go to www.pclix.com/pages/ cables.html.
With the custom shutter release, the Pclix LT can control almost all DSLRs. The device runs on a pair of AAA batteries. The batteries can continually trigger the camera for a week, many times longer, before needing
to be changed. If you have projects that may last longer, Pclix offers an AC/DC transformer that can be purchased separately.
The Pclix Intervalometer with the Canon 5D
Getting started with the Pclix was a bit confusing. It has a very basic interface, by design. There is an on/off switch, two program dials, two LEDs, and a shutter release button. At first, this is a little disarming. Where is the touchscreen and menu button you'd expect to see on a device like this? But once the initial programming is completed, very little is needed to operate the device. n fact, the simplicity of the Pclix makes it more
rugged and flexible to use in the field. Plus, the lack of a screen to power is what gives the Pclix its great battery life. You need to program the device to trigger your camera only once; after that, it is permanently in
its memory. Set the interval using the dials, and it starts triggering your camera. If the device is powered down or the power source is disconnected, it will stop controlling your camera, but it will maintain the programming. When repowered, it will continue triggering your camera at the interval it was set to when it was powered down.
Programming the Pclix
Programming the Pclix to shoot at regular intervals is very easy. Just rotate the dials to the duration you want the interval to shoot and watch it go. Without additional programming, it's designed to shoot at
intervals between 1 second and 89 seconds.
The trick is calculating the interval you need. To do that, you first need to think about the duration you want your time lapse to be. Let's say you want to show a sunset with clouds floating through the scene
with a final duration of 30 seconds. Multiply your frame rate by your duration. In the case of NTSC video, we're talking about 900 frames. Then, divide your frames by the time you have to shoot. Let's say you are going to shoot for 2.5 hours. So in a 2.5-hour period you'll need to shoot a photograph every 6 seconds in order to get the 900 frames needed to make 30 seconds of video.
Here's the formula: (Shot Duration x Frame Rate) / Shooting Minutes = Interval)
The Pclix is fully programmable, though the programming isn't particularly easy for novices. You can program it to shoot a specific number of exposures, or program it to give longer bursts to trigger a stubborn camera shutter. It can be programmed to make exposures from 1/10 of a second up to 99 days. Though the programming process can be challenging, the manual is thorough and detailed.
Another nice feature of the Pclix is that you can change the interval you're shooting while it is operating. Just set the new interval; after the next timed shutter release, the new interval will be engaged. This is a great feature if you're shooting something that seems to increase or decrease over time, for example, a church filling up with people for a service over a half-hour duration. For the first part of the shoot, you may want
to shoot every 10 seconds. Then, as people start to arrive, you can increase the frequency to every 5 seconds until the service starts. Then, decrease the interval to 30 seconds again as the service gets underway. You'll end up with a sequence of photographs that seamlessly increases in frequency as the action accelerates and then decreases as the action decelerates. This approach creates anticipation for the event through the lack of action and then a flurry of action through the filling of the space. It culminates in slowing down the action as the space is filled and activity slows.
Time and Composition
For the most part, time lapses are relatively easy to produce. The key to making them work is time and composition. Unfortunately, we're all short on time when we're shooting events, but the effect a properly composed time lapse has on the viewer is well worth the time it takes to create it. Fortunately, the Pclix does most of the heavy lifting. The only thing you need to do is set your camera up in a secure location and
set the Pclix to trigger your camera while you're off working on other aspects of your production.
Shots from a Pclix-driven timelapse shot with the Canon 5D, showing the beginning, middle, and end of people entering a church over a half-hour duration
Composition is another issue. In my experience, the coolest time-lapse photos include a variety of elements. First is an element of nature. Most of the time, it is the sky, but it can also include shadows as the sun moves across the sky. Another element is architecture. An interesting building with reflective surfaces like mirrored glass or deep shadows from a colonnade makes the image come to life as time is reduced. Even better is a piece of architecture that moves, such as a drawbridge, an exterior elevator, or a crane. Water is another great element to shoot in a time lapse. Its reflective surface and constantly changing
nature makes it a great subject matter for time lapse. Harbors, pools, rivers, fountains, bays-they all offer great opportunities for time lapse. Water combined with reflected light has incredibly interesting characteristics, almost like staring into a campfire at night, making it some of the most interesting subject matter to shoot. Moving objects are another great element. Cars, trains, boats, bicycles, and pedestrians all are great subjects for time lapses, especially when they move en masse, such as people crossing a busy intersection. Combine several of these elements together and you have the making of truly memorable images that will impact your viewer or client.
A nature timelapse shot at f8 shutter speed, 1/45 of a second with a 70mm lens over 5 days at 5-minute intervals
Pclix Now and in the Future
Paul Cormack, the owner of Pclix and the inventor of the Pclix LT, is a great resource. He's a special effects specialist experienced in working with motion control and time lapse who's created some of the most cutting-edge effects seen today. He loves to talk about the many applications the Pclix has been a part of. He is also willing to help troubleshoot some of the issues that arise when creating time lapses; for example, he recently suggested that I use aperture priority in order to reduce minute changes of aperture between exposures, which cause a subtle flicker when the images are sequenced together. He also suggested using lenses that have physical settings for your aperture to reduce flicker between continued exposures. When I asked Paul about future versions of the Pclix, he told me that improvements are in the works for future versions but declined to discuss particulars.
If you're looking for an inexpensive way to create stunning time lapses, the Pclix LT is a great product. The fact that it can be programmed to trigger most cameras and can change intervals on-the-fly makes it a great tool. Lastly, the simplicity of using it right out of the box will make the world of time-lapse photography literally a few turns of the dials away for DSLR event filmmakers everywhere.
David Himot (david at himot.com) runs Black Cat Pro Video, an event video production company in Fort Collins, Colo. He is president, membership director, and sponsor liaison for the Colorado Professional Videographers Association (CoPVA).