In the past few years, time-lapse clips have gone from a rare novelty to an expected part of the language of video, driven in part by the rise of engagement-promoting clips on YouTube and the like. Of course, most cameras can be used to capture timed stills and feed them into a computer to create a time-lapse. Alternatively, phone cameras will take the job on too – the iPhone does it in the standard camera app. Realistically, though, having got the bug, there are probably times when you might not want to leave a camera, let alone your phone, out alone.
Imagine, for example, you’re capturing the construction of a building, or perhaps the set up of a trade show? What about making a study of the habits of an especially private member of the wildlife community? Not only do you probably not want your favorite camera tied up for weeks (or months) at a time shooting what’ll be a few seconds of video, but you have to ask yourself, how would it like the experience even if you could part with it?
A dedicated time-lapse camera, or one with a dedicated time-lapse mode, present a better alternative. The camera will have been built to last more than a few hours (even if that means using old-fashioned batteries) and survive the kind of weather that comes and goes over an extended period. It’s also useful if the device can process the stills straight into a video clip for you rather than requiring a potentially irritating excursion through software.
For these reasons and more, a dedicated genre of camera – the Time-lapse Camera – has emerged, and here are some highlights.
The best timelapse cameras in 2020
The TLC2020 is not Brinno’s first timelapse camera, and this model does offer more than some of its predecessors while using the same interchangeable CS mount lenses, which some might already have in their collections. It can capture up to 82 days worth of footage (at one frame every 5 minutes) thanks to the option to add 2 extra batteries, and manufacturer Brinno offers a range of optional accessories including its jib-like BARD monopod/clamp, a waterproof housing and a smooth-moving motorized turntable. Setup is merciful to those not inclined to algebra, clearly indicating how many seconds of footage per hour will be shot in plain English on the rear-mounted monitor. If you want more guidance, mode names like “indoor event” and “detailed craftwork” help you choose the right speed. The produced video, however, is in .avi format which will mean Mac users will need a conversion tool (but these are fairly easily found online).
While Brinno offer devices with higher resolutions, the TLC200 and TLC200 Pro mark a more accessible starting point into timelapse photography while retaining the significant benefit of compatibility with Brinno’s lens system. You could buy one of these, add a compatible tele lens later, then use that lens with a more powerful camera (like the Empower TLC2020) when the job demanded it. (The waterproof housing is probably more essential than a new lens.)
In exchange for the cheaper entry price, you get a smaller preview screen, just 1.4” (though that is enough to do the job) and – if you skip the ‘Pro’ model – you also miss out on HDR. The latter is an essential feature if lighting conditions will shift during your shoot. That’ll be worthwhile since (with either model) you’ll be able to get 40 day’s worth on camera capturing one shot every 5 minutes. This might even be the start of a new creative avenue for the kids, with optional triggers for stop-motion amongst the available accessories it could even promote patience.
With a standard tripod mount, a motion detector, HDR, and a zoom (with an effective 16-35mm focal length) the Afidus ATL-200 has potential for a wide variety of potential users. The Sony Exmor imaging sensor can produce 1080P, but setting it up isn’t too painful; there is autofocus (and macro) and the convenience of your phone’s screen via the Wi-Fi app for operation. If it turns out you’ve given the camera a great view, you can also shoot limited sections of continuous video at up to 30fps (720P) or 15fps for 1080p.
The real purpose, though, time-lapse intervals, can be set from every second to every day via the well-featured app. This is also where one can choose Stars mode, and various other settings, and even pop up an Instagram-friendly square to frame your shot in so the resulting footage will work on square and 16:9 formats. Another handy feature is image alignment; if you move the camera (accidentally or to change the battery), you can load a previous shot and use it re-align the camera with the previous clips.
This is the specifically time-lapse version, but Wingscapes also produce a camera which is similarly friendly to close-up action but triggered – like the best trail cameras – by close-up action. Supplied with a mounting bracket for poles and a strap for trees, this device is very much designed to live in the outdoors.
The intention that it should be focused on a specific location (a bird feeder or a growing flower) is hammered home by the fact the box also includes a tape measure for discovering the focusing distance. Yes, it’s a manual focus, but the lens grip has been surrounded by markings so setting the distance isn’t too challenging, and the fewer expensive features, the easier it feels to leave it outdoors for extended periods! That said, it has a powerful LED flash and the option to have 2 different time-lapse programs per day (perhaps a lower frame rate at night?), both nice extras.
There is also ‘managed memory,’ which deletes the oldest images on the memory card if space runs out, rather than stopping altogether. If you’re always organized, you should never need this feature. You might want it disabled (which you can do). However, writing as someone more likely to copy images off than to remember to delete them after, I found it very useful.
The ultimate action camera, the GoPro Hero9 Black can shoot about 70 minutes of 5K video at a luxurious 100Mbp. Time-lapse is just an extra feature, but still offers the choice of 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30 and 60-second intervals between frames (though, oddly, JPEG only for 0.5, 1 and 2-second intervals). Pleasingly, with at 30% bigger battery than the Hero8, you should get fairly long clips even before resorting to external batteries (for action purposes, expanding the battery might be less of a plus). The “TimeWarp 3.0” mode even offers a real speed option; briefly hold a button and the time-lapse will slow to real speed and add audio.
Other features include swappable lenses and in-built “Hypersmooth” and horizon levelling which works a lot like a gimbal-without-a-gimbal that even work in time-lapse, and the results are striking; if you go for a walk your footage will look like you’ve shot ordinary footage with a gimbal and sped it up. Like all recent GoPros, it will also make micro-adjustments to exposure for a smooth light-to-dark time-lapse; no awkward 1/3rd stop jumps, and there is a dedicated Night Lapse mode with auto interval. Handy.
When the Osmo Action arrived in 2019 it must have knocked GoPro for six; until then DJI was mostly known for drones and gimbals but all of a sudden they had a 4K flagship action camera with a colour screen on the front and a colour touchscreen on the back (the new GoPro Hero 9 finally matches that well over a year later). That said, DJI didn’t quite get everything right on day one, but since then there have been a lot of welcome software updates.
In what is a good interface (except the RockSteady button), DJI’s timelapse screen is especially easy to use via the touchscreen. You get two scrolling options (Interval & shooting Duration), while continually being provided with a calculated Video Duration. So, dial 10s Interval and 1h Duration and you’ll see a 00:12 Video Duration (assuming 60fps). OK, not entirely unique, but what does stand out on this screen is the variety of intervals you can use to get the perfect shot length; 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 20, 30 seconds. All these are available at 4K, 2.7K and 1080p and, of course, there is a built-in microphone and, like the GoPro, it is fully waterproof.