2ne1

A time-lapse of 'Lines of Defence', part of Bettina Furnée's "If Ever You're in the Area" art project, that captures the erosion of the Bawdsey coastline over a year. I provided the technical solution for DSLR remote time-lapse capture with web server integration. Here are some notes and experiences on the technical set-up.

HD Timelapse Over a Year... Details

Notes thrown together on capturing high resolution timelapse photos from a remote location for a website over a year at a reasonable cost.

This experience comes from developing (on the fly) a technical solution to provide the images for ifever.org.uk. When producing this system I relied heavily on the relatively sparse and incomplete information I could find on the internet. This web page aims to add my experiences to the pool and hopefully be useful to anyone else interested in setting up something similar.

Location

The purpose of the project is to capture images of a art installation on the fairly remote East Anglian coast in Bawdsey, UK. The installation is a set of flags, spelling out a specific message, situated close to the sea on a small cliff edge. This region is subject to coastal erosion and the timelapse images are captured to both publish live images of the installation to a web site, and to also record the erosion of the land and the gradual loss of flags to the sea over a year.

Hardware Location

Close to where the flags are sited is a converted Martello Tower with power and a landline. Bought an £80 Uninteruptable Power Supply (Belkin, 350Ah) and got broadband installed through plus.net using the supplied Voyager 205 ADSL modem. 

Operating System

Linux was chosen to provide a stable system that would run autonomously that could be remotely managed over the internet. A wealth of free tools and applications are available which gives you great flexibity. This was installed on a laptop because the amount of space available was limited and high-end processing power was not a requirement. I installed Debian as I have found it to be a very reliable distribution that, once successfully installed, is very easy to maintain. Installation was one of may main concerns initially as previous experiences had not been fairly lengthy. I took the easy option and booted off a Knoppix CD and used the hard disk installation script to put it onto the laptop. This worked well. After this I changed the apt sources to point to the standard Debian 'Unstable' repository (Woody was the stable one at that time) and performed an update. OS sorted.

Camera

Olympus 2020Z

I did some preliminary tests using an Olympus 2020Z digital camera attached to a laptop booting Knoppix off CD. This worked pretty trouble-free. The camera does have a couple of problems. The main problem with this camera was that although capture settings can be pre-set using manual mode, it would loose some of these after a power reset. I can't recall exactly what the problem was but I think it might have been that it retracted the optical zoom and reverted to a wider angle; there was no software control to allow me to control this from the PC.

Canon D300

After much searching for information, and a little testing with help from the local camera shop Campkins, I settled on a Canon D300 (aka Canon Digital Rebel) digital camera. It is a very decent, high resolution camera (6M pixel) which can be fully manually operated, including the lens. A lot more time and testing would have been useful but time was limited. For example, it wasn't until into the project that I discovered two rather significant problems with the camera. a) after 9999 images it stops working with an error and needs the compact flashcard reformated; and b) after roughly every 2000 or so images the camera locks up and needs to be reset. I've found ways around these limitations but it would have been useful to learn about this before setting everything up. Unfortunately, finding any information on the Internet about using digital cameras for timelapse photography is very hard. The seems to be relatively little evidence of people trying this, other than using standard webcams. The reason we chose not to go for a webcam solution was due to their lack of picture quality, low resolution and inability to attach different lens.

Hardware

  • * Laptop (PIII 850, 256MB RAM, 20GB Harddisk)
  • * ADSL Modem (BT Voyager 205)
  • * Ethernet Remote Switch
  • * Canon D300
  • * Belkin UPS
  • * Window Heater

Software

  • *Operating System: Linux (Debian)
  • *Applications: gphtoto2, netpbm, rsync

Gotchas

  • * The camera locks up occasionally (see above) so you need to be able to reboot the camera from the laptop
  • * Camera communications sometimes failed so my scripts would try a few times befire assuming the camera has locked up
  • * The modem would lock up occasionally so you need to be able to reboot that too
  • * The shutter of a DSLR is not ideally suited for too many thousands of photos. 365 days of 96 photos each is 35k photos. The camera had to have a new shutter fitted once during the project
  • * Powercuts happen, some of them long enough to drain the UPS. Get the laptop to reboot after a power outage if you can (a BIOS setting)
  • * Internet connection disappears now and then. I used rsync to keep the local and server image archives in sync
  • * When the server sees no activity from the laptop it could be a Internet failure (modem or ISP), complete power outage or laptop hardware failure. The former (which was the most frequent) is OK as images are still captured; the latter two mean that images will be lost. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell from the server end without visiting the remote location 
  • * Condensation on the window was eliminated by a 20W window heater
  • * The outside of the window was treated with windscreen wash that repells water (and dirt)
  • * As the sun rises and sets the tripod heats and cools, resulting in sublte shifts of the camera. Carbon fibre stands are apparently much less prone to this.
  • * Internal reflections on the window need to be removed by putting up black backing behind the camera