“Neither snow nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”
This inscription, on the main Post Office building in New York, neatly sums up our ongoing obsession with shooting time lapse in any kind of climate. It’s a translation from the Greek scholar Herotodus’ Histories - and the de facto motto of the US Postal Service.
But we’re not postal workers or Greek scholars, and I’m hazarding a guess here that neither are you. So why is it important that consideration to climate is made, both when we’re constructing our cameras and for you when looking for time lapse providers? Simply: time lapse needs to work with whatever mother nature might throw at your project.
Nothing can kill electronics like heat - particularly over long periods of time. So what would ensure a working camera at all times- maybe some sort of air-conditioning (AC) might work for time lapse?
We’ve deployed solid state air conditioning in the past, which uses ‘Peltier’ elements - (a type of heat pump). These are made of a semiconductor material which, if an electric current is placed across them, makes one side hot and the other cold.
So, a large enough Peltier element with heatsinks and fans added in can be turned into an AC system. But why is this better than a conventional unit? It’s solid state, there are no liquids or pressure systems, and the ‘cold’ side can be completely air-tight.
The downside is pretty obvious, you’ve probably already guessed it: solid state AC units are pretty heavy and use a lot of power, so we’ve investigated a radical alternative: not using one at all.
In early 2015, we installed an experimental time lapse video camera without air-conditioning in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - if you think British summer is a little warm then imagine regular summer temperature peaks of up to 47°C (117°F) - and it was these conditions we decided to test our Lobster Pot in. We knew that putting this out through a whole summer would really push the system and our tests were conclusive: we didn’t miss a shot.
So when you’re considering time lapse or a time lapse provider you need to ensure that they don’t ever miss a shot, after all it could be the one that makes or breaks your project results.
Taking this one step further, we then upped the stakes - and booked the Lobster Pot for a true cooking session: 65°C for four days. We passed with flying colours and now our ‘pots have EN 60068 certified heat tolerance. The camera in Jeddah remains in place, coming to the end of its second summer, and it’s still not missed a shot.
Cold is less of a problem for electronics and can even be beneficial - some data centres are sited in freezing countries to take advantage of cheap cooling. But that’s not to say it can’t be a problem - after all, as soon as I start to get a little chilly, I’m the first to get the long sleeves and bobble hat out of the closet.
I’ve stood by cameras in the icy cold hundreds of times, often wishing that the electric lens heaters were warming my toes instead of the cosseted Nikon or Canon glass on the front of the camera. Without glass heaters though, even the best-planned astro shoot will quickly turn to mist.
We’ve had to improvise before - using lovely (fresh) socks to wrap round the prime lenses on our hand-made 360° camera. Sounds technical right? Sure we have other methods for keeping our lens mist and fog free but that would be giving away trade secrets.
The key with time lapse is making sure that the shot is rock solid, whatever the elements throw at it.
What you need is a stable, mast, mount or tripod that won’t take up too much space on site, won’t get in the way and is above all tougher than old safety boots.
When looking for a tripod or mount don’t follow the usual route of valuing lightness above all else. Cheaper, steel tripods - though more weight to lug around - help immensely with the task of keeping a camera perfectly still for hours and even days. Having hooks to hang things off (bags, battery boxes) helps to get a solid footing, too.
When we use ten-metre masts for long term time lapse, the modular lattice system we deploy comes with really low (and known) wind deflection of only millimetres - even in a 90mph gale. This means the shot stays solid, whatever the weather.
Unfortunately, living in Britain means there’s always going to be rain to contend with, and no umbrella will protect a time lapse camera. Many cameras will say they are water resistant or waterproof but are they? And can you you really trust them?
As well as the obvious rain in shot - water can play havoc with electronics. THe fact it’s a good conductor means that any electronic circuits get fried, quickly.
If you haven’t got a high end weather-sealed camera, you can use a rain cover for periods of a few hours, though if you’re pointing into the wind you’ll have to carefully remove the raindrops between exposures! Our research has found that it rains in the UK less than you’d think - less than 2% of the time, so for long term works, editing the rain out is something that can be done but, really you should consider investing in a weather-sealed time lapse camera for a guaranteed solution to all weathers. Check out our longest standing camera of 6 years, at the Tate Modern Extension proving that weather-sealed camera solutions really do work.
Dust and Sand
In some climates, dust and sand can cause havoc. A thin film of sand builds up on every surface - and even washer/wipers can have problems. Wipers can ‘etch’ sand into the glass, and washer systems get blocked up. So what’s the solution to this weather problem?
Even though in its elemental state, glass is made from sand, the two don’t mix from a photographic standpoint. Dust and sand can in the first instance make a lovely shot horrible, and if it gets into the mechanical parts of the system, a time lapse is quickly doomed.
With over seven years’ experience of installing and managing cameras in Gulf States, we know that right now there is no high-tech long term solution for cleaning the glass. The best method at the moment is to give the glass a gentle wipe, once a month (something your time lapse provider should do for you). We know it’s a low-tech solution but it is the most reliable long term method at this time.
Mother Nature Vs Time Lapse; she doesn’t have to win.
If you’re wondering whether time lapse will work for your location or project don’t be put off by the elements; there will always be away around them, mother nature isn’t that strong, honest! Understand your site, what nature can throw at it and what you want to achieve from the time lapse film and you’ll be on your way to beautiful time lapse footage in no time.
Just so you know...
Our time lapse cameras have IP certification: IP66. The first ‘6’ means it’s dust-tight, the second that it is protected from powerful jets of water in any direction. So you know that whatever the weather - we can shoot right through it, producing time lapse time and again.