A week or so ago, I bought a cheapo remote electronic timer for my Canon Rebel XTi from eBay as a device to play around with creating animations. It was about $15, shipping included, so if it didn’t work or failed miserably, it wasn’t much of a loss. It is, essentially, a knock-off of Canon’s Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 which, even at B&H, is $136, about ten times more. (Love you and your gear, Canon, but come on.)
The no-name (literally) timer has two modes, in essence. Firstly, you can use it as a remote control to take photos instead of pressing the camera’s shutter button. It plugs in the side of the camera and has its own shutter button. This button can be locked open for those fancy night-time shots (aka, BULB mode). So it’s great for those shots where you have the camera on a tripod and are taking a long exposure – you run less of a risk of jogging the camera.
Secondly, and more interestingly, it can operate in timer mode. Essentially you program in a delay to start shooting, a long-exposure time (you can set this to zero to allow the camera to decide), an interval between shots, and the number of shots to take. Hit the start button and the timer takes over, taking the number of shots you specified with the required exposure times, intervals, and initial delay. Great for taking a series of astronomy pictures: set up your camera on a tripod, program the device, plug it in, then go inside and have a cuppa to warm up.
But that’s not what I bought it for. I bought it to play around with animations. For a quick experiment this lunchtime, I programmed it to snap shots every 10 seconds, and then moved pentomino pieces step by step in the field of view so that they “solved” themselves. I imported the 70-odd shots into Camtasia (I have a license from work) and created this YouTube video.
All right, I admit, Pixar are not going to come calling. It was a definite experiment. Lessons I learned were as follows:
Set the camera to its lowest resolution. Using RAW is a waste of space on the card for this kind of work. Think about it like this: to get 24 fps, you’ll be taking 1440 pictures for every minute of animation. Unless you like downloading images from your storage card or you are trying to impress the folks at Pixar, stick to a low resolution. For my 8GB CF card (the maximum the XTi will take), that’s 5000 photos at the lowest resolution (1936 × 1288 pixels) – still higher than 1080p.
Pay more attention to the view. I had the camera at an angle: it would have been much better had I had the camera pointing vertically downwards. You can also see quite clearly that I didn’t have the finishing position in the center of the frame. Hello? Is this amateur hour?
Use manual focus not automatic focus. I was a little slow at getting my hand out of the way as I advanced the pieces and you can see the camera had focused on something else in a couple of frames. (The timer “half-presses” the shutter button 2 seconds before taking the shot, to allow the autofocus to do its work.)
TechSmith’s Camtasia is perhaps not the best program for creating a video from a set of frames. When importing a set of images like this, all you can really do is set the default duration that each image shows (I used 0.2 seconds to make 5 fps). If you want to do something fancier, you’re out of luck. I should research a better (simpler?) program.
Don’t be afraid to move the items a smaller distance for each frame. That also means take more frames. With setup and the 70 shots, it took about 20 minutes to take the pictures. With about 10 minutes processing time, that was about all I could afford during lunch. With a weekend doing this, I could get a smoother flow.
Doing animation of plastic pieces on a smooth polished table top is just frustrating. Things slide way too easily. Grrr.
Yeah, the timer isn’t needed. I could quite as easily shot the pictures one by one manually. Still undecided as to whether the timer helped or hindered. I used an interval of 10 seconds so I didn’t feel rushed, and it was fine. I also felt I could just concentrate on the moving the pieces, rather than move a piece, take a photo, rinse, repeat.
But, nevertheless, I’m encouraged by it. I’ll continue playing.