Nikon camera bodies have had a built-in intervalometer for some time now. Given the compute power and automation that exists in digital cameras, it’s a fairly straightforward feature to implement and it’s fairly surprising that most other camera makers haven’t done the same. The only real reason I can think of is so that they can continue to sell overpriced external intervalometers. In any case, with the D800, D800E, and D4, Nikon has taken the built-in intervalometer a step forward and integrated it with the video processing capabilities of these bodies giving you the ability to create in-camera time-lapse movies.
As someone who has spent way too much time processing and stitching together still frames into video files, I’ve been wanting to give this a test and see how well it works. Finally, after using my D800 for almost two months of busy travel, I’ve managed to get around to giving it a go. Here’s the result of setting up a few shots out the window and making a few lapses earlier today:
I didn’t break out the ND filters for these test clips, so the exposure time on each frame is much fast than I’d normally shoot at. This results in less motion blur in each frame and a bit more of that stuttery look than I’d like. I was also shooting at around f/8 using a Nikon 50mm 1.4 G lens and there’s a slight bit of aperture flicker at some points in the clips. Neither of these issues, however, are relevant to the test at hand: seeing how well the time-lapse stitching feature works.
I’m actually quite pleased with the results. For shear workflow joy, importing full 1080p HD Quicktime .mov files from a flash card straight into Final Cut Pro beats the pants off of pulling in stills and running them through Compressor or the like. Furthermore, the resulting video quality is quite good and a fair amount of detail is preserved through the encoding. Here are 1:1 crops (as long as you’re reading this on my site—the RSS feed versions are reduced in size) from two frame grabs:
That’ll do nicely. So what are the tradeoffs of using this feature compared to stitching your own stills together? There are two I can think of off hand:
The video files are created using the camera’s current movie settings. This means 1080p is the highest resolution clip you can make. If you shoot JPG or RAW, your resulting clips can be much larger—nearly 8K resolution from the 36 megapixel D800 images. Higher resolution gives you more freedom to crop, push, pull, and pan in post. A lot more freedom.
The H.264 files with 4:2:0 color sampling are a lot more baked and somewhat limit your image processing options compared to applying adjustments to a stack of JPG stills—not to mention incredibly limited compared to what you can do with a stack of RAW stills provided you have enough processor horsepower to throw at the task.
While both of these limitations require a bit of care when setting up a time lapse—both to ensure that your framing is dead on as well as to check to see that your white balance and color settings are what you want them to be—neither is a showstopper when you want the ease of use that comes with having the camera do the heavy lifting in making a .mov file. And, following the lead of some DSLR video practitioners, shooting with flatter and more neutral picture settings is probably not a bad idea to maximize flexibility in post.
Already, after just running a few test clips, there are some things I would like to see Nikon to improve in future implementations:
Provide the ability to create a time-lapse with the mirror locked up for the entire sequence. Currently, the camera refuses to start a time-lapse sequence or to simply use the intervalometer when the camera is in mirror lock-up mode. I’d think that this is the kind of thing that could be addressed in a firmware update in current cameras.
Allow higher resolution video files to be created from the captured stills. This is something that almost certainly would require a hardware change as I wouldn’t be surprised if the current 1080p ceiling is a limit of piggybacking on the video pipeline hardware. With a little bit of planning in a future camera, however, it should be straightforward to allow the creation of 4K or even full resolution video files even if regular full-motion video is limited to 1080p. After all, there’s a bit more time to crunch bits between frames when the fastest allowed interval is 1 frame per second.
The ability to use a higher bit-depth encoding, say one with a 10-bit 4:2:2 or even 12-bit 4:4:4 encoding. Even an ALL-I option, like the Canon 5D Mark III would be welcome. Of course, all of these options would be useful and desirable for normal video as well.
And finally, when shooting in manual or aperture program mode, it’d be pretty spiffy if the camera could leave the aperture closed down for all the frames in a take in a sequence instead of resetting it to wide open between each exposure. That’d eliminate flicker caused by the inevitable small variations in repeating the same aperture setting frame to frame.
Regardless, it’s already obvious that for many purposes the built in time-lapse feature in the D800 and D4 will be useful, especially for those times when streamlining things in post is essential. For maximum creative flexibility in the edit, however, there will still be place for shooting a sequence of still images in JPG or even RAW format. It’ll depend on the task at hand, as always.