One of the handiest devices you can add to your digital camera is an intervalometer. If that name is a little less than self-explanatory, its other common handle, “digital timer remote” pretty much explains what it does. You can think of it as something like an electronic shutter release on steroids.
While intervalometers have several practical uses, the most widely known is letting you automate the process of taking timed sequences of photos, usually for the purpose of creating time lapse videos. In this article, we'll cover the basics that you need to know to use one for that purpose.
Why you might want one:
First of all, I should mention that many digital cameras come with built-in digital timers that are capable of controlling the camera for time lapse photos. If your camera is one of those and you only want to use it for that purpose, you may not need to invest in an external one. On the other hand, a separate remote can help you avoid disturbing your camera in many situations and many modern intervalometers give you much more flexibility. Most can be used as simple wired remotes, but give you options that make them ideal for group portraits, selfies, long exposures and much more.
How much it will set you back:
This is one of the great things about intervalometers. While you can spend well over $100 for some models, there are several available now for around 20 bucks that will do the job nicely and perform extremely well. Check reviews and ratings on Amazon for the models that will work with your camera make and model.
How to use it:
Almost all digital timer remote controls will connect to your camera's auxiliary port with a long cable. Most will have a nice, backlit LCD screen for setup and programming. The actual programming steps will vary according to the make and model, but will be easy to follow and, as always,when all else fails, read the manual.
You'll notice several labels on the face of the remote. Knowing what each of these labels means is the key to operating any intervalometer, so let's go over them.
DELAY (DEL, D, etc.) is the amount of time that will elapse after activating the timer before the shutter activates.
LONG (B, BU, LNG, etc.) refers to the amount of time that the shutter will remain open if you're using the camera in Bulb mode. You'll need this setting in situations when your camera's minimum shutter speed isn't long enough, for instance when you're shooting star trails.
INTVL (INT, etc.) is the interval setting, which is, of course, the amount of time between exposures.
N (#, NUM, etc.) indicates the total number of exposures to be taken. This will be needed when you need to shoot a specific number of frames to produce a video of known length. For other situations, you'll be able to set this to infinity, or to simply run until you stop the sequence.
SOUND (usually a speaker or note icon) toggles audible sounds on and off for shutter actuation and other program steps.
The remaining controls will be for navigation, selecting and setting the functions, starting and stopping sequences, locking the shutter button, lighting, etc. If you can handle the buttons, dials and switches on your DSLR camera, you shouldn't have any problems finding your way around the average intervalometer controls.
Shooting a sequence:
Now that you know your way around an intervalometer, you'll no doubt be itching to get out there and start trying your hand at time lapse video. Since this article isn't intended to teach you how to do that, I recommend reading this one before you start: How to Shoot a Time-Lapse Sequence with your DSLR Camera
Don't forget that you can make your videos more dynamic and add a whole new dimension by adding camera motion. For all the gear you need for those techniques, at prices that won't break your budget, we give the folks at Revolve Camera our highest recommendation. Check 'em out!
One last note:
No discussion of intervalometers would be complete without mentioning that there are a number of apps and software/hardware bundles available to let you control your camera with your smartphone, pad, computer or scientific calculator. Many of these provide advanced features like “bramping”, or ramping exposure times using the Bulb shutter setting. We'll cover those points in upcoming articles, but while you're shopping, be sure to check these options.