Friday, September 21, 2012

My Unpaid Night Photography Assistant: The Intervalometer

Stars over the Teton Range, from the Cascade Canyon Overlook, Grand Teton, N.P. ~ © Royce Bair
 An intervalometer is a remote, electronic cable or shutter release with a programmable timer. It is "remote" because the length of the cord prevents you from disturbing or jarring the the camera when you push its shutter release button; and it is "remote" because you, or an assistant, do not have to be there to press that release button if it is properly programmed.

How I did it: In the above photo of the Milky Way over the Teton Range, I programmed my Canon intervalometer to give me a 3-minute head start (called a "delay"), so that I had time to walk 800 feet to the right (about 500 feet past the view of the camera). It then remotely opened the shutter for a 30-second exposure, during which time I paint the foreground with a 2-million candlepower spotlight. The remote waited 30 seconds for me regroup myself (called an "interval"), and then it opened the shutter again for another 30-second exposure. I had programmed it to do this five times so that I had a chance to get the light painting just right in at least one of those shots! That's because I had to light the trees and bushes on the left side much longer than the trees on the right side (closest to me) in order to give all the foliage an even exposure. During all of this, I kept an eye on my iPhone stopwatch display, which had been started at the same time as the intervalometer.
I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, with a 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens @ f/2.8, with a 30-second exposure, ISO 6400. The photo was taken at midnight. The orange glow to the left of the Milky Way is light pollution from the town of Jackson, WY, about 20 miles away. The orange glow in the notch of the Teton Range is from the Idaho Falls metro area, about 75 miles away.)
 Time Lapse and Star Trails: Intervalometers can also be used to do time lapse photography where you program the length of each exposure, the interval or time between each exposure, and the number of exposures you want to make. Software, i.e. QuickTime, will chain these exposures together into a video. Similarly, these remotes can be used to produce star trails, where the exposures are "stacked" together, thus reducing the need for one long exposure, where noise build-up would degrade the final image.

My Intervalometer is the Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 (about $129 - $210, depending on where you buy it). I've had it for over a year now, it is solidly built, and has proven itself to be dependable and accurate. I also have a 2nd intervalometer that I use as a back up, or to operate a second camera. It's called the Digital Timer Remote For Canon EOS by Neewer (about $14). This is my second purchase of this product. After about four months, I dropped it and broke the plastic battery door on the back. This remote seems to work well, but is not built as solidly as the Canon product. Still, at this price it's a great timer remote for the occasional user, or if you're only going to use it as a remote shutter release (which requires no programming --you just push the button). It also uses two standard AAA batteries that go dead after about six months, because it has no on/off switch, and just stays on all the time (of course, neither does the Canon, but its flat CR 2032 battery last about twice as long).

If you're a Nikon DSLR user, you may want to get the Nikon MC-36 Multifunction Remote Cord (about $155 to $180, depending on where you buy it). It is compatible with the D2 series, D1 series, D100, D200, D300, D700, D3, F6, F5, F100, and the MC-26 Adapter Cord. This Nikon support page shows a variety of remote connections that can be used to trigger your camera. The Neewer brand Digital Timer Remote for Nikon is available for under $10 --a good option for the occasional user, or someone just wanting to use it as a remote shutter trigger (no programming required, and even works if the batteries are dead).

Royce Bair is the editor of this blog and the photographer of the above image. Here is my gallery of NightScape images. My schedule of workshops, tutorials, and other events is available here.


  1. Thanks so much for this. I recently purchased one of these for my Nikon. Now I know how I can put it to use. This is amazing, Royce.

  2. Thanks for the equivalent Nikon products. That is very helpful!

  3. Interesting description and a great result! The Nikon D200, D700 and D800 (and maybe more) all have an intervalometer built into them and can do what you describe without an external device.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I knew there were some Nikon models that had this built into them, but it's hard to find out which ones :) I'll have to do a little more research...

  4. Canon users also have the option of a free, built in intervalometer which is available on most DSLR bodies. I use MagicLantern add on firmware to provide this feature, as well as many more features that I find invaluable. More info can be found here :

    I have no relation with them, just a free tool that I've been really happy with.

  5. I keep on with me all the time along with a simple shutter release when I don't need the full power of the intervalometer. Now I just need to find time to use it. I live in Sedona but still have to drive to dark places.. Nice images.

  6. This is still one of my favorite night shots. I'm going to try something similair but I was wondering which flashlight you used. Any tips which one I should buy?

    Thanks, Max