Last week you watched the “MUST WATCH! “Mountains in Motion” – majestic vistas and passing time like you’ve never seen” sent in by Doug Urquhart (THE UPTHINK LAB) – and he promised to tell you more about his amazing work on creating his DIY ‘multi-month timelapse machine’ and here’s the planet5D exclusive behind-the-scenes info!

MiM Production team at Iceberg Lake with SolarCam - Doug Guy Meg Paul - left to right
MiM Production team at Iceberg Lake with SolarCam – Doug Guy Meg Paul – left to right

Here’s the video again!

Doug has supplied these timecodes for the events discussed below:

Here is the Vimeo time for the deep time-lapse sequences:

2:20 – Peyto Lake, March – July 2011
3:38 – Iceberg Lake, Bow Glacier – July – November 2011
9:50 – testing the rig in March 2011 (this one was a “test” shot before we deployed the unit at Peyto Lake)
10:17 – Medicine Lake, April – May 2012
10:58 – Bow Lake – our Li-Po system failed, this scene was captured via generator power on the roof of Num-Ti-Jah lodge, April – June 2012)
11:06 – Medicine Lake outlet, May 2012

DIY Solar Camera for multi-month timelapses

Inspired by James Balog, I set out to build my own solar-powered, long-term, time-lapse camera rig.

Without much information available online, the process involved a great deal of trial and error to find what worked best for my needs. Commercial units are available from Harbortronics, but I didn’t have the money to invest in a pre-built unit. More importantly, I’m a hands-on, problem-solving type of guy, so I welcomed the challenge to build a camera unit capable of withstanding the harsh conditions in the Canadian Rocky mountains from the comfort of my workshop in Atlanta, Georgia.

SolarCam - Design Photos- Doug Urquhart
SolarCam – Design Photos- Doug Urquhart

My initial design utilized a SLA (sealed lead acid battery) and a 5w solar panel because it was a great deal easier to source a solar-charge controller for SLA batteries. The resulting camera rig worked flawlessly, but weighed in over 20lbs. Since this beast of a camera was already too cumbersome to fly with, I had to reevaluate my design. I was on a budget and the last thing I needed was additional fees at the airport on my trip to Alberta, Canada to deploy the rig. I can deal without free peanuts on the flight, but those airline luggage fees were paralyzing to my practically non-exisitant budget for the film.

In a desperate attempt to solve my battery problem, I reached out to another time-lapse photographer doing similar work down-under, Chris Parker ( Chris had found a working set-up for a solar charging system that utilized Li-Po (Lithium Polymer) RC batteries straight from China. The charger was not intended to be used as a solar-charge controller (for solar trickle-charging), but it was actually working for him and I was eager to give it a try. The advantage to Li-Po is size, weight, and voltage options. I patiently waited for the parts to arrive from Asia.

Once they arrived, I was able to shave around 8+lbs off the battery system. The compact size of the 5aH Li-Po battery also allowed me to down-size the camera housing. For an easy to modify, weather-proof housing, I utilized Pelican cases with an acrylic window riveted on. After stepping down to a smaller case, I cut a few additional pounds off the overall weight and could just barely fit all the components into the case.

I should mentioned that I also eliminated the need for a voltage step-down regulator when I switched the design over to Li-Po. For the first unit I designed, I was using an old Canon Rebel 400D and a kit lens (18-55). The Canon requires 7.4volts to operate, so I made a false-battery insert and utilized a 7.4v Li-Po battery for the solar-charging system without the need to step down voltage in between. When I was using SLA, the system ran off 12volts. This required a 12v to 7.4v step-down regulator. After failed attempts to build my own, I stumbled across a universal car charger with variable voltage. I was able to pick one of these up from Fry’s for under $20 and modify it to work in my system simply by breaking apart the housing and re-wiring it into my system. However, Li-Po eliminated the need for this step-down in the re-design. It has since come in handy recently, more on that to come.

The final item required for the system was an intelligent control unit that could disable the camera after dark so the battery would retain power. This was crucial for several reasons. The camera simply could not run 24 hours a day and maintain proper exposure (in-camera, auto metering issues, locked aperture, etc). Even if it was possible to run 24/7, I would be required to change the memory card more frequently than what was feasible.

Testing the SolarCam - Atlanta - Doug Urquhart
Testing the SolarCam – Atlanta – Doug Urquhart

My partner on the film in Banff, Paul Zizka, was in-charge of tending to the camera after I returned home to Atlanta. With a 2 hour drive and limited winter access from the town of Banff, the camera would be installed in an area that was tricky to get to at certain times. We had to ensure the camera would constantly shoot for a long period of time, unattended. Secondary to the memory limitation, I also had concerns for battery life during long periods of poor weather conditions in which the battery system was unable to charge. This is why it wasn’t worth the effort to shoot after dark. The goal was to limit power consumption at all times.

The solution to my problem was created by Fred Beal of Fred was building short-run, small electronic controllers that offered programmable schedules during the week. His unit did exactly what I needed. Concerned about the cold winter environment in the mountains, I built Fred’s controller into a smaller Pelican case that lived within the larger Pelican housing. The controller allowed the camera to capture images every 30 minutes during daylight hours.

Finally, I build mounting hardware on the side of the Pelican case and also fabricated a lens hood by heating and bending ABS plastic to just the right shape. I ran some tests with the final unit in my backyard. It was 70+ degrees and impossible to know how the electronics would handle the sub-freezing conditions in the Canadian mountains. I hoped for the best.

In March 2011, I arrived in Calgary, Alberta, with the solar camera in hand, for the first stage of production. This was also the first time I met Paul Zizka face to face. We set out into the mountains of Banff National Park to deploy the camera with a leave-no-trace approach. We didn’t know exactly how we would mount the camera, so I came equipped with various mounting hardware to offer flexibility in the field. We decided to mount the camera rig on a tree above the well-known Peyto Lake. During the summer, the lake is easily accessed. During the winter, it’s a little more time-consuming so Paul skinned in on his skies while I followed behind him on snow shoes.

We installed the camera and left it untouched for nearly 4 months. It was a success and the camera rig lived to see a 2nd location. The resulting sequence can be viewed around the 2-minute marker of the final film.

Peyto Sequence
Peyto Sequence – Click to see animated sequence
Camera mounted over Peyto Lake
Camera mounted over Peyto Lake (click to see larger!)
Peyto Lake Winter2011 SolarCam Deployment #1 - photo By Doug
Peyto Lake Winter2011 SolarCam Deployment #1 – photo By Doug

Upon my return to Banff in late July 2011, we moved the camera above the moraines surrounding Bow Lake to capture the changes at Iceberg Lake and Bow Glacier. This location is a lesser traveled area and once winter arrived Paul would have to wait until mid-January to return due to Avalanche conditions and a much longer ski touring route from the Wapta Icefield. Once above tree line we had to get creative with our mounting strategy. We decided to construct a cairn around the camera to hold it in place.

This technique worked very well despite some camera shift due to temperature shifts (expansion / contraction) and snow working its way into all the cracks within our rock structure. We left the camera in a rush as a rain storm drenched us and made for an interesting hike back to our vehicle.

The river crossing at the foot of the glacial moraines required extra effort in the rain storm as we made our way across with the Dynamic Perception dolly hanging precariously out of my pack along with other expensive camera gear tucked inside. With soggy feet, we returned to the vehicle hoping that the settings we’re correct on the solar Camera.

SolarCam Winter Iceberg Lake Snow Drifts - Photo By Paul Zizka
SolarCam Winter Iceberg Lake Snow Drifts – Photo By Paul Zizka

Mid-January, Paul Zizka skied back to the camera only to discover it had stopped shooting in late November. He managed to ski all the way back up to Bow Hut and back down to his vehicle with the entire, bulky SolarCam hanging out of his pack. No easy task to make turns in the powder with a heavy camera, plus overnight gear and additional time-lapse camera gear. It was an adventurous weekend trip for Paul, Meg, Dan, and the rest of their crew.

Prior to the Solar Camera pick-up, Paul and crew did some ski mountaineering to the summit of Mt Rhondda. Once on the summit, Paul noticed that his QR plate for the Dynamic Perception motion control dolly had shattered, shutting down the potential to shoot. After all the manual labor required to get to the summit, he decided to risk duct-taping his Canon EOS 5D Mark II to the dolly cart and run a few shots while the wind was calm. The resulting shot was well worth the effort. This is a reminder to always bring some duct-tape along in your pack. It’s a life-saver.

Duct Taped 5D on Summit Dan Evans Photo
Duct Taped 5D on Summit Dan Evans Photo
Paul On Summit With Duct Taped Camera Photo By Dan Evans
Paul On Summit With Duct Taped Camera Photo By Dan Evans (Click for much larger)

I returned to Banff again in March 2012. The Li-Po battery system had stopped functioning and the replacement parts I ordered from the Asian supplier did not work the way I had hoped. Apparently the circuitry design had changed since the previous model and no longer supported the trickle charging required within the solar-powered electrical system. Frustrated, we had to find a solution to keep the camera running without solar power. Luckily, our friend, Ross, is the inn keeper at the Num-Ti-Jah lodge on the serene shores of Bow Lake.

Ross and his team assisted Paul with a roof mounted attachment for the camera rig and allowed use of power from the inn. The lodge is remote, so the power comes from a generator. We’re very grateful for the hospitality of our friends at Num-Ti-Jah lodge.

As icing on the cake for our project, we had also formed a friendship with another time-lapse enthusuast, Rogier Gruys, from Parks Canada in Jasper National Park. We offered consultation for his own solar camera that would be used to document to spring flooding at Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park. The resulting scene is absolutely stunning and is featured in our final film.

In addition to these camera systems, we also tried our luck with a low-dollar, solar-powered hunting camera called the “Bird Cam”. Unfortunately, the resulting sequence was not usable in the end due to the lack of dynamic range and jpg compression. To pull off this type of shot, you need a camera that shoots RAW and offers a wide dynamic range.

Installing the Bird Cam
Installing the Bird Cam

After we acquired our images from the solar camera(s), post-prodoction offered new challenges. Back in Atlanta, I utilized Adobe Lightroom and After Effects to eliminate poor weather days (i.e. in a cloud all day, snow covering the lens, etc) and stabilize the resulting sequence to eliminate small, unwanted camera movements over the course of each multi-month sequence.

After the completion of Mountains in Motion: The Canadian Rockies, the solarCam has returned home to the south east. I have also re-built the original prototype (in the larger case with SLA system). I’m using a repaired Canon Rebel 400D (the original unit in Canada suffered a broken shutter box) and a newer, Canon T3i to document seasonal change in the Appalachian mountains.

One unit is mounted on a remote mountain fire tower in North Carolina (thanks to a permit from USFS) and the other is on my friend’s property on another mountain documenting a white oak tree and its seasonal transitions. The unit used in Canada has also been rebuilt with a new electrical system. It’s now running on a 11.1 volt Li-Ion system thus requiring the 12v – 7.4v step-down regulator previously mentioned. If all goes as planned, I’m hoping to release this new material before the end of the year.

(cover photo credit: snap from the shots )


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