Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time-Lapse Photo software for the Mac? ImageCapture!

I (somewhat) recently bought a new DSLR camera: the Nikon D3000. I had no idea what was best, and didn't have the time really to do very in-depth research about which camera to purchase. Usually before buying a new camera, or any expensive piece of equipment, I would prefer to do such research, but I was buying this one with just a few days to go before leaving for India, and was overwhelmed with other preparations on my way out of the country. I took the advice of my cousin Jon who is a professional photographer (his amazing website here), that Nikon is the best brand, and with that alone, went to a camera specialty store in LA. I allowed myself to be persuaded by the salesman to buy Nikon's new D3000 model, something he said which was in between their previous amateur and pro- lines (what they call 'pro-sumer'). It was at about the right price-point for what I wanted to spend, and it had all the features I thought I would need. It also came with what seemed like a desirable lens: 18-55mm. I needed a macro for research purposes, and so bought a separate (thankfully used, but in excellent condition) AF macro Nikkor 60mm 1:2.8 lens. It is much heavier, and higher quality than the camera body. So much so, that though the lens supports auto-focus, the camera does not have a motor strong enough to drive the auto-focus mechanism, and therefore it is not able to auto-focus with the macro lens. I was warned of this, and it didn't really matter, because I usually prefer to manually focus on my macro subjects: beads, pottery, etc, because I prefer to select the focal length, and what element of the object is in focus.

I have since read reviews which call the D3000 Nikon's 'worst camera ever'. But it's too late now. I'm not really a pro- user, so there are plenty of really fancy things that I'm not even aware that I'm missing. I've been really happy with the camera in general, until now. Now I wouldn't say I'm unhappy with the camera, but I ran into one particular need where my old relatively 'crappy' digital point-and-shoot was better. Video. Not that the quality of video taken by my old point-and-shoot (PAS) was very good, in fact it was pretty awful. But at least it was video, and for some things, video captures better than still. Even when the quality sucks.

I ran into this problem when I started visiting a local potter to begin doing some experiments in firing pottery to try to recreate some of the ancient pottery that I've been studying. I wanted to shoot some video of his various activities, laying out the pots to be fired, or making them on the wheel. Without the ability to shoot video, I thought the best option would be to take something like time-lapse images, which I could later stitch together into a video. The frame rate would be low, but at least I could capture a series of images over time, showing the activity in progress. My first attempt was manual - I set the timer on my cell phone, and walked up to press the shutter button on the camera (on a tripod) every time the timer on my phone went off. This got pretty old pretty quickly.

It was recommended that I download Nikon's own Camera Control 2 software, which I did (30 day free trial), only to discover that it doesn't support the D3000 model. I started searching for "time-lapse software for mac" or "remote shutter control software" and any other phrases I could think of to google, that might find me something I needed. I came across a few free and paid apps, supporting various lists of models, none of which supported the D3000. Some of them looked great. I would have downloaded them, if they listed my camera among the supported models. Then I came across this review which said "I should point out that the D3000 cannot be controlled from your Mac or PC, unlike Nikon's more expensive models."

I was becoming discouraged, and almost ready to give up, when I came across the software Icarus Camera Control. I went to his list of supported cameras, and found only three supported cameras, though the developer suggested that it may well work with others. On going to the support wiki I found his narrative of how he developed the product:
Icarus Camera Control came about because I have a Nikon D80 that I want to connect to telescopes and control via my MacBook. Nikon sells software for camera control (Camera Control Pro) but it is expensive and getting more so, it is terribly slow, and is a horrible battery hog. It is completely unusable for portable work. So I started writing my own camera control tool.

Linux has gphoto2 infrastructure for controlling cameras. That works well for a wide variety of camera, including my Nikon D80, but it works very poorly on Mac OS X. It compiles, but it can't really get at the camera due to Mac services that already grab access to the camera. So while I could surely use gphoto2 to make a Linux application, I need something more native for the Mac.

Mac OS X, it turns out, has the Image Capture Architecture that is exactly for this purpose. The ICA provides an abstract interface to locate and access cameras, as well as a means to get at the lower level PTP commands to do the more interesting things that one wants to do with a camera. And this is the level where Icarus Camera Control operates. It uses the ICA to locate the camera and images on the camera, get thumbnails, and perform basic camera control functions. It then uses PTP messages passed through the ICA to perform more direct camera activities, including probing device features and capabilities.

Which led me to think to myself 'Image Capture Architecture' meaning, it has the built in utility 'ImageCapture'?? Is this another example of something where the app I'm looking for is already installed on my Mac?? Indeed it is.

Image Capture (found at ~Macintosh HD/Applications/Image Capture), though it is not fancy, does exactly what I need for remote (USB connected) timed shutter release. It allows me to set the interval in seconds minutes or hours, and it allows me an option to determine a directory where those files should be saved - directly to the harddisk. It doesn't allow me to control any of the cameras settings, light, aperture, speed, ISO, none of it. I still have to manage those settings on the camera itself. But once it's set up, all I have to do is click start, and it begins taking pictures at my determined interval.

To stitch the pictures together into a time-lapse movie, I am able to use another pre-installed app: iMovie.

None of these are "pro" apps, none of them allow the control that someone might want if they were going to get really technical with the thing. But I'm not at a stage where I want to get technical. And I am amazed at how, after all this searching, the applications that I needed, with the functions I wanted, were on my computer all along, and they work great.

In addition, I found these online guides to time-lapse photography and movie-making useful: Photojojo.com and Tucows.com

I promise I'll post the results of this time-lapse stuff soon. :)


Erik said...

Hi, I am currently working through the same situation as you, but it looks like I am not having the same success. I am borrowing a friends Nikon D3000 and have it connected to my Mac Book Pro (running Mac OS X 10.4.11). When I have connected and image capture opened the "Cutomize Toolbar" is grey'd out. Did you have to do some kind of upgrade/update to the Image Capture? I did some research online and it said that if "Customize Toolbar" is greyed out, then the feature is not supported by the camera. But it's brand new. Any help would be greatly appreciated. (I leave from my trip soon). Thanks in advance.

Gwen said...

Erik: I am not 100% sure of what the problem is, but I think the best guess is the difference between operating systems. I am running 10.6.4 and it's quite possible that this upgrade includes some additional support for cameras including the D3000.

Apple sells a $29 upgrade DVD to upgrade to 10.6, but I'm not sure if that upgrade includes upgrades to all the packaged software like Image Capture.

My Image Capture version is 6.0.1. But I also recently purchased a new MacBook, and it probably includes an upgraded software package compared with the older sets. You might want to call or talk to someone at the apple store about how to get your versions upgraded so you can use Image Capture for timed release photography.

Wish you the best of luck!

I do recommend the upgrade to 10.6, it's an easy patch over the existing system (you don't have to delete or do a clean install), and you get some good features. It also streamlines down the OS, so that it takes up less space on your HD if that is a limitation you're facing.

Trevor Kjorlien said...

Hey Erik, I just figured this out for myself.

In the camera, go into the settings and make sure you have the transfer protocols set to PTP and not USB (you might have to google how to do it for the D3000... I'm on a D50 and it might be different).

When it's set to USB, the camera just shows up as a flash drive would on the desktop.

When set to PTP, the camera itself shows up. Then you can be in Image Capture and go File > Take Picture.