Long-exposure night HDR photography with arduino (aka bulb mode bracketing)

I do bracket all my night photography, for various reasons: for exposure blending, noise reduction, dynamic range extension etc etc. Unfortunately, Canon thinks that all photographers only need +-2EV brackets, unless you own one of the very big Canons, and that 30 seconds is also enough. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough for some of my night panoramas, and I was looking into ways to fix it (that included pleading to Canon, but we all know how far that goes).

So I decided to build my own long-exposure bracket controller, based on the arduino platform, with an Nokia LCD to actually have an user interface, other than a red button, write my own piece of software and test it last night… I call the gadget “Bracketmeister 0.32″ for now. It works like a charm. Now I can have +-3EV (what I was aiming for, but the it does up to +-10EV, possibly more), exposures from 1 sec to 2 hours, and up to 11 shots for each bracket set (can be more). Now no night panorama is impossible anymore.

Update: More info, diagram, images and source code after the break:

The setup is quite easy: big battery pack for cold long winter nights, a 2.5mm plug from a unused cell-phone earplug (fits perfect into Canon EOS that don’t have the N3 connector), and a red button to start the bracket sequence, just minor soldering work, most time went into the software, which is quite easy: the mini joystick left/right takes the user to the next menu, up/down changes the values in the sub menus. It just needs a nice case.

In order to make it work, you need an arduino (or a clone), a Nokia LCD shield (I will try to order a monochrome LCD and write a simpler GUI), the Arduino 0.11 IDE (0.12 doesn’t work with the Nokia library), the Nokia library (install into arduino-0011/hardware/libraries)

Download Bracketmeister 0.32

If you are improving the code, it would be great if you share the changes with me again, to keep it open source. It is also very easy to implement an intervalometer into the software, making it possible to shoot HDR time lapse, maybe in V0.4, or to connect it to a panorama robot. And as with all projects like this, I take no responsibility if you break your own stuff.

Here is an example taken with the Bracketmeister.

Update: Hans Loepfe took my Arduino code and adopted it for his Nikon D300, and it seems to work well.

Commercial plug: if you are looking for a more finished product, and not a DIY solution like my Bracketmeister, please visit Steve’s blog at panocamera.com. He is selling a very elegant Nintendo DS mod, that is working with a number of Canons and Nikons.

Update: Steve has teamed up with HDRlabs and moved the NintendoDS project to the Open Camera Control.

Update (Summer 2009): I bought a Promote from promotesystems.com, because it was great to have super long exposures, but I also needed shorter exposures, and the Promote send the right commands via USB, and not just through the release pin like the Bracketmeister does, making the Promote more versatile for what I need. Unfortunately, this has left the Bracketmeister sitting in the drawer completely unused, so maybe I will repurpose it for something else.

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Long-exposure night HDR photography with arduino (aka bulb mode bracketing), 4.4 out of 5 based on 21 ratings


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Manual Hold Hold the button down, it holds the shutter open. Let go of the button, the shutter closes. Time Lapse Take a preset number of photos, separated by a specified interval. The exposure can be set in hours, minutes, and seconds (again, no sub-second settings), or you can set the camera with the desired settings. You can set the number of frames to shoot – up to 999 by the looks of the menu. The interval can be set in the same way – but note that you can’t set anything less than 1 second for an interval. It would be nice to set an interval of 0, which would be great for astrophotography and stacking images. You can set a delay, in second, before the sequence starts. High Dynamic Range Take a specified number of photos, incrementing the shutter speed for each, in order to capture the full dynamic range of the scene rather than the limited dynamic range that the camera can capture in a single frame. For those of you who aren’t used to HDR, this allows you to take, for example, 5 photos set 2 stops apart in order to capture all the details in a scene where the dynamic range exceeds the capabilities of the camera. The images can then be merged into a single image that captures all of the details in the highlights and shadows. Wikipedia article: High dynamic range imaging High_dynamic_range_imaging POTN Post: HDR : Tutorial And Information Links This mode is where the Promote Control really shows its abilities. It’s the most interesting mode to me, since it absolutely crushes the TC-80N3’s limitations with HDR. For this mode, you set the desired middle exposure, the EV step, and the total number of shots to take. The Promote figures out the correct settings for all the other shots, and steps through them automatically, without any delay. You can set the EV step in 1/3 EV increments, and you can set the number of shots to any odd number from 3 to 45. Yes, 45 shots set 1/3 EV apart! Wow. Some Neat Tricks The Promote Control can be configured to engage mirror lock-up, whether you have it enabled on the camera or not. (As long as the camera can do MLU, of course.) The delay between locking the mirror and taking the picture can be set from 1 to 20 seconds. You have to go into Setup to set this delay, but MLU can be enabled or disabled from any of the mode settings screens. It can focus for you. Yep, it has a Focus button on the front that works like the shutter button. Press the Focu button and the lens does its AF thing. Pressing the Focus button and holding it is just like holding the camera’s shutter button down halfway. Alas, this doesn’t work with back-button focus – which isn’t a big deal for me, since I wouldn’t want this feature for night and HDR shots. But it could be an issue for someone. This problem, however, is easy to fix – just set your camera to have auto-focus control on the shutter button (i.e.; the factory default) and it works perfectly. You can set really long shutter speeds – up to hours. The Promote Control Unit The Promote Control unit can be seen here: Promote Control – automated bracketing for HDR imaging, easy Time-Lapse, and more. I’m not going to post any shots of it, since I don’t really think it’s necessary. The control unit is a bit larger than a deck of cards – about 1.5 times as thick, and about an inch longer. It measures 4.9 x 2.6 x 1.1 in (125 x 65 x 27 mm for metric-minded). It can easily fit into a shirt pocket, and weighs about 6 ounces with batteries. Extremely portable. It comes with a thin wrist strap, a special USB cable, and a very nice carrying case that is too small to hold the manual or both cables. AA batteries are included. The unit is very-well constructed. This is a fine piece of work, really. 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Until then, it’s a simple problem to solve. The carrying case is fairly nice, other than its size. It’s made from a fairly stiff material, so it’s not going to provide a lot of shock protection but will help. It zippers about 3/4 of the way around, so it flips open and lies flat. There’s a wide rubber "belt" to hold the unit in, and a mesh pocket on the other side. I have no idea what this mesh pocket is supposed to hold – the manual doesn’t fit, and the case won’t close if you put a cable in it. This unit really requires 2 cables – it would be really, really nice if the case held the unit and both cables. Using The Promote Control It does everything it says it does – as long as you purchase the shutter cable. And that’s not a knock against them – they can’t provide a cable for every single camera it supports. I’m just trying to let you know that you really want one. It does everything it says it does, easily. I only had to reach for the manual once, to figure out why my shutter cable wasn’t working. That’s when I found out how to get into the Setup menu (press both Mode and Start) since you have to enable it. The other menus and extremely easy to use and understand and change. OK, here’s your other usage guideline – on the 4-way controller on the front of the unit, press the left button to cycle through items to change. The center button confirms the setting. You no longer need to read the manual. A Major Problem OK, my Promote Control is not perfect. The major glitch first – the battery compartment in my unit did not have one of the strips of metal that connects the batteries in series. That is, only one end of each of the batteries make electrical contact with the unit, and that doesn’t make a full electrical connection between the two batteries. I popped in the batteries, and they fell right out. They did not make full electrical contact with the unit, and – of course – the unit wouldn’t turn on. Needless to say, at 8 PM on a Friday night – with a dawn shoot planned – my unit was useless. Scream this aloud: "ARGH!" I got around this easily – I taped a piece of wire to connect the 2 batteries together and make the necessary connection. But I was fairly PO’d for a while. This is just pathetic quality control at its worst. This is not good. But I’m not worried about it, either. From reading the web, and finding a discussion of another user’s problem, I think they’ll fix my problem right-quick. If not, I can return it to Adorama and get another one – it’s only 2 days old, and came defective. Stuff happens. I got over it. But I’m still not happy with their quality control, and I’ll be speaking to them in a curt tone of voice. Update: I spoke with the owner of Promote Systems, less than 9 hours after sending an email. They are taking care of the problem pronto. There was genuine embarrassment and concern over this problem, which was good to hear. A Minor Problem When I got my unit powered up, I went right into HDR mode. But it would not take a picture if the exposure was greater than 10 seconds. I set up a string of 3 shot at 5s, 10s, and 20s. It would not take the 20s shot, and gave me an error message. I spent almost an hour trying to get this to work. Well, it turns out that I was the problem, not the unit. Somehow I didn’t plug the shutter cable release into the unit in all the way. Three times. I finally saw it dangling out, and once I plugged in completely everything worked perfectly. Right now, I have to say this was my fault. User error. Then again, I plugged this cable in 3 times, and 3 times it wasn’t plugged in enough t work properly. Was it really me, a bumbling fool who couldn’t plug a silly stereo jack in correctly? Yes, it probably was me. But I’m going to keep an eye on this one. The Other Problems So far, none. There are a few things I wish this did, or did better, but it works as advertised. Pros Works as advertised. Does it all very well, and easily. Excellent construction! Cons None for my needs. But read below since you may see something that is a Con for your needs. Possible Improvements For Time Lapse mode, it would be very nice to be able to set an interval of 0, so that it takes the next shot immediately. I can see this being of great importance to astrophotographers who wish to take many exposures and stack them. The forced 1-second delay may cause dashes instead of clean star steaks. You can set the exposure time for Time Lapse and One Shot modes, but only in 1-second intervals. It would be very nice if this unit could set sub-second shutter speeds, like 1/250th. The real frustrating thing is that these shutter speeds are available for the middle exposure used in HDR mode. I really wish the carrying case were a little bigger. Although I said earlier that it isn’t big enough to hold both cables, I was able to squish them both in. JUST barely. And this isn’t an exercise that I’d want to do at night in the field. Funny, I think this is my biggest complaint. (Promote, if you’re listening: Don’t make the case thicker, make it wider! Then the cables could be folded and placed under the rubber strap so they’re held in place, too. Besides, I hate thick things in my camera bag. Thinner is better. And don’t make it hold the manual. It’s easy enough to use – you won’t need the manual in the field.) The Focus button only seems to work if the camera is not using back-button focus. A LOT of us HDR and night shooters use back-button focus because that means the focus point will never change during a sequence or while taking shots to test exposure. Granted, this is a minor thing, and the camera can be set back to the factory default setting. And, personally, I doubt that I would ever use the Focus button. A way to hold this onto a tripod would be good. Again, this is minor. It’s too easy to solve in many ways, and Promote does include a carrying strap so you can at least hang it on the tripod. Once you start a series of shots you can’t stop it unless you turn the camera off. Even the TC-80N3 has a start/stop button, and you can cancel a sequence at any time. Back to my cable user error problem. I think there’s a possibility that the cable connections could be better. Or maybe it was just me. Again, I’ll keep an eye on this. Once again to my cable user error: It would be nice if the unit could detect that the shutter cable wasn’t available, and give a clear error. Instead, I got things like "Manual exposure mode could not be set" and "Error setting exposure time". The manual listed these errors, but implied that the camera was not compatible with the attempted setting. Looking back, that was less-than-helpful, and frustrating. Final Words In a nutshell, this is an excellent unit. It works wonderfully, is very well-constructed, and does what I’ve wanted to quite some time. Yes, it’s expensive at $300. But there’s nothing else like it, it works well, and the next solution (a laptop) is at least twice the price and 5 to 10 times the size and weight. I like small things like this Promote Control, since I like to travel light. In a nutshell, I highly recommend this product. (Note that I have absolutely nothing to do with Promote Systems. They’ve never heard of me – well, they will tomorrow when they read my email about the battery connection issue. This review is just my way of giving back to the community, with the hope of introducing this very neat device to someone, or helping someone make the decision to purchase one, or not.) Promote Systems Website You can read their web page about this device here: Promote Control from Promote Systems Purchasing The unit can be purchased from Adorama, or directly from Promote. The price is the same. Note that Adorama does not – at the time of this writing – carry the shutter cables, so you might want to purchase both from Promote. I got my cable from Amazon. Promote Systems has a "Dealers" listing on their website which does not list any dealers at this time. (The least they could do is list Adorama – hint hint.) Note: Many, if not most, of the cool features listed in this review require the purchase of the optional shutter release cable. If you’re interested in a Promote Control then you want this cable. Trust me. You have to get one specific to your camera, so it’s not included and must be purchased separately. (I don’t have anything to do with Amazon or Adorama, either.) __________________ Members don’t see ads in threads. 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