When messing with backyard astronomy, you start to notice that it is just like building your own creator’s shop: you need a lot of tools, and you’ll start tinkering with stuff. For instance, if you want to take a next step and start taking photographs of the nightsky, you’ll have to arrange your camera to be as still as possible. The problem is: to take the picture, normally one needs to touch the camera, or worse, press a button, which causes the apparatus to move. One can try to use the camera’s timer, but even 10 seconds after touching the camera, it can still be moving, especially in windy nights or places.
That is why anyone who wants to do astrophotography needs a remote controller for their camera. With it, you won’t worry about touching the camera. But there is also another use for admirers of nightsky and the nature like me: time-lapses. I have been with time-lapses floating in my mind for quite some time now, and this what pushed me to the edge of acquiring a remote timer for my camera.
When doing time-lapses, you’ll need a very steady camera for a long period of time. And, most of all, the pictures will have to be taken in equal intervals of time. The problem is that most cameras do not come with a timed-multiple-picture-taking function from factory. For Canon cameras, this is somewhat easy to solve: there are lots of free softwares that can work as remote timers when you plug your camera to the USB port of your laptop. But, from my experience, the same cannot be said about Nikon cameras: it is very difficult to find good software support for them, and the remote controlling proprietary program from Nikon is prohibitively expensive for amateur photographers.
Now, here is something that we don’t see everyday in the reality of computers: you can buy hardware that is cheaper and as functional as the proprietary software from the manufacturer. And this is where Aputure Timer TR3N (from now on, I will call it just TR3N) comes in, which works for several Nikon cameras. This tool is capable of controlling the camera’s shutter, and is programmable in order to achieve timings that you cannot with just the camera itself.
In astrophotography, you generally want to take long exposures of the nightsky. The problem is that the longest exposure available for Nikon cameras is 30 seconds, and after that there is only the bulb option, which opens the shutter for an unlimited amount of time, as long as you keep the shooting button pressed. Now, how can we have a steady camera for more than 30 seconds with a finger sitting on top of it? No, we can’t. However, the timer allow us to control the bulb option remotely. TR3N has two options to use the bulb: you either hold (or lock) the big button in the middle of the remote to start taking an exposure, or you use a timer.
TR3N has three timers: 1) the time to start taking pictures, 2) the interval between each shutter opening event, and 3) the shutter exposure time. You must also set how many pictures the camera will take, and here comes a caveat of TR3N: it takes up to only 399 pictures. Now, this can sound like a staggering amount of pictures for the average user, but when working with time-lapses, this can be severely limiting. For instance, if one wants to make a 20 frames per second movie (which is borderline acceptable), 400 pictures will be only 20 seconds of footage!
Another problem that really bothers me about TR3N is that it doesn’t have a ON/OFF switch. When you insert the batteries, it is already on, and the only way to turn it off is by removing the batteries. This is bothersome because inserting and removing the batteries is clunky, and if we just leave them there, the remote will consume energy endlessly. Also, removing the batteries makes it easier to lose them: bummer.
Additionally, if you don’t like cords, TR3N can be quite problematic. It is wired, and the cord is far from being long. In fact, it is less than 1 meter long. While this limitation was far from being a problem for me (because I like to stay near the camera anyway, and watch if everything is going right), living in a world ever so wireless is making me a bit uneasy with these things. Also, I live in a tropical country: staying outside at night is, most of the time, very pleasing, but I understand that this can be problematic for people who live in colder regions.
Now that we have got that out of the way, let’s talk about how it works: first, you set your camera options (white balance, ISO, focus, aperture etc.), then program TR3N (which is incredibly easy), and start taking the pictures. You can either use the camera’s exposure programming (which goes up to 30 seconds) or use TR3N’s programming (for that, just set the camera to the bulb option and choose the exposure time on the remote). To start and finish the timer, it is easy as pressing a button. They seem to be very precise, and worked flawlessly in the tests I made (one short clouds time-lapse, a meteor shower observing session, and one very-long exposure photography of the night-sky). My next objective is to take the camera and remote out to the wilds of the mountains around here.
In summary, TR3N works just as fine as it should, except for the limitation on number of pictures, the short cord and the lack of ON/OFF switch. It can control the exposure time (when camera set to bulb) of the cameras Nikon D7000, D5100, D5000, D3200, D3100, D600 and D90. It comes with a pair of AAA batteries and a good manual. The body doesn’t seem to be very sturdy (but we have to always be careful with photography stuff anyway), and it is surprisingly light for its size. Additionally, it is functional even without batteries: you can use the big button to open the shutter of the camera when it’s set to bulb for an unlimited amount of time, which is already good enough to take pictures of the nightsky. Also, and here comes one of TR3N’s best features: it is inexpensive. You can find it for US$ 36 on Amazon.com. Nikon’s Camera Control Pro 2 costs US$ 180 (!), and it doesn’t have Linux support.