Hands-on: Pico time-lapse camera controller
Just as slow motion video is oddly compelling, there's something equally mesmerizing about watching things unfold faster than they should. Think clouds darting speedily across the sky, day quickly turning into night, or a flower blooming in a matter of seconds. Pico is a recently Kickstarter-funded, smartphone-controlled camera dongle designed to make shooting this sort of time-lapse footage easier. We go hands-on with a beta version to see what Pico can do, and what backers can expect.
Before we start, it's worth stressing that the Pico unit we recently got to play with was a beta version, as was the companion iOS app. As such, not all of the features the product will launch with were available to us. For that reason this a hands-on impression rather than a full review.
What is Pico?
Pico is a seriously small smart controller for cameras which is designed to make time-lapse photography easier. It looks like a chewable sweet (except for the presence of its 3.5 mm connector), and can be programmed with a smartphone via the 3.5 mm headphone socket, or with manual button presses. Once set, it automatically triggers a camera to take a series of images which can then be put together into a time-lapse video. A built-in battery is said to be good for 8 years.
In addition to the little round Pico unit, users will need a short cable to connect it to the remote port of a camera, and the free companion app. By launch, the app will be compatible with any iOS or Android device running iOS 6 or Android 2.6 and higher, and nine different cables allow Pico to be used with some 300 different camera models.
How does it work?
Using the Pico is as simple as maker Mindarin (which previously launched the Astro time-lapse camera mount) suggests. After loading the app we simply plugged the Pico into the headphone socket of an iPad, dialed in our time-lapse setting for overall duration and interval, and checked the calculation showing how long a resulting time-lapse video using the taken images would run for at 30 fps.
One press then sent the program to the device, with a handy little beep from the Pico letting us know the settings had arrived safely and we were ready to go. The Pico then needed to be removed from the iPad and connected to the camera via the supplied cable.
Once secured in place, the Pico automatically took charge and started triggering the shutter, with our camera chugging away at the right speed, for the correct duration. Once complete you're left with a card full of images ready to be processed and compiled into a time-lapse video.
The Pico app also allows you to set a start-time for interval shooting, while a manual setting option means you don't even need to use your smartphone for basic time-lapse settings. You can press a button in the center of the Pico to program settings manually, with audible beeps letting you select the interval and duration settings.
While our beta unit and app only let us try the more basic time-lapse settings, there are a number of more advanced features which will be available when shipping to backers is estimated to start in July. This is important because while core intervalometer features are cropping up built into more cameras, advanced options to also control things like HDR shooting, Bulb Ramping and Speed Ramping are still not yet as common.
In HDR mode for example, the Pico will be able to trigger the camera to shoot multiple shots with different exposure levels. Meanwhile, Bulb Ramping and Speed Ramping will let you control settings to adjust for natural changes in light or to change the pace of the time-lapse to give a speeding up or slowing down effect. Not all functionality will be available on all cameras, so it's worth double-checking before buying.
It's also worth remembering that while Pico certainly makes shooting quality time-lapse footage easier, it does not make it idiot proof. For example, this idiot set an interval time which was less than the manual exposure time, and spent 5 minutes wondering what was going wrong before realizing the conflict. It also does not leave you with a finished video, but a card of images ready to be turned into a time-lapse on your computer.
There's no doubt that Pico could be a very useful tool for people with an interest in shooting time-lapse videos, but whether it's right for you will depend on which capabilities you need, what your camera can already do, and how much you want to spend.
A surprising number of otherwise capable cameras still lack any built-in time-lapse and intervalometer functions. If that describes your camera, and you want to shoot time-lapse, the Pico is a great option.
Even if your camera does have a level of time-lapse prowess, you're likely to find the Pico does more, or makes it easier. It might be that your camera only shoots JPEG in time-lapse mode, insists on giving you a finished video rather than the image files which offer more control, or doesn't boast the advanced ramping features.
Obviously, there are a plethora of other time-lapse accessories that the Pico can also be compared to, including Triggertrap Mobile, ioShutter, and the many other intervalometers on the market. Here it's the size, cost and ease of use that distinguish the Pico from the competition. While it might not have the same array of functions as some of the other smartphone-based competition, there's the benefit that you don't need to leave your phone connected to your camera for the duration of a shoot.
In conclusion, we would recommend the Pico, though that's based more on what the final version is planned to do, and how it's due to work, rather than the more basic beta version we've been testing.
The Kickstarter campaign ends on January 10, and has already met its funding target. Early bird pledge levels are all gone, so backers will now need to stump up at least US$50 for a Pico and one cable of your choice.
You can check out the Pico Kickstarter video below.