When we started Aurora Service, our original HQ was in a property called Solbacka, translated from Swedish, it means sunny hill. Unfortunately for us the hill was right behind the house blocking the views north. So we couldn’t have a sky camera there. But in March 2014, we moved to a new place, and this new HQ has good un-obscured views north. Unfortunately, there were many trees and shrubs blocking the view from the house, so we couldn’t have a camera sitting at a window inside the house because of those trees right in the centre of the shot. So we needed to have a camera in the garden, in an area with no trees blocking the view, which was about 40 metres from the house. For this we needed an external (& weather proof) sky camera system.
We looked around at commercial sky cameras, and the price of them (and associated software) was out of reach for us. Being essentially a free information service, we have a very low budget. So the only way we could have a sky camera is if we made our own using a DSLR camera and program our own script to upload and process the images instead of using commercial software.
So that’s exactly what we did. We set to work on our own DIY sky camera and documented the build along the way. So if you are curious as to how we built it, or you are thinking of building your own sky camera (or any sort of outdoor camera system that will be affected by weather), I hope this gives you some information and ideas how to do it.
The sky camera project has been an on-going project running along side our magnetometer project, with both projects taking all our spare time, it actually took quite a few weeks to get near to finishing both projects (they both should be done in the next couple of days).
And this is how we built it:
A trip to Ikea to look in there plastic boxes section. It’s a bit big this box, but it was only 5 euros, with a lid that seems to seal great so should be fully waterproof. Also when the box is in the garden with the DSLR in it, it will need an electric cable running to it to power the camera 24/7. Having 50 metres of electric cable is not ideal, there will be all kinds of critters chewing that cable in summer no doubt. It will do to get the project up and running, but ideally, we’d like a solar panel and battery (for when it gets dark) and I can fit a good size battery in this box for sure.
Note: In this article sometimes we will refer to the box as camera enclosure sometimes we will refer to it as the camera box, they are both the same thing. It’s just this was written over many days as and when we made a bit of progress on it, and some days I would say camera box, some days I would say camera enclosure..
Here is the specifics if you want to get the same box.
So your going to have to build a window of some sort into the box so the camera can see out. I bought a picture frame with a proper glass front bit, so I kept the glass bit and threw away the picture stuff. I chose real glass because I just think glass gives a cleaner/clearer image. You could use polycarbonate, acrylic, plastic or even sellofane film if you must. But plastic can look a bit cloudy sometimes and is easily scratched if and when you have to clean the window. This camera enclosure will be in the woods in all seasons, so it might need cleaning every few weeks, so you want your window tough and pretty scratch resistant. Glass gives a crystal clear image and doesn’t scratch when I need to clean it, so I went with glass. It seems reasonably tough and thick so I don’t think I’ll have a problem with it.
A quick note on when your choosing your window, it doesn’t have to be that big. In fact you don’t want it that big because it will let light into the box and could reflect back and create reflections/glare on the inside (more on that later). So you want to keep the window size pretty small, just big enough so you can change camera lens in future to super wide angle and not have to modify anything.
Make a hole. You want the hole to be about 5cm smaller than your window material. Because later we need to silicon it in and we need a good area to work in to make it uber waterproof around there.
A note on making the hole. These boxes crack quite easily, especially if they are cold they become quite brittle. So I actually made the hole by making about 50 holes right next to each other with a soldering iron in a rectangular pattern, then again, with the soldering iron, just pull it across the holes and it will melt through each one easily. Not only does this avoid cracking or weakening the box, it actually builds up a lip of plastic around the hole making it even stronger.
Also, don’t make the hole right at the bottom of the box, you want your camera to be elevated a few cm on something, just in case water does get into the box (we will also be making drain holes, but it’s just a double security measure worth taking).
Here is a close up, you can just notice the tops of the circles I made with the soldering iron. It took about 10 minutes tops to do it.
The hole is way smaller than my glass, it doesn’t need to be any bigger than this.
With the glass inside the box, it’s looking good. All that extra space around the hole and glass we will seal with silicon sealant to make it super waterproof.
So next we can dry fit the camera and take a test shot to see how it’s looking. As mentioned previously, you don’t want the camera sat on the bottom of the box, for a few reasons. So I used a thick piece of insulation to line the bottom of the box. It will also help keep the camera stay a bit warmer in winter. It’s called finn-foam (although it’s not really foam it’s pretty solid), it cuts to size real easy, is super lightweight and has good insulation properties. But you could use polystyrene, wood or whatever you have to hand. So long as the camera is elevated at least 5cm, it doesn’t really matter what it’s sat on.
*Don’t stick anything in permanently yet, we still need to paint the box!
Insulation at bottom of box.
Camera sat on insulation.
Camera in box. It’s alignment looks perfect with the window, just the right height. Unfortunately it wants to fall forward on it’s lens and will be taking more pictures of the floor than the sky. But that is easily solved.
Enter my old friend the camping mat. The most versatile substance known to man.
Cut a rectangle off the camping mat and place it under the lens.
That’s much better. Time to take a test shot with that camera to see how it looks through the window.
Excellent. I cleaned the glass with window cleaner and it is crystal clear, you would not know this picture was taken inside a box (it’s a bit out of focus but that’s my fault, not the glass). It’s still getting a bit too much of the floor in the shot, but that’s ok, we will want to put something under the front of the camera box later when we place it in the wild so it tilts back a bit, in case it does leak, all the water will flow to the back of the box where we will put drain holes. So don’t worry about the precise vertical alignment yet, that can be fine tuned later.
So now we know that the camera sits in the box ok and takes nice pictures through the box window, it is time to remove everything and start painting the box. You can keep the box black if you like, but there are a few things to consider when it comes to painting it (or not). If left black, it will get very hot, probably to fatal levels for a DSLR camera in summer months (70°C or 80°C plus if in an area with full sun exposure). Also, this is an external camera, we want it to blend in with the surroundings and not be so obvious. IN winter it’s surroundings is snowy, so we will paint the box white for winter, in summer we will paint it camo. It won’t be invisible, but it just won’t be so obvious should someone happen to walk by it.
It’s still the end of winter here now, and pretty snowy still, but it won’t be for much longer, so we will just go right ahead and paint the camera enclosure nomal camouflage colours in preparation for spring. But we will paint it winter colours now just to give you an idea how it looks in snow. It is very flexible when it comes to painting, you can paint it as often as you like to blend in with each season. It is much easier to paint now now because it is a bare box, but once the window is installed, you could just mask it off and paint the box still. No big deal.
Because the box is so shiny, paint won’t stick to it too great so we need to rough it up. I don’t bother with primer, I just usually spray paint straight on to things. I’ve never had a problem with paint coming off anything, and I have painted hundreds of things, and all different materials. So long as you prep & degrease the surface before painting, paint should stick to it very well. So here I sanded the box with 600 grade sand paper. It’s about as coarse as you wanna go otherwise you will see serious sanding marks in the paint after you have painted it otherwise (doesn’t matter too much if it’s in the jungle..who’s looking at it?). But I am just a bit picky like that. 600/800/1000/1200 grade sandpaper would all be fine. You don’t have to sand it much, just to get the glossy finish off it.
Sanded box. You could sand that lip down that the soldering iron made if you wanted. If you sanded the inside flush, your window would likely make a better seal. I’ve got a ton of silicone sealant, so it doesn’t concern me too much. But if I had the means to sand it down a bit with a precision sanding machine (which I have but can’t find..) then I would sand it down so it’s flush for sure.
Don’t forget to sand the lid too. I also sanded the inside of the box. It’s not going to get painted on the inside, so why bother sanding it? Well, it’s just uber glossy in there, almost like a mirror if you catch the light properly. And there lies the problem. Light will bounce straight back of the insides of the box onto your window and at certain times of the day or certain times of the moon cycle, there could be light entering the box from the window, bouncing back off the uber glossy walls and lid and causing reflections on the inside glass. Just like when you turn a light on in a room when it’s dark outside and you can see yourself in the window. So if you sand the inside of the box it will make it much duller in there and stop light bouncing all around inside it and will drastically decrease chances of reflections on the glass.
Next step is to thoroughly wash it/degrease it with hot water and fairy liquid. I used one of those sponges that is pretty coarse and gave it a proper scrubbing. It’s already scratched to hell because you have just sanded it, it doesn’t matter if you make more scratches with that sponge.
Before you paint it, go outside and look where you think you will be placing the camera box/enclosure. You want to get an idea of where it is going and how it look there, so you can try to replicate that in your paint scheme. It’s snowy here, so I am not going to paint it in desert camo. In my garden, where the camera will be, it’s mostly all deciduous trees, meaning they have all lost their leaves and it is just twigs in winter. So I don’t want to paint a plain white box, because it is’nt plain white here. I want to try to paint twig patterns on the box and not make it pure white or it will stand out.
So I got a bunch of twigs, laid them flat on the box and spray painted the box white over the twigs. This left a sort of twig pattern on the box. Also, if your also in a snowy place, don’t over do it on the white, it’s good to let a bit of the black of the box to come through in places, I also have brown spray paint I could make some areas brown to blend in with it’s surroundings.
Job done, we have a winter camo box. Can you see it? To make it even more invisible you can take twigs and attach them around the box to make a more 3d camo scheme (I never done that here, it’s just the paint job). Also the shadow underneath the box is making it stand out a bit, you bury the box 1cm to avoid that or pile snow up around the box a bit. But this paint scheme is entirely for this article and to show you how flexible it is and you can paint the box as often as you like for the changing seasons.
So 1 hour after I painted the box in winter camo, I repainted it in normal camo in preparation for spring which is arriving any day now. The garden will be bursting with green and all kinds of colours. There are many videos on youtube how to paint camo, but my advice is just to not worry about it too much, just get out there and start painting and see what happens. If you do a bad job you can just paint over it again! So here is the camera enclosure now in the process of being painted all brown as the base colour for my camo scheme. Ideally, you want to use deciduous leaves (ideally you want to paint this kind of thing in summer!), but I don’t have the luxury of them now, only pine & spruce, so I have to work with what I’ve got. I might repaint the box in summer using seasonal plants as painting templates. Ferns make awesome camouflage templates to spray over, so I’ll be looking for some of them in summer.
If the box will be in a very permanent position (ie all year), then it is worthwhile even planting some plants around it to also add to its camouflage. You might have to check they aren’t obscuring the camera box window a few times per year, but it’s a small price to pay for the awesome camo effects they would produce.
A note on paints
You want to use flat or matte paint. Unfortunately, the shop I went to for paint only had glossy, so my box will be a bit shinier that I’d like. I might have to rub mud or something on it to dull it down a bit. I really should have went to a different shop and got matte paint. But I was impatient and wanted to get started on painting so I just went ahead with gloss paint. We’ll see how it looks in the end if it was a bad decision or not.
Paint job complete.
I played around with different colours, and twigs and I ended up with this camo scheme. It’s ok, I overdone it on the brown a bit, but I will probably do it again in summer when conditions are better to paint and I have more plants to choose from to use as stencils. So this will do for now. Let it dry so it is ok to touch, then we can put our window in permanently.
I used plain old transparent silicone. Nothing special, it was the cheapest stuff in the shop. I already had the gun from decorating the house, you may or may not need one. It would be messy without one though.
Squeeze plenty of silicone around the hole. I never sanded down the lip of plastic that cutting a hole with a soldering iron created, and in hindsight, I think it is a good thing, because it stopped the silicone from spreading across the glass.
Pretty neat job, I thought I would have to really work hard to get excess silicone off the front of the glass but barely any went on it.
Put something heavy on your glass or whatever you are using so it seals good while it dries.
Here it is dried. I barely had to clean up the front glass but it was very neat the wya the silicone flowed around the hole opening and didn’t flow out onto the glass like I thought it would.
Once it’s dried, squeeze a little bit in the front and run your finger around it to make a perfect seal. Let that dry and then it’s time for the shower test.
So we are going to have a DSLR camera and a lens and some other electronics in that box, outside, in all weathers with everything mother nature can throw at us in every season. So we need to make sure it can handle it. Especially torrential rain storms. For this you need a shower. Find a way to secure the lid on (I just used 1 simple strap across the middle of the box to keep the lid on). Line the box with tissue paper. If any water gets in, it will be easily noticeable with wet tissue paper.
So go ahead and put your camera enclosure in the shower and hit it with everything you’ve got, at all angles.
From an angle
Seriously give the window area a serious attack with the shower. I spent a good 2 minutes going at this area from plenty of different angles to make sure the window sealing was up to the job.
Carefully remove the lid so no water drops in and inspect the tissue paper for any signs of water.
Result: Pass with flying colours. Not a single speck of moisture.
Nearly ready to go in the garden, we just need to sort out the electrics, cables, cable holes and a couple drain holes.
I expected the cabling to arrive today (19th March) both for the camera and the magnetometer but it was a no show, so that’s put me back a day on the projects. But I did sort the cameras electric cable out today and ran it down to the where the camera will be permanently sited. It doesn’t look that far away, but it took a lot of cable, in fact I had to use 2 extension cables. I just need the 50 metres of external weather proof cat5e cable to arrive then I can hook the camera up to the computer and see what’s happening. Hopefully that 50 metres of cat5 cable is enough…
I want it connected to my computer like this so I can control every aspect of the camera from inside the warm office and not have to disturb the camera ever. I will be controlling it using canon’s utility software. It’s good software, it is almost made for sky cameras because you can set the interval to just keep taking pictures as often or as slow as you like. The pictures are recorded to your hard disk not the camera, so you never really need to go to the camera for anything, like to change memory cards or something. Almost every option you can change on the camera you can change in the canon utility software, but I will likely leave it in aperture priority mode so it’s not wildly over-exposed in the day shots. Although it doesn’t get properly dark here in summer so there won’t really be night sky or auroras to shoot, I will leave the camera running and you can watch the sunrise, the sheep, any wildlife that walk past the camera etc..
I will set the interval of the shots anything from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. I can do it so easily, I will know when we have clear skies and aurora activity so I can have it shooting very often (so often I could make smooth timelapses from it). If the weather sucks, say it is cloudy as hell, I will just shoot once every 10 mins to save the shutter life.
What did come today though was a wide angle lens attachment thing that goes on the end of your kit lens and makes it wide angle. I wouldn’t use one of these things for normal photography, at least not this version I got, the image quality is pretty horrific, but as a fixed sky cam (which is shooting very low res), it is more than acceptable, and still provides better quality than most sky cams.
As you can see, the quality is acceptable. Pixel peeping the wide angle pics, I will be honest it’s a car crash. But at low res (720×480) it’s more than adequate. But look at the field of view on show now, notice the shrub in centre shot especially. For a crop sensor, that’s not bad at all. The thing cost about £15. It was either that or a Samyang 14mm for 400 euros…as you can see the decision was difficult….
So I put the camera enclosure out in the garden. It will look more inconspicuous when everything isn’t white. I put it on an ikea table that only cost a few euros too. I might spray that table camo too, but I will be planting some plants under it and around it to make it pretty invisible in green months. You could also use camo netting/webbing if you wanted to go a bit further.
So it’s almost ready to hook up, just waiting on the cat5 cables to arrive which I ordered like 9 days ago or something. The thing that slows these projects down the most is waiting for things to arrive.
Once it is hooked up and running, this is pretty much the image you will get..give or take a few metres left or right:
The camera will be useful for mid to southern Scandinavia and Scotland aurora chasers to see what’s going on near their latitudes during geomagnetic storms. That was the goal anyway. It will also just be cool watching the seasons and nature on this beautiful little island we live, so it will be an all year camera, not just winter. In May, the field right in front of the camera will be filled with lots of newborn lambs jumping around :)
The cabling arrived today, for both this project and the magnetometer. Unfortunately 2 key parts were missing, one of the parts a USB to RJ45 connector and a RJ45 coupler for the magnetometer. Cheap parts, but without them I can’t connected the cables! The company said they would send them out, hopefully they send them airmail (from the UK) and they arrive quickly! It is so incredibly frustrating. I wanted the sky camera to be operational today but now it (and the magnetometer) won’t be operational until next week thanks to these important parts being missing.
To explain why it is difficult to get the cabling right for the camera, is because it connects via usb. But the maximum length a USB cable can be is 5 metres. Obviously this camera being probably 50 metres away in the garden makes that a problem. You can link 4 x 5 metre usb cables together and then you make 20 metres but it is still not enough. So the best way for having super long distances that you need USB connection from is by using ethernet (cat5) cable, with a RJ45 to USB adaptor on each end. Pictures will show all this and you will know exactly what I mean then. But basically I am missing one of those RJ45 to USB adaptors so I cannot plug the camera in. I did however crimp connectors onto the bare cable so it’s ready to plug straight in the day the adaptor arrives, so not a totally wasted day.
The USB to ethernet adaptor(s) I got are the incorrect part. They are for making ethernet work on computers that do not have ethernet ports and so you can plug these adaptors into USB and then plug your ethernet cable in.
What I need is USB Extenders via Ethernet. Yes, it does look almost like the same thing, and they physically look identical too, hence my error in buying the wrong part (and nearly 40 euros wasted!). So there is a lesson learned. I thought I would highlight this error because I doubt I am the first to make this mistake and I doubt I will be the last because the adaptors are very very similar and easily mistaken. So if you are reading this and making your own sky camera, you want USB Extenders via Ethernet and not USB to Ethernet Adpators.
So I have just ordered the USB extenders, I have 50 metres of cat5 cable crimped and ready to plugin to the extenders. So as soon as they arrive, the camera will be functional (hopefully….).
Many lessons have been learned in our projects, good and bad, I have had a few headaches trying to get things to work and to figure stuff out. It took a long time to figure out that USB part was the wrong part. I even went to Clas Ohlsen and bought another one thinking the first one was faulty, which cost 20 eurors in diesel and 40 eurors in the shop. Very expensive lesson. The USB extenders I then found on eBay for 10 euros! I guess that is why they are called projects :) and besides, mistakes are totally fine, so long as you learn from them.
Update 27 March
Finally the usb adpators arrived!
Now I can plug in the 50 metres of cat5 cable! It gives me so much more flexibility where to place the camera. As such I decided to move it from it last place to a better place.
So I can kill 2 birds with 1 stone as they say. I will use the Laptop as a server, both for the camera project and the magnetometer project. So I have put the laptop in the basement of the house, it’s not a real basement, just foundations with a crawl space, it’s creep in there (I had a feeling I weren’t alone in there..). Any the 50 metres of camera USB/CAT5 cable is plugged into the laptop down there which will be on 24/7. I was going to plug them into the office PC, but when I go away, or I just forget that there is critical stuff plugged in and turn the computer at night, it will be a bit of apain, so I have donated a laptop the camera and magnetometer projects to ensure that never happens, and they are always on 24/7 365.
So I moved the camera box to a new place. It’s difficult to find a good spot for it when you can’t see the back of the camera (because it’s in a box). So I set the intervalometer to every minute, and loaded this website on the tablet and watched the sky cams page for how the image looked. I could adjust the box, wait a minute and see if it was better. I evertually found a good place. It is quite exposed now the camera, easily visible, but it is on the inside of a field with an electric fence so I suppose that’s a bit of security ;)
So that’s that, the camera project is complete. I will paint it according to the seasons and perhaps make it solar powered that’s about it.
For anyone interested here are the costs:
Canon EOS 1100D + 18-55 IS II lens (+ wide angle attachment) = 220 Euros
50 metres cat 5 cabling + connectors + crimping tool = 40 euros
USB extenders = 10 Euros
Box/Enclosure = 5 Euros
Mistakes made = 40 euros (bought the wrong usb adaptors…twice…)
Diesel cost to shops = 20 euros
AC power adaptor for camera = 10 euros
Paint & silicone = 20 euros
Total cost: 365
Post installation updates
We are suffering serious dew/condensation forming on the glass of the box in the evenings. We probably need to install some sort of heating or thermal storage into the box to keep it slightly warmer than ambient temps to avoid the dew condensing on the box. For now, I will use my old friend a bottle of water. On sunny days the sun hitting the box will heat it up and this will also heat the water bottle inside (acting like a miniature storage tank) and it should store the heat over night and keep the box a few degrees above ambient, which should all be needed to stop dew condensing. It should work on sunny days but cloudy days will be a problem and I will need to heat the box somehow. For winter I will need to insulate the box. As the box cost only 5 euros I will perhaps build another identical fully insulated box already painted white and just swap the boxes in winter/summer. But for now we will work on this dew problem.
Also, the connection keeps dropping and we have to manually go to camera and restart it. We got about 7 hours last night before losing the connection. It is another problem we are looking into. Probably due to too long cable length (estimated about 30 metres) or the USB extenders being a bit rubbish. We are working on that too.
We think the connection issue is fixed, I tried a few different things, so not sure which one fixed it, but it has been running reliably for 24 hours now.
The aperture priority mode was not great for a camera operating 24 hours a day. I have changed to P mode to see if that works a little better.
P mode is much better. I can keep the camera on 1600 ISO 24/7 and it automatically changes aperture for daytime shots so they are not crazy over exposed. Then at night time is automatically goes back to F3.5. Great.
The condensation issue is a problem. It happens every night after a few hours. I have put a bottle of water inside the camera box and insulated it a bit too. Hopefully the sun heating the box in the day time will heat the water too and it will keep the box warm enough during night time to stop dew/condensation forming on the glass. We will see if it works tonight. It’s a short term fix really, because it might not work to well when we don’t get much sun (like winter). So the plan is to install an electric heater in the box eventually.
The Dew/condensation problem has been cured with putting a 2 litre bottle of water inside the camera box. Lucky it was such a big box in that respect. Not even a single hint of dew on the lens/window all night. What a great, simple and cheap fix that was. The sunnier it is, the better it works. I am not sure how it will do on cloudy/rainy days where no sun is hitting the box to h>eat the water up inside it. It is a simple technique this, many people use it (on a larger scale) to keep their greenhouses or even eco houses warm during the night. It’s known as passive solar design. It will also stop the box overheating in summer because the bottle of water will be absorbing most of the heat to store and release overnight.
Notable images caught on the camera