First Nights with the eMotimo TB3 (Review)

I first saw the eMotimo Tilt-Box motion control units two years ago, when a participant on my Night Sky Photography Workshops brought one along to play with. I could see then that they were both well designed and built and also great fun. With the release of the Black TB3 version and my own experiments with motion control needing an upgrade, I couldn't resist getting my hands on one and hope this review will encourage others to have a play with one of their own.

Here's the description from eMotimo:

TB3, stands for "The Box", 3-Axis. It is the next evolution of the eMotimo Pan and Tilt motion control heads. The TB3 is a milled aluminum head with new geometry. It is strong, lightweight, and it puts the pan-axis nearly on-node with most cameras to turn a heavier setup. You may easily add an additional stepper motor to the powered AUX Step port on the side of the TB3 to get 3-axis moves.

Demo Video

Here's what I captured with my first nights out with the TB3, over the course of a few months from July to September 2013:

Footage clips are in order from Winton Wetlands (Vic), CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope & Little Llangothlin Nature Reserve near Glen Innes (NSW), Maranoa Wetlands near St George and Pyramid Rock (Qld) and finally from Lake Eppalock (Vic). All captured with a Canon 6D and 5D Mark II and 14mm and 24mm lenses.

Tripod Mounting and Camera Attachment

The TB3 arrived nicely packaged and was provided in a convenient black Vivitar camera bag (and now ships with new custom made bag). The base of the unit has both 1/4" and 3/8" threaded sockets so you can twist the unit directly on to the 3/8" bolt on the top of a tripod, without the need for a sturdy (and expensive) tripod head. However, the preferred solution is to use an adapter plate to attach it to a solid tripod head. I now have an Arca Swiss style rail attached directly into the base of the TB3 and mount that allows me to fit the whole TB3 quickly, easily and securely onto a large ballhead. I've used both an Induro BHL3 and more recently a Sirui K40x which I find more sturdy but either make the process of levelling the TB3 straightforward. I've been using a heavy Canon 5D Mark II and L series lenses. With lighter weight cameras and lenses you could get away with cheaper ballheads.


TB3 mounted directly on the tripod (left) and with an Induro BHL3 ballhead (right)

In the picture above, I have connected the camera to the macro rail which comes with the TB3, however this is a little fiddly particularly in the dark with cold hands. I've now connected a Manfrotto base onto the macro rail so I can snap the camera onto the unit easily. I could have replaced the macro rail entirely but keeping it allows me to keep any camera and lens combination balanced over the centre of the unit by moving the rail back and forth.

Power

The TB3 comes with an AC power adapter for studio type work, but in the field I use it with a 6800mAh lithium-ion battery which i attach with velcro near the top of the tripod with a short DC cable connecting it to the TB3.

Getting Started

There's a simple set of 'getting started' instructions included in the bag, but the unit is so intuitive you can easily get going without reading them. Hook up the camera release and tilt stepper motor cable then turn on the power on the battery and follow the on-screen instructions. You start by pressing the small 'Connect' button on the Wii remote joystick (not obvious if you haven't used a Wii before). Setting the start and end positions for the sequence is fun, and great to show-off to friends as well. Then it's just a case of entering Interval Time, Number of Shots, Static Time, Ramping Frames and Lead-In/Out Frames and you're good to go. This instruction graphic included with the printed instructions shows how they fit together to drive a timelapse sequence.

Here's a quick little clip of me setting up the TB3 near home. The eMotimo guys claim that you can set it up and be running timelapse in less than five minutes and I can certainly vouch for that. With a bit more practice I could do it in just a couple of minutes.

Now my photography and timelapse work is mainly done at night and the first thing I noticed is that the display is a very bright blue which illuminates the foreground over quite a large distance. I've made a little black cover which I velcro on over the screen, but would prefer if there was a way for this to be turned off. I've had no trouble powering the unit through several hours on a winter night with my lithium battery (there are some stepper motor setup options which allow you to choose energy saving modes rather than maintaining power to the motors between steps). I expect the Anker battery that eMotimo sell as an accessory should perform similarly to my eBay special.

Motion Control: More is Less

One of the golden rules with motion control is that 'more is less'. You don't need big, dramatic moves to create compelling footage. In fact, to get smooth high quality footage, you want to keep the amount of motion between frames very small (not much more than 0.1 degree with a wide angle lens). The demo video uses mostly 2-point moves, but the first clip at the radio telescope is a 3-point move and you can see the transition through the middle point is very smooth.

But because I was playing with a new toy, I slightly over-cooked the motion control in a couple of clips, but it is just so hard to resist moving that Wii joystick too far when setting your first start and end points! At night when you need long exposures for each frame, you can't try and pan halfway across the sky in one hour and expect smooth footage as a result. During daylight, you've got a lot more flexibilty to keep the frame rate high. You can also record 'Continuously', as the TB3 calls it, with the motors moving slowly but constantly though the sequence. In this way, you could record in video mode or capture continuous image sequences, rather than the default Move-Shoot-Move.

The image below is from a sequence I captured on one of my first night's using the TB3, but I haven't been able to render smooth footage from it, even using Timewarp and Motion Blur settings in After Effects. That's another lesson that I've had to re-learn the hard way. Now that I'm getting used to the TB3 I'm slowing down again and not trying to do everything at once.

Repeat Motion

One of the neat things about the mechanical design and control system of the TB3 is the high degree of positioning accuracy, allowing you to repeat motion control sequences with high precision to achieve special effects. There would be plenty of uses for this in the studio, but here's my first attempt at trying it outdoors:


Three Axis Motion Control

The TB3 includes an auxilliary motor control port, allowing for three-axis motion control from the one unit. It is designed to work easily with the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero or Stage One dollies, among other options (although I have not tested this yet). Gunther Wegner, the brains behind LR Timelapse software, has a review on his site with the Part 2 video showing setup of the TB3 on a Stage One dolly. I've never been a big fan of programming the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero with their original MX controller. Using the TB3 looks a lot more user friendly. Take note of how you move the TB3 along the dolly during setup - by tilting the Wii controller - how cool is that?!

Giga Panoramas

The eMotimo firmware is being continuously developed and the latest version now includes automatic creation of 'Giga Panoramas'. I haven't tried it yet but it's easy to see that the hardware could do it. The camera can be positioned 'on-node' for horizontal panoramas but not so for vertical panning (unless you mount the whole unit on its side). Unless you're shooting multi-row panoramas with objects close to the camera the TB3 should perform well for this also.

Final Thoughts

Motion control for timelapse is often heavy, slow and tedious (and quite expensive). The TB3 is a really smart little unit that makes pan and tilt motion control lightweight, simple and fast. I can carry everything I need in one trip and set it up from scratch and be shooting in just a few minutes. That's highly motivating compared to more cumbersome options and is critical for capturing a fast changing scene.

Of course, fast and fun would be pointless if the results were compromised, but the mechanical design and build quality of this unit is very high and it's capable of producing high quality footage at moderately long lengths with any DSLR. And it's great value compared to other units with similar capabilities. So if you're looking at getting into timelapse motion control, I highly recommend the eMotimo TB3.

Full Disclosure: eMotimo helped me out with obtaining this unit and I guess you could say I am an 'affiliate' for their products, but I only do that because I think they make great stuff!