Using The Nikon MC-36A And Canon TC-80N3 Intervalometers

If I made a list of the most confusing things a night photographer faces, using an intervalometer would have to be near the top. It’s among the most frequent questions I’m asked and each time I tell the person that I’m planning to write an article to help clear it up. Been saying that for three or four years now. Finally…

First, some definitions:

A genuine cable release screwed into the shutter of a mechanical film camera.

Cable release. Back in the mechanical film camera days, you used a “cable release” to fire your shutter so you wouldn’t shake the camera by pressing the shutter with your finger. The device literally consisted of a cable encased inside a sleeve, with a screw on one end and a plunger on the other. You screwed it into the shutter button on top of the camera (shutter buttons on film cameras have screw sockets) and pressed the plunger to fire the shutter. We no longer use mechanical shutter devices, but the term cable release is so engrained in the industry that it still applies. Today, it simply refers to any device designed to fire the shutter without having to press the button with your finger.

Intervalometer. In general usage, a device that automatically counts time intervals for use in signaling a device. In photography, it is a device that allows you to shoot exposures at timed intervals.
Interval timer. Same as intervalometer.
Timer. A generic term for an intervalometer.
Remote release. More properly defined as a wireless device that allows you to fire the shutter. In popular usage, it can refer to any shutter release device.
Remote cable release. Another term for remote release, but generally used to refer to one that is attached by a wire (cable).

Nikon MC-30 shutter release. It lets you fire the shutter without touching the camera, but it is not an intervalometer.

Shutter release. Any device that fires the shutter without you having to press the shutter button.
Bulb release. Another throwback to mechanical cameras, a bulb release uses air to fire the shutter. You screw a hose into the shutter button and squeeze a bulb at the other end that forces a current of air through the hose, which fires the shutter.
Timer Remote Controller. Canon’s name for the TC-80N3 intervalometer.
Multi-Function Remote Cord. Nikon’s name for the MC-36A intervalometer.

It’s already confusing, isn’t it? And we haven’t even gotten to how to use the dang things, yet! All of these terms, even bulb release,  are often used interchangeably by photographers, so you never really know exactly what type of device someone is referring to.

To make things even more confusing, there are a bewildering number of devices available from dozens of manufacturers. And the connection to the camera is not universal, so these devices are usually available with several different plugs and you have to make sure you get the right one for your camera. You’re going to have to check the specs of the device to make sure it fits your camera.

I have so many different types of shutter releases lying around that I get all tangled up in them.

I don’t try to keep up with all of the different intervalometers available, so in this article I’m going to talk about only the two principle ones for Nikon and Canon cameras, which are the ones you are most likely to buy if you shoot one of these cameras. For Nikon, it is the MC-36A and for Canon, it is the TC-80N3.

You can buy these devices for around $140, or you can get a knockoff for around $50 from online retailers like Hunt’s Photo, B&H, and Adorama. Or, you can get an even cheaper knockoff on eBay for $20 or less. For some things, like camera batteries, I recommend caution when buying aftermarket brands, but I don’t have a problem with knockoff intervalometers purchased from reputable dealers. (I would not buy one for $20 on eBay.) At least in the case of the MC-36A, many of the knockoffs appear to be identical to the Nikon unit. I own a Nikon MC-36 and an old Pearstone unit, which is now sold as the Vello Shutterboss. The Shutterboss looks identical and it operates nearly the same. I say “nearly” because there is one huge difference, but it is actually a difference in favor of Shutterboss. More on that, later.

Oh, if you’re a Nikon shooter, you might own the MC-36 like me, not the MC-36A. The MC-36A replaced the MC-36 a couple years ago. As far as I can determine, the only difference between them is that the MC-36A has a larger screw on the plug and a white arrow indicating the proper orientation for plugging it in. In operation, they appear to be identical.

The Nikon MC-36A is almost identical to the old Pearstone (now Vellow Shutterboss) unit I own.

And speaking of that little tightening knob, I rarely use it. I just plug the device in and leave the thumbscrew unfastened. The plug stays in place just fine without tightening the screw and it makes it much easier and faster to plug it in and remove. Yes, it’s possible that the device could come loose if you don’t screw it in, but I always make sure it is plugged in fully as the final step before initiating a timed exposure.

I ragged the user manuals of these devices in this article about star trails, but in truth, the manuals do explain their operation fairly well. The problem is that no one reads the manuals the way they should. You need to pay attention to every word and graph, and practice with the intervalometer as you read along. If you do that, you’ll get it. If you refuse, and are looking to this article as your savior, you may be in for some disappointment. It’s kind of like riding a bike. Reading how to do it isn’t going to help much until you jump on and start pedaling.

These guys are intervalometers, but they also work as simple shutter releases as well. Find the biggest button on the device and push it to fire the shutter. If you want to shoot continuous exposures, push the same button and slide it forward to lock it. The shutter will fire repeatedly at the shutter speed you have set on the camera. Note that for the continuous operation to work the camera shutter cannot be set to bulb and the frame advance on the camera must be set to continuous low or high, not single.

You can use the shutter release button with the camera in bulb mode; you just can’t shoot automatic continuous exposures this way. A very helpful feature of the intervalometers is that when you shoot in bulb mode, the timer on the LCD screen counts the exposure in seconds. This works great when you don’t want to take the time to program the shutter speed into the intervalometer. Simply press the shutter button, lock it in place, and then watch the timer until it reaches the desired exposure time.

For the rest of this article, I will be discussing the intervalometer function of these devices and in particular, how to use them for night photography timed exposures, such as for star trails.

Both the MC-36A and TC-80N3 operate in nearly the same manner, but the way you program them is a little different.

Nikon MC-36A intervalometer

Programming the MC-36A

Press the left or right arrows on the Arrow button to scroll through the modes and watch the black dash until if falls under the desired mode. Next, press the Set button and the hours value begins blinking (the frame count blinks when you select N mode). Now press the up and down arrow buttons to enter a value for hours, or press the right arrow to scroll to minutes and then seconds. In all scenarios, the left and right arrows are for scrolling between modes or hours/minutes/seconds and the up and down arrows are for entering the time values or exposure count. Once you enter the desired value into hours/minutes/seconds or set the desired frame count, you need to press the Set button a second time to lock that value in.

Canon TC-80N3 intervalometer

Programming the TC-80N3

Press the Mode button to scroll through the modes (icons described below). After you select the desired mode, press the button on the Jog dial and the seconds starts blinking. Press it again for minutes and again for hours. When a value is blinking, you can enter the desired time by rotating the wheel on the jog dial. Once entered, press the dial button again to lock that value in place.

Trust me, programming these guys is much easier than it sounds. You just need to get the dang thing out and play with it. If I were standing beside you, I could show you how to do it in a minute. But I couldn’t possibly explain it in an article as well as you could figure it out for yourself in a few minutes of quality playtime.

Both Canon and Nikon intervalometers have four main values that you can program into them, but they are not presented in the same order.

For the Canon, it’s Self-timer, Interval timer, Long exposure, Exposure count setting. For Nikon, it’s Delay (Self on the Shutterboss), Long, Interval, Number. Both units spell out or abbreviates the mode on the unit. Canon also gives you icons. The Self-timer icon looks like a clock face. The Interval timer has four little rectangles, two black and two white. Long exposure looks like a letter “S” that has fallen down. Exposure count setting has three rectangles stacked on top of each other.

Mode definitions

Self-timer or Delay. This controls how long the intervalometer waits before it tells the camera to get to work. It works just like the self-timer in the camera. Regardless of the other settings you program into it, if you program a time value into the self-timer, nothing will happen until that time runs out.

The self-timer can be very useful inn many scenarios. Suppose you want to wait a couple hours to start your star-trail exposures so there will be less airplane traffic, or perhaps you are setting the camera up while it is still daylight, but you don’t want it to start until after it gets dark. Simply program the amount of time you want the intervalometer to wait and you’re good to go.

Interval timer or Interval. This controls how much time elapses between exposures. With star trails, for instance, you want the shortest possible time between exposures. The minimum interval you can program into these devices is one second, so that’s what you choose. But suppose you wanted to record a time-lapse sequence of a plant growing. In that case, you might program an interval of one hour.

Listen up, folks, this is important…

With the Canon and Shutterboss intervalometers, you set the interval you want between shots at the actual value desired. For example, if you want a one-second interval, you set the interval value to one second. Makes sense, right? Well, that’s not what you do with the MC-36A. With that device, you must include the shutter length with the interval. So, if you want a one-second interval, you must add one second to the exposure length and enter that value as the interval. I often shoot star trails at a four-minute shutter speed, with a one-second interval between exposures. With the MC-36A, I program the exposure length to four minutes, but I have to program the interval to four minutes and one second. This is just plain stupid, but then we’re talking about Nikon.

Did you get that? The interval period that you program into the Nikon MC-36A must include the exposure length. But there’s another quirk. If you set the exposure count to unlimited with the MC-36A, you don’t have to include the exposure length with the interval time. So if you wanted to shoot four-minute star-trail exposures with one second in between each shot, you could simply program the Interval to one second, not four minutes and one second. Only when you enter a value in the Number setting do you need to do this. For some reason, when you enter a value for the number of exposures and you don’t add the Long setting to the desired Interval time, the intervalometer counts down one shot for every second in the Long setting. This is just plain weird.

To be safe, the best approach with the MC-36A is always to add the exposure length to the desired interval time and enter that value as the Interval. This does not apply to the Canon or Shutterboss intervalometers. Interestingly, the Nikon version of the Shutterboss works properly regardless of how you program the interval. In the example above, you could set it at one second or at four minutes and one second and it works the same. I don’t know if the Canon is the same.

The interval setting on an intervalometer can be used to set the interval between exposures that you set on the camera or on the intervalometer. If you set the camera’s shutter speed to a value other than bulb and the frame advance to single, you can use the intervalometer to control how much time elapses between exposures. In this case, you would set the intervalometer’s exposure time (the Long exposure or Long setting) to 0. If you want to shoot shutter speeds longer than the camera has a setting for (probably 30 seconds is the longest you can set on the camera), you would use the intervalometer’s exposure time for that.

Long exposure or Long. Here’s where you set the shutter speed. If you want to shoot four-minute star-trail exposures, you set this to four minutes. The camera’s shutter speed setting must be set to bulb whenever you are using this setting on the intervalometer.

Exposure count setting or Number. This is where you program how many exposures you want the camera to take. With the Nikon, you can program from 1 to 399 exposures. With the Canon, it’s from 1 to 99. For unlimited exposures, choose – – on the Nikon and 00 on the Canon.

Bleeping beep. Nikon and Shutterboss give us one more mode setting. You can choose whether you want to hear a beep every time you set a value in a mode. Annoying doesn’t begin to describe the beep when you are programming the unit. However, it may be helpful to you because it also beeps for the final three seconds of each interval, which lets you know when the shutter is about to open. If you have it set for a one-second delay, it will beep only once right before it fires the shutter. I suppose I can see how this might be helpful for some photographers, but my sanity is better preserved by turning the dang thing off.

Start/Stop button. This is what you push to start the intervalometer. It is different from the big shutter release button. That one only fires the camera shutter, allowing you to use the intervalometer as a basic shutter release. The Start/Stop button is the one you push when you’re ready to begin a programmed exposure sequence.

Other intervalometer settings. Both Canon and Nikon feature an illumination button in conjunction with a lock button. Both are useful. The illumination button is necessary when you need to program the intervalometer in the dark. The lock button prevents you from accidently pressing a button and changing a setting. It also prevents accidental starting of the intervalometer when it’s stuffed in your pack, which would drain the batteries.

Programming examples

A setting I often use for star trails is ISO 200, aperture f/3.5, four minute shutter speed, the shortest interval possible between exposures, unlimited number of shots (I shoot as many as the battery allows), and the exposure sequence to begin immediately. Here is how I program the camera and Nikon MC-36A:

Camera settings:

ISO 200.
Aperture f/3.5.
Frame advance set to Single.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction on camera disabled. (This is for star trails only. For certain scenarios, you might want to enable it. See this article for more info about LENR.)

MC-36A

DELAY: 00:00:00
LONG: 00:04:00
INTVL: 00:04:01
N: – –

Suppose I set up the camera in the daytime to shoot the star trails and want to wait two hours before the exposure sequence begins, but I also want to grab some dinner and red wine and aren’t sure if I will make tie back to the camera in time. The camera settings would be the same and the intervalometer would be:

DELAY: 02:00:00
LONG: 00:04:00
INTVL: 00:04:01
N: – –

Miscellaneous usage tips and thoughts

I glued a strap on the back of my intervalometer so I can hang it from the hook on the tripod centerpost.

Hanging around. It’s not a good idea to let the intervalometer dangle in the wind during and exposure sequence. I glued a little loop on the back of mine so I can hang it from the hook on the bottom of the tripod center post. Another good idea is sticking it to a tripod leg with Velcro.

I like hanging it from the center post so that I can point it the direction I want, which is usually away from the direction I’m shooting. The intervalometer flashes a little red light when it is operating and I don’t want that light interfering with the exposures. Admittedly, that’s not likely to happen, but there is another reason to have the light aimed behind the camera. After you start the star-trail or time-lapse sequence, you’ll undoubtedly walk away from the camera to the car or a resting spot and return after the sequence is finished. Very often, I’ll return before the sequence is completely finished, so I can’t shine a flashing to light my way. That red flashing light works beautifully to keep me from stumbling into the tripod.

On my tripod centerpost there is a rotating hook, so I can swing it around and point the intervalometer in any direction. If your centerpost doesn’t rotate or doesn’t have a hook, or if you don’t even have a centerpost, you’ll probably want to attach the intervalometer to a tripod leg with Velcro. Just make sure the piece of Velcro you attach to the tripod all the way around the leg so that you’ll be able to attach the intervalometer in any orientation.

Are you wired? Shutterboss and other companies offer wireless intervalometers, which might seem like the way to go. However, I prefer the wired versions because they are more dependable and safer to use. Either way, you’re likely to be programming it while you’re near the camera, so the wireless feature doesn’t help that much. And there’s always the possibility that you’ll accidently stop it when you stuff it into your pocket or pack while the sequence is going on, even if you lock it down. Even if I had a wireless version, I’d attach it to the tripod when I’m shooting.

If you don’t already have a basic wireless shutter release, having a wireless intervalometer would be a good idea, as you could then use it for tripping the shutter during light-painting sessions. But I already have several wireless shutter devices, so I don’t need it for the intervalometer.

How cold is it? I’ve used my Nikon and Shutterboss intervalometers in temperatures ranging from below zero to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and have had them covered in dew for hours at a time. The only negative issues I’ve had are that in extremely cold temps the LCD display becomes unresponsive. To prevent this from happening, I wrap the unit in a LensMuff™to keep it warm.

What about the timer in the camera?

I can’t speak for Canon, but the interval timer built into some of Nikon’s camera is a complex, powerful tool. The problem is that it won’t allow you to shoot shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. This is my biggest gripe with Nikon and Canon. Why won’t they let us shoot a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds without having to go to bulb? The internal interval timer won’t work in bulb, and the longest shutter speed you can select is 30 seconds.

So, while you can do a lot of stuff with the built-in timer, you can’t do any of those things where you would choose a long shutter speed, such as star trails and nighttime time lapses. Since I do so much of this kind of photography, I’ve never used the camera’s timer. I have experimented with it, though, and for those of you who have no need for the longer shutter speeds, I definitely recommend using it before you buy an external device.

The built-in timer has one feature that the external models don’t have, or at least the ones I have don’t have it. With the built-in timer, you can choose not only the interval between shots, but also how many shots the camera takes in between intervals. For instance, you could program it to take 10 shots in a row, then go 60 seconds, then take 10 more shots in a row, and so on. With an external timer, you only get one shot in between the intervals.

Disclaimers

I’m basing my description of the Vello Shutterboss on the old Pearstone intervalometer that I own. Vello was formerly marketed under the Pearstone name and as I understand it, the products are the same. However, my unit is about five years old and newer models may have different features. I think the newest versions have a power-off switch to conserve battery power and a reset button so you can quickly reset to default settings. Both of these would be useful features.

The Vello Shutterboss version of the Canon TC-80N3 does not operate the same as the Canon intervalometer. It doesn’t have the rotating side dial and instead operates just like the Nikon version. I don’t know if it uses the same nomenclature as the Nikon version.

In addition to the Shutterboss, I know of at least five other knockoffs for the MC-36A. They all look identical to the Nikon unit, but I have no idea if their operation is the same or if they are dependable. If you buy one of these guys from eBay for $20, don’t complain to me if it doesn’t work properly.

Cheat sheets

Every time I get a new piece of gear, I test it out thoroughly before taking it in the field. With electronic devices, I spend quite a bit of time making sure I understand all the controls. But I can’t remember dooky, so I WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. This is critically important, as it gives me the info I need when I’m using the device in the field and it keeps me from having to thumb through a manual written in Japanese and translated by a Chinese person for an English reader. What I write down is only what I need. I’ve found that just the process of writing things like this down helps commit them to memory.

I thought you might like to see the cheat sheet I wrote long ago for the MC-36. You are welcome to print this out and carry it with you, but ideally you’ll write your own sheet that is structured specifically for you.

Thanks!

I’d like to thank Karen Rowe for letting me try out her TC-80N3 in preparation for this article. You didn’t think I’d ever write it, did you Karen? And also thanks to Judy Boyd for loaning me her MC-36A. Judy, you’ll be happy to know that it wasn’t your unit that I stuck in my nose for the photo above.

Okay, get out there with your intervalometers and have a great TIME!

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