Geoff Tompkinson has traveled the world for more than 30 years as a photographer working in photojournalism, corporate, advertising, stock, 3D concepts and, most recently, timelapse and realtime motion clips. His work has appeared in the world’s leading magazines and newspapers, including The Sunday Times, Sunday Express, Avenue, Ca M’interesse, Smithsonian, Life, Discover, National Geographic, Bunte, Stern and GEO. Corporate clients include Glaxo, ICI, Zeneca, Fisons, Bibby, Inchcape, Ready Mixed Concrete, Genzyme and PHLS. Tompkinson’s timelapse and realtime footage regularly appears on television around the globe and in major Hollywood movies. He’s won many awards over the years, including a World Press Photo award in 1985. When he’s not traveling and shooting, he lives with his wife Liz in Essex, England, or on the shores of Lake Hallstatt in Austria.
Three words that describe you.
Perfectionist, competitive, driven (at least that’s how others see me)
How did you first become interested in photography and filmmaking?
I took up photography as a schoolboy hobby some 45 years ago. I used to commandeer the household bathroom on weekends and convert it into a darkroom where I processed film and made my own black and white prints.
I was turned onto photography as a more serious career choice by National Geographic magazine and my heroes of the day, Bruce Dale, James Stanfield, etc. I became a photojournalist after leaving University and worked for pretty well every major image-based magazine in the world.
What was the first photo you sold or your first paying gig? Do you remember what you were paid?
Well, I’ve always believed in aiming high so when I left University, after some research I took myself off to Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific and produced my first journalistic story. Luckily it went straight into German GEO magazine and was then re-syndicated all over the world. Before that I may have sold a few amusing images to the Daily Express but I don’t really remember. After that I had a period as a fulltime photojournalist, and even won a World Press Photo award back in 1985. I was well known, it was super interesting and it was great fun—but the money was never really enough to live off.
You describe the films you shoot as timelapse, hyperlapse and hyperzoom. Can you explain each of those?
Timelapse is where the time taken to play back a clip is considerably shorter than the duration of time covered by the clip. In other words, everything is speeded up. Typically, a camera is on a tripod and takes a shot every few seconds—the resultant sequence is played back at a video frame rate to produce a speeded up movie.
Hyperlapse is a form of timelapse where the camera moves along a path, often covering large distances, without the use of rails, etc., to control the camera motion. The simplest way to achieve this is just to walk along a path whilst shooting images at a regular interval, then playback the sequence at a standard frame rate for video. The problem with this type of shot is maintaining a smooth movement without the use of motion control systems. This technique usually requires a lot of post-production stabilization of the footage in order to produce an acceptable end result. There are various ways to make the shooting of these sequences more sophisticated and controlled.
Hyperzoom is a completely new technique I have developed which works with both regular realtime video and timelapse. It enables the camera to seemingly fly through complex scenes with no cuts over huge distances in full resolution. It’s a travel-by-zoom concept whereby the camera can perform impossible zooms as well as actually traveling with those zooms to arrive at ever new locations. It’s a completely new concept which opens up enormous creative possibilities. It looks like drone flight but it’s not.
You put an incredible amount of time, energy and money into the short films you produce and post on Vimeo, your website and your social media. What’s the payoff?
I use Vimeo as a shop window of my capability. I am a professional video producer and Vimeo is one of the best ways to get my showreels in front of both enthusiasts and commercial producers. I used to earn my living mainly from stock sales with Getty. This suited me well as I could go anywhere and do anything so long as I produced good enough material to sell. Unfortunately, the stock game is always a time-limited one whereas time goes by the market gets over-saturated and financial returns decay. I now focus mainly on assignment work for television and film production companies as well as corporate entities.
Do you scout every location in advance for light, traffic, people, shadows, etc., or do you decide on a day and time, check the weather and shoot what happens to be in front of you?
When shooting cities—which is what I do quite a lot—it’s very important to scout out the situation in advance. When doing day to night sequences, if you haven’t pre-scouted the location the shot may well be blown half way through by unprepared for events. A spotlight coming on that blasts straight into the lens, a kitchen opening up and smoke coming directly into your scene, lights you expected to come on not coming on, etc., etc. The only time I would ever shoot a scene without waiting for the best lighting conditions is when working for a client who has not given me enough time to do the job the way it should be done. I always try to ensure this does not happen by establishing good communication and expectations with the client—however, sometimes it does, and you are forced to produce something less than optimal.
Do you ever sit and wait for elements to align or to be in a certain position for a photo or video?
All the time. If you can’t control the scene to make things happen the way you want, you have to wait and/or overshoot to ensure you get what you need.
How many hours of footage do you shoot for a two-to-four-minute film?
This is a very difficult question to answer as it depends on the particular shoot. With something like a tightly planned hyperzoom video, each section of the sequence has been pre-planned so you are not shooting many sequences that do not end up in the final cut. When shooting a long-term nature-based film like “The Lake,” you have to shoot situations as the light and weather conditions dictate. This means the final cut can often be very different from what was initially planned. This type of shoot inevitably results in more footage not making it into the final production
How long is the editing process?
Again, very difficult to answer, as it varies greatly from video to video. I like to produce videos that are somewhat challenging in terms of post production as I like to push the limits of what I am doing. This means I often spend an enormous amount of time in post. My short film “Chicago Toccata and Fugue” was exploring a new idea playing with shifting time in layers and coordinating that with a complex piece of music—this took a long time, probably a good week of post production for a very short film.
My recent “Hyperzooming through Hallstatt” video took a few days to scout and plan, two days to shoot and about a month in post production. For this reason, when quoting clients for jobs I try to give a complete package price so any over runs in the time required for post production are absorbed by me—the client knows from the beginning what they will be paying for the finished product.
You’ve said that you’ve been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time for much of your career as photography, filmmaking and business models have evolved. Do you think that’s still possible?
This is a very good question. I have likened survival in photography to standing on a rock in a stream with gently rising water. As the water rises and threatens to cover the rock you need to find a new one to jump to. I have managed to do this repeatedly over the course of the last 40 years and have managed to stay above water all that time. If the rock is not visible you have to build your own. I just took a year off from stock production to try new ideas—to build my next rock —hyperzoom is that rock. I did the same thing at the end of the still stock era when I decided to go into video and ended up building my own intervalometer and being the first person to produce digital timelapse for Getty.
So, yes, I think it is still possible, although it is harder and harder as technology removes the need for creativity and skill—you just have to find a niche that is needed and strive to be the best.
You’ve worked with many of the world’s most prestigious publications, best-known brands and global advertising agencies. What was your favorite assignment?
Well, looking back over the years, I suppose I am still nostalgic for some of the reportage stories I produced. I particularly enjoyed shooting “Over the Andes on the World’s Highest Passenger Train” for the Dutch magazine Avenue and “World trade in Butterflies” for GEO magazine—both in 1986. On a completely different tack, I really enjoyed the five years Glaxo Pharmaceuticals sent me around the world to shoot their labs and production facilities. This was a period of great creative growth as I was left to direct my own shoots and was able to take a long time producing great lighting sets on location. I shot so many polaroids I became allergic to the chemicals and the skin on my fingertips would drop off.
What would be your dream assignment?
At the moment I have a very big internationally known corporation in the U.S. who are very excited about using my Hyperzoom technique for their 2016 national campaign. I am not going to say who they are because I know from experience that these things can easily evaporate before they are finalized. However, this particular company and this particular assignment would be a bit of a dream for me as it is so well suited to this new technique. I have my fingers crossed.
You offer photography and filmmaking workshops. Who goes to your workshops? Who are they for?
I have stopped doing internationally based workshops. They were great fun but they were not cost-effective. However, I do offer more bespoke tuition to individuals or small groups who want to come and visit me here in Austria. People normally want to learn hyperlapse techniques. My students range from very keen amateurs to seasoned professionals who want to add a new string to their bow.
What can someone expect from one of your workshops?
Honesty, fun, brain-ache and hopefully some inspiration. Clear understanding—it is all too easy nowadays to produce decent results by relying on the technology without really understanding what you are doing or why things are happening the way they are. Without that knowledge you will never be able to push forward with innovative new ideas.
Your students obviously learn quite a lot from you in a workshop. Have you ever learned anything from your students?
Oh, yes, I learn new things every day—photography is a never-ending learning process if you want it to be.
Who or what inspires you?
I suppose I am inspired by visuality itself. I love both cities and nature and never cease to wonder at how different the same scene can appear at different times and seasons. I love to solve problems and try to achieve things that seem to be impossible; it is this that drives me to always push forwards.
What camera, gear, apps and/or software do you use?
Canon cameras and lenses, eMotimo pan and tilt, DJI drone, Panasonic GH4, lots of self-made rigs for hyperlapse and hyperzoom, Adobe After Effects.
You’ve been called “the man who controls time.” If you really could control time, what would you do with that power?
Wouldn’t that be nice. Freeze my aging process at around 35—probably the best age to be. Then I could continue developing new ideas forever.
Other than photography equipment, what three things do you bring with you to make life on the road easier, more comfortable or more fun?
Active noise-cancelling headphones, iPhone, Kindle (although I never get time to read it on a shoot). My wife Liz, who is my organizer, fellow shooter, and soother when I start to get rattled.
What’s your favorite souvenir and the memory it conjures?
Probably my old Zorki-4 rangefinder camera. This was my first camera and it sits on a shelf behind me as I type. It reminds me of the long photographic journey I have taken.
I’m hoping to stay on this rock for a while but knowing how rapidly things change nowadays, who knows? That’s the great thing about photography.