The Photography Blog: A quick chat with… Geoff Tompkinson
Geoff Tompkinson is a photographer at the forefront of what can be achieved with a modern digital SLR. He’s been dubbed ‘the man who controls time’ after producing some of the most innovative and stunning footage from the world’s major cities with his camera. Welcome to Geoff’s world of hyperlapse photography.
So what is ‘hyperlapse’ photography and how does it differ from normal timelapse?
It’s quite similar in that the footage is a series of photographs that are put into sequence and sped up to play at 24 frames per second only, with timelapse it’s normally from a single static position or incorporating a small rail-based move. With hyperlapse, I’m moving the camera long distances during the sequence to offer a very different experience as we can journey around a place or through a building, as opposed to just seeing everything unfold all from one spot. It means I can move through crowds of people without rails and cause little or no disruption to their normal behaviour.
The footage is just amazing to watch. What’s the technique behind the artistry?
Well, the camera is normally on a tripod as it would be for any regular timelapse, but where you’d need rails or something to allow the camera to move during the sequence, hyperlapse frees me from this restriction. I use a ‘trolly dolly’ if you like to make the camera mobile and I plan out where I’ll be moving to and where I’ll be pointing the camera during the sequence by pacing it all out in advance. Once I divide the distance to be covered by the number of frames I need in the final movie I know how far the camera must be moved between each frame.
It sounds deceptively simple. What’s the catch?
Well, unlike with regular stills photography, I have to ensure that from one frame to another in the sequence there is a smooth transition otherwise it looks odd and all jerky. I have to ensure that any unintentional changes in pitch, pan, roll and direction of movement are corrected for and that I maintain a consistent height for the camera. All this has to be done as rapidly as possible when working with crowds in order to keep a sense of continuity.
Then of course I have to ensure that the dolly moves the camera almost exactly the same number of inches to keep the movement of the footage smooth and at a consistent pace. It’s painstaking work and it’s taken me a long time to perfect it.
What other problems do you have to overcome?
Uneven surfaces make things tricky. Obviously if you move the camera along an uneven pavement, like in Venice, the sequence will bob up and down so I have to constantly correct and adjust the camera to keep this smooth. The other problems are more logistical; getting permissions and access to buildings takes time. With the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg we were back and forth with the contract and many things were literally ‘lost in translation’ to the point that we arrived on the day of the shoot still not 100 per cent certain we were good to go. Fortunately we were allowed in and I shot one of my favourite hyperlapses in there. I rely heavily on my wife Liz to organize logistics, timings and bookings both before the trip and on location. She frees me to concentrate on the creative aspects of the shoot.
What camera and settings do you have for recording the images?
I use Canon EOS 5D MKII’s and a 6D. The 6D is better at high ISO so I use this for astro timelapse work. I usually shoot 100 per cent JPEG’s and resort to RAW only where absolutely necessary. A well exposed JPEG has plenty of latitude for tonal adjustments so I avoid the extra processing required with RAW.
In what circumstances then do you need a RAW file?
I specialise in day to night transitions in my hyperlapse footage and this has two major problems: shadows and highlights change as day passes to night and colour balance changes, especially when you introduce street lighting at dusk which wasn’t present when you started the sequence. RAW files make correcting for these, in the same way our eyes do for us, possible and relatively straight forward, if only rather time consuming.
So what happens in post production to produce a hyperlapse sequence?
This is where all the individual frames are put together and I use Adobe’s After Effects for this. The software offers additional techniques for stabilisation of the sequence for example. That said, it’s paramount you get it almost bang on in the field because, unlike with some stills photography, I’m much more limited in what I can ‘rescue’ in post production.
What’s been the most challenging hyperlapse you’ve produced?
Probably the fisheye water based work on the lake in Austria. To shoot that I was in a small boat with an engine and I had to control both the boat and the camera! It meant I had to inch my way across the water for hours without moving a muscle because any slight movement would pitch the boat left and right and kill the smooth running of my sequence. In fact, even then it sometimes took me three days in post production to smooth a single clip out. Often though, on a good flat surface, it can take much less time.
How did you get into hyperlapse photography?
I’ve worked as a photographer for over 30 years now and in that time I’ve had to adapt and reinvent what I do to suit the changing nature of the market. In 2001 I could see that, despite being in their infancy, digital cameras offered a unique way of capturing very hi resolution images which could form a piece of Hi Def footage at a far cheaper cost than a dedicated HD camera could. So I threw myself into it, taught myself the techniques and learned to use the software and pitched my work to the agencies. At first they were lukewarm – it was a new thing and they had no idea whether it would have market appeal. Soon though it took off and I’ve since been all over the world producing my work.
So is hyperlapse a purely commercial occupation or part of your own creative direction?
I’ve always sought to photograph what interests and excites me, otherwise I’d die a creative death in no time. So hyperlapse is great because it combines my creative passion with a commercially viable product.
What can we look forward to in the future from you?
I’m totally absorbed with hyperlapse and I want to push the boundaries even further. I’m currently working on a top secret method for delivering smooth footage over very uneven ground such as through a forest or rocky gully; something which has always been impossible in the past. I’m still perfecting this but if I can make it work I have plans for some truly spectacular sequences from places that have never been captured in this way before.
You can see more of Geoff’s work at www.gtimage.com/gtimage-index
On Facebook www.facebook.com/gtimage
Or follow him on Twitter @g_tompkinsonTagged in: Geoff Tompkinson
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