Geoff Tompkinson is a renowned photographer, timelapse video producer and educator. We asked him to talk about his workflow, experience with the Promote Control and tips on creating great timelapse videos.
5 facts about Geoff Tompkinson
- professional photographer for 35 years, started his journey as a magazine photojournalist, then advertising photographer and stock stills and video photographer, now full time timelapse photographer
- probably the first person ever to present digital timelapse to the footage libraries
- the first person to produce digital time lapse for Getty
- in the days when there were no intervalometers, Geoff built one of his own
- almost certainly the only person to have been making a full-time living exclusively from timelapse for the last fifteen years
With this unique, years long experience Geoff now also teaches on location workshops, sharing tips and tricks on many different aspects of timelapse and hyperlapse photography.
Q: How do you plan a time-lapse shoot?
A: Well that depends on the type of shoot. If its a nature based project like ‘The Lake’,
it’s difficult to plan in terms of timescale as you have to shoot when the conditions are right for the shot you want. For that type of project I draw up a shopping list of key scenes I need to make the final video in so far as I can imagine it in advance. As things progress the project tends to take its own form and may end up somewhat different to expected. The Lake was shot over a period of 2 years.
When we shoot a city, which we have been doing full time for the last 15 years or so, the planning is more precise.
We look at lots of available still images on the web to get a feel for the iconic locations. We then use Google Earth to identify specific locations and buildings from which to shoot. If we identify Hotels that are in the correct positions we then scour the websites of each Hotel to see if the rooms or roof offer the view we need.
We then approach the Hotel directly and check if these views are accessible – often asking them to take a picture with their mobile phones so we can see what the view actually looks like. We establish that if we buy a room in the Hotel they will grant us permission to shoot from the location needed – whether that be a room, a terrace, or the roof. In the case of a room, wherever possible, we secure permission to open the window to avoid shooting through glass.
In Chicago as an example we changed Hotel 5 times in ten days.
Q: What do you do when you are on location?
A: Once on location we generally run around to all the locations to check for problems – mainly caused by construction scaffolding etc.
We generally shoot in the mornings and late afternoons when the light is better and reserve the middle part of the day for admin etc.
If it rains we try to do indoor shots during those days but still shoot the day to night transitions outside as the rain often enhances those shots with beautiful reflections.
We check the sunset times and set up on location well in advance having pre-loaded the Promote Controls with our initial guess of what is going to happen. As the light changes and our guess diverges from reality we use the Promote to smoothly guide the ramp back into the correct position by using the ‘Live Mods’ function etc.
There are some other secrets about the way we handle these day to night transitions in the city but these are only revealed to attendees of the workshops.
At the end of each evening we try to visit the planned location for the following evening so we can assess if there are any lighting problems. Without doing this it is possible that in the middle of the shoot a spotlight will come on in the wrong place and ruin the shot.
We generally shoot transitions with two or three cameras using different lenses and/or different views in order to maximize returns from our location investment.
Q: How does the Promote Control help you?
A: Promote Control is key to all our Day to Night transitions both for regular timelapse and for hyperlapse as well.
The flexibility and controls on the unit enable us to follow what is really happening to the lighting of the scene instead of being locked in to an incorrect estimation. The unit allows the user to change the start position of the ramping phase – the end position of the ramping phase – the progression of the ramp and the final exposure all in such a way that the changes are spread over a user-defined number of frames meaning that in the final video there are no sudden jumps in lighting.
One of the things I love about Promote Control is that they listen to input from users in the field and implement firmware changes based on that input.
There are several features in the control set that have been added in response to my own suggestions including some specifically aimed at using the unit for day to night hyperlapse work. They are a really great company to work with.
Q: What are the top 3 problems you have to overcome when shooting TL?
A: Shooting timelapse in nature is relatively easy in comparison to working in the city.
City shooting is subject to white balance change from beginning to end and extremes of lighting caused by juxtaposition of daylight visible advertising screens with people moving in the shadows. This extreme range is beyond the ability of a single raw frame to capture. I teach various techniques to handle this range without having to resort to card consuming HDR sequences.
We also teach the use of the Promote in HDR timelapse mode as there are other situations in which it is a great solution. If you watch my ‘Moving Through New York’ video I used the Promote for a five exposure HDR timelapse sequence on the shot where I hyperlapse through the evening crowd in Times Square. The layers were then hand assembled in After Effects and the individual screen sequences masked and tracked to replace the over exposed ones in the layers below.
Q: What are your top 3 recommendations for shooting TL?
A: ND filters, long exposures, Promote Control, sturdy tripod, and of course my Workshops and on-line courses.
Q: In one of the previous interviews you mentioned that you were 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.
– do you have examples? Do you teach the technique at your workshops?
A: No examples I want to release at the moment. Hopefully this technique will be featured in my next eco film ‘The Forest’ which I will be shooting over the course of the next few years in Austria.
Q: What do you look for in a Time Lapse or what, to you, makes a good Time Lapse?
A: Timelapse is a technique which often enables the viewer to see things that are moving or changing too slowly to notice in real-time. Shadows of clouds racing across the scenery, shadows of fixed objects moving as the sun travels across the sky, flowers opening, the day turning to night etc. It is also a technique that works well speeding up things we can see easily such as crowds flooding out of a train station entrance – when speeded-up the underlying pulsing pattern of the movement is revealed. There is no simple answer to what makes a good timelapse – if you like it – it’s good.
Q: Tell us about a recent trip or where you are shooting right now.
A: We shot hyperlapse all over Washington D.C. a while ago. This is an interesting place to shoot and requires a lot of advance permission paperwork before being allowed to film commercially. They are very specific in their permissions – right down to the exact step you are allowed to go up to.
We just came back from our Workshop in Istanbul which was a mega success. I will be releasing a video of the event soon as well as a showreel from the participants work a little later.
I am currently working on completing my on-line timelapse and hyperlapse courses ‘Timelapse University’ which will be launched in the coming months.
I am also completing post production on the Washington shoot.
At this moment I am in Dubai working on a million dollar commercial for Dubai Tourism.
Thank you Geoff for your in-depth answers! We look forward to your new videos and are wishing you continued success with new projects and workshops.