Geoff Tompkinson: Career Of A Timelapse Photographer

Posted on 2/17/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Recently, I asked Geoff Tompkinson to share a little about his 35-year career in stock photography and where he thinks the business is headed. Before reading his story I suggest you take a look at Geoff’s amazing work – still photography, timelapse and hyperlapse  -- and then begin reading.


Geoff Tompkinson


I was a stills photographer between 1980 and 2000. Started as a magazine photojournalist working for the likes of The Sunday Times, GEO, Stern, Bunte, Avenue, C'aMinteresse, Life, Smithsonian, New York Times etc. etc.



This was a great time and I worked on some great stories around the world and won several awards but even then it was not really possible to earn a decent living from reportage unless you were a staffer.

I added Corporate Annual Reports into the mix after a while and spent many years shooting very well paid reports for Glaxo, ICI, Fisons, Bibby, Inchcape, RMC, etc etc - these jobs also took me around the world and for the most part I was free to direct myself. Most of my clients were tech type companies as I had a science degree and could relate quite well to the guys in the labs etc.



Around 1992 I realized there was serious money to be made in stock if you were with a good library and if your material was in a catalogue. This was the period when the whole industry was going through the stock catalogue revolution and only the shots in the book really made any money.

I set to full-time production of stock stills for the Telegraph Colour Library and only produced shots for the catalogue. Over the following years the style of imagery I produced moved from science and tech and travel to conceptual imagery with a lot of 3d computer work mixed with actual photography. I was using Photoshop heavily before anyone else in the stock game and this gave me a good edge on these types of images.

When Visual Communications Group purchased the Telegraph in about 1998, I moved all my content to The Stock Market in New York. Initially the sales performance was equally as good as the Telegraph had been. However, that didn't last long as Richard Steedman sold TSM to Corbis in early 2000.



Once Corbis took over revenue began to drop significantly and I realized the heydays of still stock were over. The web had come into the mix, catalogues were no longer the money-making machines for photographers they had once been. Prices were falling and oversupply was beginning.

Around 2002 I decided it was time to change tack and move into timelapse production. I had always been interested in timelapse and had used it in my final year degree project at University back in 1979.
    (Editors Note: It is interesting that Geoff saw the big drop in TSM sales at about the same time as iStock and Shutterstock were established. Royalty Free prices had been rising and photo buyers had started complaining that stock images were too expensive.  The Internet made it possible for these buyers (many of them art directors who already shot a lot of the pictures they used) to share their work with each other. At first they gave their images to each other for free via iStock. Then they started charging a little for each download and the rest is microstock history.)
HD realtime video cameras were prohibitively expensive at the time and digital still cameras were in their infancy - no serious affordable DSLR's on the market yet - but I realized that the resolution of still images being produced by the early non SLR digitals was greater than the resolution of a single frame of HD footage. This meant that in theory I could produce timelapse sequences from the stills produced by these cameras.

There were no intervalometers etc. for these cameras at that time so I set to building my own by adding some timing electronics from a hobby shop to a dismantled remote release for the early Nikon Coolpix I was using for this experiment.
 
Once I had my first sequence I then had the problem of how to convert it into a movie. After a lot of research I invested in an early copy of Adobe After Effects and set to learning how to do this.

Luckily I got one of my first clips accepted by Getty footage - my toe in door. This was the first digitally produced timelapse they had ever seen and they were tentative about accepting it. It went okay and I've been producing and refining timelapse ever since.

My peak earnings from still stock was in the 1999-2001 period, just before Richard Steedman sold TSM. Revenue began to decline to the point where I felt it really wasn't worth producing still stock images other than as a sideline. Prior to the decline I had been shooting only stock and no commissioned work at all. At the time, I was also shooting for the Science Photo Library in London.

I currently shoot almost exclusively timelapse and hyperlapse with a little realtime video now and then. Any stills I submit are only still frame extracts from timelapse sequences. I don't count still stock as a serious part of my income.

Up until this year I focused my production on stock exclusively - no commissioned work at all. Looking back some might think that was a mistake. I chose to work client free because it gave me great freedom to produce what I wanted unhindered by the wishes of clients and art directors.

However, it did mean I did no personal promotion at all during that period and only started all the social media stuff a few years ago. I am way behind in this regard. My visibility has now risen sufficiently for me to be noticed a bit more, so hopefully I will get commissioned work in the years to come. The way 2015 has started suggests that might happen.

The stock video game has inevitably gone through the same growth and decline (from the individual contributors point of view) as the stills game did before it. Producing for either is running up a downhill escalator that gets ever faster. The key to success is being in the right place producing the right material at the right time. Then changing escalators once you can’t keep pace with its downward speed.

Stock video is already on the decline as a revenue earner for individuals - possibly not for the agency itself but that is a wholly different dynamic. The combination of internet, ever rapidly improving cheaper technology and a philosophy where everything is available for free - leads to a steady decline in the value of good imagery and a steady increase in the number of people producing “good enough” material. This means that the ocean of part time suppliers, to whom any minor income is a bonus, end up killing the possibilities for professionals to make a serious living.

To give you an idea of the way this whole thing has gone. I made more money out of 12 single images in the Telegraph Colour Catalogue 20 years ago than I now make out of 4000+ video clips in the premium collections of the world's most effective footage library (Getty Images). When you realize that doesn't take inflation into account, I am making a lot less.

I have only recently changed my focus to entertaining commissioned work again as a source of income moving forward. Online show reels on platforms such as Youtube and Vimeo provide a shop window for potential clients to offer commissioned work. However - in line with the everything is free philosophy - most approaches are from organizations with no budget that expect videographers to give their work away for a credit line.

I've never produced books or sold prints. Recently, I’ve started doing workshops. Even if these workshops do well, I don’t expect to earn any serious money from them as they are very expensive to stage. But, they can be good fun.

I think the most important thing for new photographers trying to enter the business is to remain flexible enough and aware enough to be able to jump on an opportunity when it arises and move onto something else when that one dies - which it always does. Currently I think the way to go is to build a sufficient reputation to be able to command sensible fees for commissioned work. But, unfortunately it gets ever harder to stay ahead of the crowd as the crowd grows exponentially.

It's a tough game to get into - always has been - but now it's even tougher as the technology in the hands or amateurs is really good enough to produce acceptable results for many uses, and most amateurs are willing to accept little or no money for their efforts.

As you say we definitely have lived through the Golden Age of Photography where one could stand out and get well paid to produce outstanding work.

Photography itself has changed dramatically. There used to be limits on how many frames we could shoot, and we made a supreme effort to get the right in camera with no instant feedback. Now the camera work is only the beginning and most of the magic happens during post-production.

More


For those who would like to know more about Geoff’s career he has started serializing 'My Life Through The Lens' as a blog on his website. He will also be giving a talk on July 10, 2015 at B&H in New York.

Readers can also find his work at:
facebook.com/gtimage
vimeo.com/gtimage
youtube.com/geofftompkinson
twitter.com/g_tompkinson

And if you are looking for a vacation in Austria on a beautiful lake check out:
www.houseonthelake.at


Copyright © 2015 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  

Comments

  • Douglas Peebles Posted Feb 21, 2015
    Interesting and accurate. I also had my best stock years in 1999 & 2000. I have also gone back to assignment work which I neglected for a couple decades.

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