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Mark Gee - Time-lapse photographer and VFX Specialist 

Dark sky hunter, visual effects supervisor and New Zealand Geographic finalist, Mark Gee travels NZ and the world creating time-lapses of the night sky, rock-pools, full moon-rises, fireside camps and more. In this Q & A, he talks about some of the challenges of chasing the Milky Way, battling lens fog and sleepy seals. 

How did you come to enter the New Zealand Geographic competition?

I have been entering NZ Geographic since 2009, so it has been a big yearly event on my calendar. I enter the Astronomy Photographer of the Year each year, as I was always interested in the night sky.  I grew up in Australia and lived on the Gold Coast in a light polluted city so you didn’t see much of the night sky there. It wasn’t until I moved to Welly (Wellington) 15 years ago when I fell in love with it. I did a lot of surf photography on the Gold Coast, but in Wellington, there’s not much surf, so I turned to time-lapses of the night sky.  Spending all of that time looking at the night sky really helps to put things in perspective.
 

Milky Way, Mark Gee

Cape Palliser, Mark Gee

How many time-lapses have you done in total? Have you had any disasters?

I have done upward of 50-plus time-lapses.  And yes. I once had a seal who decided to sleep at the base of my tripod, possibly to get close to a heater that was keeping the dew off my lens.  When I came to collect my time-lapse, he reared up and so I had to wait until he decided to head back out to sea.


What are some of the other challenges you’ve had?

A big thing is lens fogging because often the temperature of the lens gets below dew point and it fogs up. I have a lens heater strap now to keep it above dew point, but before that I had to improvise. I was once out at Cape Palliser shooting a time-lapse and things were going well but it was freezing cold. I noticed the lens fogging up, so I used my blower brush to blow air on the lens between each exposure. I did that for three hours, it wasn’t a great night for me, but the time-lapse turned out well. 

You work as a visual effects supervisor for Weta, how does that help you hone your craft?

I have worked for Weta Digital for fifteen years. I am a visual effects supervisor, so I oversee a lot of the creative aspects of the films. I work with the artists, the production team and clients.  They are very different jobs, so photography is a release for me.  I get to go out and do things on my own, have my own creative control rather than satisfying someone else’s.

Do you need incredible equipment to capture these time-lapses?

Not necessarily! In this day and age an entry-level DSLR is totally capable of capturing the images that I do. It’s off the shelf equipment for me. There’s nothing special about it, though I do like my technology.

What are some of the challenges of time-lapse photography?

Going from daylight to night time can be tricky. For the Cape Palliser timelapse, I went from sunset to moonset, to the Milky Way rising and then sunrise over a 13 hour period. You need to always adjust your exposure to seamlessly capture the changing light.  In the past, I have changed the exposure myself, whether it be touching the camera myself or via an app on my phone. More recently, some equipment has come onto the market which actually does it automatically to make the whole process easier. I use motion control equipment for panning or tracking shots, and can even use a combination of those moves to get two or three axis camera motion.  The camera moves can get quite complicated but you can end up with incredible looking time-lapses.

One third of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution

Moonlit Tekapo, Mark Gee

How did you conceive of the Cape Palliser timelapse?


Cape Palliser is a favourite place of mine to do night photography and the lighthouse makes a great subject.  When I was up there once I thought it would be incredible to do a time-lapse where you point your camera to the west for sunset, and then pan the camera around to capture the Milky Way rise and then pan further to the east to capture the sunrise. It was a concept that I came up with in 2016 but I had to wait until early 2017 to do it simply because of the positioning of the Milky Way and how it rose.  I only had a couple of months to pull it off and planning the whole thing out wasn’t easy. I needed to make sure I had the timing and angles of camera rotation correct to coincide with each astrological moment during the 13 hours of shooting the time-lapse. That night I started beside the camera, crawled down the rock-face, slept in my car, and then climbed up and checked it again multiple times throughout night. I couldn’t be happier with the result. I haven’t seen anything done like that before, so it was really good to pull it off.

Tasman Lake Moonrise, Mark Gee

How did you capture the rock-pool shot?


I was knocking around Wellington’s South Coast and I put my GoPro into time-lapse mode and pointed it at a rock-pool. When I looked at the footage, I realised everything on the rocks moved. It was like a busy little street down there. So I thought, 'What if I put this underwater? And how can I do motion control with it?' It was a big experiment that required two rigs and took around an hour to capture each shot. I was incredibly happy with the result. I love the way it shows the activity of these rock-pools. You look at the sea snails and everything else, and you wouldn't think they move that much, but they actually do!
 

I put my GoPro into time-lapse mode and pointed it at a rock-pool. When I looked at the footage, I realised everything on the rocks moved. It was like a busy little street down there. 

Discover more 

The Art of the Night Mark Gee's website

 

Mark Gee's Youtube Channel

 

New Zealand Geographic Exhibition

 

All images are copyright to Mark Gee and may not be reproduced without permission.