An interview with Ollie Taylor, Astrophotographer15th October 2018 // Bronya Bouchia
Ollie Taylor is a freelance Astrophotographer working across Europe, capturing the most spectacular images of the night sky.
Not only does Ollie capture imagery for a range of publications, he shares his knowledge with budding Astrophotographers across Europe, through his educational and informative workshops.
We were delighted to speak to Ollie in detail about the finer points of Astrophotography. Here, he offers us some fantastic tips for those looking to break into the industry.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?
I’m currently a freelance photographer earning the bulk of my income from travel, landscape, and nightscape or astrophotography imagery and photographic workshops. Around 7 years ago, I started specialising in astrophotography imagery, producing it over a vast geographical area throughout Europe, and working towards setting up photographic workshops within the subject, that effectively launched in August 2013 and really took off in 2014. Now I’m fortunate enough to roam Europe, travelling to amazing locations with little sleep, shooting stars, planets, and green stuff dancing in the sky, meeting cool people, and teaching some of them the dark arts along the way.
Why did you choose to become a photographer?
I was living in the city at the time, some 15 years back, and I had become tired of city life to cut a long story short. I became attracted to landscape and travel photography as a possible means to make money on the fly, basically meaning I may be able to live on the wing.
Life on the road seemed an attractive proposition! A decade and a half on, sometimes I wish I had more time at home, but it’s the life we choose!
Back then it was also far more solitary, less mainstream, and the whole scene felt more serene and emphatic.
What drew you to focus on astrophotography as your niche?
This one's an easy one! I got into Astrophotography when it wasn’t so popular within the UK, even globally. I’ve always been a night owl.
I found the genre awe inspiring, and saw there may be an avenue to make a name for myself in the UK. There were only a handful of us who took it mainstream earlier in the decade.
What equipment do you typically take with you on a shoot?
It all depends. I spend a lot of time on the road and this often forces me to sacrifice pieces of equipment for the journey, before I even arrive on location. It also depends on planning, and what I want to achieve from the shoot.
Usually, as standard:
- Two camera bodies
- Two tripods
- Several lenses
- Often a star tracker and panoramic head
- A few filters
- Several batteries
- Two head torches
- Another spare torch, just in case
- Remote control
- Light wand
- Food and drink
- Clothing and hand warmers, depending on the climate I’m working in.
It’s a cliché for a reason, “better to over pack and not need it, then need it and not have it”.
If you’re heading out on an Astrophotography shoot, it’s worth packing some spare high capacity memory cards. Here at Peli, we stock a range of protective memory card cases, perfect for photographers wanting to keep their kit compact and safe from the elements.
Tell us about a shoot that you’re particularly proud of and why
I think it’s a shot of the Northern Lights I shot in the south of England in 2015. Although probably not the most striking shot to some, it was pretty unique at the time, as photographs of the Aurora in the south of England were pretty none existent.
Viewing the Aurora and shooting it has become extremely popular now, due to the wealth of information and apps to help predict it. This means we will see more shots of it in the South. Even though the Aurora is extremely faint on the shots, it’s how everything else in the photo came together as I included the Milky Way, Andromeda, all over a field of pale pink opium poppies.
What words of wisdom would you give to budding photographers looking to focus on astrophotography?
That’s a really tough one, it’s hard to carve out a career just in astrophotography as such - I was fortunate as I already had an infrastructure to my photography business - though it’s not impossible.
I’ve seen a few do it over the last few years, either with the aid of winning a major competition within the genre, or finding a niche such as vlogging, which has blown up recently.
If the genre inspires you, then what better way to earn a living. It’s the classic cliché of doing something you love. Creating visually stunning images and managing to live off doing so, it’s incredibly rewarding on many fronts.
However, as with everything, there is always a flip side. It’s incredibly competitive, and requires an immense amount of dedication and hard work.
What’s the most enjoyable part of being an astrophotographer? What are the pitfalls?
One of the most satisfying things is the serenity, how still the world is at night! Most of the locations I travel to in the dead of night, 99.9% of people will never get to experience this side to our planet due to the modern day system, and general life constraints. There is a bizarre satisfactory peacefulness to the solitude of night.
The other thing is the more you put yourself out in the field, the more mind blowing astronomical events and occurrences you are likely to witness.
The downside is its highly competitive, and a little like travel blogging, it’s really hard to make it if you don’t have a large amount of funding to help launch your business, or, still live with your parents.
As with any line of work that appears to have a glamorous travel lifestyle; everyone wants a piece. Then there’s the cliché of being undercut constantly and people selling themselves too cheaply to get noticed is as rife as ever. It’s hard to work around sometimes.
How do you make your astrophotography unique compared to that of other astrophotographers?
Back in the day it was easy. I had a wealth of knowledge regarding locations through my landscape photography experience. I could literally rock up to spots and shoot the Milky Way and it was unique, because nobody else had done it. Naturally this only lasted a few years as the genre rapidly grew in popularity.
So I started experimenting with different lenses, planets, constellations, moonlight, models in the scene, modified cameras, anything to keep it moving. Though I always stayed true to the landscape element complimented by the sky, not the other way round.
I’ve lost my mojo for it several times, though I think every artist suffers creative ups and downs, recently so much so that I’ve been shooting a lot of general travel work again for agencies with no real astronomy element to it.
That said, it’s starting to come back. I’m travelling for 4/5 months at the moment and I’ve plenty of locations lined up for some night shoots. I’ve just completed a couple of mind blowing locations that I feel were made even more special by watching the night sky unfold at them and adding that Astro touch.
Plus I’ve found I really like shooting during the afterglow over the last year, when the stars are just coming out, but there is still a pink hue in the sky. It’s a style that I think has left some people scratching their heads when it’s been posted on social media, but I’m getting enjoyment out of shooting it, so that’s what matters to me.
How has your astrophotography changed over the years?
There have been slight technical adjustments over the years that alter the aesthetics slightly. For instance, my work was really blue when I started out. I really liked it like that as it was quite surreal without being over cooked in post production.
I changed the white balance over the years to become more natural; that said, shooting at the end of Nautical Twilight (during the afterglow) renders extremely blue images, so I suppose it’s come around full circle.
Overall, I think it’s changed in complexity, not so much by pushing gear or using complex systems, such as modified or specialised cameras and trackers. The genre has changed more in what I’m trying to portray.
I quite often walk away from a scene, or leave entire shoots on the hard drive that I feel I can’t use, or haven’t manipulated the shoot to produce something you don’t see every day and cannot be easily replicated. I suppose it goes back to constantly finding a unique angle.
What are the biggest challenges that astrophotographers face?
There are a number of things, also dependant on whether you’re making money from it, or just out enjoying your hobby. One thing that’s universal is sleep deprivation, that’s for sure - from dedicated enthusiasts to full blown pros, we suffer serious sleep loss, night owl or not.
It’s not easy deciding on a location, venturing out to shoot it until 3am then being in the office for 8.30am, especially four nights in a row! I’ve be been there before I went fully professional many a time. For me now, it’s managing to sleep whilst on the road.
Worried about keeping your camera equipment safe? Take a look at our range of protective camera cases, which offer fantastic protection from the elements.
We’d like to thank Ollie for giving us such a fantastic insight into what it’s like working as a professional Astrophotographer and look forward to seeing the images from his latest night shoots. You can view more of Ollie’s work here on his Astrophotography portfolio.