An interview with Shaun Reynolds, Astrophotographer29th October 2018 // Bronya Bouchia
Not everyone begins their career as a photographer. Many go about their daily lives in another profession, only to be introduced to the world of photography many years down the line. This is exactly what happened to semi-professional astrophotographer, Shaun Reynolds, who developed his fascination for capturing the night sky some 7 or 8 years ago.
Living in South Norfolk, Shaun is lucky enough to be surrounded by dark skies that are perfect for astrophotography. We were excited to find out more about Shaun’s journey into astrophotography, as well as to hear any tips and tricks he has for those looking to break into the niche.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?
I’m 60 years old and I live in South Norfolk, which has reasonably dark skies. I’ve been at photography most of my adult life, but I started out as an amateur with a real interest in the film days, back in the 80s. Then life took over, as it does, and I forgot all about it until 8 or so years ago, when I took up astrophotography.
Why did you choose to become a photographer?
I chose to get into photography initially when meeting a friend - who was already very well into photography and the development of black and white and colour prints - and it really appealed to me. This was, as I say, back in the 80s, and I ended up doing portraits, landscapes and what not, until 7 or 8 years ago when astrophotography came about.
What drew you to focus on astrophotography as your niche?
My focus on astrophotography was purely by accident. In 2010, I worked as an electrician during the day, and a good customer of mine knew that I was interested in photography and the processing of pictures. He gained an interest, by pure accident, in astronomy, and more particularly into astrophotography. So he asked me if I’d like to come with him, bring my camera and give it a go. At that time, it wasn’t on my radar at all and I was lukewarm to the idea, but I said I would take a look with him one night.
Very simply, I hooked up a DSLR camera I had to his telescope. Quite literally, we took 2 shots over 30 seconds each of a bright nebula - the shots were pretty poor, but that was it - hook, line and sinker, I was gone. Astrophotography was for me.
If you find yourself on an astrophotography shoot in the deep of night, make sure to take a couple of protective memory card cases with you, to keep your kit light but to also protect your images both during and after a shoot.
What equipment do you typically take with you on a shoot?
I do two types of photography - one is deep sky photography which I do at home, with goodness knows what equipment hooked up to my computer. But as far as my milky way and my normal astrophotography goes, the equipment I take is minimal really.
I choose one or two lenses and a decent tripod - I want to keep it as simple as possible because when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in a very dark site, you need to have everything well planned. So, my DSLR, one or two prime lenses, and my tripod are the only things I take, along with some soup and a torch.
Tell us about a shot that you’re particularly proud of
This type of photography is a challenge - it’s taken me a while to master and I’ve travelled quite a bit for it. I started off very locally and then travelled around the country, but this year we went to New Zealand on holiday, the wife and I (it was planned around the skies as well, if I’m honest), and the one shot I’m most proud of is one I captured from a place called Hoopers Inlet in New Zealand.
It had a totally different sky, it had much better sky conditions and it was in a place I’d never been to before, so I had to plan it out and sort of think on my feet at the time - that was probably my best milky way shot with a nice landscape in the foreground.
What words of wisdom would you give to budding photographers looking to focus on astrophotography?
For those people looking to go into astrophotography, I’d say take your time to choose the type of equipment and lenses, as well as what you want to achieve in your shot. But also research your subject - learn about astronomy and the night sky so that you’ll appreciate. It will help you in working out how you want to capture your shots and what you want to put in them, rather than just waiting to see a particular part of the milky way.
Make sure you have the right kind of gear. Safety’s an important thing and you really have to plan out your evening, because 9 times out of 10, it’s got to be in a remote location in the early hours and you only have yourself to rely on.
Why should budding photographers choose a career in astrophotography?
For me, it’s kind of semi-professional, but you’ve really got to be dedicated to achieve that. It’s very rewarding and although you’re not going to make a fortune out of it, you’re going to enjoy it nonetheless.
I do craft fairs and exhibitions now, but the thing I love most is that I can go out and do what I want. I find that people are very interested when they hear you talk about it through your enthusiasm. It’s a very rewarding hobby or possible career.
How do you prepare before heading out on a shoot? What considerations do you have to make?
The preparation for going out on a night shoot is vast, for safety and for the best types of shots.
The first and most important thing is your subject - what you want to achieve, where you want to go, if you want to put something in the foreground - research that. There’s plenty of apps that will do that for you.
Weather - you have to wait until almost the last moment. You can get an idea, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the weather until that very morning.
Other more obvious considerations are to think about whether you want the moon or not, or if you want the milky way, you want to make sure you’re around at the new moon. It’s got to be planned almost like a military operation, from clothing and what other little bits and pieces you’ll need.
You need a good bag for storage for your gear - the better laid out it is, the better prepared you’re going to be when you get there. I tend to have everything set - from the settings on my camera to knowing where everything is in my case, so that when I get there, I don’t have to waste time finding things or setting things up.
What subjects do you typically like to capture as part of your astrophotography shoots?
I like to take wide field shots with the landscape - I guess my kind of thing would be looking for a unique location, sometimes a well-known unique location.
The two best locations I know are Happisburgh Lighthouse and Durdle Door. Places like that are on the coast, so you have an amazing night sky ahead of you, with very little light pollution and as the most polluted part of the world, you’ve got to really look for the place with little light pollution.
That’s the sort of thing that I like - a well-known landmark. I’ve been to Startpoint Lighthouse and that was surprisingly good, because although you couldn’t see the lighthouse, you could see the ocean, the sky was magnificent, you’ve got tons of detail in the milky way, but the lighthouse is active, so it lit the ocean, which made a really good shot.
Are there any specific tools or tricks you tried out to develop your astrophotography skills?
There’s no substitute for good post-processing. It really is a case of sitting down with the computer and the programme to develop your post-processing skills. Adobe Lightroom is very good - you can do some quite nice and speedy effects to manipulate the picture and to enhance it. Photoshop - you can create greater depths.
I don’t tend to use any tools when capturing, filters or otherwise - I like to capture the pure sky as it is. I do a lot of area panoramics and that takes a bit of practising itself with regards to where you stand and how you want to get your landscape sky in. That in itself takes a little time to perfect - some things work, some things don’t and you get to learn that through experience. A lot of the shots I take are 200 degrees across and 90 degrees from top to bottom, so it takes a little while to work out where everything should be, and you don’t want a light source from one side overpowering the shots.
There are many things to think about, but good practise and experimenting will help you find the best way.
How did you learn about astrophotography and how have you developed your skills over time?
I’ve spent quite a few years reading lots of books and things online - the good thing about astrophotography is that there’s a good amount of people wanting to pass on their useful tips and things to learn. I’ve spent a lot of hours looking at YouTube videos, online articles and some very good books. There’s one called Making Every Pixel Count - that’s a very good start into all aspects of astrophotography.
It’s not uncommon for me to spend 6-8 hours on a computer trying to put together a deep sky image - doing it like this in one go is OK, but you might find that coming back a day or so later makes you think “oh that’s awful”. So now I’ll tend to wait a little while, do some preparation, maybe a little bit of processing and then leave it, to then come back a day or so later. I think that gives me a better feel for what I want to get as a result.
There’s a growing trend where people are going onto Facebook groups and saying “this is what I want to do, how do I do it?”, but that’s not the right way. You need to read plenty of books and online articles, as well as learning the sky. I did that and it really helps to enhance the overall effects - I know what constellations are where, I know what nebulas are in the sky, I know when the milky way is rising and setting - it gives you a more in-depth feel for it.
Lately I’ve gone for a different type of photography, where I look at wide-field photography but with more detail of the night sky in it, trying to bring out the nebulas in a wide area.
It’s a learning curve. You never stop learning and that’s what makes it so good. Your favourite picture is usually your last picture and it’s the most rewarding thing.
I have a few exhibitions coming up - one in North Norfolk at Cley Marshes at the end of the year - there’s nothing I like better than waffling on about my hobby and selling pictures!
Learning, spending hours developing, not always succeeding, and knowing it will eventually come - those are my big tips.
A huge thanks to Shaun for intriguing us with his fascinating journey into astrophotography and for offering his tips to newbies in the field. For more insight into Shaun’s spectacular work, make sure to check out his online astrophotography portfolio.
Don’t forget to browse our range of waterproof and dustproof protective camera cases, perfect for any photographer heading out on a shoot.