Q & A With Astrophotographer Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor has mastered the art of shooting the night sky. His work is truly awe inspiring. We got in touch with him to learn more about him and his creative process. Enjoy!

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Mike Taylor and I am the owner and photographer at Taylor Photography, a freelance imaging studio based in a 19th-century farmhouse in central Maine. I have been a scenic/nature and studio photographer for over 20 combined years. I am an artist, a philosopher, a musician, a movie buff, and a self-proclaimed connoisseur of beverages made from malted barley & hops ... we all have our bag of rocks to carry. I started my own photography business a couple of years ago in the hopes that I could turn my passion for capturing the night sky into a full time career. All the information regarding my work can be found at my website: http://miketaylorphoto.com 

How did you come to love astrophotography?

There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, and the spectacular Northern Lights displays.

I have always been a "night owl" - I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood and wonder about Man's existence while looking up at the stars. Most folks are so busy with day-to-day life that they rarely contemplate the radical idea that we all live on a small rock which is rotating and flying through the cosmos at a speed we can barely fathom. When I started seeing beautifully processed Milky Way images I said to myself “I bet I can do that too.” And that's one of the main things I try to teach in my night photography and processing workshops: anyone with the desire, motivation and some decent camera equipment can do this. 

I have been fortunate enough to have my landscape astrophotography and scenic/nature images & articles featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day, The Weather Channel, NBC News, Viral Nova, Discovery.com, Yahoo! News, Space.com, Earthsky.org, Spaceweather.com, Solarham.net, and multiple other science websites and social media pages. 

What tips could you share that would help someone shoot better night shots right away - or at least get on the right path?

In general, to avoid light pollution you need to drive as far away as possible from any city or town – 50 to 100 miles is a good start. Depending on where you live, this may be a real challenge and could involve a significant amount of travel time, so planning ahead helps. Check out the International Dark Sky Association's 'DarkSky Finder & Destinations' page for suggestions. Plan your shoots by scouting areas during the day to find compositions that you like since you won't be nearly as productive trying to do that in the dark. 

To get the most out of shooting at night take the time to learn your camera's capabilities. Know your gear's limitations. While any 'point & shoot' camera can be used for night photography as long as it has high ISO and long-exposure capabilities, higher end DSLRs are really the way to go.  I have always subscribed to the idea that it's not the camera that matters as much as the person looking through the viewfinder. But night photography is a different animal than daytime photography; the paramount results will be achieved via your passion, commitment, and the best equipment & training you can acquire. 

In general, exposure times for the Milky Way and constellations are anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 seconds or slightly longer. It depends on your gear because full frame cameras can take longer exposures than cropped-sensor cameras without the stars trailing. Specific lenses and focal lengths come into play as well – most times you want to be shooting at f/2.8 or faster. As always, the exposure triangle is the first thing to consider when photographing at night, as long as your gear is capable of capturing decent images at very high ISO settings. 

Use a heavy duty, sturdy tripod. This is an important piece of gear that many people skimp on. Don't place your $3k camera body and lens on top of a $30 plastic tripod – sooner or later, you will regret it. Probably sooner. 

Other tips: Be patient. Think outside the box. Be respectful of your surroundings. Enjoy the process. Allow yourself to be filled with wonder. Have fun!

Your photos tend to be filled with color. How do you capture such vivid color in your astrophotography? 

Post-processing is an integral part of creating a great final image. A good eye for composition and lighting is the most important aspect when capturing images in the field but the way to turn a “good picture” into a “fantastic photograph” is through processing – the time and energy you spend to selectively edit your images in the digital darkroom. 

What is the mission of the International Dark-Sky Association and how can people get involved?

The goal of the International Dark Sky Association is to raise public awareness of light pollution and to work with people to reduce/eradicate it where ever possible using intelligent lighting techniques. I work in conjunction with the IDA and I very much agree with their focus. I encourage folks to check out their site www.darksky.org for more information on how to get involved - YOU can make a REAL difference by doing something as easy as using environmentally responsible outdoor lighting! 

Do you have any upcoming workshops, books, or other events?

I teach night photography and post-processing workshops around scenic areas in Maine and I just returned from an incredible two weeks co-instructing night photography and time lapse techniques in Moab, Utah. Check out my workshops schedule here: http://miketaylorphoto.smugmug.com/Workshops. I also offer presentations of my work and speaking engagements around the country. I am currently co-authoring a children's book called 'The Secret Galaxy' (Tilbury House) which will be released in October. 

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Q & A with Gura Gear Pro Tony Sweet

Tony Sweet is a widely published photographer, workshop leader (Visual Artistry Workshop Series), sought after speaker and member of the Gura Gear Pro Team. We wanted to dig deeper into the life of Mr. Sweet to learn from his experiences and tell his fascinating story.

What brought you to photography as a profession?

Good question. It all began in my previous career as a jazz musician and educator. I was fortunate enough to work with some of the greatest jazz artists on the planet. So, I decided to get into photography to photograph the musicians I was working with, and to document one of the last jazz scenes in the country, the Cincinnati jazz scene of the late 80s. I was playing then and was working every night. About that time, I met my future mentor, Tony Gayhart, who dealt in used camera gear. After a few visits and transactions, he showed me a few nature slides, which immediately captured my imagination. I sold my fast glass, for low light of jazz clubs, and purchased a good tripod, wide to telephoto zooms, and a macro lens. I read everything I could find, especially the books of John Shaw and Jim Zuckerman. I began  shooting at local nature preserves, expanding into national travel with the Great American Photography Workshops company. After a few years with the GAPW, I began local lectures to build a workshop clientele. Got picked up by Nikon, who sponsored speaking events. After getting a feature article in Shutterbug, many moons ago, things picked up and the Visual Artistry Workshops  business was started, still going strong after 20 years.

What tips or advice do you have for becoming a better photographer?

Tip 1: Learn your gear so that its instinctual. That way you can function in the moment, quickly and fluidly, being one with the subject. Any mechanical issues at all greatly distract from the experience and can affect your image making and creative flow.

Tip 2: Always try to get a different perspective  than your own height. Very low, very high, at an extreme angle. Horizontal and vertical formats can greatly change the feel of your image.

Tip 3: Learn everything you can about the particular style of photography to which you aspire and attend live location workshops with photographers who do the kind of work that you like.

Who or what have you looked to for inspiration and why?

Pat Ohara and Freeman Patterson were my first major influences, exemplifying the more artistic side of nature/ outdoor photography, which was my native proclivity being a professional jazz artist (drummer) for 20 years at the time I started photography.  Ive taught along side of John Shaw, Pat Ohara, Rod Planck, Bryan Peterson, and others and have gained great insight and inspiration from watching these masters work live. 

You talk about how you love to go back to places. Tell us about a particular place that has changed for you as youve gone back.

One of our most visited locations since I began as a photographer up to a workshop a few weeks ago, is the Great Smoky Mtns, TN. Aside from being the most visited park in the country, it is easy to get around, even at peak times, if one knows when and where to go. In regards to your question, the change that takes place when revisiting locations over and over again is very little in the outer landscape, but in the inner landscape. As I revisit a location year after year, it becomes almost literally impossible to take the same image over and over, so I begin to look at different things, perspectives, smaller areas, tighter compositions, different angles, infrared, panoramics. The software is getting better and better all of the time and, if were lucky, our processing matures, lending to more original and personal work. This is a natural, not a forced, process. Changes and evolution is style and vision takes years, actually throughout ones life. 

You have authored five books. Tell us a little bit about what it takes to write a book and get it published.

 All it takes to write a book is an idea that can be expanded upon for about 100 pages, or so, then sending manuscripts to publishers until it gets picked up, or declined. Ive authored our 5 book Fine Art Photography series through Stackpole, but have collaborated on several more over the years. Although, I continue to work with Stackpole, I also have e-books in the pipeline. A great deal of hard/ soft cover books are also available as e-books.  However, anyone can self publish and the quality is excellent, depending on how much one wants to pay. E-books can be the most lucrative.

What workshops, books, speaking engagements or other things do you have coming up that we should know about?

Thanks for asking!

Our workshop schedule is at: http://tonysweet.com/location-workshops

Of particular interest is our Iceland Tour w/ Focus on Nature and Santa Fe w/ Bobbie Goodrich!

Not on the schedule is our Portugal workshop next May. (email tony@tonysweet.com for details)

We also do a series of day long Creativity Seminars that are currently being booked. Schedule will be posted soon! http://tonysweet.com/seminars

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Q & A with Stock Photographer Scott Stulberg

We got the chance to talk with Scott Stulberg about his journeys in the professional world of stock photography. Find out how he has adapted to industry change, who has inspired him and more as you read below. We think you'll enjoy what he has to say!

A lot of your work features fascinating people in far-off places. What have you learned from connecting with these people?

Traveling to some pretty exotic places since I was about 13 years old has definitely given me a different perspective on life.  I remember spending the summer in Spain when I was about 15 and I have never experienced the camaraderie that you can have with people your own age and a completely different lifestyle that you are used to from your home city.  You sort of grow up fast and realize that the whole world beyond your little comfort zone is really so much bigger than you could have ever imagined.

But then venturing off to distant places like Burma and India, or even Africa, and that is when it really hits home that we really have it pretty sweet back in America.  Spend a little time  seeing how people live in some of these far-off lands,  it really makes you realize so much about yourself. But I also love more than anything making friends and eventually photographing so many incredible faces in these  unusual places…. and for me it has been the most eye-opening but satisfying feeling to relate to people from so far away.  I feel so at home with so many different cultures and I love sharing my images with them  even if it means coming back on another long journey to get them they images as I love the expressions on their face when they see images of themselves.

I would have to say my favorite part of traveling around the world and shooting stock and travel photography are the people I meet and the friends that I will have forever.  It happens just about everywhere though…. and I think it's the most rewarding part of what I do.

So many people go to Africa to capture the most amazing images of the beautiful animals that seem to be everywhere and anywhere. But for me… much of the time I prefer searching out those amazing tribes and I love working with them in different ways because I know ultimately,  the images  that I capture of those unique faces and their culture are the ones that really captivate me much more afterwards. I've always been attracted to people and their cultures in distant lands and it gives me a different perspective that almost humbles me.

Feeling like a brother to some of these people sort of puts me in their footsteps, if only for a few days, but it changes me forever. You are never really the same.

What do you hope to have accomplished through your photography before you die?

That is a tough one.  I think I've  actually accomplished much of what I had wanted many years ago and it makes me feel that I'm in a good place. 

If I could have, I would have been an astronaut.

I always wanted to move away from the craziness and hustle and bustle of Los Angeles,  where I was born and raised….and I watched the city never stop growing.  Living in Sedona puts a whole different perspective on so many things… and it's all good.  But I also teach a lot of photography workshops here in the United States and also around the world and that is something that I had wanted to do forever.  I just planned a new workshop to Burma, a few days ago, as I have not taken a group there in a couple of years  and I was amazed as it sold out in three hours….. so I had to planned another one because so many people were unhappy that they were not able to go. Things like that make you feel good about yourself and your photography as you feel  that others respect you and want to learn from you, and that means so much to me.  Actually teaching at schools like UCLA and even here in Sedona at the Sedona Arts Center is about as satisfying of a feeling as you can ever have as a photographer. People seem to trust you and want to learn so much from you and for me,  there is so much more than just being a photographer. Being an instructor and helping others really understand photography and understand their gear is quintessential and is what really makes me tick. 

As for what else I hope to do before I'm not on this planet anymore…. I really am not sure.  I think the one thing for sure is that I would like to visit as many countries as I can that I haven't been to  and continue my exploration of this planet.  If I could have,  I would have been an astronaut.

Meeting and hanging out with Buzz Aldrin has always been one of the highlights of my life and it doesn't get any better than exploring this world and that is what he and his two compatriots did so long ago.  Not sure I can go into space,  but sometimes I'm on 13  different planes just on one trip.  Gets pretty crazy but nothing more than I'd rather do! And I do want to throw in that Gura gear packs have made a huge difference for me…. and it feels so good to know someone has finally figured out what many of us really need. The best designed gear in the world. Thanx you guys!! You did it right!!

Who or what have you looked to for inspiration? How has that been reflected in your work?

I guess I would really have to say my father.  As far as I can remember,  he was larger-than-life but the most giving person in the world.  Although not a photographer; my mom was the photographer,  he was in the movie business and ran many movie studios including 20 Century Fox,  where he made Star Wars, Young Frankenstein  and a ton of other movies….. and growing up in the movie business is something that he tried to steer me away from.  It worked too!  And although I was always on the sets…. meeting and hanging out with everyone from Steve McQueen to Muhammad Ali… going to the Academy Awards.... even having a screening room in our guesthouse and screening the latest new releases every Friday night,  I learned that I absolutely never wanted to be in the movie business.  Growing up in Los Angeles,  it seemed like everyone thought they were the coolest because they said they  worked in the movie business.  For me it was just a big turnoff.

I think my father knew when I was only 10 that I probably shouldn't and wouldn't follow in his footsteps and he bought me my first camera,  a plastic Anscomatic.  That was a day that changed my life and I really never looked back.   And three years later,  when I turned 13,  he had a fantastic darkroom built for me downstairs in our house.   Talk about really falling in love with photography, having your own darkroom when you're that young,  and spending night after night,  immersed in chemicals;  well,  all I can say is my father really was my hero and I would always look to his approval when I was shooting or even developing my images. But my mom was pretty slick too and a nifty photographer. She was the one who really knew how to push me here or steer me there. She had the eye. Between the two of them…..  was a pretty amazing childhood. I was pretty lucky!!

But I was also so incredibly lucky to have as our good family friend while growing up, even until today,  one of the top fashion photographers in the world. His name is Melvin Sokolsky and he had been asked to join Harper's Bazaar when he was about 20 years old  and was put on staff with Richard Avedon.  He was a prodigy and having him as a friend but also as a mentor has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.  Working with him on shoots but even more importantly, sitting with him in his home  and listening to him detail his thought process on so many amazing images that he created for Harpers or Vogue or so many other magazines,  well for me…  it was really similar to sitting with someone like Michelangelo. 

Learning the importance of creativity and imagination over counting pixels was priceless. Watching his vision come to life right in front of me while  standing next to him, while he is shooting;  priceless.….. 

Even especially being his Photoshop guru but watching him use Photoshop in ways that still astound me…..  again..was priceless.  He would think of something and somehow work Photoshop to get him to his vision….. sometimes calling me at one in the morning to figure out why it wasn't working the way he wanted and how I can help him fix it.   But in his words,  he had to figure out how to end up with what was in his mind's eye.

So for inspiration,  although I've had so many great photographers that I've been able to meet, work with,  assist and even travel with all over the world,  being with Melvin and still being around him when I go back to Los Angeles has always been one of the best parts of my life.  But so many other things inspire me in so many different ways from looking at Pinterest online  to television commercials and everything in between.  And believe it or not, one of the things that inspires me the most is to watch what my students come up with when we do different shoots all over the place.  

I'm astounded at how different one is from the other and how their vision is so different. I think, quite often,  that I learn as much from my students sometimes,   as they do from me,  and I bet they have no idea!  This even goes for my fiancé Holly.  So many places that we go,  especially overseas, she is shooting right next to me and I have no idea how she ends up with something completely different than me and it just blows me away.  I'm so fortunate at times to travel with her… and to teach and lead workshops  as I get to see these other people's interpretations of what we are witnessing.

As photographers…. we all  feel that  we are taking "The Shot".     That we have it figured it out and that our eye  and then our capture is the real interpretation.  Such a great gift to witness what others do at the same time.  It humbles you and really makes you grow up an in turn, ends up making you a better photographer!

As a stock photographer, how have you adapted with the changes in technology and availability of images?

Now we're talking about a touchy subject.  You shouldn't have gotten me started.  I have taught classes in stock photography for such a long time and have so many friends that have been stock photographers forever.  All I can say is,  it ain't what it used to be.  I guess technology has changed much of it to be easier in many ways and also so much faster, actually light-years faster. But at the same time, technology… especially the digital world has made it so that everyone has a camera near them all the time.  There is no buying film,  being  careful on how many frames you shoot, developing  your stuff and then of course when we had Photoshop….. scanning it all into the computer.

But the bottom line is, you still have to have a lot of talent.

Fast-forward…. and forget about people knowing what it was like to work in the dark room…. but how about them not even knowing what film was altogether.

I've adapted seamlessly as I'm very technical but at the same time,  everyone thinks they are now a stock photographer and it has pretty much ruined traditional stock photography especially with all of the royalty-free and micro stock stuff going on all over.  Things ain't what they used to be.

I love being a stock photographer and work on it so hard almost every day and it's really helped me have a great life and I think the technological advances are amazing and it has made my life so much better dealing with agencies and art buyers.  So, there has definitely been a lot of good to come out of the tech side just as technology improves so many things in the average person's life…. but at the same time, It has made it so much easier for everyone to go out and shoot and try to become a stock photographer.  But the bottom line is,  you still have to have a lot of talent. The good agencies know exactly what they're looking for and submitting your images to them nowadays seems light years better than it used to be!!!  I love Cyber Space!!

Tell us a little bit about your book, Passage to Burma. Why Burma? Do you have any more books you’re working on?

I guess I have loved traveling to Burma pretty much more than any other country that I've ever been to  and that's why I have gone so many times  and why I do workshops there.

It is about as photogenic as anywhere I've ever been but it's really the people  and the culture that never let me stay away too long. And the landscapes…. the mind-boggling gorgeous sensory overload that you get from sunrise to  sundown…. in so many directions is just mind blowing.  But if I had to pick one thing that brings me back more than anything else… my favorite part of Burma,  it has to be the monks.  Those amazing little faces,  under those beautiful saffron robes…. with their whole life dedicated to achieving nirvana.

It's almost more than any of us can really comprehend. You are right there,  with them all the time,  and you have no idea what you are witnessing.  None of us do.  To me you really have to go back  multiple times to really truly appreciate what is going on.  That's why I spent so  much time with the monks… and their monasteries and why I have so many images of their culture in my book.

But I also love so much of the special things that makes this country so unique.  They are 90% Buddhist and about as sweet of a culture as anywhere I've ever been.  Hop on over to somewhere like Vietnam and talk about culture shock.  If you don't mind hearing car horns 24 hours a day… and people ready to run you over with their moped in a second…. then that is the place for you. Or try India for real culture shock….but make sure you bring some antibiotics!!

The respect, and courtesy and just good-natured way of life of the Burmese is amazing and I tried to document a lot of this in my book.  Trying to capture what I feel when I am in and about Burma is actually pretty easy because it's right there in your face.  One day I might be teaching English to little kids in a Burmese school with my fiancé and the next minute I might be high on a temple shooting hot air balloons drifting across a sea of temples, during a spectacular sunrise.  

I just think that everyone should never stop learning. I never do.

 I have photographed in so many countries for as long as I can remember…. but nothing really captures my imagination or my heart like Burma does.  I think that's why I love doing photography workshops there,  with small groups.  I want them to experience what I do and I love trying to expand their awareness on how to not only capture but also appreciate what they are witnessing.  To be in your favorite country…. and help others really understand how to create a compelling image…. well..it doesn't get much better than that.

I'm actually going to be working on the second edition of the book so I can't wait to shoot more stuff on my next trip.  I have so many ideas well before I even leave for overseas as you can't just wait and hope that something appears before your eyes.  I learned long ago from my good friend Art Wolfe that if you can design it in your mind,  you can make it happen, very much like art direction in the movie business.  Sometimes like déjà vu. Keep those eyes peeled and something amazing will present itself and as long as your camera is with you…you are set!!

But there's nothing like venturing out of your comfort zone…. and the ultimate is traveling overseas…

Being somewhere far, far away…..  and then coming home with some of the most powerful images of your life….well, for me,  is sort of like the holy Grail. Hard to capture some of these images in your own backyard.  Traveling out of your comfort zone….sometimes thousands of miles away…..can be cathartic. You only live once. Unless you are James Bond of course.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just think that everyone should never stop learning.  I never do.  I'm always reading, everything I can.  anything that can help me with my photography or my vision.  I'm always on Google…always checking out Pinterest and 500px.  there are so many amazing photographers….. so many incredible ideas out there.  I learn so much and see so much  just by keeping my eyes open and in this day and age with the Internet being everywhere,  and all the knowledge about camera gear and shooting methods and settings…..   well…. life  has changed  for the better for so many of us. There are classes all over the place. I teach online at an amazing school called PPSOP, the picture perfect school of photography and it is so cool to have students in countries all over the world.

The internet has made the world so much more accessible!!

Just never stop learning.  Keep on taking classes…. and keep on pushing yourself.  I think it's the same in any business…. but for many, photography is not a business, it's a passion.  So just keep that passion strong and alive…. and never settle. And the more you shoot,  the more you will grow.  You will look at things that you photographed years ago and probably wonder what you were thinking.  How did you think that was an amazing shot?  It happens to all of us.  That's what it's all about!! That is when you realize…. you're finally understanding what photography is all about!  You are able to critique yourself…. and you will only get better and better… probably by shooting less and less…being more careful…. because you are really understanding your craft…   finally.

You can find all of Scott's work on his website and learn more about his book, Passage to Burma, here.