All images by Andrew Campbell. Used with permission.
“I think with all things in life – if you love doing it – then you will always be motivated.” Those are the words of Andrew Campbell, a photographer based in the South West of England. He’s talking about his love for astrophotography, and the rewards he gets from the methodical art form. His passion requires patience, something Campbell has plenty of. The results? A body of work that wows us and leaves us asking for more.
Campbell’s astrophotography recently won award-winning recognition in his home country. And thanks to the digital era, it has boosted his profile all around the world. In 2019 he was named WEX Photographer of The Year due to his stunning astrophotography. We spoke to him to learn more about his work and what the future holds for this talented photographer.
Phoblographer: Hey, Andrew! You do a core of your work in the South West of England. What is it about this region that makes it so enjoyable to photograph for you?
AC: Hi Dan. Yes the South West of England is really a landscape photographer’s playground. We have so much to concentrate on in a relatively small area. Miles and miles of amazing coastline for seascapes, wonderful rural countryside and moorland for landscapes, and of course we have some great dark skies, for astrophotography too, especially looking out over the sea. It is very hard not to be inspired and feel rather blessed to be based in this area. If I could ship in some mountains, it really would be perfect.
Phoblographer: Your photography has taken you all around the world. What other hotspots do you enjoy photographing?
AC: Well, Iceland is always the mecca for landscape photographers, and having been, I can see why – it is simply stunning. I was lucky enough also to witness and capture the Aurora Borealis when I was out there. Capturing this on camera was such an amazing experience. However, to be honest with you, anywhere I have traveled to in the world has always presented some amazing photographic opportunities.
As a photographer, I always find I am inspired by new locations. It always gets my creative juices flowing, whether that’s the souks of Marrakesh or the mountains of the Vale of Glencoe in Scotland. I am lucky enough to have traveled quite a lot in Europe, and further afield, but my bucket list of locations to still visit is still massive. I really want to spend some time in North America. I am often inspired by city shots of New York, or the Oregon coast, and so many others.
Phoblographer: What are the core skills you feel a photographer needs to execute astrophotography to a high standard?
AC: The core skills needed are really quite simple. The ability to plan a shot and know where the Milky Way will be in the night sky, making sure the moon won’t be in the way, and the predicted weather. Thankfully there are plenty of software programs and apps to help with that. Also, I will normally be aware of the location I am visiting, making sure it is already familiar to me, or making a visit to it when its daylight. This process helps with not only getting around a location in the dark, but also to have an idea of the final image composition before you turn up. Understanding the equipment you are using to capture the images, to the point that you can use your camera in the dark, knowing where all your buttons are, this is just practice.
“Our brains are trained to look at images in a predetermined way, and what I want, is to use that to my advantage.”Andrew Campbell
Then, of course, you need to understand how to use that equipment to capture the stars! I learned this myself both by trial and error, and by lots of research. For example, a very well know astrophotographer, Alyn Wallace, has a YouTube channel with amazing insights and tips.
Finally, you need patience and luck! Not skills I know, but be prepared to fail, and also to spend a lot of time out in the dark waiting for clouds to move, the moon to set, or for the Milky Way to align where you want it.
Phoblographer: Your astrophotography is beautiful. How do you approach a shot?
AC: As I have said above, I like to plan in advance. I would say that I have a type of shot, or composition that I favor. It must have a strong interest in the foreground, and the Astro element of my image is really just there to add a second bit of wow factor to what is already a great subject. When people concentrate on astrophotography, you often see that most are trying to capture as much as possible of the Milky Way, for example, shooting really wide-angled shots. They look amazing, but the Milky way is often the main subject of these shots. I seem to have naturally been drawn away from this.
I want to find a really strong subject, and then ask those to be surprised or pleased to see it with the stars behind it. Our brains are trained to look at images in a predetermined way, and what I want, is to use that to my advantage. You see my chosen subject, then you see the stars, not the other way around! To achieve this, you will often find me shooting at focal lengths of 24-50mm, rather than super wide like 14mm.
Phoblographer: Some of your subjects in the foreground seem illuminated. What lighting set up do you use, and how do you balance it with longer exposures?
AC: I will occasionally light paint a foreground using a head torch, for example, but most of the time I actually have to deal with natural or man-made light sources. Light pollution is a pain in astrophotography. You are normally fighting to control it, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve to do this. One is to use filters. On a shot I took in 2019 called ‘Space Pirates’, the beach I was shooting on was really floodlit from behind me. This meant that whenever I was exposing for the stars, the boats and the beach in the foreground were overexposed. My solution to this was to use a graduated ND filter, but upside down. This meant that I could expose the whole scene equally. I also have a Kase Wolverine Neutral Night filter, which is specifically designed to reduce the Orange Sodium lighting and light pollution.
“Being stood in the beautiful world that we live in late at night or at sunrise or sunset is often very calming…”– Andrew
Although these old type orange glowing street and spotlights are slowly being replaced in places like the UK and USA by LED lighting, there is still lots around, and using this filter will help me control and reduce that.
Phoblographer: Moving into the editing room, what program do you use for post-production, and how would you describe your method of editing?
AC: I am an Adobe fan so I use Lightroom and Photoshop for all my editing work. When it comes to astro shots, I really don’t have a method other than trying to reduce noise a little and then enhancing the parts of an image I want to pop out to those that look at it. I will merge images in Photoshop, especially if I have done focus stacking or a panoramic shot.
I try not to alter reality, but to give a better end result. I used to worry about excessive noise in my night images, thinking that the foreground had to be perfect. Now, however, as most of those that see my images are doing so on small digital screens, I find that this is not something I get concerned about as much. The main thing to worry about I feel personally is that the image is balanced to the eye, and that it tells a fleeting story about what I was witnessing, and how amazing that was.
Phoblographer: Lowlight photography takes patience. How do you keep yourself motivated when doing a more methodical genre of photography?
AC: Yes it does, but it is so rewarding when all the conditions and the planets literally align, that I don’t ever seem to suffer from a lack of motivation. In the perfect months for astrophotography here in the UK, when the Milky Way core is in the right place, and the nights are dark enough, you will often find me leaving my home late evening, shooting the night skies, and then staying out for dawn with the camera. I am fortunate that my wife understands my passion for photography. It is also very cathartic to witness the amazing infinite sky above us, it gives me time to reflect, or in most cases just stare up in wonder at what is above us.
Phoblographer: You were recently named “WEX Photographer of the Year 2020.” What does that kind of recognition do for your confidence, and how did you use the title to push yourself forward with your goals?
AC: This is an amazing achievement for me! All photographers will tell you that they shoot for themselves, and it is true, I take images because I like it. However, it is also amazing to be recognized for doing this. The cherry on top of the sundae shall we say. So to be awarded this title is wonderful, especially as it was a few of my astrophotography shots that really helped me win. For those that don’t know, this is a UK competition that is judged not just on one image, but on a weekly entry that might be awarded points, then those points are accumulated over a whole year to the eventual winner. I am hoping that it will help me gain more exposure and allow me more choice and opportunity to follow my passion.
Phoblographer: Thinking about the process of creation, and the final product, how does your photography make you feel from an emotional perspective?
AC: For me, the whole process is one that equally excites me and calms me all in the same experience. Being stood in the beautiful world that we live in late at night or at sunrise or sunset is often very calming – a great time to reflect on one’s thoughts. Then the perfect conditions will suddenly present themselves and you have a short frantic and exciting moment to capture that, so that the image you have envisioned can materialize.
Phoblographer: We have the whole of 2020 ahead of us. What are the main things you would like to achieve?
AC: I think in 2019 I saw more night skies and sunrises than ever before, and it was great. I pushed hard to capture images that I could enter into the WEX competition each week and I loved every second! In 2020 however, I have already decided to concentrate on producing a few curated series of images, less of a scattergun approach of shooting everything and anything that I fancy. In fact, I have already started this with a series of minimalist coastal shots called ‘Sentinals’, a set of images that are being shot on the South West coastline.
Most of all, though, it’s just to carry on enjoying photography, visiting new and wonderful places, and meeting amazing people on the way.
You can enjoy more of Andrew’s work by visiting his website.