A few years ago I took my DSLR camera outside on a warm summer night and tried to capture the stars. I was able to get a couple nice shots and that's all it took to get me hooked on the experience. I spent some time researching how to get better and that lead me to Michael's incredible work. Michael was one of the first astrophotographers that completely blew my mind with what was possible to capture using a DSLR camera. Beyond the technical aspects he adds a unique final touch of artistry in post that takes his images to another level. It was a pleasure chatting with him about how he makes it all happen. -Matt
Tell us how you got started doing your craft?
I’ve always found it fun to be able to make things with my hands. As a kid I explored every possible different type of art form I could. I tried sculpting, painting, charcoal, and eventually graphic art after being introduced to computers in early high school. I really enjoyed graphic art and I was interested in photography as well but had never used a really nice camera. I did a little bit of film photography and I would take pictures of various random things. When I shot using a digital camera it lead me to learn about post processing images in software. I would bring my photos into Adobe Fireworks and mess with them to create cool effects. I started to learn Photoshop to do the same thing and would mess with photos, apply filters and so on. It was just so much fun to create whatever I wanted.
When I was 14, my parents bought me my first DSLR camera. At the time, I was interested in photography but I was mostly focused on graphic art. I was excited to be able to get high-resolution images that I could edit. The new camera was making me get out and shoot more and I started realizing that taking pictures was just as fun as editing and processing them; perhaps even more so. That's where photography started becoming a true passion. From then on, I would bring my camera everywhere I went. Friends and I would go eat tacos and I'd bring my camera, just because I wanted to take pictures of everything I possibly could. There was no rhyme or reason, I just loved everything about taking pictures.
What was your path to becoming a full-time photographer and filmmaker?
When I was 16 I tried to get a job to make a little money. I applied to a bunch of places but no one hired me. I knew I was good at taking pictures and I thought people might hire me to do it. So I tried doing a ton of different photography jobs. I did events, I did 2 or 3 weddings, I did portraits of friends and things like that. I dabbled in action sports photography and in concert photography. I really tried to explore a broad spectrum of what I could do with the craft and try to make a little bit of money at the same time. In high school, I realized that I really wanted to go to photography school. I didn't want to take SATs or ACTs. It just wasn't for me.
I went to Brooks Institute and got a photography degree in commercial photography. I started doing studio portraits and product photography; quite different from what I do now. I got into time lapse and fine art photography by doing a lot of behind the scenes video work and a lot of studio shoots in college. That type of work was what a lot of the professors told me I should be doing. They would say, "that's what's going to get you the money, that's what you're going to make a career out of. This whole landscape thing won’t work out.” The problem was, I wasn’t really into the studio work. So I continued to do landscapes and time lapse after work just because I loved it.
I ended up making a time-lapse film towards the end of college, about 3-4 years ago. I'd been doing time-lapse for a while but this was my first real film that I put a name to. The film was my first piece that had a concept and a story. When it was finished I put it on social media and it ended up going viral. I started to get emails and interview requests about it. About the same time, I was building my social media presence. I started a Facebook page and I started releasing Milky Way photos and people started following me. Things grew organically from the point onward.
With this new found attention, I started getting called for similar jobs. People wanted to hire me for time-lapse and landscape photography; the things I loved. I started doing the work and told myself that I didn't want to do anything else. Previously I was getting paid close to nothing to edit magazine videos and do crappy photography jobs and they just didn’t make me happy. When time-lapse got really popular and when my social media following got larger, I started getting known for it and people started hiring me and licensing the footage. I was like: "Yeah, screw all that other stuff. I need to figure out how to keep doing this!"