Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Over the moon.


The past few years I've had an idea simmering in my brain, the gist of which was to shoot a silhouetted rider against a full moon, using the longest lens I could lay my hands on in order to, well... you'll see..  The idea is easy enough, but the execution is bogglingly complex when you factor in everything that needs to happen at exactly the right moment.  Camera settings, rider placement, photogeek placement, a good composition, and then, of course, weather variables.

Each time I started to think about setting this up I essentially short-circuited before coming anywhere close to taking test shots.  Too damn many variables.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned about the SuperBloodyEclipse that was going to happen on September 27th.  The promise of a big, red, dynamic moon at sunset (no need to pull an all-nighter!) launched me into a veritable overdrive of OCD action.


First things first I needed just the right spot, which meant two high points, roughly one to one and a half miles apart, and aligned in such a way that I could shoot from the western one across the eastern one with the moon rising just behind.  I had originally hoped to shoot the high point of Moore Fun from the high point of Mack Ridge, and did an afternoon hike last Thursday to ascertain feasibility.  Alas the moon rose a solid 20* north of where I expected it to, and with no way (short of a helicopter) to move myself south to triangulate I knew I had to punt that plan.  On the drive back into the valley I 'followed' the moonrise and checked out three other venues, one of which looked promising enough to follow up on the next night.

Take One.

The big event wasn't til Sunday, but I knew there was zero chance of getting things right on the first go--I needed both practice and proof of concept.  So on Friday after a full day of work I loaded my pack with all that I thought I'd need for the shot, then hopped on my e-bike and soft-pedaled up the road a few miles.  Jeny had left an ~hour before to get a short ride in before arriving at the place we'd agreed on.  A ~10 minute hike brought me to a good guess on where I'd need to be to get her directly between the moon and myself.  There I deployed the tripod and fiddled with focal length, framing, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to get in the right ballpark.  And then we waited.  

Because Jeny was a solid mile (maybe a little more) away, I couldn't really see her except through the lens, and we had no choice but to communicate via walkie talkie.  A scud of low clouds meant that the moon had risen several degrees before she was able to spot it, but because she was so much higher than my position (at least 300') we still had a bit of time to wait.  She keyed the mic many times to tell me how big and beautiful it was, and how she was amazed at the speed at which it rose.  Down in the valley I could still see nothing.  

I did the equivalent of pacing back and forth by running north and then south by ~100 yards, repeatedly, to try to increase my chances of seeing it soon enough to make last second positional changes.  Jeny keyed the mic once more to say that she couldn't believe I couldn't see it yet, to which I responded by taking a few more steps to the south.  At that it popped out from behind a bluff, already too high for my planned shot.  I asked her to stay put while throwing the tripod over my shoulder and running downhill into the valley below, cursing softly at myself as I did.  

I set up again, guesstimated some quick adjustments based on the new placement, then asked her to ride the line.  She rode it, I shot, then I re-set everything while she hiked back up, three times in all before the moon was too high to work with.  

Probably the best shot of the night is this one. 

And it's good.  But not great.  Jeny did everything right on her end, but I blew several things I didn't even know I needed to consider until I downloaded the images that night.  And that was the whole point of the night: to make, and learn from, mistakes before the big event.  Post-processing on this shot includes a minor crop to get a more widescreen look, and blotting out a few smudges that must be dust on my hasn't-been-cleaned-in-way-too-long sensor.

Take two.

Saturday.  I consulted a few photogeek friends and several website oracles to learn more about my mistakes from Friday night, then spent a few hours fiddling and pontificating on gear on Saturday afternoon.  I was so engrossed in reading and taking test shots that when I walked out the door to head to the site, I was surprised at what I saw: clouds.  Lots of 'em.  So many that when I arrived to set up there didn't seem like much point.

Jeny, up on the ridge, had a hard time seeing the moon rise through the clouds and over the Mesa beyond.  We discussed (via walkie talkie) whether the cloud bank was moving east, or south, or at all.
20 minutes to go, then ten, then five, then I started to get antsy because we'd blown off riding in Crested Butte, and Ouray, and then on the Mesa, for this cockamamy idea I'd had, that was about to be foiled by wispy clouds.
After 25 minutes of willing them away the clouds were still there, too thick to see through, and the moment was passing us by.

The radio crackled to life, and Jeny reported that la luna was about to disappear behind a yet thicker cloud bank, but that it might reappear much higher above, "in a while".  I still couldn't even see it from my vantage point.  Then an idea occurred to me, and I jogged north along the bluff to check it out.  What I saw--the moon, largely obscured by cloud, but much further north than I'd expected--gave me an idea.  I called up to Jeny and explained that plan A was officially in the toilet, and then asked if she'd mind if we went to plan B.  I asked nicely, because it involved her shouldering her bike up a yet steeper bluff to where we might, with some instant wind to move the clouds along, have a shot at...


She obliged and started hoofing it up, while I shouldered the rig and started scrambling down, down, down, all the way to the bottom of the wash, then across to the other side.  The point was to buy time--for the moon to shed the clouds, while still keeping Jeny between it and I.

 On a whim I switched to video, cranked the ISO to just shy of super-grit, then waited.  A sprint north to check vertical position, followed by the announcement from Jeny that it was moments away from being released by the cloud, had me cautiously confident.

I waited an extra few seconds before asking her to roll forward "...about a hundred feet, til you're just shy of that little juniper, then stop, and just stand there".

I let that clip roll for about 2:45, then asked her to roll forward, out of the frame.  As she flipped her bike around I killed the clip, shouldered the rig and ran forward a few hundred yards yet again, to bring the moon back 'down' behind the bluff for a second chance at it.  I went back to stills, guesstimated at the setting, plugged in the intervalometer, then had Jeny ride back and forth thrice while I shot and made micro adjustments everywhere I could think of.  

And, as you can see, it almost worked. I think I might have halved the distance between us moving down and (twice) closer, and in so doing gotten so close that she and the moon were no longer in the same focal plane.  Not that I could tell in the heat of the moment, with the width of a hair being the difference between focusing on her and moving back to the moon.
My biggest mistake/largest regret is not having her switch on her handlebar-mounted light: that alone might have taken the shot from decent to really good.  What can I say--things were happening fast, I was trying to manage a lot of details in a compressed window, and it just slipped my mind.
Post-processing = a minor crop of the frame to cut out unnecessary sky, a bit of a white balance adjustment to get rid of an orange color cast, a slight drop of exposure to bring back some clipped highlights on the moon. That's it. I share all that because the moon itself looks so freaking fake--like it was cut and pasted from somewhere else--but that is emphatically the way it came out of the camera--size, craters, luminescence.

The big night.

Sunday.  No more practice, time to produce.  We both arrived with plenty of time to spare, got set, and then waited.  While enjoying the evening breeze and cloud pyrotechnics an unfamiliar voice appeared on the walkie talkie.  We could both hear it--snippets of someone else's conversation.  Knowing that once we started shooting we would be doing a *lot* of rapid fire talking back and forth, I cavalierly suggested that we switch channels, and she agreed.

Alas these radios were only days old to us, having been used in stock settings to this point.  We each switched to what we thought (by looking at the display) was the agreed upon channel, but neither could raise the other, period.  I went back to the original channel, thinking maybe she'd be there.  Nope, nada.

With a mile+ between us and maybe 20 minutes til showtime, I dropped everything but the handset and ran as hard as I could toward her.  

A few wash crossings, thousands of cactus avoided, two barbed wire fences hopped, one 5.7 move, and one very startled coyote later I made it to within earshot and we got the radios sorted.  

The run back seemed infinitely longer.

The moon came up a few minutes later than expected, and a few degrees further north than the previous night.  She tracked it as I fiddled with the camera, triple checking everything--for the third time.

And the simple truth is that I pretty much blew the shot, repeatedly, by trying to do too much in too short of a window.  Also, I had completely underestimated how much of a factor darkness (i.e. working with a headlamp) would play, and can probably blame most of my failure on this misjudgment.  Having to turn the light on and off for every shot added just enough time, along with having to find the not-easy-to-feel button on the radio, that my requests to Jeny to move to or from a certain place were always just a few seconds delayed, such that when she got there I was still fiddling with resetting focal length or focus or ISO, or something.

Thus, this is as good as it got.

Still a decent shot, but given all that went into it (especially Jeny's efforts!) it feels somewhat unsatisfying.

Writing that I have to remind myself that my end goal was a rider silhouetted against the moon, and in many ways I got more than that out of this effort.  The eclipse shot was never the target, just a sort of random OCD byproduct of the process.

On the subject of byproducts, that random whim that struck me on Saturday night?  Where I switched over and shot video?  That resulted in this.

Lots of other projects on tap for the immediate future, but maybe we'll try again this winter sometime.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. I used a Canon 5D3 with a Sigma 150-600 and a Sigma 2x teleconverter on the top two shots and the video.  Same body and lens sans 2x on the eclipse shot.

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