Shooting the Supermoon

Almost a year ago now I was commissioned by my good pal Andy Wilson’s parents to shoot a series of images that reflected his time in Australia.

I used to share a flat with Andy in Glasgow, but he has now made Melbourne his home, and the prints were a 30th birthday gift from his folks (and me).

The project was difficult because the imagery had to speak of Melbourne (and surrounds), but also of Andy’s experience here. They had to work as a series too, as they were going to hang together in his living room.

The most important thing though was that Andy liked what I produced. I contemplated shooting the project, getting it printed and presenting it as a ‘surprise’ – but there’s always a chance he wouldn’t be too keen on one (or all) of the images – so I opted for a policy of full disclosure.

The graffiti image and the epic cloudscape over Port Phillip Bay came relatively easily, but I also needed something with a more coastal feel to reflect Andy’s many trips down the Great Ocean Road.

The Supermoon in June, 2013, presented me with an opportunity to complete the series. A difficult opportunity – but an opportunity none the less.

I took a run down to Anglesea and paid a visit to the legendary Bruce Little at the local surf centre. As opposed to all the boutique style stores back up the surf coast in Torquay, Bruce runs a more traditional operation, and there is no better place in Victoria to buy a second-hand board.

He also knows all the surfers in the area and, a few phone calls later, I had myself a model. I wanted the image subject to be a local, someone who surfs the area regularly, and Vanessa has spent her whole life in Anglesea.

I also needed a blonde – and this is nothing to do with personal preference. I wasn’t entirely sure how much ambient light there would be at moonrise, but blonde hair obviously reflects a lot more light than a darker colour, and this would help to give the subject definition.

Vanessa was thrilled to be involved and was a dream to work with – I knew the moon was going to be the fickle mistress on this shoot.

I had to calculate the azimuth of the moonrise – and this is the main reason I chose Anglesea.

Point Roadknight juts out of the coastline at what I hoped would be roughly the right angle so Vanessa would be between my shooting position and the moon.

She would also only be a few metres higher, meaning there was a chance she would be silhouetted on the moon’s surface.

We had a clear evening two days before so I did the three-hour round trip from Melbourne again, just to try and get a more accurate feel for how things might pan out.

The moon’s position was roughly as I had predicted and I made a final check of the tides and weather to make sure Vanessa wasn’t going to be washed off the rocks by a rogue wave.

I like to be as prepared as possible for a shoot, but in this case there were a lot of variables that I had no control over.

Had I calculated the azimuth correctly? How much ambient light would there be? Would cloud ruin the whole thing? Would Vanessa freeze to death standing on a rock exposed to the Southern Ocean in mid-winter?

Even my camera settings were an unknown quantity. I wanted to use the narrowest aperture possible to ensure the moon was sharp(ish), because there is obviously an incredible distance between it and Vanessa.

I was shooting on a Nikon D4 with a 500mm lense on a tripod. This is quite a heavy rig and, as I was going to be on sand, I intended to sit the tripod on a piece of thin timber for stability.

It’s perhaps difficult for some people to understand, but this is the kind of thing that really gets me excited. I could think of almost nothing else for the two days previous – the whole thing could well turn out to be a flop – but the unpredictability of it was quite thrilling.

There’s always a chance you’re going to get something absolutely epic.

Conditions on the day of the shoot were clear and cold – just about perfect. I met Vanessa and her friend (who would relay instructions for me) in the Point Roadknight car park and we went out on to the rocks to discuss her position and pose.

This was about half an hour before moonrise – I drove to the other end of the car park and set up the shooting position on the beach about 400 metres away from Vanessa.

It was absolutely freezing and the girls took shelter behind the rocks until about five minutes before moonrise, when Vanessa walked out and took up her position.

One of the problems with shooting in public is the lack of control you have over the environment. I sated the curiosity of a few intrigued dog walkers on the beach, but right on moonrise a camera club group began clambering over the rocks.

Inevitably a couple of them began wandering straight into my shot. I was stressed out as it was, wondering whether I had the angle right and trying to keep my shooting rig out of the ocean.

A small crowd of onlookers had also formed behind me to see how the whole thing was going to pan out and everyone started yelling (totally pointlessly) for these guys to move.

One of them (without even asking) began taking shots of Vanessa on her rock. I called her friend and said, as calmly as possible; ‘I don’t care what you have to do – push him into the ocean if you have to – but get that #&@*ing guy out of our shot.’

Vanessa’s friend, to her enormous credit, managed to explain to this character that there was a very angry man on a beach over yonder who would be delighted if he moved on.

So, camera club taken care of, suddenly a gusty breeze sprung up out of the south east. My shutter speed was quite slow in order to get the aperture I needed, so the wind was adding to my woes of keeping the rig stable on the soft sand.

One of the growing crowd of onlookers was kind enough to bring his ute down on to the beach as a windbreak – this was becoming a real team effort.

The one element missing in all of this was the bloody moon. We were three minutes after official moonrise time and there was still no sign.

Suddenly I saw a glimmer just to the right of Vanessa’s head. Hazy cloud over the ocean had unfortunately obscured the moon on the horizon, but it was starting to take shape.

I knew I only had about three minutes until it rose too high for the image, so I moved the rig into ankle deep water (the sand was still surprisingly firm) and started shooting like crazy. I changed settings as I went, just going off what I was seeing on the back of the camera, finally settling on 1/200 sec at f9 with an ISO of 400.

There were lots of oohs and aahs from the crowd, but I knew sharpness would be an unknown quantity until I could see the images on screen.

There was a chance for some more good images as the moon rose higher, so I hauled the rig back to the car as quickly as I could, drove the length of the car park, and raced out on to the rocks to join the girls with some shorter lenses.

We shot for another 15 minutes or so, until we were about to die of exposure, and then retired to the relative warmth of the cars.

Considering the amount of things that could have gone wrong, I was happy with the final result. So was Andy, thankfully, and we completed the series.

The moon really is a tough subject to shoot. Many photographers, to overcome the problem of distance between earthly subject and moon, combine two images. They shoot the subject, then the moon, so both are in focus and then merge in post production.

However, I wanted my image to be a single exposure, more just to see what eventuated than because of any objection to alternative techniques.

I think the image would be more effective if Vanessa was silhouetted on the moon’s surface, and the ambient colours are a bit murky, but it still has some ‘wow’ factor and I learned a huge amount from the whole process.

Every time I go over to Andy’s I get a thrill seeing the three images up on the wall. It makes drinking cider and watching Manchester United on his couch all the more satisfying.

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