Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Abstract Exposures by Motion & Moonlight

A few days ago I was sitting in my car by the seawall near my home watching fishermen surf casting along the beach. As the daylight faded, a nearly full moon began to rise in the east almost directly behind the fishermen. I hadn't intended to do any photography at the beach but since I've begun  working on a new book I keep a camera with me constantly. Within a few minutes the moon had lit up the water in a beautiful silver and blue pattern and I knew I'd end up shooting some photos. But despite how bright the moonlight looked on the water, the exposure timess were still far too long for handheld exposures--even when I raised the ISO of my Nikon D90 to its max of ISO 3200.

I considered getting out a tripod, but with such long exposures and with the fishermen constantly moving, casting, adjusting their lines, etc., I knew that a tripod wouldn't help all that much: the fishermen still wouldn't be very sharp unless I called down to them to stand still (not something they'd be too interested in if a fish hit one of their lines!). Anyway, just as an experiment, I started shooting handheld exposures (mostly of this one fisherman) with the lens resting on my steering wheel. I had to focus on him manually because, as bright as the water looks here, the camera was still having trouble focusing and I was shooting through the windshield (something I would never do unless I was after an abstract image and true sharpness didn't matter).

Rather than try to constrain my exposures to times when he was relatively still, I just ignored his motion completely--in fact, I actually hoped he would move around or jiggle the rod to add to the abstract nature of my experiments. I ended up shooting several dozen exposures of him and another fisherman using exposure times ranging from 1.5 to 6 seconds, with the average being 3 seconds. The lens was almost wide open at f/4.5. As I watched the long exposures pop up on the LCD I began to love the shapes of the soft silhouettes against the very silvery and blue water. During the time I was shooting the fishermen (I shot several exposures of two guys together) would occasionally turn on red and blue LED headlamps (to find lures or bait, etc.) and I tried some exposure with those lights and they're interesting, but the light patterns were a bit distracting. (But those red LED headlamps were giving me some ideas for light painting that I'd love to try someday.)

Anyway, the whole experience became something of a visual ballet and the subjects had no idea they were being photographed. I would just waiting until they were in frame, try to focus at 200 or 300mm  in the darkness (it became a challenge as the moon rose higher and the backlighting was less intense) through a somewhat dirty windshield and hope that the length of the exposure and their natural movements would create a fun composition. Surprisingly, most of the frames are interesting and each of them is somewhat unique from the others--their motion, the motion of the waves, the intensity of the moonlight were constantly changing. And yes, I thought of getting out of the car and using the tripod anyway, just to steady the camera a bit, but I was afraid that if they saw me up on the seawall with a tripod it might inhibit their behavior or, worse, get them into a conversation with me--something that usually ends all creative photography. You can't talk to someone in a situation like this and photograph them at the same time. Interestingly, I grew up on this beach and surf casting was a part of my life for years, so I knew the motions and rhythms of the fisherman and could anticipate almost every movement they made.

I'm really happy that I tossed aside my usual obsession with sharpness and experimented using motion and moonlight to create abstract compositions. You can't plan a photo opportunity like this, you have to just watch the world around you and do whatever it takes to turn the moment into something visually different--even if everything that you're doing is technically wrong. Do click on the image to get a better feeling for the inherent motion of the shot.

Photo notes: Shot with a Nikon D90 with a 70-300mm f/5.6 Nikkor zoom; ISO 3200, handheld. Recorded in RAW. White balance was adjusted in the RAW conversion to a cooler color temperature to bring out the blue of the water. The image was sharpened slightly using the unsharp masking tool just to crisp up the water sparkle a bit. A minor amount of cloning was done in the lower right to remove the edge of a cooler on the beach.

No comments: