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.