Saturday, December 10, 2011

Published 10:15 AM by with 3 comments

Sometimes it's Not All About the Shot

I was excited to hear about an upcoming lunar eclipse that would be visible from where I live. The problem with living in the Northwest, however, is that the weather is quite unpredictable. While that might be fine for a photographer who goes out shooting landscapes and relies on sheer luck, sometimes it would be nice to have a more predictable climate. Of course I don't really mean that because nothing beats the drama in this corner of the world. I'll take a cloudy day over blues skies any time.

But for an event such as an eclipse, I wanted the skies to be clear. Maybe a peppering of clouds here and there to add long as the moon was not obscured.

The weather lady on TV told me to expect clear skies with some chance of clouds. Okay, this was encouraging. I had read that the best place to see the eclipse in this neck of the woods was Cannon Beach in Oregon. While this is one of my favorite places in the world, I wasn't about to travel over 300 miles to see the moon glow red.

So my dilemma was to figure out the best place to see the eclipse locally. I considered going to my favorite stomping ground in the Snoqualmie Valley but it was too risky to be in an area so prone to fog at this time of the year.

One Web site suggested finding high ground for optimal viewing. Linda suggested Issaquah Highlands, which is about the most elevated neighborhood in the area and only about 10 minutes away. It was settled.

When I'm considering shooting an event like this, there is much more than just the moon to think about. If I get some nice closeups, it's going to look like just about every other shot by every other photographer with decent gear and a long lens. The secret is the context in which you put it. 

A moon by itself does not give any kind of perspective. It just kinda floats out in a big black void and says nothing new to the viewer. Put it into context like above a city or mountain or even juxtaposed against the silhouette of a tree and now it starts to get interesting.

So as much as Issaquah Highlands gave me the vantage point I needed, it didn't provide me much else in the way of visual interest. There is nothing more than a large wasteland of grass and construction and also some lights off in the distance. I didn't have much of a choice at this stage because traveling any kind of distance was out of the question.

I left the house at 4:00 on Saturday morning. It was still dark and below freezing. My car was frozen over and I had to pry the door open. I went back inside and filled a basin with water. Once I dumped it on the car windows I got back in and started the engine. In those few seconds, the windshield froze solid again so this time I just waited until the heater kicked in.

I planned to hang out at a little turnout across from one of the big parking lots. That way, I'd be away from everything and everybody and still have access to my warm car when I needed it. I would also be able to keep my lenses within arm's reach.

I got out of the car and looked up. The eclipse had already begun, just revealing a slight shadow over the top of the bright moon. I set up my tripod and affixed my 100-400mm lens to the camera and took a couple of test shots.

Soon another car pulled up beside me, all spotlights and noisy. I was a little miffed that someone was invading the little space I had carved out for myself. They stopped the car and turned off the lights. I didn't see any sign of activity so I assumed they were staying in their car because of the chill.

By now the moon was resembling the Apple logo and there was a slight red glow beginning to appear. The doors of the enemy car opened and out popped a middle-aged couple with a Jack Russell dog wearing a little coat. They stayed a distance from me but I decided to speak first. "Good morning!" I said with enthusiasm. "Good morning" replied the man, "You shooting video or stills?". I explained that I was shooting stills and he proceeded to tell me that he used to shoot with film back in the day. He had never made the transition to digital. We talked about the best strategy for capturing both the shadow and highlights of the moon simultaneously. He used the phrase "middle gray" quite a bit but I tried not to engage too much about the technical side of what I was doing. After a few moments, he went back to talking with his wife and worrying about how cold his dog was.

One of the nice things about getting up early and witnessing a phenomen like this is that it slows everything down. You can't make an eclipse go any faster than the length of time it takes. There's no fast-forward button. It is mesmerizing to watch and I found myself in an almost hypnotic state. I clicked the shutter every few minutes. What I was seeing in the viewfinder was only a hint at the real thing. I told myself that this is one of those times you have to pay more attention to the world around you than the little framed area of the camera's viewfinder.

Once the Earth's shadow had completely engulfed the moon, the red glow intensified and all of a sudden I saw a shooting star. I've only ever seen about two or three shooting stars in my entire life. Usually I am looking in the opposite direction when someone shouts "Shooting star!!!" It seemed particularly magical this morning next to the total eclipse.

I got into my car and turned the heat on. My feet were numb from the cold and I had been standing in the same spot for over an hour now. I put on the seat warmer and selected some music to act as the soundtrack of the eclipse, now seen through the front windshield, a makeshift cinema screen. I settled upon music from the film "Solaris". It seemed quite fitting as it had a surreal feeling to it, much like the red moon above. Another shooting star appeared. How thrilling! This is auspicious, I thought.

After warming up I was outside again trying to take some wide shots for variety. As much as they tried, the photographs could only play second fiddle to the main event. I just had to accept that I couldn't make an uninteresting place interesting this time around.

I was mostly looking forward to the end of the eclipse when the moon would be larger near the horizon. Even just including the horizon itself would perk up the composition. 

By now other cars had arrived and the blinding headlights from those going to and from work were shattering my sense of peace. Thick clouds were moving in rapidly and, before I had a chance to see the light return to the moon, it was swallowed up. I looked around me and there were now clouds everywhere. I got back in my car and waited a while. Someone knocked on my fogged up window. It was the man I spoke to earlier waving goodbye and telling me it was nice to meet me. The other motorists reversed out of my hiding place and soon I was alone again. I looked up into the sky one more time to see if I could catch a final glimpse of the eclipse but it was gone.

Although the photographs I captured were nothing to write home about, the experience had been well worth the trouble. I was glad I had averted my eyes from the camera to the sky and was completely present to the bigger picture. 

Every now and again I have to remind myself that it's not always all about the shot.


Connie Beuchat said...

Very beautiful pics, and very well written. Glad I found this blog. Thank you for sharing.
The Beuchat's

luvglass said...

You're right, not much of a location - but as usual, you made the most of it. Very nice!

~~Sue and Doug~~ said...

great shots Steven!!