Facebook Pixel The Importance Of Preparation - An Interview With Michael Riffle

The Importance Of Preparation – An Interview With Michael Riffle


I missed out on getting the shot above but it wasn’t for chance of a fair warning. Over on Google+, Michael Riffle posted information about a photowalk at Alki Point in West Seattle for an upcoming full moon. He had the location and time dialed in and seemed to know what he was after. The photo above is what resulted from that admittedly lucky December evening in Seattle. More than just a great moon photo, the image speaks to the importance of preparation and planning in certain aspects of photography.

Michael was nice enough to submit to a short email interview and pass on how he planned for and took the shot. You can follow more of Michael’s inspiring photos via his Google+ account. Oh! And if you’re in Seattle and want to meet up for a chance at the next full moon on January 7th, check out this post and leave a comment.

The shot of the moon rising behind Seattle, perfectly framed between two buildings, was not by chance. Did you see this shot before? Or were you starting from scratch?

It’s funny, about the time I started thinking about whether or not getting this shot was possible, I came across an image that showed the full moon near downtown when viewed from this location (but not between two buildings). Obviously the moon in that photo is not in the exact position it is in this photo, but I knew the shot was theoretically possible and that I definitely wanted to put my own stamp on it. From there, I set about planning out the shot.

How did you figure out the best timing for a moon shot like this?

Three words: The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). For a landscape photographer, this is an absolutely indispensible tool. I used TPE on my iPad to line up where the moon should be so it would appear directly behind downtown when viewed from the Alki area of West Seattle and searched for dates when the full moon would be rising near this location. As it turns out, only the three full moons, or so, clustered around the Winter solstice will work for this shot.

Once I got onsite, I used an iPhone app called Star Walk that superimposes astronomical objects with what the iPhone camera is seeing. You can use this to see the trajectory of the moon before it rises and try position yourself so that the moon is an ideal location to get your shot when it rises to the right height.

But all the technology in the world isn’t going to do you any good unless the weather cooperates, and in Seattle, the weather in the Winter months isn’t exactly reliable when it comes to ideal moon photographing conditions. To get this shot, I actually had to go a day earlier than I had planned because the conditions were forecast to be clear that evening, and miserable the next evening.

Were you able to set your exposure before the moon made an appearance or did you have to adjust on the fly?

As it turns out, I was able to set the exposure before the moon made an appearance, but I didn’t expect that to be able to. The horizon was quite hazy, and I honestly wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to see the moon, let alone know how bright to expect it to be! And the light of the setting sun was still directly on parts of the faces of the buildings in the shot, creating wicked glare off of the glass and the water. I spent my time before the moon appeared shooting the buildings and adjusting my exposure for the buildings, and adjusting the angle and polarizing filter to try to minimize glare off of the glass and water.

When the moon did appear, the haze on the horizon coupled with the fact that the buildings still had light on them, minimized the dynamic range in the frame and allowed the whole scene to be exposed correctly based on my pre-moon testing on the buildings.

In the shot, where were you metering for proper exposure?

I am reasonably sure I was using the center-weighted average metering mode, which meters the whole scene but gives the most  weight to light levels near the center of the frame. I was shooting in aperture-priority mode and metered on the center of the scene in the shot. However, after initial metering I did manually adjust the exposure up or down until I achieved the exposure I wanted for the shot. I also bracketed -/+ 1 EV.

What post process was needed to bring about the final shot?

The scene was correctly exposed in a single exposure, but I blended 3 exposures (-1, 0, +1) anyway because I thought I could achieve better and more natural-looking contrast in post processing. The exposures were blended using the Enfuse plugin for Lightroom and adjustments were made in Lightroom, mostly to enhance contrast and details.

You have the advantage of living close to where you took your shot. Do you employ any tools when traveling for photography and anticipate a particular shot?

Before going anywhere, I search sites like Flickr for inspirational shots of the location and start forming ideas of where I’d like to shoot. From there, I use tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris for planning shots based on sunset and sunrise times, moonset and moonrise times, angle of the sun relative to my subjects, and the position of the moon. And when on location, my iPhone and its many apps for showing tide information, meteorological information (i.e., weather forecasts, current conditions, sunrise/sunset times), and maps is quite useful for making decisions in the field.

Any other advice on moon photos or shooting in Seattle?

The moon moves faster than you think! If you’re planning on shooting the moon rising with items in the foreground, like buildings, be ready! It always seems to pop up when you’re not looking, and you’ll be shocked by how fast it moves relative to your stationary foreground. You have a very limited amount of time to get the shot you’ve been planning, so you have to be set and ready to go the second the moon appears.

As far as Seattle goes… just be ready for the weather to have different ideas than you have.  ;)  Conditions are not often ideal, especially in the Fall and Winter months, and when they are, they can change (literally) with a moment’s notice. Waste no time getting your shot, pay very close attention to weather forecasts, and always be prepared to spend time shooting something other than what you necessarily had planned at a specific location.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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