Three months to get this shot

Sometimes the planning, the process and the experiences out in the field are worth more than the actual end result.

THE IDEA

I don't recall exactly when but I had this idea of a shoot of the moon taken with a long lens, framed between something and with leading lines in the foreground. Like a road with trees on the sides or maybe a river with the reflection.

The moon moves a lot in the sky from day to day, other than the earth rotating the moon also revolves around the earth. Time and lighting changes a lot and so it's not easy to plan and test out. So I thought about the sun, it's much more predictable, it changes the position of only a few degrees each day and the light is much more consistent since it's the light source.

I wanted to have the sun framed between trees while setting in the middle of a river, completed with the reflection of the sun leading the eye to the middle of the frame.

PLANNING

I already had a few possible locations in mind around my area in Tuscany. I knew of a canal, in the natural park of San Rossore which was leading straight to the sea. I've been there a few times and I remember a bridge crossing the canal which would have been a perfect shooting point. So I got out my trusty Photopills app and started to search if and when the alignment was going to happen.

You see the dates greyed out because are in the past, I'm taking screenshots after the fact.

EXECUTION

September 20th was going to be the day the sun would have perfectly set in the middle of the river. I wanted to scout the area and have a feel of the lighting and the angle of the sun a few days before, so I decided to go the week before on a clear day.

Sony a7III + Sony 70-300mm ( 70mm | f/11 | 1/1000 secs | ISO100 )

This is what the scene looked like on September 12th. The sun was too high and therefore too bright, creating harsh shadows and the dynamic range was just too high to capture. Going a week ahead though I had the chance to scout the place, and I knew the shot I had in mind was possible, I just had to wait a few more days. I learned that 2° from the horizon is a lot.

The following week the weather forecasted some clouds, I decided to go anyway but I didn't get anything good.

I waited for the good weather to come and on September 20th it was clear skies all day, so I set off to get there plenty before sunset. I set up my two tripods and waited.

I had my crop sensor Sony a6300 with 18-105mm set to shoot a bracketed timelapse. Even though Sony sensors retain a lot of details in the shadows I needed as much dynamic range as possible because I had the sun in the frame. So I set a 3 shots bracket separated by 3 stops each and fired off my timelapse with a 4 seconds interval, I wish I had a lower interval but back on that later. In the meantime I was shooting with my other camera, Sony a7III with a 70-300mm taking some still shots with different compositions as the sun went down. Here's what went down:

Sony a7III + Sony 70-300mm ( 300mm | f/11 | ISO100 | 2 shots 1/13 + 1/2500)

I like how the shot turned out, the dynamic range of the a7III allowed me to have some details and colors in the sun and at the same time retain the detail in the shadows. I like that the sun is perfectly in between the river banks without touching them. But there's one thing that bothers me. As you can see from the shot in the middle, the sun is not perfectly centered, that's because I screwed up. I set up a bracketing shot on the timelapse camera because it was shooting remotely, but I didn't on the camera I was operating. I usually bracket manually when I'm doing landscape shots because most of the time two shots are enough given the dynamic range of the a7III. I also prefer to choose the brightness level of each shot based on the scene. That's fine but it takes time to adjust settings in between shots. Here I was dealing with a moving sun, doesn't seem like a lot when it's up in the sky but close to the horizon at 300mm every split second counts. It took me too much to adjust settings and I missed the moment when the sun was perfectly centered in between the river banks, I realized it when shooting and I was pretty mad to myself for such a stupid mistake. Note to self: Make sure you set up settings beforehand and use the in-camera bracket function when dealing with fast-moving subjects.

THE TIMELAPSE

I did manage to get the sun perfectly in the center with the timelapse, but I don't have as much dynamic range with the a6300 and it's not as zoomed in so I left those for the video. It took me a while to process all the shots and edit them all into this final clip:

I had about 1200 photos in total and I needed to merge all the bracketed shots into HDRs. To batch merge in Lightroom, you first need to stack the brackets together. There's a function to auto-stack by capture time, it works, but it's not perfect, because the shooting time can differ a bit due to the exposures being longer as the light goes down. So I had to manually unstack and restack those that got mixed, a bit time consuming but worth it. Once I got those I could run the batch merge into HDRs. It took forever but I finally got my sequence of 400 DNGs that I could start to edit. Since the exposure was changing a lot I ran the timelapse in aperture mode and let the camera decide the shutter speed, but I obviously got some flicker to fix, so with the help of LRTimelapse and a lot of back and forth between that and lightroom I ended up with my sequence. Imported the DNGs with metadata into After Effects and rendered it out. Some final touches in Premiere and done. The length of the sequence is just right and I had to speed up the sun when it was higher in the sky not to feel boring, but I wish I could have slowed down a bit more the motion of the sun when it was close to the horizon in the perfect position. I should have used a smaller interval.

CONCLUSIONS

From the idea to the result, it took three months. Just the execution took two weeks and three trips to the location. Lots of dedications and trial and error. I would say it's worth it for the result, but actually, after going through this, I learned it's worth it for the experience you get doing it. Even if you don't get the shot you had in mind, you learned how to improve your skills, how to better plan and last but not least you get to go out and enjoy nature!