Sochi 2014: Full Moon Rising

A view of the full moon behind the Olympic rings at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

When we arrived here on the ground in Russia just under two weeks ago, one of the things we were told to keep in mind was the full moon occurring on February 14th. Photographers on our team were encouraged to come up with ideas that would place the moon in some visual context with the Olympics. Of course, the famous Olympics rings are the obvious first choice for this kind of thing.

There are several sets of three-dimensional rings at various venues throughout the mountain cluster, some large and some small. The question for me immediately became which set of rings would provide a view of the moon behind them, and more importantly, enough unobstructed distance in front of them to use a super-telephoto lens to compress the moon in the background against the rings.

I quickly narrowed down my search for usable rings to the cross country skiing course. The view they offered of the eastern sky and their position high on a hill gave me the best chance of lining them up with the moon.

After several days at the cross country skiing course, I realized that the rings there were an ideal choice. The rings were set up high on a hill, there was plenty of unobstructed space in front of them for my lens requirements, and the northeastern sky behind them would likely offer a view of the rising moon.

To double check all this, I consulted a great piece of software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. The program not only gives you sun and moon rise and set times, but it also provides an overlay on Google Maps of exactly what angle the moon will rise and set given your location and elevation on the planet. Dropping the pointer on the map allows you to calculate exactly where you need to stand to have a celestial body intersect something between you and it. You can also adjust a slider for time of day to see the angles for a given time (not just the rise and set times). It’s a very powerful program, but all these calculations were just half the battle of making this image happen.

A special piece of software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris allowed me to calculate the exact heading at which the moon would rise, and where I needed to stand on the course to make the moon intersect with the rings.

As you can see on the diagram, I’d have to stand directly in the middle of the cross country skiing course to make this work, and you can’t just stroll onto an Olympics course after hours – credentialed or not – to snap a few photos. After a few phone calls to the photo managers at the venue, I had their blessing to proceed with the plan.

On the day of the shoot, I arrived at the venue two hours early to meet my escort from the photo desk, Tatiana, who walked me out onto the course. Thankfully, she was fluent in both Russian and English, and was able to explain to the course grooming crew why I was there. Once I was in place, Tatiana bid me farewell. A while later, one of those course workers asked if I could take my picture “from somewhere else” (see above diagram for how specific this was, and why that wasn’t possible), and those ever-important people skills they don’t teach you in school had to be deployed for me to stay in place.

Despite having the OK from the photo manager to be on the course, the course groomers who were working were a bit leery of me being there and potentially getting in their way. I had to use some people skills with the foreman to remain in place.

Because cross country is a daytime only venue, I knew that the rings would not be illuminated at night, so I’d have to provide my own lighting to see them in my images. I hiked up to the rings and placed a Vivitar 285HV flash unit set to full power with a Pocket Wizard just below the rings. This allowed me to expose for both the moon and the rings at the same time.

A quick lighting test to verify that my Vivtar 285HV flash unit placed below the rings was firing via the Pocket Wizard radio unit from over 400 feet away.

My final check was to use my iPhone’s compass app to verify that the heading at which the moon would rise (around 71 degrees, which is east northeast) wasn’t obscured by any trees or other obstacles. I was in the clear! All I had to do now was to wait for the moon to rise above the mountain.

One more check of the heading to make sure the moonrise wouldn’t be obscured by trees relative to my position on the course.

“Alll by myyyy-selllf…” It was a bit eerie standing on an Olympics course in complete silence where, just hours earlier, nearly 100 cross country skiers competed in a medal run.

My heart sank as I started to notice clouds rolling in from the east. After all, despite my careful calculations and planning, I was still at the mercy of Mother Nature. Thankfully, the clouds cleared just long enough for me to see a faint glow appearing just above the mountain peak.

In this available light shot, you can see what I saw with the naked eye as the sky above the mountain ridge began to glow. The moon was rising exactly where my calculations had placed it!

Sure enough, exactly where the software said it would be, the moon began to rise above the ridge. I was very excited that the image I’d envisioned in my mind since I arrived here was actually playing out through my viewfinder. I worked the unfolding scene using a Canon 1DX camera and a 400mm ƒ2.8 lens, adding a 1.4X teleconverter for my last frames. I chose this lens based on my past experiences with shooting the moon. I wanted the frame to be tight, but not so tight as to cut off the rings. The 400 was the perfect fit.

The moon rising above the ridge. Exposure for the frames with the moon was ISO 500, 1/160th @ ƒ9. In addition to using a monopod, the built-in image stabilizer was used on the 400mm lens to allow me to shoot at the slower shutter speed and maintain a sharp image.

This is an image where my flash didn’t fire on the rings. You can see how critical the flash was to this shot working out, for without it, the exposure I would have needed to see them in the dim, ambient security lights would have sent the moon into a blown-out white circle.

One final note on all this: I have to thank my photo editor here in the mountains, Bob Rosato, who actually had to pull me off of another assignment to allow me to make this photo. Having the software calculations ahead of time to give people on the team the confidence that I could pull this off made that easier for him to do, I’m sure. Still, it’s nice when the people you’re working for trust you and let you run with an idea, especially at the Winter Olympics!

Guy’s Russian Word of the Day is “луна,” pronounced, “Luna (yes, really),” meaning, “Moon,” as in, “I’m so satisfied that my image of the луна and the Olympics rings was successful!”

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism, Sochi Winter Olympics, Sports, Tips And Tricks, Travel by Guy Rhodes on February 15th, 2014.

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