Foreword from Barbara Murray: In early September I was given the honor of curating the weekly photostream for the Film Shooters Collective. I chose “Fear” as my theme and, as expected, received a variety of wonderful interpretations of that word. One photo which elicited a lot of comment from viewers was “Mast”, taken by Brett Rogers. The photo was clearly taken from a good way up the mast of a sailing ship. Many readers wondered, “How was this possible?”. Photographer Brett Rogers provides us with a behind the scenes look at how he got the shot (and a few others). We’ve also included a few digital snaps taken by his friend Odille Esmond-Morgan. Read on for Brett’s story:
The photo was shot with my Hasselblad 500with CF 80mm f/2.8 Planar lens. I used a standard waist level viewfinder. I had taken some photos inside the vessel a couple of days earlier using a variety of films. The owner asked if I would like to try taking a ride up the mast to take more photos.
A digital shooter had been given a crack at it the day before he asked me, but he chickened out halfway up. I said no thanks because I'm not brilliant with heights myself. I was, nevertheless, quite smitten with the yacht, Gretel II. She is the very last timber hulled racer built under the 12 Metre International rules, and the official challenger and heat winner for the 1970 America's Cup. She's a beautifully sleek and stylish classic greyhound: I fell for her, and I fell hard.
I had instinctively declined the owner's invitation to take a ride up the mast on the Saturday of the Australian Wooden Boat Festival when I met him. It was only later that I reflected on how rare the opportunity was. But I returned to the event on Monday still not fully decided. If I had planned for it the day before I would have (A) brought my prism with me and (B) some faster film for a much better ability to minimise motion blur from a moving mast. But I was lugging a heavy bag full of various cameras and lenses around with me all day long and Hassy prisms are not exactly light. And I have always loved the spectacular detail, fine grain and tonality you can get from Pan F Plus and am normally happy to get out a tripod if it's needed. Hence, I packed a usual bag of stuff for a usual day of shooting even though it ended up being anything but.I was really just lucky that, the day I returned to the boat festival, the sun was out. The trip up the mast happened because everything fell into place. The yacht’s owner, Mike, wasn't there on the Monday. His mother was gravely ill in hospital and he flew off at very short notice. But he'd given me a crew tee shirt on the Saturday, and I was wearing it on the Monday. When I told his crew chief I wanted to go up the mast at short notice, he might easily have said no. But I told him Mike had asked me to get some shots and given me the shirt (like the one he himself was wearing). So even in the owner's absence I was rigged up and put into a bosuns chair for the long ride up.
The funny thing is that once I was strapped into a bosuns chair and winched up the mast, the height didn't really bother me that much. I was too busy thinking about exposure, framing and all the other things one has to manage to worry much about how high I was. Gretel's mast is 30 metres off the deck or around ninety feet. The images below were taken by Odille Esmond-Morgan and show my ascent to the heights.
I was asked how far up I wanted to go and, conscious of the last guy who piked, the photographer in me rose to the occasion and I figured in for a penny, in for a pound, and told the crew chief to send me as far up as he could.
It was really hard to frame the image because I had to deal with both a reversed and upside down image with the camera held at arms length. I needed both hands for this (obviously) to keep it steady, so it was a case of wrapping a leg around one of the stay cables and using it to slow me swaying around or hitting the mast as it swung port to starboard and back again. We were tied up to a dock but even the gentle 15 knot winds gave enough hull sway to send the top of the mast sideways five or six feet either side. There was a lot going on.
The only bad moment came when I was focusing the 80mm lens on the deck below. I kept turning the focus ring around trying to get a sharp image on the ground glass. It finally snapped into focus when it hit the infinity stop. That made me blink and check the distance scale. Otherwise I coped with the heights a lot better than I would have expected, and in the end they had to tell me it was time to come down, because the view was exhilarating.
The shot I took from the top is looking across the docks towards the historic stone warehouses towards the port authority control tower and beyond that the Tasman Bridge which spans the River Derwent. This shot puts the massive height of the mast into good perspective.
From a composition perspective, I would have been quite pleased to clean it up by getting my other leg out of the shot. But with a Hasselblad held at full arms length, a Rolleicord, a Canon EOS 35mm and a dead digital that had popped its battery hatch open and rained a hail of AAs onto the expensive decking 90 feet down (thank God they didn't brain anyone below!) I was top heavier than Dolly Parton. Every time I tried to swing the leg out of shot I started to tip upside down. After a few attempts to invert myself out of the chair, eventually I decided that it could stay
The final ingredient of success was with the light. February in Australia is high summer. Even in Tasmania the odds of getting fine, sunny, weather are good. But with Pan F Plus loaded in the Hassy even a slight overcast would have made things much more difficult, as, due to (A) having the camera out at arm’s length (never, ever, a recipe for maximum sharpness at the very best of times, let alone ninety feet up a mast) and (B) the swaying of the mast and, in turn, yours truly bumping against it and wobbling—I didn't just need a faster shutter speed than I can normally hand hold, I needed the fastest speed the Hassy could give me, even if it meant using the lens wide open. There was no scope for tuning the depth of field I might have preferred. It was truly a go—no go equation, lens wide open pulling in every bit of light, shutter running at 1/500 or 1/250 in a pinch, solely to reduce motion blur to the point where usable images would be a possibility
Tasmanian-based photographer Brett Rogers makes landscape and architectural photographs using high quality classic film cameras and lenses, and is also a repairer of Rollei, Zeiss Ikon, Voigtländer or pre-war Contax cameras. He writes about his imaging process and camera repairs on his Facebook page and at his Wordpress blog .