Shooting for the moon

City-based photographer Dheeraj Khandelwal talks about the intricacies of trials and research that had gone in the making of his photo story on Chandrayaan-3
Shooting for the moon

CHENNAI: The crowd of over 30,000 people held their breath in anticipation as the countdown drew to a close. The Chandrayaan-3 shot upwards and to the moon, painting the sky a fiery gold. Ear-splitting cheers erupted in the launch view gallery. The ground beneath them shook as the propeller’s force finally reaching them, delayed from the three-kilometre distance.

On July 14, 2023, almost a year ago, India made history with ISRO launching the Chandrayaan-3 successfully. Touching down with a soft landing near the uneven south pole of the moon for the first time, our country left footprints on the moon for the first time. Dheeraj Kandelwal, a city-based photographer, through a 400mm lens attached to his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, recorded the 40-second launch and created the photo sequence ‘Footprints on the Moon’.

Dheeraj had started the preparations for clicking the pictures of lunar rover a month before its launch. It took him two weeks of intense research, three hours of waiting for the entry pass and four hours of scouting around the launch view gallery to get to the best possible frame for a spot unperturbed by the tree canopies that hung in the distance. The artiste carried two cameras, two tripods, a telephoto lens, a wide-angle lens and a vision for the perfect shot.

Dheeraj’s journey with photography started in class 12 when he bought himself a Coolpix camera. He didn’t have much time during his college days, but he borrowed cameras from people who owned them and experimented. “On my first birthday after getting my job as a software engineer in Mumbai, I gifted myself a Canon 700D. Ironically, it turned out to be a full-circle moment. I handed in the resignation papers on my birthday as well, seven years from then, after deciding to pursue photography professionally,” he recounts.

For the launch of Chandrayaan-3, Dheeraj drew inspiration from shots of SpaceX launches. He underexposed the image so that the bright orange exhaust from the propellant could stand out in the frame because it was a day shot. He also tried using a Manfrotto tripod initially, for a stable frame. However, he was immediately caught off guard by the sheer speed of the spacecraft. “I was not expecting it to go by so fast the first time. I grabbed the camera as fast as I could but I still wasted two seconds,” he says.

Clicking the pictures was not an easy process. He used the lightning diverters around the rocket as guidelines to determine the trajectory of its launch. Sriharikota’s heat only seemed to distort the image when he focused his telephoto lens from a distance. He had come prepared with two shots in mind — one of the launch sequence and another of the launch path lit up by the trail of the spacecraft. As he attached the camera with his most expensive lens to a Gorillapod, the countdown grew louder. School students who had come to watch whooped in enthusiasm. A young boy in the crowd started banging his fists against the railing in excitement, tilting the camera downward. “I had two options then — let the lens fall and miss one of the shots, or try to readjust the camera, taking 15 seconds and missing both the shots. It was frustrating because I could have gotten that shot otherwise. I had planned everything meticulously, but you cannot predict and prepare for all that might happen,” he explains.

So the next time he wanted to photograph a space mission, the launch of the smaller PSLV-C56 on July 30, 2023, he was better prepared. He found a better angle and placed sheets underneath to reinforce the camera. However, he was not anticipating the vibration during the launch, which displaced the sheets. Only the culmination of experiences can make for the perfect shot. “Now, if you ask me to click a picture of a rocket launch, I can make all necessary arrangements in 10 minutes,” he says. Dheeraj is presently readying himself to get everything right for ISRO’s launch of the Gaganyaan, scheduled for 2025.

His other photographs can be found at: www.dheerajkhandelwal.com

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