How to shoot a cannon

Tempting though it may seem, this really isn’t intended to be a step by step lesson in how to pack a cannon with gunpowder and set it off with a lighted splint.  Far from it.  In fact I was inspired to write this blog after having photographed the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Grand Party at Osborne House in July, during which a cannon was used to announce the commencement of the meal.  The Grand Party was one of the last social events marking the conclusion of the Squadron’s Bicentenary International Regatta.  If I mention that they’d also held a week long regatta for RYS members as well as organising an entire Fleet Review and Beat Retreat which attracted international royalty, it may come as no surprise to hear that this was a quite superb demonstration of organisational skill.  Of course the prize giving and display by the Red Devils came the day after the Grand Party, but that’s another story.

1200 guests enjoy champagne on the upper terrace of Osborne House

1200 guests enjoy champagne on the upper terrace of Osborne House

When the Squadron put on what they describe as a Grand Party to celebrate their bicentenary they really mean business.  While the 1200 guests enjoyed a glass of champagne on the Osborne House terraces they  were treated to an aerial display, first from an aerobatic Yak followed immediately by a flight of no less than seven classic biplanes.

A grand flypast at a Grand Party with views of the Solent in the distance.

A grand flypast at a Grand Party with views of the Solent in the distance.

Two massive marquees had been erected on the Durbar Lawn to accommodate the mammoth number of diners after which entertainment was provided not only by live music and dancing but also by an entire circus complete with big top, acrobats, coconut shy and a variety of colourful stalls.  Even by RYS standards it was the full enchilada, complete with a marching band to lead the guests to their seats.  However, attracting the attention of 1200 people and ensuring they would head in the right direction for their meal was a problem.  The use of an RYS cannon was inspired.  After all, if you were so engrossed in polite conversation that you missed the massive ‘kerboom!’, surely one couldn’t overlook the the plume of smoke or the marching band? Grand Party-123

One of the RYS cannons had already been transported in a car from the Castle in Cowes and placed just beyond the upper terrace of Osborne House, ready to fire.  I couldn’t help but wonder what a police officer would have made of the situation if Peter Scott, the Squadron’s man in charge of all things that go bang, had been stopped en route to Osborne House with said cannon in his car.

‘Excuse me sir’, the conversation might ominously have commenced, ‘is that a firearm on your back seat?’

‘Er, no.  Its just … um … er, a simple Henrician cannon whose high explosive incendiary balls were last used to defeat Bonaparte during the Napoleanic Wars’.  And perhaps as an afterthought, ‘its really nothing to worry about, its just a big starting pistol’.

‘Best you come with me, sir.  The bomb Squad will look after the offensive weapon’, swiftly curtailing any plans to fire a cannon at Osborne House.

Fortunately, Peter evaded the long arm of the law and the cannon was deposited safely in place, ready to fire towards the unsuspecting yachts gliding past on the distant Solent.

Because a certain amount of accuracy is required when starting yacht races, the cannon is fired electronically.  After all, there is no point waiting expectantly for a fuse to burn down only for it to fizzle out, in the manner of a damp firework, at the last moment.  Peter was therefore able to count me down as I waited safely to one side with the cannon in the foreground and Osborne House beyond.  However, even with a countdown there is a considerable margin for error.  When the cannon is fired the art is to photograph the flames leaping out of the barrel.  Take the photograph too early and there will be either no flame or nothing more exciting than the tip of a flame appearing nervously from the end of the barrel.  Wait too long and the flame will have converted itself into a large puff of smoke.  The whole process takes the tiniest fraction of a second, as you might imagine if you’re inclined to lob large, heavy objects at the enemy. But for the photographer this can mean many happy, but fruitless, hours spent beside a cannon trying to guess if Peter will press the button at the ‘F’ of ‘Fire’, or mid holler.

Sadly, I have to report that there is no great technique for such shots other than a high shutter speed, high drive (my Olympus E-M1 was set to 10 frames a second) and, in this instance, a slim hope that the flames will leap forth gloriously, as befits an event that might only be repeated at the RYS tricentenary.

The view from the roof of Osborne House

The view from the roof of Osborne House

There is a certain perverseness in the fact that an event that occurs every 100 hundred years or so can only be captured in the tiniest fraction of a second, so I count myself as extremely lucky that my only chance to get this shot went well.  Even at ten frames a second the preceding shot showed nothing more than a silent cannon and the shot afterwards captured the ominous puff of smoke.  But the shot in the middle?  I am justifiably proud of that shot, perhaps even a little smug and with a jaunty stride to my gait as I realise that I have successfully captured the flames at their peak.  Look closely at Peter and you’ll see that he is still looking at his watch and in the midst of shouting, ‘Fire!’

More shooting at Osborne House.

More shooting at Osborne House.

It almost makes me wish he’d loaded it with a cannonball for added effect….

2017-02-04T16:36:50+00:00

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