How I Photograph Rocket Launches
Rocket Launch Photography:
With the introduction of SpaceX and Starlink into our lives, rocket launches are now becoming more and more common; not only here on the
Space Coast of Florida, but also in California and Texas.
The first thing I do when shooting any launch be it a day or night launch is get to my
chosen spot in plenty of time to set up, double and triple check my equipment, trouble shoot any problems that may arise and take some test shots. I generally shoot with one to four cameras, which means I have to make sure the settings for each camera are exactly the way I need them to be for a launch. You will most likely be using two cameras at the most and won’t have to deal with as much set-up.
After I’m set up and have taken a few test shots of
the rocket on the pad I look at my photo and the settings. That first test shot
will set the settings I start with. I know that if my exposure is perfect for
that static shot of the rocket, then I need to lower the exposure just a bit to
compensate for the extreme brightness of the launch.
Not only that, but if the launch is an hour or so away from that first test shot, then I have to also keep in mind how much the sun will change my light. Is it cloudy? Will it become cloudy? These are all possibilities you will have to factor into your final settings for your shoot.
The final test shot I will take is about five minutes before the actual launch. You may be asking if I take that final shot so close to launch, why worry about it earlier. Remember, all the test shots you take prior to your final test shot will allow you to make slow, calm, incremental changes instead of hastily making panicky, large changes so close to the launch. You want to be as calm and collected with your settings as you can. You only get one shot at this!
So, where do I start? During day shots I generally set my
ISO to Auto simply because there will be enough light out there to allow the
camera to choose a low ISO on its own (I shoot with two Nikon D500s and a Nikon
D850). My aperture is usually set wide open depending on the particular lens I’m
using at the time. For my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens on one of my D500s at 600mm
I’ll shoot at f/6.3 or f.7.1. It just depends on certain lighting conditions.
Finally I’ll start my shutter speed at around 1/1000 and only change it as the lighting conditions change. Once I set my aperture I don’t change it unless it becomes pretty cloudy.
Night launches are incredibly fun and addictive. The coveted long-exposure or “streak” shot is what everyone is out to get! But if you have two or more cameras at your disposal, don't limit yourself to just the streak shot! I use my 600mm to get the lift-off, ascent and separation shots as well!
For the streak, you’ll want to use the widest lens you have. If you shoot with a cropped sensor camera, then try to get a 12mm lens. I shoot with a Tamron 15-30mm 2.8 lens on my full frame D850 at 15mm around 11 to 14 miles away from the pad and have plenty of room to get the whole arch in my frame. For hand-helds of the lift-off and everything else, you'll want to use the longest lens you have in your bag.
So, how do I arrive at my final settings for night shots?...
Same as STEP 1 above.
If you’ve arrived at your shooting spot before the sun goes down, focus your camera on the rocket in auto-focus and then once focused, switch to manual focus. If you have gaffers tape, tape your focus ring down so you don’t accidently move it. If you can’t arrive before sunset, then you’ll have to focus on the rocket in the dark. Different cameras have different ways to make this easier than it seems. Look up your camera on YouTube and see how you can focus it in the dark. You definitely want to do this for your streak shot; you can do this for your hand-held shots as well.
You have to wait until it gets completely dark to start taking informative test shots.
Your ISO is the easiest setting: For streaks, set it to its lowest native number. For the D500, it’s ISO 100; for the D850 it’s ISO 64. You want your ISO to be at its LOWEST number! I can’t stress that enough.
For your streak shot, if your camera has a “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” setting, turn it on and when it is dark enough, take your first long-exposure test shot. The starting aperture setting will depend on your camera and lens. A safe starting point is f/14. Using a remote trigger, leave your shutter open for four (4) minutes. Most of the time I leave my shutter open for a little over three minutes, but I can control my shutter with my remote. Some remotes only allow you to set a time, so four minutes is safe. With the long exposure noise reduction on, it’ll take your camera another four minutes to render the photo once you close the shutter; taking eight minutes altogether.
When you see your first test shot, you’ll determine whether or not to open or close the aperture. The darker you want your shot, the less of the final end of the streak you’ll get. If you allow more light, then the tail-end of the streak will be better, though the initial launch will be a little more blown out. I usually end up keeping my aperture at f/11-f/14 and everyone thinks I’m crazy, but my end results speak for themselves.
This is also when you want to make any adjustments on your composition. You will – for obvious reasons – want more sky in your shot than land or water. If you don’t think your lens is wide enough to get the arch at its highest peak, you may want to rotate your camera to shoot in profile instead of landscape.
The next biggest question I get is, “When do I start my shutter?” I try to start my shutter on the streak shot camera at T-5 seconds. If the streak shot is the only shot you’re trying to get with one camera, then T-3 seconds is fine.
And that’s about it! These instructions should get you on your way to getting great
rocket launch shots!
If you do see another professional photographer out where you will be shooting, don’t be afraid to politely ask for advice; but remember, they are working and this is how he/she makes their money. So if you receive good information from them and get a great shot, please consider tipping them!
If you have any questions about how to photograph a rocket launch or you are interested in one of my Rocket Launch Photography classes and want to join me at a launch shoot, contact me from my website and send me a text or email! If you call, please leave a message.
If you'd like to share your tips on how you get great rocket launch photos, please feel free to leave a comment! No links please! Any comment with a link will be deleted. Thank you!