Space Launch Photography Tips

June 6, 2012 by  
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Space Launch Photography Tips

Article by Stephen Kristof

Space Launch Photography Tips -- Hobbies -- Photography

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By Stephen J. Kristof
© 2011, all rights reserved

This is another installment of photography tips from Stephen Kristof. Stephen is a photographer and photo educator who also writes for and contributes images to the popular free digital photography tips and lessons site

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to view a space shuttle or rocket launch up close, you know just how magical the experience can be. It’s one thing to see a launch on TV, but quite a different event when you’re there in person. The rumble, the awesome plume of fire and steam, the beautiful contrail reaching up toward space, and the exhilarating feeling you get witnessing one of humanity’s important scientific achievements, all combine to make a space launch a truly memorable experience!

I had an opportunity to cover NASA’s August 5, 2011 launch of an Atlas V rocket that was carrying the Juno spacecraft which is now on its five year trip to the planet Jupiter. I’ve seen various space shuttle and rocket launches in the past and, truth be told, was not so pumped about this particular launch. I think it was partly due to the fact that I had missed the last-ever space shuttle launch about a month earlier. Considering that space shuttle launches had a sheer power and rumble that was unmatched by any other spacecraft, the rocket launch seemed to me to be a bit anticlimactic.

However, at the very moment of ignition, the magic was back and I was as excited as I had ever been to watch a launch! The Atlas V can be configured without any external solid fuel boosters or with up to five strapped around the base. This particular launch used all five and was nothing short of spectacular. It’s also interesting to note that this is the same rocket and booster configuration that Boeing recently selected to carry their new Crew Space Transportation spacecraft, the “CST 100″, paving the way for commercial human spaceflight in the near future.

I watched and photographed this launch from a location about 4.5 miles from the pad. That may not sound very close, but in launch language, it’s actually as close as any non-NASA personnel can get to an Atlas V launch. The closest any non-official could get to a former space shuttle launch was about 7 miles. So my location was, relatively speaking, a really sweet place to be.

As I was preparing my tripods, cameras and gear, and getting my exposure settings right, I watched with interest as a throng of people all around me were fiddling with their own cameras. It occurred to me that most of these people had no idea what they were doing and, although they wanted to get some good pictures of the launch, it was unlikely that they would end-up with anything close to what they expected.

With this in mind, I decided to write this article and provide some easy-to-implement tips for taking great space launch pictures. If you find yourself in central Florida at the time of a rocket launch, do yourself a favor and make arrangements to get to the coast and don’t forget to bring along your camera

Space Launch Photo Tip #1 -- PLAN AHEAD:

If you want to see and photograph the launch from a really good location, you’ll need to plan it out in advance. You need to get all of your camera gear in order, packed-up and ready to go the day before. Make sure you remember to charge your battery and bring an extra memory card just in case something goes wrong with the one in your camera. Plan-out your route and destination. Some of the best viewing spots are in Cape Canaveral, Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center. My full article on Space Launch Photography Tips reveals the best viewing locations for the different pads that launch various rockets.

Don’t forget to bring along the things that keep you safe and comfortable, like water and snacks, and if you’re planning to get there early, perhaps a fold-up chair. Remember that the Florida sun is very intense, so for daylight launches, sunscreen and a hat are musts. For night launches, you might want to bring some bug spray. (I recently went to a secluded spot along the Banana River to shoot some sunset pictures that never happened. The moment I stepped out of my car I was covered heat-to-toe in voracious mosquitoes. I lasted about five seconds and in that short time, at least 25 of the horrible little “stingers-with-bug-attached” critters followed me back into the car!)

Space Launch Photo Tip #2 -- EXPECT DELAYS:

This tip actually has less to do with photography than it does with patience. Anyone living on the Space Coast is more than familiar with the fact that launches very often do not occur at the scheduled time or even day. Delays for a variety of reasons occur and they occur regularly. If the cause of the delay cannot be corrected within a specific launch window, it will be scrubbed and rescheduled for another day. Be prepared to wait longer than you expect and, on occasion, leave without seeing a launch at all.

Space Launch Photo Tip #3 -- USE A TRIPOD:

You might think it’s easier to track a rocket during its ascent by hand-holding a camera rather than using a tripod. Think again. With few exceptions, professional photographers use tripods to shoot space launches. Tripods reduce camera shake and, therefore, blur. Turn the head of your tripod so that your camera is positioned vertically; a basic photo composition rule suggests using a vertical orientation to photograph objects moving vertically. Loosen the bolts on your tripod just enough that you can tilt and turn easily as the rocket goes up and arcs in the sky.

Space Launch Photo Tip #4 -- USE MANUAL FOCUS:

This is one of the most important tips with regard to your camera. If you are using a digital SLR (DSLR) camera, you definitely have manual focus capability and should definitely use it. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, you may have manual focus and, if so, should likewise use it. Trying to get your camera to focus automatically while the rocket is racing upward is like trying to play ring-toss with a moving stake. Put simply, your camera will prevent you from taking any pictures until it focuses on what, in reality, is a tiny moving object in the sky and it will likely not be able to focus until long after the rocket has gone out of sight.

Pre-focus manually on the launch tower (if you can see it) or another object at the same general distance as the rocket.!

Space Launch Photo Tip #5 -- USE A LONG LENS:

Again, if you using a DSLR camera and have a choice of lenses, I would suggest bringing along two lenses; one with the longest focal length (highest zoom or telephoto capability) and one with your shortest focal length (widest angle). A lens with 300mm or greater magnification is really necessary for taking any pictures in which the rocket is taking-up a decent amount of the frame. You will want to use the maximum focal length during the first thirty seconds after lift-off. After that time, quickly switch to your wide-angle lens to get some landscape shots, both vertical and horizontal in nature, showing the entire vapor contrail.

There are more indispensible rocket launch photography tips, including some exclusive tips about the best locations to view a Florida launch and amazing pictuers of rocket launches, so make sure you read the rest of Stephen’s full article!

<em>Note from publisher -- we hope this helps you to take better pictures. Remember, if you love photography, you’ll want to take advantage of our free digital photography course, where you can find interesting and easy-to-use photography tips, tutorials, royalty free pictures and more from Stephen Kristof and the other writer/photographers on our team! NEW -- Exclusive interviews and galleries from top international photographers in our new Photographer Profiles series!</em>

About the Author

Stephen Kristof is a photography educator, author and columnist. He also writes for and contributes photo images to the popular free photography learning website Visit, for totally free photography lessons, pro secrets, tips, free wallpapers, a contributors’ gallery and photographers’ forum.

Use and distribution of this article is subject to our Publisher Guidelines

whereby the original author’s information and copyright must be included.

Stephen Kristof

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Stephen Kristof is a photography educator, author and columnist. He also writes for and contributes photo images to the popular free photography learning website Visit, for totally free photography lessons, pro secrets, tips, free wallpapers, a contributors’ gallery and photographers’ forum.

Use and distribution of this article is subject to our Publisher Guidelines

whereby the original author’s information and copyright must be included.

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