First, the rocket launch was a total success. It was my image of the launch that was a failure. The other night Space X launched a Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the ISS. Night launches not only make great photographs, but they are really cool to watch. You can watch the glow of the rocket engine all of the way into space. Photographing a night launch is very tricky. You only get one shot, literally one image. So if everything doesn’t come together, the photo is a failure. Photographers always like to share our amazing images that were a success. I think it’s also important to talk about the failures.
When you photograph a rocket launch at night, the idea is to use a long exposure. As the rocket climbs into the sky during the exposure, it makes a light trail through the image. It makes a really nice image. Using the cameras bulb mode, when the rocket ignites (trust me, at night, there is no question that the rocket has ignited) you open the shutter. As the rocket rises into the sky, you keep the shutter open until it goes out of sight, approximately 3 minutes. When it works, it’s awesome, when it doesn’t it’s not. This time it didn’t work.
The other part of the image is location, location, location. The rocket launch is really pretty on its own. To make the image even more interesting, I like to add something else. This can be either a silhouette of something interesting or something interesting that is illuminated added into the frame. A reflection would be great as well. For this launch I chose the Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral, Florida. It is several miles south of the launch pad. The tower is a unique structure that was designed to look like a sail. At night the tower is illuminated and stands out really well in the night sky. The tower is also lined up with the launch pad. If you line everything up properly the rocket makes an arc over the top of the tower. I looked up some launch photos from this location, so I knew where the rocket would be in relationship to the building.
The next hurtle is getting the correct exposure. The shutter speed is fixed at the duration of the flight of the rocket, approximately 3 minutes. This makes the aperture very important. Rocket engines at night are very bright. If your aperture is open too far the rocket will overexpose. If your aperture is too small the rocket will be underexposed. Typically I end up at f18, this works most of the time, especially for the rocket with a silhouetted foreground. When you add an illuminated subject this makes things more difficult. A 3 minute exposure will severely overexpose an illuminated subject. To overcome this I used a neutral density filter. After testing different apertures with a 3 minute exposure, I found that f11 and a 4 stop ND filter at ISO 100 exposed the tower properly. The rocket exposure would fall where it may. The important thing was to expose the tower correctly.
So what went wrong? I don’t really know for sure. To get the 3 minute exposure I needed to use the bulb setting. I made many test images that all worked perfectly. I was there with a fellow photographer friend, Chris. We also wanted to photograph the tower before the launch, so we arrived pretty early so we had some time to do that. After my final test shot, I didn’t touch my camera until the launch. We finished up a little early, so quite a bit of time passed between my last test and the launch. We had been talking with another photographer from Orlando. I think maybe something timed out and I was no longer in bulb mode or my remote switch may have timed out, I don’t know. The viewfinder indicated that I was still in bulb mode, but the shutter would open and immediately close. It was very frustrating to say the least. Several colorful words were going through my head. By the time I corrected the situation the rocket was over half way through its flight. At about 8 minutes before the launch, a voice in my head was telling me to do another test photo, I didn’t. If I had, I would have encountered and corrected the problem during the test. I will be doing that in the future. Once I got the shutter to stay open, I left it open for approximately 3 minutes. The rocket was still going so even though I wasn’t going to get the whole light trail. I wanted to see how my image would have looked if everything had gone as planned. The rocket flew right where I wanted it to be and the tower was properly exposed. I will need to try this one again.
I also made a mistake when I was photographing the tower before the launch. It makes me crazy because I have made the same mistake several times in the past. I am not a very technically disciplined photographer. I tend to concentrate more on the subject and composition. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in that and I forget about the technical side of things. Apparently the last time I used my camera I was using ISO 800. I never checked the ISO, I wanted to be using ISO 100. Once again my little voice was asking me, “Roy, why are your shutter speeds so fast?” I should have been smoothing out the water more. I was almost done when I realized what I had done. ISO 800 probably helped the shadow areas. If I would have used ISO 100 I would have been able to control the highlights better and I would have smoothed out the water with a slower shutter speed. I always promise myself that I will remember to check the ISO, and/or remember to return it to ISO 100, but every once in a while I forget. These are some of the things that make photography a challenge.
Space X did an interesting launch today. They were testing their Crew Capsule Abort System. The last step towards an actual manned flight. Basically they launched a rocket, then blew it up. They wanted to make sure the crew capsule would separate and splashdown safely. My favorite place to watch a rocket launch is from the A. Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville, Fl. I got there early for the 8:00am launch to photograph the sunrise. That worked out well. The launch was pushed back to 10:30 due to rough seas in the splashdown zone. Sometimes good things come to those who wait. At that time of the day, from that location, the light is horrible for photographing launches. So I did not plan on photographing the launch. I really wanted to watch this one anyway. The rocket launched at 10:30. I had a great view of the rocket until it went behind some clouds. I thought that was the last time I would see the rocket. Luckily there was a hole in the clouds. Just as the rocket went into the hole, it blew up! It’s not every day that you get to see a rocket blow up on purpose. Very cool launch! After the launch there was a car show at Sand Point Park. So I photographed some of the cars. It was a full morning of photography.
Last night SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A normal Falcon 9 rocket has, 9 powerful Merlin rocket engines. A Falcon Heavy is three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together! SpaceX has been continually tweaking it’s Merlin engines. This Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket flying today. Boy was it powerful! This rocket was Space Shuttle loud. You could hear the rumble building as it got closer and closer. The sound started to reverberate off of the buildings, then the sound waves hit, you could hear and feel the rumble! It was awesome! The reason for all of that power, the Falcon Heavy was carrying 24 assorted satellites into space. Advances in technology have made it possible to build smaller satellites. This allows rockets to carry multiple satellites into space on the same rocket. Not only is this more profitable for companies like SpaceX. It should also be less expensive for satellite users. Night launches are always beautiful, and this one was no exception. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, this launch was at 2:30 AM! It was worth getting up early to see it though. A very strange phenomenon happened during the launch. Looking through the binoculars, as the two Falcon 9 boosters strapped to the side, separated, the glowing engines and vapor, created an image that looked very much like Voldemort’s dark mark in the sky!
SpaceX sent their new Dragon Crew Capsule on a test flight to the International Space Station early this morning. Night launches are always great to watch and photograph. luckily they all aren’t at 2:49 am! If this test flight goes well, SpaceX hopes to start sending astronauts to the ISS later this year.
An excellent photo opportunity has presented it’s self. SpaceX has scheduled a resupply mission to the International Space Station, launching right at dawn. There was a really good chance 45 minuets before sunrise, there could be some really nice color in the sky. I could not pass this up, I had to give it a try.
Today was a beautiful day to watch a rocket launch! This was no ordinary launch. Today SpaceX performed a test launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket. The SpaceX FH is capable of launching some very heavy things into space. So what heavy thing did the FH lift into space on its maiden voyage? If you’re Elon Musk, you launch your Tesla Roadster into orbit around Mars. Complete with a dummy astronaut (dummy so he says, has anyone seen Elon?) hanging his arm out of the window, blasting David Bowie’s Starman on the stereo.
Rocket watchers from far and wide gathered early to watch this historic launch. I don’t think we got quite to Space Shuttle crowd sizes, but I think it was close. Maybe we should get 45 to review the crowd photos. There were some very relaxed and prepared people in Sandpoint Park. I wanted to get a photo of the huge crowd at Space View Park but there were no parking spaces close by. The Max B Bridge was jam packed. This is my favorite launch viewing site. I like to call it “Titusville’s launch viewing platform.” We had some time to kill before the launch. Due to high winds, the launch was pushed back almost to the end of its 2 ½ hours launch window. After a long wait, the FH ignited its 27 Merlin engines and lifted off of Apollo/Shuttle now SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Complex 39A. It was an amazing launch! The 27 Merlin’s really rumbled!
The FH is basically 3 Falcon 9 boosters strapped together. The plan was, to bring all three boosters back to earth, to be reused on another flight. Two of the three boosters had previously flown on F9 missions. The two outside boosters were to land back at KSC. The third booster was going to land on a barge in the Atlantic. It was amazing to see the two boosters bound for return to KSC simultaneously igniting to slow their decent. They ignited a second time and gently landed on target. Once again we heard the rumble of the rocket boosters landing, preceded by sonic booms. The third booster didn’t fare so well. Only one of three engines reignited to slow its decent and it was lost. All in all, a fantastic sight to see and hear. There is nothing like watching a live rocket launch!
Launching a Falcon Heavy, $90 million! Watching live video of a Tesla Roadster with Starman drop top orbiting the earth, PRICELESS!