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Delta IV Heavy Rocket, the world’s largest, lifts off atop 2 million pounds of thrust with NASA’s
first Orion capsule on an unmanned shakedown of their next manned space vehicle.
Ben Cooper for United Launch Alliance
I photograph rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, America's premier base for space launches for the last half century. I've been doing this for more than 15 years now. Each launch is different and presents a new challenge, not least of which is that you have one chance to get it right and get the shots you want. I plan out every angle ahead of time and try to capture what I envision in my mind. But as each one is different, whether it is the weather (think clouds), sun angle, and how the smoke behaves, surprises—good and bad—are always part of the result.
Every launch I shoot is risky, not so much to me, but to the equipment. No people are closer than a few miles from a rocket launch, for obvious reasons. A launch comprises 20 to 25 stories of explosives. Many people do not realize just how big and powerful these rockets are, but they are huge. It takes a lot of power to put a satellite (and even more for the now-retired space shuttle) into orbit around the Earth, or send a spacecraft on its way to Mars or Pluto.
Getting shots like this one requires a lot of planning and care. I normally set up a suite of cameras around the launch pad a day, or sometimes more, before launch. I’ll set up anywhere from 10 to 15 or more cameras, depending on the launch and requirements. Each camera has to be self-activating, so most of the time I use a custom-made sound trigger to fire them, though sometimes I'll use another method such as a timer or intervalometer, if the shot requires it. The sound triggers I use are custom made. They have the ability to control the microphone with timers so that it is not on all day long while waiting for the launch. I can tell them to come on shortly before the launch time and turn off afterwards.
Weather is the biggest concern, and the cameras are generally protected from the weather, though the front element is frequently left exposed. Every camera I set up has to be protected from the elements, namely rain, and from the launch itself. Some cameras are inside custom-made housings where only the lens is exposed, and some even have doors that open when the launch occurs. For some locations I will simply bag the camera in plastic rather than use a housing; it looks cheap but it offers the same protection with only the lens exposed. It is easier to do this sometimes, especially since I climb towers to set up higher angles, for example... lots of ladders or lots of stairs.
The launch itself can be powerful enough to knock down even the most secure cameras, but I always make sure the cameras or tripods are staked or clamped down in some manner. If they're close, even this precaution can fail. I have seen firmly mounted cameras and tripods get thrown 200 feet backward from the blast. But I'm always happy if I get the shot I wanted. You are also dealing with extreme heat from the engines, which can melt plastic, and the explosive power frequently sends sand or dirt or other particles flying at the cameras at high speed, so losing glass is not uncommon either. Grass fires are also a regular occurrence. Some rockets use solid fuel to get their boost, and the solid propellant exhaust includes a hydrochloric acid mixture which can corrode gear instantly.
Sometimes on occasion, if there is really an incredible shot I have in mind and it's so close that the risk is very high, I'll lose a camera or lens to get a great shot.
I have a wide range of cameras and lenses and over my years shooting, I have used just about every digital SLR made at one point or another up through the D3x, which is a beauty. I use (and own) both Canon and Nikon gear regularly. I've got Nikons for my handhelds because that is what I grew up with; I just got the new D750, which I think is the best balance of everything as of 2015.
Because of the way I came into doing launches and being mentored early on by a Canon user, I find myself using all Canons for those. They happen to be a match for the sound triggers I've used over the years and, for no particular reason, I just decided to stick to Canon for them. For most of my pad cameras, right now, I have about 16 or 17 Canon 50Ds. However, there have been launches when I have set up full-frame cameras, mainly the Canon 5D, as well. But I chose to stick to the 50D, as I think it is a fine camera for what I need to capture and for dealing with such a large number of cameras.
I have a large number of lenses that allow me to capture a variety of angles of launches. I love using the really wide lenses like 10-20mm or 8-16mm, or sometimes a fisheye, to capture the most dramatic angles. But I also use a large number of normal lenses in the 24-85mm range, which I use all the time. Brand-wise they are all Canons—and Sigma for the 10-20mm, as I like them the best. The Sigma 8-16mm, which is relatively new, is a very good lens I added in the last year. The extra two millimeters can make a big difference for some shots.
As far as camera settings, for the pad cameras I use a fixed manual exposure most, but not all, of the time. Sometimes I'll use an aperture-priority setting if I think the launch merits it, such as a sunset or twilight launch where I want to capture certain lighting or colors. I've never failed in an auto exposure either, but I like to have as much control as I can.
I never use filters on those shots. Aside from possible glare, they can also trap moisture behind the glass.
(left to right): Asiasat 8 Launch, MMS Launch, Eutelsat Launch.
I also do distant time-lapse photos of launches. You have to go really wide on those, so most are 10mm or 8mm crop sensor, or 17mm full frame, for example. The lowest setting is usually what I use, say ISO 200, f/22, and sometimes an ND filter. Some launch-streak shots I've done involve changing apertures during the exposure, or even ISO sometimes (that requires stopping and restarting). Sometimes I'll use filtering or composite techniques to capture the scene during launch more accurately, or compensate for the brightness of the launch and less bright backdrop.
LADEE Launch from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia,
viewed from the top of Rockefeller Center in New York City
Photo by Ben Cooper
BEN COOPER has been shooting rockets since 1999, a natural collision of his interests in photography, which he had been doing since he was about eight years old, and his interest in aviation and space since childhood. Cooper was a photographer for NASA in the space shuttle program for its final three years before retirement, in 2011. He has shot 136 launches, and counting, over more than 15 years for NASA, the commercial launch companies, and many media outlets. When he is not shooting launches, his other photography passions are traveling, including around-the-world travel to see solar eclipses, like the one on March 20, 2015.
His clients include NASA, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance. His website has been on the front page of USA Today and in The New York Times, and his work has been featured in the Times and Boston Globe, among other news outlets.