How NOT to Photograph a Cape Canaveral Rocket Launch

Jason Daniel Shaw

How NOT to Photograph a Cape Canaveral Rocket Launch

Kennedy Space Center – Cape Canaveral , FL

United Launch Alliance (ULA) originally scheduled the launch of its Atlas V rocket carrying the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Flight 4 for January 18, 2018.  That launch was pushed until the following day, the day I was arriving in Florida.  I hadn’t seen a launch from Florida since I last watched the final Columbia Space Shuttle launch from Merritt Island in 2003 so I decided that I would make the drive from Ocala to Titusville to watch it.

Space Launch Complex-41 – Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

My family and I made the 2.5 hour drive over to Playalinda Beach in Canaveral National Seashore since that seemed to be the best vantage point to watch the launch from the northern pad 41.  As we approached the gate to the beach on Max Brewer Memorial Highway (402), the entrance was closed, it was a few minutes after 6:00PM.  We had done some research and it appeared that the park would stay open for the launch, but upon asking some of the officials, they said that it was closed at sunset.  We had to scramble to find a new place to watch the launch from with less than 2 hours to launch.   As we made our way back over to the mainland to find some food and do some research, we noticed that the bridge across the Indian River had a nice view of the entire coastline.  That would be our vantage point to watch the launch.

Cape Canaveral Launch Night Sky

ULA Atlas V Launch

I setup my camera on a tripod at the top of the bridge.  My goal was to get a wide angle shot with the stars in the shot and composite that with a long exposure shot of the rocket arcing from the launch pad until it was out of frame.  I took a few shots to get my composition correct and then exposed to get the stars in the dark night sky.  We listened to the launch coverage through Space.com and got ready for liftoff.  I set the exposure for 15 seconds because I thought that would be enough time for the rocket to leave the frame.  However, at the end of 15 seconds, the rocket was still in frame, but I discovered something even more problematic, the settings that I guessed at for the launch were grossly off.  The rocket launch was brighter than I expected, even at the great distance we were from the pad.  The first picture was blown out.  I quickly changed the settings and tried again.  By this time, the rocket was already halfway through my frame.  I was able to get one additional shot with the rocket extending off the frame.  The only semi-usable shot was the middle shot that I took and it was still not what I was looking for.  I also learned that you have to plan for delays in the live stream as well; by the time we heard countdown reach zero, we could see the rocket had already launched.  I learned some good lessons from this adventure and will have to practice at some other launches, probably closer to home, at Vandeberg in California.  What tips do you have to capture great rocket launch photos?  Let me know here or over on my Instagram.

Cape Canaveral Rocket Launch Night

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