Behind the Scenes: How we get our Rocket Launch Shots

Photo Credit: Trey Henderson
Trey Henderson/Editor-in-Chief

Have you ever wondered how or where we get our launch photos? Believe it or not, nearly all the rocket launch photos you see in The Avion are actually taken by our own photographers or reporters.

The Avion has been working with the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo program where we’ve had reporters and photographers covering every aspect of the launch industry for more than 50 years. Though millions once watched the launches of the Apollo era and thousands came to provide media coverage, today, only a small group of dedicated photographers and reporters cover launches; The Avion being among that list.

Typically, we categorize our launch photos into two classes: telephoto and remote shots, named as such because telephoto shots are taken with our large telephoto lenses (lenses meant for taking photos of things very far away) and our remote shots are taken with remote camera setups (sound-activated cameras placed on the launch pad).

In the nights prior to launch, our accredited photographers usually spend hours researching potential angles on the launch pad and proper camera settings for their remote camera shots. After deciding the angles each photographer wants to shoot, they prepare their remote enclosures for the launch ahead. The extremely high-tech and advanced…err…mailboxes… used as our enclosures are designed to resist weather and other environmental effects. The mailboxes are also used to protect against expended rocket fuel during launch. Basically, each enclosure is a modified mailbox mounted on a tripod with the proper camera mounting hardware inside. Each camera is placed inside a 2 gallon ziplock bag with a hole cut for a clear shot. The bag is then sealed around the lens and the camera mounted inside the mailbox for a perfectly water-tight seal. These remote cameras are typically placed on the launch pad hours or sometimes days prior to the launch. Because of this, we need a fool-proof and reliable way of triggering the camera once the ignition sequence of the vehicle starts. Many of our photographers have constructed their own, home-made, sound-activated camera triggers which wake the camera and signal it to start taking photos when it hears the engines roar to life.

Once our remote cameras are assembled, the accredited photographers meet with either Air Force or NASA escorts at Cape Canaveral who escort them into the launch pad to set up their equipment. Its essential that the equipment is staked down properly to make sure that our equipment doesn’t fly away under the forces during launch. (That actually happened with some of our gear at the Orion launch in December.) Often times, launch is scheduled for another day than remote camera setup, so our photographers return after setting up equipment and make another trip down for launch day. On launch day our photographers are again escorted in through either Air Force property or NASA property. Depending on the launch vehicle and weather, authorities decide upon a safe viewing site for media, often times a mere one to three miles away from the launch pad (between three and ten times closer than the average observer gets to view a launch).

Photo Credit: Jack Taylor

Photo Credit: Jack Taylor

Ample time is allowed after being escorted to the media viewing site to set up our telephoto equipment and prepare settings for the launch. In the time prior to launch, our photographers establish framing of their telephoto shots and also consider shooting video and ‘streak shots.’ Streak shots are another common form of launch photo where the camera’s shutter is held open for multiple minutes during launch which causes that unique streak of light across the sky in the shape of the rocket’s trajectory. At the distance media are from the launch pad, typically 300 to 600 millimeter is a great focal length for zooming in and filling the image with the rocket while streak shots are usually taken at a focal length of 10 to 20 millimeter to catch the streak all the way to Main Engine
Cut Off (MECO).

Once the vehicle leaves the pad and the excitement of launch dies down, media pack up equipment, oogle over the shots they’ve taken and begin editing for upload and printing. For roughly an hour after launch, media wait at the viewing area while technicians and support personnel prepare the launch pad for recovery of equipment. Once the all clear is given, media are escorted into the launch pad amidst charred grass, flashing yellow caution lights, blasted debris, and the smell of burnt rocket fuel. The excitement and curiosity always builds while pulling remote cameras, as the best photos almost invariably come from the remote cameras which provide the most unique and clear shots of the vehicle leaving the pad. In the event of vehicles with strap on solid rocket boosters, media have to be cautious of aluminum perchlorate, an acid byproduct of the solid boosters, which typically coats the
entire launch pad. The Avion has a special set of gear specially designated for use at rocket launches so as not to interrupt our flow of coverage in the event that some equipment gets damaged. Cameras and enclosures often come back covered in acid, scratched by debris, and dented by impacts, but after seeing the results of the remote cameras, the chaos is almost always worth it.

Shooting rocket launches is extremely hard but extremely rewarding work. It is a type of photography that only a handful of people in the world can say that they have in their portfolio, and as an aerospace engineer myself, it is an incredible way of getting up close and personal the machines I wish to one day design. If you are interested in helping The Avion in covering rocket launches and experiencing the behind the scenes, come by our meetings or contact us. We’re always happy to teach new photographers and we have a large assortment of cameras and lenses for new photographers to get experienced with.