Launches from the Kennedy Space Center have ramped up in the last few years, and here in the Central Florida area, we’re blessed with a good view of them. Lynn and I often go out and watch from our driveway. At times, we’ll be disappointed when clouds block our view, or if a low trajectory keeps the the vehicle down behind our neighbor’s trees. But last Friday’s launch didn’t disappoint!
SpaceX Crew Dragon Launch, from Winter Springs, Florida. About 2 1/2 minutes after lift off.
Photographing one like this is an interesting challenge. There are several approaches to try. I usually concentrate on the rocket itself. In the daytime, you might be able to use aperture priority and automatic focus. In the dark, shooting in full manual mode will likely give you better results. I preset my aperture to wide open and my shutter speed as slow as I think I can hand hold with image stabilization turned on. If your camera doesn’t have IS, use a tripod to stabilize it. I also pre-focus to infinity, since the small size of the rocket in the frame might make auto focus unreliable. While shooting, I adjust my ISO setting to get a good exposure. With mirrorless cameras I can see the effect of ISO changes in the viewfinder. If you’re using a DSLR, you’ll have to chimp to make sure your ISO is correct.
The photos above were made with a focal length equivalent of 525mm and exposure of f/6.3, 1/80 sec, ISO 2000. The one below was at 164mm eq., f/6.3, 1/80 sec, ISO 6400.
Lynn and I went over to Kennedy Space Center a few weeks ago with MaryKate and our nephew Ted. I thought I’d try out the new iPhone XS and use some of the resulting photos as examples to discuss updated capabilities. So this post isn’t really about KSC – if you’re not interested in computational photography, feel free to just look at the photos or go on to something else. Or if you’d like to see some other posts about KSC, please look at the links on this search page: https://edrosack.com/?s=Kennedy+space+center.
Mercury-Atlas rocket: John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 when he launched in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft on an Atlas rocket. Smart HDR mode, ISO 25, f/1.8, 1/22000 sec
In this first photo, I deliberately shot into the sun. I wanted to see how it handles very high contrast situations. I have the camera’s “Smart HDR” mode enabled in settings and I used the Lightroom CC iPhone app to shoot in RAW mode. The file it generates is a .dng file that includes the Smart HDR processing. I waited for the photos to sync to my desktop computer and processed them there. I think the colors and exposure in both the sky and shadows look excellent. I’m amazed that even the writing on the capsule in the shadows looks good.
Here’s another example that shows the amount of flexibility and recoverable detail that’s present in these RAW files. This next image is the default capture with no editing. You can see that with even with Smart HDR on, the extreme contrast causes loss of detail in the highlights and shadows.
This next one is the same image after editing the RAW file – there’s much more of the scene visible in this version. In situations such as this, the secret is to shoot and process RAW files!
Here’s what Apple says about Smart HDR:
Leveraging multiple technologies — like faster sensors, an enhanced ISP, and advanced algorithms — Smart HDR brings more highlight and shadow detail to your photos.” Apple
Shuttle robot arm close up. iPhone XS rear camera, Portrait mode, ISO 640, f/2.4, 1/30 sec
In these images, I adjusted the simulated aperture after the images were taken to focus viewers’ eyes on the subjects. It’s very easy to vary the amount of blur in the background to get the effect I wanted. I’ve also used the “portrait mode” for actual portraits, and while it’s improved from earlier versions, you can still see issues if you look for them. For example, the depth map and processing has occasional (but fewer?) problems with stray hair around faces (blurs them when they should be sharp).
Should you give away your non-phone cameras? No, not yet. Phones are still at a disadvantage in some ways: Lens selection and sensor size are two important ones. And the interfaces on dedicated cameras are better and allow quicker control. But in some (many?) cases, your phone is an excellent photo (and video!) tool. And they’re going to get better. Just make sure you’re up to date on how to use the latest functions.
Lynn and I met Howard and Nancy T. at the Cape last Tuesday to watch the first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
Falcon Heavy first launch – This is an Olympus Live Composite, multiple exposure image showing the ascent. From ~12 miles away (the “Close” viewing area off of Vectorspace Blvd near Kennedy Space Center). 40mm eq. Field of View.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and it’s amazing to think about how far they’ve come in so short a time – all as a privately funded company. Their first launch to orbit was in 2008 and last week they launched an object into solar orbit with the Falcon Heavy, which is now the world’s most powerful launch system.
SpaceX 1st Falcon Heavy Launch – sending a red Tesla sports car past Mars! ~600mm eq. Field of View.
To me as an engineer, the capability to land and reuse boosters is even more impressive. Especially when you watch two boosters simultaneously landing back near the launch site!
SpaceX: !st Falcon Heavy Launch – two simultaneous booster braking burns. These two successfully landed back at the Cape. Unfortunately, the third booster crashed at sea. ~600mm eq. Field of View.
If you’re a space fan like I am, you’ve been following this story. But if not, here are a few pages around the web that you might find interesting:
It was truly a wonderful experience to watch this happen. It seems to me that Elon is well on the way to earning his place as another Edison.
As far as the photo-op went, it’s a tough assignment. We were about 12 miles away in the area NASA calls “Close”. This is much closer than our usual viewing area (our driveway – about 35 miles away), but still a bit distant. They also have “Closer” and “Closest” areas about 7.5 miles from the pad. VIPs and press were only 3 miles away. If you want truly great photographs, you’ll have to figure out how to get closer than we did.
Hey Elon – Central Florida Photo Ops needs a press pass!!!
It turns out this wasn’t really about the photo-op. It was about the experience of witnessing history with thousands of other space fans. And these photos will help me remember the thrill.
Post launch vapor trail
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go witness some history! And make some photos!
SpaceX Falcon 9 launch on 3/4/16, just after booster separation
It can be hard for Central Florida visitors to witness a launch. Schedules often change because of weather, technical, or other issues. It’s disappointing if you travel to the coast for one, only to have it cancelled at the last moment. This Falcon 9 launch was postponed six times before it finally lifted off on Friday evening. This Wikipedia article is a good reference on SpaceX launches with details about each mission.
But you don’t have to be right next to Kennedy Space Center to see a launch. Lynn and I are fortunate to live about 35 – 40 miles from the pads, which is well within viewing distance. We enjoy watching from our driveway.
Even though the space shuttle has been retired, it’s still exciting to see these and think about new commercial technologies that people like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are adding to the US space capability.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now, go make some photos!
Waiting to launch – A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket sits on the pad at Launch Complex 37B before dawn at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
I got up very early on Friday morning and arrived on Merritt Island in time for the Delta IV Heavy rocket launch scheduled for 6:15am. I figured it might be very picturesque, since sunrise was scheduled for 6:30. Unfortunately, the sunrise happened on time, but the launch didn’t.
If you’re not a Florida resident, you may not be aware of how hard it is to actually see a launch unless you live very close to or are staying at the Cape. I live about an hour away, and going over is an investment of time and effort. The problem is that launches very rarely happen when they’re first scheduled. At least when I try to see them. There always seems to be a technical problem, hold, or reschedule. Maybe I’m a jinx?
Anyway, this one finally did go at about 9:15 – although it wasn’t as photogenic as I hoped.
Delta IV Heavy Launch – From Peacocks Pocket Road in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This is not the kind of bird I normally photograph at Merritt Island.
The delay gave me an excuse to drive around the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge while I waited. It’s the time of year when there’s not much happening there. But I did see some of the usual birds including Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Reddish Egrets, Red-winged Blackbirds, Turkey and Black Vultures, Killdeer, and others. I also saw a group of Black Skimmers, a Loggerhead Shrike, a few Terns and gulls, and some smaller shorebirds.
Great Blue Heron – I know, I know: these birds are common around here, but they’re pretty and it’s hard to resist making a photo when they pose in good light.
I also (of course!) took advantage of the opportunity to make a few landscaped photos.
Sunrise crossing – from the Bennett Causeway in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The rising sun’s reflection and a boat wake created the cross pattern in the water near the cruise ship dock.
I had a good time. You will too, as long as you keep your expectations in check and work the other photo-ops if the launch is late.
If you are at all interested in technology and space exploration, then you should really visit the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) when you come to Central Florida. Living in the area and having a life long interest in space, I’ve been several times. Most recently last Thursday. This visit was with (among others) a fellow member of the Photography Interest Group: Kevin Krause. In a first for this blog, he’s agreed to help me write this entry describing KSC for photographers.
Exhibits: The entrance fee to KSC is currently $38 ($28 for children). There are many museum exhibits at KSC as well as the relatively new Shuttle Launch Experience simulator, Two IMAX theaters, an Astronaut Training Experience, and several bus tours that will take you to places that are otherwise restricted. Several things at KSC, including the bus tours will cost extra. The “NASA up close” tour that we took was an extra $21, and the bus and tour guide showed us the Vehicle Assembly building, the shuttle landing strip and control tower, an observation platform close to the launch complexes, and a theater re-enactment of an Apollo launch. We also toured the Apollo-Saturn V Center where there is a restored Saturn V launch vehicle and other space vehicles. You can also take a bus from the Saturn V center to the Space Station exhibit.
(NOTE: clicking on the photos below will take you to their Flickr page, where you can see a larger version – select all sizes at the top)
Panorama image of the Rocket Garden at the main visitor complex, Canon G9, 4 vertical images (full res is 11215×4123), ISO 80, 7.4 mm, f/2.8, 1/50 sec.
A space capsule gang way in the KSC Rocket Garden, Canon G9, 2971×3978, 3 shot HDR, ISO 80, 7.4mm, f/6.3, 1/160 sec, 1/320 sec, 1/640 sec.
The Apollo 14 moon capsule, Canon G9, 4000×3000, ISO 80, 7.4mm, f/2.8, 1/60 sec, built in flash.
Landscapes: KSC is situated on typical Florida coastal landscape. There is some opportunity for landscape photographs, so be prepared. You might luck out with some interesting clouds during one of your tour bus stops as a background to the launch pads.
(Photo by Kevin Krause) Launch complex, clouds, water, Nikon D90, 3666×2445, ISO 200, Nikon 18-200 lens at 24mm, f/10, 1/400 sec.
Wildlife: KSC is right next door to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. As such, wildlife should be abundant at KSC, although it will be tough to photograph in the middle of the day with so many people around. On our tour, we did get a glimpse of a solitary alligator in the canal on the side of the road as well as egrets, herons, and other birds. There is also a 42 year old eagle nest on the property, but the eagles were not in sight.
(Photo by Kevin Krause) This eagles’ nest has been in use for 42 years at KSC, Nikon D90, 2344×1645, ISO 3200, Nikon 18-200 lens at 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec.
A stuffed possum in the wildlife exhibit at the KSC main visitor center, Canon G9, ISO 80, 44.4mm, f/4.8, 1/60 sec, built in flash.
Tripod/Monopod: There is no posted policy on tripods. It might be a problem to use them, if only because of the short time available at most tour bus stops.
Lenses: Bring what you have. Longer lenses will come in handy, except when you’re trying to show several launch pads in a single image. Have a wide lens for that situation, or you can experiment with multiple images stitched into a panorama.
Other: Check out the NASA Images web page where you can search their archives for down-loadable photographs of almost any NASA subject. Many of these are available in high-resolution. Let’s face facts – you will have a very hard time making better images than these in the static exhibits or on the tour bus at KSC. Browsing through NASA’s image archives may discourage you from trying too hard to make any images yourself, other than the requisite, documentary “We were here” photos. But hey – we’re photographers and we live for the challenge, right?
If you’re interested in aeronautical engineering, space exploration, or Apollo program history this is a very good place to visit. Since the shuttle program is winding down, you won’t have many more chances to see a space shuttle on the launch pad. If you’re interested, check the KSC launch schedule before you go and try to show up when a shuttle is out. Photo opportunities abound, although they’re of the “museum exhibit with people around” variety.
If you want to see more of the photos that Kevin (131 images) and I (30 images) made, the links below will take you to our respective KSC Flickr photo stream sets.