June 03, 2007
Taking pictures of a shuttle launch is no science, it's an
art :-) Problem
is to get the exposure right. At all of my eight shuttle launches I had photo
equipment with me - somewhere between one and five cameras. I have taken
pictures from the shore, from the "normal" Causeway site, the VIP
and the press site, both during the day and at night. By now I can give you almost guaranteed
values for proper exposure, as well as some common "don'ts".
- If it's your first launch, and you are likely not coming again, don't
take any pictures. Serious. Sorry to disappoint you, but
you can buy better pictures than yours will ever turn out to be. However,
you can not buy the memories of a shuttle launch.
My first launch was
viewed through the viewfinder and the pics didn't work out, even though
chances are my gear is better than yours. I never did that again and was
happy about it. I know you will not listen. But don't blame me if you miss the launch.
- If you have a tripod, bring it along. If not, see above advice.
- With a day launch, some of the best pictures are taken after the shuttle is
gone. The exhaust fumes often create spectacular cloud formations which are
more impressive than a shuttle lifting off (admit it, you have seen pics of
a shuttle launch before, but not necessarily one of a cloud like below).
There are generally two kinds of pictures you can take: during the day, you
can shoot the shuttle lifting off the pad. At night, you can also shoot the
shuttle light trail (time lapse image). The values mentioned below are good for
any viewing site - if you want we can get into a discussion about the physics
All images shown without
cropping, as they were recorded on 35mm film.
(Canon T90, Canon FD 20-35L,
Kodak Royal Gold 400)
STS-93 from VIP site
600mm, 1/125s, f11
(Canon EOS-1N, Canon EF 300L-IS/4, EF2xTC,
Agfa Optima 400)
20mm / 8.5 minutes
from VIP site
(Canon T90, Canon FD 20-35L,
Agfa Ultra 50)
(Canon T90, Sigma 600/8 mirror,
Agfa Optima 400)
STS-99 from VIP site
800mm, 1/250s, f11
(Canon EOS-1N, Canon EF100-400L-IS/5.6, EF2xTC,
Agfa Optima 100)
About 6 minutes, 24mm from Causeway
(Canon Elan IIe, Canon EF24/1.4L,
Agfa Ultra 50)
very bad flatbed scan
STS-101 from Press site
Canon A1, Canon FD 28/2.8
Kodak Gold 100
- NASA launches only in good weather. So don't worry
about fog, high winds shaking your lenses, lightning storms or other fun
things. The worst that can happen is a moderately overcast sky.
- Chances are you will have to wait for the launch for a
few hours. A Causeway pass says to arrive 1-4 hours in advance. Most sensible
people arrive 4 hours before launch. Since NASA is no longer flying pure
science missions but only docking missions, the launch windows are very short
(around 9 minutes), but even so you will be in the baking Florida sun for four
hours. Be prepared with water and other consumables! Don't forget that the
traffic jam after a launch will have you stranded with no way out for another
- After 9/11, the security precautions have reached an
absurd level, especially for the VIP site. You are very limited in what you
can bring with you - basically, anything you can carry in your hands, no big
backpacks or bags. This is in stark contrast to pre-9/11 days.
- Print film is usually more forgiving than slide film. A
shuttle launch picture will challenge the film (or sensor) in very extreme
ways, and you are best off getting the best film, or highest latitude sensor
you can muster.
- If you don't have a VIP, NASA Causeway or other special pass,
your best viewing place is here (zoom out to make any sense of it). It's a
public piece of land, so nobody will ask you some ridiculous $20 to park, etc.
You can also see the launch pad lightning rods from here, which will allow you
to aim the camera correctly (just make sure you're pointing it towards the
correct launch pad - there are two). Your next best bet
is from here, along highway 528/1A. The angle is different, the space is
less, and people are typically more. In either case you are well advised to
arrive 4 hours before scheduled launch, as these spots get crowded very
- Now where you are aiming beforehand. Especially if you are at a location
where you can't actually see the launch pad, you will not only miss the first
few seconds of flight until the shuttle comes to view, but you will be racing
to get it into the frame. For that reason it's even more imperative that your
camera is ready to go (as explained below) as soon as you've found the
Shuttle Liftoff - day launch
- Needless to say, have the camera on a tripod. If your telephoto lens has a
tripod mount, attach the tripod to the lens, not the camera body. This will
ensure better balance of the setup.
- Put the camera on fast advance.
Depending on focal length, frame rate should be between 3
and 6 fps. Do
not run out of film or out of buffer on digital cameras!! The shuttle will clear the tower at about
T+7s. Thus, if you start shooting too soon (or too fast), you will run out of film
/ buffer before
you know it, giving you a lot of pictures of steam, but no pictures of the
shuttle - like in this
picture representing the last frame of a film.
- If you have a wired remote control, use it. This will avoid camera shake which
is particularly bad with long lenses. It will further
enable you to actually watch the launch instead of operating the camera.
- If you want to get a close-up of the shuttle, use the longest focal length lens you can buy, steal, borrow -- and carry.
400mm is a good choice from the VIP site; 1200mm is not
enough from the shore for this purpose. If your longest lens is 200mm and
you are at the shore or at the causeway, please please watch the launch and
buy pictures. Your pictures will make the shuttle look like an insect, and
your relatives will ask you from which state you were watching.
See above samples to what to expect from a given focal length.
- Use 100 speed film. I could get into a long discussion why 200 film is a
bad idea in general. Slower film will not be fast enough, faster film is
often unnecessary. If your lens is "slow", i.e. f5.6 or therabouts, and/or
you are shooting around twilight, ISO 400 may be the ticket. Just don't use
ISO 200 film (ISO 200 digital is of course ok).
- If you have a polarizer, consider using it. It gets pretty hazy in Florida
during the day, and the polarizer may help you getting a clearer picture.
However, note that the polarizer will take away lot of light, typically 1-2
stops, and thus your
shutter speed may get too low for this "action shot", especially
if you are not using professional grade (fast) glass.
- Meter pre-launch and expose manually. What I mean: some 5 minutes before
launch (or as close as possible, if the weather / light is changing), look
what the camera settings would be by pointing your lens at the launch pad.
Note the exposure values, then switch to fully manual mode (autofocus
off), adjust the aperture / time settings to these values and focus
manually. Why? When the shuttle lifts off, it will be very bright and the
camera would underexpose the shots. Also, autofocus will not be able to lock
onto a cloud of smoke and most cameras will refuse to fire when they can't
Because we will be shooting with a long telephoto, I would recommend you
take an aperture of f8 or f11 depending on how bright the
day is, but make sure that the shutter speed is not
slower that 1/125s, as otherwise the shuttle will be blurred.
Find a good compromise between shutter speed and DOF.
proportions are depending on the time of day, season, weather, and your film
- If your camera can do it, bracket +/- 1 if you are using slide film. Note
that most cameras can't "shoot thru bracketing", meaning that if they take
three bracketed shots in rapid sequence, they stop and wait for you to release
and press the shutter again. Be prepared for this. Practice first (without
- If your lens has image stabilization (new Canon and
Nikon lenses) and you are
shooting from a tripod, turn the gyro off.
Yes, off. Very few lenses can be on a tripod with IS on
and not get confused. If you have one of these lenses that can be used with IS
on while on the tripod, good for you; most of them don't.
- Watch the damn launch with your eyes, not through the viewfinder! That's
why you have the cable release, remember?
Shuttle Liftoff - night launch
- Follow above advice, except: use 400 speed film
(800 is also ok but unnecessary). If you are using film,
you want to use the highest contrast film in a given category. This is
typically not what the drugstore is selling. A lower ISO film will typically
be more contrasty than a high ISO film. With digital cameras you have no
choice, you have just one sensor =)
- Remove any lens filters. I know you have expensive
glass and want to protect it, especially in the salty and
humid FL climate. However, especially at night with the very
high contrast of the scene, the two extra glass surfaces will cause nasty
refraction. I forgot to do this at STS-93 and am still kicking my butt for
- Close the viewfinder of the camera. On luxury cameras there is a lever for
this purpose; on cheaper models you usually can take the rubber cover off
and slide a plastic thing located on the shoulder strap over the viewfinder.
Otherwise, stray light will be getting into the camera "from
behind" and your picture will be hosed.
- Set f8 and 1/125 second manual exposure with 400 film. If your film speed
is different, adjust aperture or shutter speed accordingly. Don't trust what
your light meter says, because it has no idea about the fireworks display
that's to come. Ever heard of the "Sunny 16" rule? Use the
1/film-speed time at f16. Well, the shuttle isn't quite as bright as the sun
(which would result in a 1/400s on ISO-400 at f16), but it's pretty darn
close, esp. from the VIP site. Turn off autofocus!
Focus before launch and leave the lens the way it is.
- If your camera can do it, bracket +/- 1 stop, especially if you are using
slide film (but as said above, print film is better). Note that most cameras can't "shoot thru bracketing",
meaning that if they take three bracketed shots in rapid sequence, they stop
and wait for you to release and press the shutter again. Be prepared for
this. Practice first (without film).
- Start shooting no earlier than T-3s. They start the engines at T-6s, and
with the above exposure values, you absolutely need the glow of the exhaust
fumes to illuminate the picture.
- If using film, tell your photo finisher not to cut the negatives / not to cut
& mount the slides. Night shots are usually low contrast and
you don't want your images to be victim of a misinterpreted negative
- If you have a Point and Shoot and can't resist the temptation of taking a
picture, turn the flash off. No way will the flash illuminate an object 3-12
Shuttle Time Lapse - night launch
- Digital shooters: I have never done a night
launch with a digital camera. I do have some substantial experience with
digital night exposure, though, so let me give you the following words of
- Shoot in RAW mode
- If your camera has a "noise reduction" setting that
will take a dark frame of the same duration, by all means turn it on. You
will have to wait for a long time to see the result (you'll be on your way
home by then), but it's absolutely worth it.
- If you have a CCD camera (Canon 1D, most P&S cameras,
Nikon D1 series, Nikon D100) or the original Canon 1Ds, I'd say you are out
of luck for this particular type of photography. These sensors have
characteristics that don't very much support this kind of extreme
- Make sure your batteries are fully charged.
- Further below, I talk about ISO 50 film. Use the
lowest native ISO setting of your camera. For instance, the Canon 1Ds MK2
starts at ISO 100, with a "Low" setting equal to ISO 50. Here, you'd use ISO
100, because the "low" setting comes at the expense of dynamic range, and
you'll need all the DR you can get with this kind of photography. Use other
tricks to slow down the exposure, such as filters.
- Consider using film for this. As of 3/2006, I am not
convinced that there's a camera that can do better than ultra high contrast,
low speed film on this one. The Ultra 50 can definitely out-do the Canon 1D2
and Nikon D2X and D200, and I'd say most likely the Canon 1Ds2 and 5D.
- Film shooters: Buy super slow, super high contrast film. For this purpose, I can only
praise the Agfa Ultra 50 (print). The what? Yeah, you
have never heard of it and neither has your photo store, chances are. That
film kicks some major butt, however for special purposes only. As in, not
pictures of people, but of the rainforest or - of a night launch. It may
take serious search for this film, especially since it's
been discontinued in 1999. You can get it for about $20/roll on eBay these
days - may be well worth the investment in one roll. If you are seriously planning this trip
and really want to get the best possible shot, organize the Ultra 50
for this purpose. If you can't get it, get something as slow as you
can (Fuji Velvia slide film, which is by now also
discontinued, and in general I don't recommend slide film for this purpose; old Kodak Ektar 25 print film which is
probably even harder to get than the Ultra 50). No drug store around the
corner has the kind of film you will need for this. There is not that much
slow film out there to begin with. 100 is too fast already, anything
above and don't even bother taking your camera out.
- You need a very sturdy tripod. We are talking something that can
hold the camera for 8 minutes without a bit of shaking.
You may be well advised to hang some extra weight on the tripod - some people
attach a bag full of rocks or water bottles on the center column.
- You will need some sort of cable release, or infra-red with locking
- Remove any lens filters, as stated above! Very
- You need a wide-angle lens. From the shore, a 28mm lens should do (in
landscape mode); from the Causeway, you need a 24mm (which will fit exactly
in landscape [horizontal] mode); from the VIP or press
site, you will need at least
20mm in portrait [vertical] setting. 17mm in landscape setting is not enough
from the VIP site! (a 15mm fisheye is good but will result in a typical
fisheye style image).
- With a time lapse shot, it is imperative that you
cover the viewfinder as mentioned above. If you can't close it and there is
nothing to slide over, gently hang a t-shirt or something over the back of
the camera before starting the exposure, and leave it there
while taking the shot.
- The shuttle will be flying eastbound. The exact arc depends on the desired
inclination of the mission: a space station mission (high inclination) will
be flying more "to the left" (more to the north) than a plain 28
degrees mission, which will fly straight east. Adjust the frame accordingly.
If you are as anal as I am, take a compass or GPS to the site and
investigate the precise flight path when setting up.
- From the Causeway, you may want to use landscape mode as the arc will be
"wide"; from the VIP site you definitely want to use portrait as
the arc will be very very narrow. This has to do with the different angle at
which you will be viewing the launch from the different sites. It's hard to
say which mode to use from the shore because it is so long and you can be
pretty much anywhere :-)
- Set the camera to BULB. That's the setting where the shutter stays open
for as long as you hold the release. Because we will be holding it for up to
8 minutes, you need a cable release as you can't hold down the button for
that long without shaking the camera.
- Set the lens aperture to f22, or as slow as it gets. For an 8 minute shot
of the launch, on a perfectly clear night, the optimum value
would be f32 at ISO 50. On a partly cloudy night, you have much more
reflected light and the optimum would be around f64 on ISO 50. Try to get as
close to this as possible (because of gear restrictions, I could do only f22
at 50 and it was already too much). If you have a neutral density filter,
use it. If you have a 100 speed film, terminate the exposure already after
2-3 minutes. Your light trail will be shorter but better a shorter one that
none at all, right?
- If the sky is overcast, you will not see the full 8 minutes of propelled
flight because the shuttle will disappear in the clouds. However, the
overall picture will be brighter because of the haze (again we can discuss
the physics behind it). So the aperture (f-stop) will stay the same, at a
shorter exposure time.
- If you have a second camera to bracket, use the same exposure and film,
but a shorter time interval, or an ND filter. Trust me, you can't under-expose a shuttle
launch time lapse image regardless how hard you try.
- Tell your photo finisher not to cut the negatives / not to cut
& mount the slides. If shooting film,
I recommend that you take a few "blank" images so that the actual launch photo
is somewere towards the middle of the film. This gives the lab even less of a
chance to screw it up / cut it up.
- Around T-10sec, fire. You want to have the whole
propelled flight on film, and the engines start at T-6s. Keep people from tripping over your tripod.
You bump into it a bit and the whole shot is hosed. If this happens and you
notice, immediately terminate the exposure. This will ensure that at least
the streak so far is "straight". Again, chances are your shot is
overexposed anyway, so cutting it short doesn't do too much harm. Also, the
vast majority of light comes during the first seconds after liftoff, the
final minutes are just accessory.
- At engine cutoff, or whenever the shuttle disappears in the clouds,
- Here a table of proven values, based on film speed and minimum
aperture of your lens. Note that the scale isn't quite linear, due to
reciprocity failure of most film.
Digital doesn't have reciprocity failure, meaning that doubling the exposure
time will indeed double the amount of captured light.
||8 min / f32 / perfectly clear sky and no moon
||8 min / f64 / overcast
||5 min / f22 / perfectly clear sky and no moon
||3 min / f22 / overcast
Good luck, and let me know how
your pictures turn out or if you have any further questions!
STS-93 Launch Viewing
STS-99 Launch Viewing