For more than 50 years Americans have flocked to the Space Coast for a chance to catch a three-minute show. After the fiery roar of a rocket faded over the horizon tourists turned around and carried on with their vacations. These days they’re sticking around for a second act. Rockets are now landing.
Once jettisoned, a SpaceX booster begins a dazzling routine of aerial gymnastics. As the booster tumbles through the sky, the engines reignite and set a return course for land, followed the entry burn and the landing burn. As a 14-story rocket sticks the landing a sonic boom rips past your ears and through your chest.
In February 2018 the show got an upgrade. After the inaugural launch of the three-booster Falcon Heavy rocket, spectators were treated to a pair of near simultaneous landings. Until this week the heavy-lift rocket had only flown in the light of day. At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday a Times camera captured the action in the dark, resulting in an otherworldly arc of light over a silhouetted skyline. The light streak.
Want to capture your own? Here’s how.
You will need:
1. A camera on which you can manually select the ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
2. A wide-angle lens, preferably. The narrower the field-of-view, the further away you’ll need to be to capture the entire streak when perpendicular to the trajectory.
3. A sturdy tripod. Cheat sheet tip: A solid structure, like a concrete wall, can also work.
4. An intervalometer. An intervalometer enables you to keep the shutter open for as long as you please. Most cameras only allow up to a 30-second exposure. A streak shot will require 4-9 minutes. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer, inexpensive options are available for most cameras on Amazon and eBay. Software intervalometers are available for newer cameras that can connect to a phone or tablet via bluetooth or wifi. Sony’s camera app has a built-in intervalometer. Cheat sheet tip: In a pinch it’s possible to use tape or a rubber-band to keep the shutter depressed.
If the rocket is headed in a northerly trajectory, Jetty Park at Port Canaveral is a popular shooting location. If the rocket is headed due east you’ll want to position yourself further north or south so that you can fit the entire streak into your frame. Cheat sheet tip: Scout out locations using Google Maps.
For best results it must be a dark night. If the moon is above the horizon try to position yourself between the rocket and the moon. Allow a good amount of time in the dark to test your settings and rehearse steps. Cheat sheet tip: PhotoPills is a planning app that will show you the position of the sun and moon for a set time and date.
ISO to 100 and aperture to f/16.
Disable “Long Exposure NR” or “Long Exposure Noise Reduction.” This setting eats time and batteries.
Adjust white balance to “Indoor Lighting,” “Tungsten,” or 2500K.
Set your file type to RAW or RAW+JPEG for post-processing flexibility.
Manually set focus to a bright light in the distance. More than 50 yards away will work.
Take a test photo with the aforementioned settings for a set length of time. Budget a four-minute shutter if there will be a launch but no landing; nine minutes if the booster will land. Cheat sheet tip: An underexposed photo is better than an overexposed photo. Adjust the f-stop up or down and compare with your previous test shots.
One more thing:
Do not rush to push the shutter. The first few seconds of a rocket launch are extremely bright and could cause your photo to overexpose.
Take those first few seconds to make sure that the rocket is the lower corner of your frame. Leave room above the horizon for the path of the rocket to travel the entire width of your frame.
Press the shutter and step away from the camera. Keep yourself and others from bumping into it for the duration of the rocket launch and landing.
Turn off any flashlights and enjoy the show.
Show’s done? Close the shutter and take a look. Less than ideal results can be tweaked in editing.
Have you tried any kind of light streak photos before? How did you do? Feel free to share your tips in the comments.