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by Bazooka Photo

Space Shuttle Launch Photography!

Space Shuttle Launch Photography!

Like any red-blooded American, I’ve always wanted to attend a Space Shuttle launch…

STS-135 (on July 8th, 2011) will be THE LAST shuttle launch, so my wife and I decided to attempt to get tickets. There are a lot of ways to get to see the launch, but the closest vantage points require tickets. We ended up getting tickets for the Visitors Center, which is just over 7 miles from the launch pad. The causeway tickets are more desirable because they have a direct view of the launch pad and the spot is about 6.5 miles from the pad, but we weren’t able to get those. The Visitors Center does not have a direct view of the launch pad, so we won’t see the shuttle until it has cleared the pad and is above the trees.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on how to best photograph the launch. One of the tips I’ve seen most often is “don’t bother taking pictures, watch it with your naked eyeballs.” As many of you can probably understand, I simply cannot take that advice. If I can get ONE great picture of the launch, it’ll be really special to me (much more special than a print I purchase from somebody else). So now my job is to get that one great pic.

In a perfect world, I’d have something like a Canon 1Ds and an 800mm f/5.6L lens. Well, this isn’t a perfect world, so compromise is the name of the game. I’ll be using my Canon 7D body and a Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens. I bought this lens for the sole purpose of photographing the launch, and I intend to sell it once I get home. You’re saying “why not rent a lens, Jeremy?” Good question! The simple answer is that this will end up costing me less money (almost certainly). I paid $870 for this lens brand new and I hope to sell it for more than $800 late in July. I couldn’t have rented that lens for less than $130ish (including shipping) and that would only be for one week. Currently, I’m able to play with this lens for a few weeks before the launch.

I think I can get away with my current setup for the following reasons:

  • The crop sensor on the 7D works in my favor because it makes 500mm effectively 800mm
  • I can shoot at 8fps with the 7D
  • The launch is (supposed to be) at 11:26am, so I should have plenty of light to work with, making the slug-like 6.3 aperture less of a problem (more on this later)

I just got the Bigma last week (I know the “Bigma” generally refers to the Sigma 50-500 and mine is the 150-500…I don’t care, I’ll still call it the Bigma) and I’ve been messing with it a bit. Smallest aperture at 500mm is f/6.3 and that kinda sucks, right? Well, what REALLY sucks is that it is extremely sloppy at 6.3. Like most lenses, you have to jump up a stop or two above minimum in order to get really sharp shots. In the case of my Bigma, it looks like f/11 is where I really want to shoot. This isn’t all bad, though, because the enormous DOF I’ll get at f/11 will help to ensure I get the shuttle in focus.

Combine f/11 with my desire to use a pretty fast shutter speed (1/500 minimum) and you’ll recognize that I need a LOT of light. As I said earlier, the launch is scheduled for 11:26am so I hope to have light to spare. I’d prefer to not have to jack up the ISO higher than 400.

My plan is to set up on a tripod and point the camera just above the trees where the shuttle will appear. Hopefully, I can pre-focus into the neighborhood of the area the shuttle will occupy. Because I don’t know how bright the scene will be (vs. the sky), I plan to bracket +/-1 stop. I’m hoping that will cover my bases pretty well. I’ll be shooting RAW, so I should be able to reign in the exposure on any of those shots in Lightroom.

As the shuttle lifts off and comes into view, I’ll just hold down the shutter release (remote) and let it blast away at 8fps until it fills the buffer or until I figure that the shuttle is out of the frame. This way, I can just watch the shuttle with my naked eyeballs instead of through the camera… until I decide it is time to look through the camera, release the ball head, and start taking pictures following the shuttle up into the sky.

…so I hope this will work! If you think I’m doing something dead-wrong or if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.


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