View Full Version : Photographing launches

02-24-2008, 06:46 PM
So, what is the minimum requirements for getting good launch photos/videos? I know my 1.2 mega-pixel Nextel phone just ain't gonna cut it. What are people around here using to capture the great snapshots and video's I've seen of launches?

02-24-2008, 07:19 PM
You need a shutter that doesn't lag, and a decent lens to let plenty of light in. Zoom isn't quite as important as how much light it will allow on the CCD or CMOS. If I were you, I'd make the move to a Digital SLR. That way you can add new lenses to your equipment in the future.

The low end SLR bodies are better than the best point-n-shoot all-in-one cameras unless something has changed in the last year or so. I haven't looked lately, so some of the top of the line non-SLR cameras might have a small enough shutter lag and big enough aperture on them to get adequate shots. I'd still go SLR, though.

No matter what you get, launch on a bright sunny day so that you can use faster shutter speeds. It would help if your camera had a "burst mode" or something equivalent where you can shoot 3-5 frames per second for a few seconds. Get the sun behind you. It helps to shoot sometime before or after high noon. In winter, high noon is fine because the sun will still be to the south of you. If your camera lens is fast enough (allows more light) you can get by with later afternoon shots, which make more interesting light and shadow.

02-24-2008, 08:44 PM
What tbzep said...


02-24-2008, 11:25 PM
I concur, tbzep is a master of launch/inflight photography!

02-25-2008, 12:44 PM
They are some "point-and-shoot" digital cameras that can might be suited for capturing launch photos, but they are about as expensive as a digital SLR and not as versatile. So, I agree that a digital SLR is the way to go.

One nice thing about a SLR is that you can start with a body and reasonably-priced lens and later invest in a better lens and faster memory card.

The advantage to digital is obvious - you can take many more photos without spending a fortune. I use a Canon EOS 20D. It takes about five photos a second for one or two seconds then continues for as fast as the memory card can accept images. So, in a typical day of launching, I'll take more than 1000 photos. Of those, most are of a rocket just sitting on the pad, or an empty pad and trail of smoke. After deleting those images, I'll have about 100 good launch photos.

Model rockets are generally harder to photograph than mid- and high-power rockets because they are smaller and move faster. You're usually closer to the launch pads so they appear to go up a lot faster than larger rockets. So, for model rockets, I often use a wider-angle lens and rely on "digital zooming" (i.e. cropping the photograph after I download it to my PC).

You can see my rocketry photos at: http://www.payloadbay.com/

-- Roger

02-25-2008, 01:12 PM
So, what is the minimum requirements for getting good launch photos/videos? I know my 1.2 mega-pixel Nextel phone just ain't gonna cut it. What are people around here using to capture the great snapshots and video's I've seen of launches?

Let me try to better answer your question ... the minimum requirements are the best digital SLR camera body and lens you can afford. Start with an affordable lens - something like the 18mm-to-55mm zoom lens included with most "starter kits." Also, pick up a good-sized, fast memory card. They aren't very expensive now.

Note: for most digital SLRs, the rated range of the lens isn't the actual range you'll get because the sensor in the digital camera is smaller than a 35mm film frame. Connected to my EOS 20D, an 18-55mm lens would act like a 28mm to 88mm lens.

You won't be able to zoom in close with am 18-55mm lens, but it'll be fairly fast (good at gathering light) without costing thousands of dollars. If you're posting your photos on the web, you can "digitally zoom" in on a rocket by cropping the photo before scaling it down to fit on a web page. Here's an example of cropping. The image below was originally about four times this size before I cropped it to just the interesting stuff.


I haven't looked at prices lately, but you should be able to get started with a good digital SLR body and lens for well under $1000. Later, you can add a longer zoom lens to allow you to get closer to the action.

If you can't afford a SLR camera, consider a good point-and-shoot. I can't recommend a specific one since I don't have much experience with them. You probably won't have much chance of catching close-up launch shots with a P&S, but you can take nice wider-angle photos. Just stand back, set the camera to it's widest angle, and wait until the rocket's in the air. Something like:


DPReview.com is a good place to compare cameras and lenses.

As far as video, even the least expensive mini-DV or Digital-8 camcorder takes decent video. I recently bought a little mini-DV camcorder for about $150. The quality of the video is not nearly as good as from my older Digital-8 camcorder, but it's not bad. I can't really recommend a really cheap camcorder like the one I bought since better ones aren't much more expensive.

-- Roger