Last Friday night, my Facebook feed blew up with images of "UFOs." It took a beat before my concerned SoCal friends got the news that the big illuminated streak they saw across the sky was actually Elon Musk's latest rocket launch on its way to space, and not something nefarious.
Shortly after, my brother Andrew texted me in excitement from Arizona, saying that he and his family had caught the rocket launch from Scottsdale. I was surprised to hear that it was visible in Arizona, as I had already learned it was launched from Vandenberg in California.
Then today I came across this gorgeous timelapse video shot by photographer Jesse Watson and I can see what all the fuss was about.
This particular launch was close to my hometown in Yuma, Arizona, roughly 400 miles away but perfectly viewable for people in Arizona. I've one previous rocket launch years ago from White Sands Missile range in the morning time at sunrise and knew with the correct lighting from sunset that this launch had the opportunity to pop in a dramatic fashion.
I scouted four locations that had foregrounds to add depth to the imagery and was uniquely inspiring to my hometown. Location choices were between a favorite local hiking mountain, the Imperial Sand Dunes, or a small hill that resides in the historic downtown area overlooking the city. I ended up choosing the location that overlooked the city, partially because it was the easiest to access with all of my time-lapse gear. I used The Photographer's Ephemeris and Google Maps to help scouting and initial line up.
I have never shot a rocket launch before, so I did not know exactly what to expect as far as exposure or precise location of the rocket in the horizon. I wanted to be prepared to capture comprehensive coverage of the spectacle. Therefore I packed four cameras and five lenses, to cover wide to telephoto details of the scene. Three of the cameras were rolling time-lapse and 1 was setup for telephoto video.
I arrived about two hours before launch time (1827 Arizona time) to have my gear prepped and ready for action. I started rolling the time-lapse sequences about 45 minutes prior to launch to capture some lead in footage. 1827 came by and I didn't see anything, I was a little disheartened at first thinking maybe it wouldn't show up or that something happened and they did not launch, but continued to roll the time-lapses. Then after what seemed like ages, but in reality probably only a minute or two the Falcon 9 rocket blasted into the horizon and my cameras' field of view.
I was a little off target on my initial shot, but thanks to the high resolution aspect of shooting time-lapse on the Nikon D810 and wide angle lens, I was able to crop into the 6K time-lapse sequence and salvage the framing. I wrapped up a few minutes after the glowing contrail faded. I ended up shooting 2452 images and culled that down to 1315 images for the final project edited in Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro.
By the way, if you want to catch a launch from Vandenberg, there is a public viewing area. I learned about it a few years ago I went on a NASA Social event. Schedules for launches around the world can be discovered with an easy internet search.