The Secret to Shooting a Rocket Streak Shot



Providing information about how to take a picture of a rocket is hard. There are very few websites and guides that attempt to tackle teaching how to photograph a rocket launch. I'm sure this is because of the variety of cameras, skill levels, settings and situations. That is why these tips are based on my experiences, with my equipment and no way intends to be a definitive end all be all of how to shoot a rocket launch. But it will give you a good place to start your journey and, in many cases, answer the “but why?”.


My first Streak Shot from my backyard



The good stuff first.


Example Streak Shot Settings.


      • Plan location

      • Use wide angle lens 24mm to 14mm

      • Switch to manual focus and leave it.

      • Focus on infinity

      • Place launch pad in the left bottom 1/3 of frame

      • Put camera in manual mode

      • Use Shutter Speed “T” for time or choose 5 to 8 minutes

      • Use aperture F11, F13, or F16

      • Use ISO 64 or 100

      • Use your camera's “RAW” format

      • Use Auto white balance or set to 5000k

      • Use Matrix metering

      • Remove lens cap and clean lens

      • Use sturdy tripod

      • Monitor launch operation and time


My favorite shot is the “Streak” shot. It was the most fascinating thing about rocket launch photography when I was starting. It was like a magic trick, an illusion that just didn't' make sense to me. Trying to replicate the bright orange streak that outlines the flight path of a launching rocket over 5 minutes became an obsession of mine.


I now know to accomplish getting the “streak” I need to use manual mode because unlike in every other situation where the camera's computer wants to create a perfect exposure by picking the best settings automatically I am going to sabotage that by picking my own settings. I set my long exposures a couple minutes past MICO which is main engine shut off because I think it's amazing to see the curved trajectory of the rocket. But this is all situational based on the rocket, the lens size, cloud cover, weather, and amount of day light. Variations in all these conditions will cause variations in what you will see in your final image.

A SpaceX rocket streaking over Exploration Tower


Planning my long exposure streak shot I make sure I have my camera in manual mode, I bring a wide-angle lens, a tripod, stopwatch and lens cleaning supplies. Location. Location. Location. Research where the launch is taking off. Know where to park and leave your car safely. Know what directions and what time it is going to liftoff. Plan what will be in the foreground. Consider the composition of the finial image. I leave plenty of camera frame for the rocket to fly into and to have room to crop the image later in post processing. I try to place the launch pad close to the left bottom third of the came frame. I use widest lens I have which is a 20 mm. The right lens is dependent on location location location, the closer the camera is the wider lens. The closest the general public can usually get to a launch is about 12 to 15 miles. At this distance I find a 20mm lens work fine. I attach the lens and camera to a tripod which is anchored securely on the ground and is level. Make sure it is protected from falling over, vibrations, wind and people bumping into it.



Next I focus the image manually and leave the focus in manual mode otherwise the camera's auto-focus will attempt to adjust the focus as the rocket is moving. Find something in the distance to focus on, the moon or a really bright light. I focus on the vehicle assembly building or the lights from Port Canaveral and get them as finely focused as I can. Next I turn the camera mode to manual mode. This will keep the camera from adjusting the aperture and shutter on its own. I put shutter speed on “t” for time which on my system means when I push the shutter it will stay open until I push the shutter again to close it. Some cameras have a bulb feature which keeps the shutter open while the button is pressed and as soon as it is release it closes but this will introduce a lot of vibration and camera shake. some cameras out there may have long shutter speeds of four, five, six or more minutes.


Next set the aperture. Here there is a debate on what settings to use. In my experience I use a very small aperture which are the big F stop numbers, generally f11, f13 or f16. The closer to the rocket the brighter the conditions at launch so the smaller the actual physical opening should be which means using the larger numbers in your aperture settings. This is because apertures are a faction. F16 is not a whole number it is 1/16. There is a debate that if you go too small you run the risk of creating distortion and lack of sharpness because the very tiny opening is doing weird things to the light. To compensate for this a larger aperture is used but it may be necessary to compensate for the light intensity by using a neutral density filter. This is something beyond the basics and requires a bit of trial and error and a good understanding of neutral density filters and f-stops.


Ready to shoot! Check... manual focus, manual mode, shutter speed set on time or 4 minutes or longer, aperture should be f11, 13 or 16 depending on how close you are, no lens cap, the lens should be clean and free of dust. I start my long exposure 1 minute prior to the launch. So, this means I need to know what time the rocket is launching. I monitor the launch communications using Space Launch Now app, spaceX's website, NASA's website or potentially another app that is out there. Once the rocket launches, I leave the shutter open until the rocket is completely out of site or until 5 minutes elapse on the stopwatch. When this happens, I push the shutter button to close the shutter. Once the camera finishes process the image it can be view. Once uploaded to a PC the image can be edited. Taking your images in camera RAW gives you much more information and ability to edit as opposed to JPEG.


Go shoot your masterpiece...oh the secret....ahhhh ok. What I have discovered is no matter how much a person reads about photography there is just no substitute for the experience they get by practicing over and over. I have learned more by messing up and experimenting then by just reading. The reading is important, but it really just qualifies you to begin making mistakes.


Good Shooting!

Richard P. Gallagher

Streak shot of SLS Artemis1