How to Photograph a Rocket Launch at Night

Tips & Techniques

With companies like SpaceX launching more and more rockets into space, it’s easier than ever to get some interesting rocket launch photos. I saw and photographed my first launches earlier this year, and this article has my takeaways.

Since I’ve only photographed two launches so far, I’m hardly an expert, but this article should still be useful if you’re new to rocket launch photography. It’s not the type of subject that lets you take your time or try out a lot of variations, unless you live near a launchpad. Even then, you may be limited to capturing just one photo per launch. So, it’s important to know ahead of time how to get it right.

The type of photo I’m going to show you how to take looks like this – a long exposure photograph of the entire launch, to get an arc of flame across the sky:

Rocket Launch at Night
NIKON Z 6 + NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S @ 14mm, ISO 100, 299 seconds, f/5.0

Table of Contents

Planning

Step one is to plan out the photo you want to take, and make sure that you’re not caught off guard when the rocket launches. The good news is that there are several websites you can use to help plan your rocket launch photos. Here are the two that I found the most helpful:

  • Spaceflight Now: This is a good resource for upcoming launches (everywhere, not just in the US) and has accurate information about the start times for each launch. You can also go to Spaceflight Now’s homepage on the days leading up to the launch to see a dedicated article with live updates and forecasts (such as the odds of favorable launch conditions).
  • SpaceX’s homepage: If the launch you’re watching is from SpaceX, check this website about ten or fifteen minutes beforehand to catch a livestream with useful information. This can help you learn if the launch has been delayed at the last minute, as it sometimes is. Note that this livestream is usually delayed by at least a minute, so don’t take it as accurate on when to start your camera’s exposure.

I recommend setting some timers to go off ahead of time so that you correctly capture the moment of launch. It’s best to base this information on Spaceflight Now’s page rather than any livestream you’re watching, which is likely to have at least a slight delay.

Camera Equipment

There are only two requirements for your camera equipment if this is the type of photo you want to take: a wide-angle lens and a tripod.

Without a wide-angle lens, the “arc” of the rocket during a long exposure won’t completely fit in your frame. And, without a tripod or some other stable platform, you won’t be able to do long exposures in the first place.

Ideally, you should use about a 20mm lens (full frame equivalent). If you have an APS-C crop sensor camera, that translates to a 13mm lens. On a Micro Four-Thirds camera, it’s a 10mm lens.

You can technically get away with about a 28mm lens (18mm on APS-C; 14mm on Micro Four-Thirds). However, this lens will just barely fit the rocket arc in the photo, giving you very little leeway in your composition. If you frame the photo wrong, you’ll cut off part of the rocket’s arc.

Here’s a comparison of focal lengths and their effect on your composition. Note that all of these values are the full frame equivalent focal lengths:

Focal Length Comparison Rockt Launch

If you have an APS-C crop sensor camera, divide these numbers by 1.5. If you have a Micro Four-Thirds camera, divide them by 2.

Another important factor is how far away you are from the launch. I took these about 35 miles away. The closer you are, the wider your lens will need to be, and the more you’ll need to frame your composition toward the sky.

(Side note: It should be possible to take photos like this with your phone, if you have a long exposure simulation app like ProCam or something similar, plus a tripod. I haven’t yet tried this myself, so don’t blame me if it doesn’t work. I recommend taking some test photos ahead of time so you’re familiar with the app and know how to lock focus in the distance.)

Camera Settings

Exposure

Rocket launches at night are bright even from dozens of miles away, and you need to be careful to avoid overexposure. Here are the camera settings I recommend:

  • Camera Mode: Manual
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter Speed: 5 minutes
  • File Type: RAW

This may give you an image that looks slightly underexposed, but it shouldn’t be hard to recover the shadows in Lightroom or Photoshop if you shot in RAW.

Focusing

Once you’ve set your camera, it’s important to focus properly at infinity. Unlike some landscape photography in the middle of nowhere, it should be possible to find good focusing targets by looking for lights in the distance. Just magnify live view, focus on them, and switch to manual focus either on the lens or the camera. After that point, don’t touch your lens’s focusing or zoom ring until you’re finished taking the picture.

Bulb Mode

Of the exposure settings I listed, the only one that may be difficult to set is your shutter speed of five minutes. Most cameras max out at 30 seconds, so you need to find some way to get around that limitation.

Personally, I enabled the Time exposure or “T” shutter speed on my camera, which is found in manual mode by setting a shutter speed beyond 30 seconds. This allowed me to press the shutter button once to start the exposure, and a second time five minutes later to end the exposure.

However, many cameras don’t have a “T” exposure mode, so you’ll need to use “B” or Bulb exposure instead. This one is a bit more annoying, because it requires you to hold down the shutter release button constantly during the entire exposure (probably leading to camera shake that makes your photo blurry, even on a tripod). In that case, your best option is to trigger bulb mode using an external remote release for your camera. You can see more in our guide to bulb mode here.

Conclusion

I still haven’t captured exactly the image I have in mind, and even the best photo that I did get is a composite of two shots – one long exposure for the rocket arc, and one shorter exposure for the pattern in the water. Sometimes, that’s how it goes with subjects like this, where you only have a short window to capture them correctly. But there will be plenty of other rocket launches in the future, so I’ll keep trying!

Either way, I hope this article gave you some good ideas and background information so you can start off on the right foot. It’s pretty amazing to see a rocket launch at night, let alone photograph one, so make sure to have fun while you’re out there.

Rocket Launch at Night

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