BG Pictures Photography | Last Flight Of Space Shuttle Discovery
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Last Flight Of Space Shuttle Discovery

26 Feb Last Flight Of Space Shuttle Discovery

So my good friend Melissa Smith that I hadn’t seen in 10 years was on her regular trip down to Florida from far northern states to try for the 5th time to see a Space Shuttle launch and called me to see if I could join her again. I said yes, since I had the date open, and we set out our plans for the day! Unlike her I’m not prepared to try multiple times over multiple days (her last attempt yielded several days stay with as many delays and an ultimate scrub). So luckily this time she got to see her first launch and I got to see another one on the first attempt!

I knew going in that I wanted to take a cool shot, but wanted something different, as we’ve all seen the standard closeup launch shots a million times, and I’ve also taken them enough – and besides, you can find shots from NASA that blow anything private out of the sky (pun intended).

This time we would be at Space View Park, Titusville, as it provides one of the best vantage points looking directly at the shuttle, the launch towers and Vehicle Assembly Building across the river to the island. The only downside photographically speaking is the distance, of just under 12 miles to the shuttle. Knowing this, and lacking a 2000mm lens, I knew a close up shot was impossible even if I wanted it. Anything shot even with a monster lens (and there were a few 600-800mm in attendance at the park both direct and using 2x extenders) and cropping would still be very small in the frame. So I wanted to thus do a wide angle shot, incorporating something cool in to the foreground as well to tell the story a bit further.

Even that would be fairly common so what could I do to make it more unique? I landed on the idea of a long exposure shot. Cool, no sweat, I do long exposure night shots all the time. Oh darn, it’s a day launch! OK, a problem, but that just means I need a creative solution! Now comes the hard part, making calculations based on some educated guesses.

First of all, I knew the goal – I wanted a light trail through the frame, I wanted the ambient light a 1/2 stop or so under exposed for better contrast and saturation since it will be in direct afternoon sunlight. The exhaust light I knew was going to be VERY bright and had to make a guess that it was around 10 stops brighter than the ambient was going to be. There was no way to test the thought since I didn’t have any rockets to view before hand 🙂 Second, I wanted an interesting composure but didn’t know where in frame the shuttle was going to go or be at any given time. I knew approximately what was going to happen such as the roll schedule, the booster separation time, the throttle up time, etc. but didn’t know where in the sky from that vantage point it would all be seen. I took an estimate at a 1 minute exposure to be close to the booster separation time, since I figured by then it would be very small and not significant enough to shoot anyway (and I was right). I knew that missions to the ISS would mean a left banking shot, so I framed for that. I missed my mark by estimating the height though, and it shot just out of frame, but I still like the shot without the top arc of the trail anyway.

Hoping my 10 stop difference was accurate, I needed to then balance ambient and the flame trail somehow. Lacking a very expensive 10 stop neutral density filter I came up with a solution on my own, using two used linear polarizing filters that I bought from my local camera shop for $25. Rotating them almost 90 degrees to each other and stacking them gave a slight hue shift that was easily corrected in Lightroom, and also gave about a 10 stop NDF effect as most of the light was then blocked by the polarizer screens. Cool, I had my filter!

I used a little creativity to cut a strip of matboard wrapped around the inner lips of the filters and used zip ties to secure them in the right position together, then used electrical tape to secure the assembly to the end of my lens, set at 70mm. The filters were just larger than the lens for a perfect FOV filter-wise and the electrical tape blocked out all light from the seam.

I set focus manually to infinity, set exposure to bulb at f/16 ISO 100 and manually actuated the shutter for a 1 minute exposure, which will just barely underexposed ambient, and would give me enough length of the trail to at least cover the frame. I started the exposure just before lift off and crossed my fingers, it was a one shot attempt! Below is the result, and a proceeding shot of the awesome vapor and smoke trails that set out just after lift off. Also, pre-dawn (I got there at 5am to join Melissa who had been there since 9pm the previous day to secure the spot in the park, and thus camped out there) the launch tower was lit up with spot lights and I took this beautiful shot of the scene over the water. Here is our best band saw.

Overall it was a great experience!