4K SpaceX Night launch w/landing! Vandenberg/Transporter 7 multi-camera
Here is my 4K video from a SpaceX Falcon-9 night launch with landing back at the pad at Vandenberg.
Shot from near the Federal Prison, where you can see the tower (at the cost of some distance.) This was my first night launch, and they are super high-dynamic-range and thus incredibly difficult to photograph. It was scheduled for Thursday at 11:47pm but was scrubbed 30 seconds before launch -- grrrr -- but we stuck around another day and it went off Friday with a bit of marine layer in the way but still spectacular. (You can see the rocket through the clouds most of the time.)
My video includes my 400mm lens for close up of the launch (set to 100mm by mistake for landing) and some general wide angle, auto-exposure to slow the clouds and terrain lighting up. I also short a wide angle with a different camera but frankly it didn't add much. I hand pointed some close-up during the climb when it got past the clouds, but decided to just watch instead. So I didn't film the coolest part, which is the boost-back burn (see that at twilight, it is spectacular.) The re-entry burn is short and bright, then you see nothing until just before landing. And two sonic booms.
The best advice is not to shoot at all unless you are looking for a challenge. Watch your first few launches in your binoculars. If you like, set up a camera on a tripod and shoot a movie without touching the camera, either zoomed at the pad to catch the first 10 seconds, or wide to catch more of the arc but no close details. Put your camera in manual focus! Either choose an exposure or trust your auto-exposure possibly with some exposure compensation as auto-exposure will totally blow out the rocket.
The rocket is super bright, so you have to shoot it around f/5.6 1/500th second at 800 ISO. But then you don't see anything else but the plume. If you want to get serious about this you would need to shoot real HDR (not just the HDR of an HDR video camera.) ie. shoot with different video cameras, one doing the short exposure, others longer to capture the way the clouds and land light up like daylight and then tone map it. If anybody makes a video camera that shoots something like a 1/30th, then a 1/200th then a 1/500th for every frame, that might do the trick. Or for stills but it's so fast.
The most spectacular launch is one in twilight, about 30-60 minutes after sunset or before sunrise. Absolutely incredible, I want to return for that. Not as much range needed.
To get detail on the rocket you need a very long lens -- 400mm to 800mm. But that's also kind of boring so you also want wide angle views to show the scale of things and the cool events.
The closest and best location is Surf Beach, but it's often closed during launches and also often cloudy. We were told if the launch coincides with the daily Amtrak train (there is a station at Surf beach and the track goes right by the pad) they will hold the train there, giving a fantastic view to passengers and those who are going to pick them up at the station. But this is very hard to time.
The closest general locations are along Ocean Blvd in Lompoc. They close the really close ones or block parking. This is where to go to get the loudest sound and brightest rocket, but you can't see the tower, so you only see the rocket as it rises above the hill, and the same problem on landing.
We selected the location just past the Federal Prison, which is 3km further but up a hill, so you can see the top half of the tower, and a bit more of the landing (but not the last bit.) Another location that may be open is here where we watched a Delta launch. This location is higher but further, and reportedly sees even more of the tower but you lose a lot with the distance. It may not even be open. We chosen the prison location due to the desire to see the landing.
You can listen/watch the SpaceX feed live on Youtube. But it's not live, it's about 20 seconds delayed. So when they say something is happening, it's over. You want to catch that launch and those burns so you must either figure out the delay and account for it (the timings are known in advance of course) or just be ready.
A good exposure for the rocket exhaust is 1/500th at f/5.6 at 800 ISO. But that puts a lot of other stuff in the dark. You can go a bit brighter and blow out the exhaust a bit to catch more detail on the rocket body, clouds, and things on the ground. But it may be best to have multiple cameras at different exposurse.
If shooting stills, you can shoot raw and bracket. From the bracket you can produce HDRs in various tools, though of course the rocket will move -- like a rocket -- between exposures, and the exhaust is very dynamic so it will be hard to blend. You will need to do work by hand.
Many people like to do a time exposure at night that captures the full arc of the climb of the rocket. Those are cool but many have done them and there are articles about how to shoot them. Another trick is to shoot the 4K movie and then blend the frames to produce a better version of this result. This is lots of work, but of course gives you many options after the fact.
Tracking with a very long lens is hard. You don't want to watch the launch through a viewfinder unless you have seen a ton of them. Binoculars are best for yourself, or even a small telescope. Some people have built fancy tracking rigs to use motorized telescope mounts to track the bright spot. You can stabilize video after, though.
We often watch these launches from right in front of our house. They are not as dramatic as going there, of course, but still cool and if you have the right view, you walk 20 steps to see them. The twilight space jellyfish can be very dramatic even from 250 miles away. Daytime launches are sometimes hard to spot, night are easy.
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