Richard Nakka's Experimental Rocketry Web Site

The Art and Science of Rocketry Photography
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A bit of history

I have had many years of experience photographing and videographing rocket launches. I started out by photographing my very first launch. That was way back in 1972. The photo was crummy, blurred from jiggling the camera ( cameras were notoriously motion-sensitive back then), but notably, that photo turned out sufficiently well to serve as a valued keepsake of the debut event of rocketry adventures.

The photo camera that I used back then was an Imperial Mark XII. This was an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera that took decent black and white photos. It wasn’t long before I replaced it with a Kodak Instamatic camera, with colour film, which improved my photo taking by a notch or two. Cameras back then used film to capture images, which had two very significant drawbacks. You had to wait until the roll of film was fully used up (typically 24 photos) before taking it to the local drugstore to be developed. And of course, the development process often took several days. Initially I got around this by developing and printing black & white photos in my own darkroom. It was too expensive to process colour film on my own. Being too impatient to wait around to see how the colour photos of my rocket launch turned out, I soon purchased a Polaroid Square Shooter 2, an instant camera which processed photos on-the-spot. The quality of the images was not the greatest, there was no negative (for making reprints), and the images tended to fade over time.

I eventually bought a ‘real’ camera -- a Pentax Spotmatic-F. This represented a quantum leap in my photo taking capabilities, as this camera gave great flexibility in choosing aperture and exposure settings, film speed, and had interchangeable lenses. This camera served me well for a couple of decades, until the digital-photo revolution changed things forever. I bought my first digital camera in 2003, it was a Minolta Dimage E201. This camera was a sad introduction to the digital world. Battery life was atrocious and then the camera repeatedly failed. I twice returned it for replacement, with each replacement unit faring no better. I figured that Minolta misspelled the name, as a more fitting name would have been “Damage” Nevertheless, I immediately recognized that digital was vastly superior to the old film technology, and things were certain to rapidly improve. With digital technology being in its infancy, growing pains were inevitable. Soon afterward I purchased a Canon A70, which took great photos and served me well until, it too, suffered a serious failure due to a flawed CCD design. I replaced this with another similar Canon camera until I got fed up with the limitations of point-and-shoot cameras. At this point in time (around 2010) the price of digital SLR cameras became affordable and so I bought a Fujifilm Finepix S1500. With 12X optical zoom and macrofocus, video capability as well as the ability to control aperture and shutter speeds, this proved to be an ideal camera for my rocketry hobby. I still use the Finepix as my primary photographic camera.

Arguably even more important than still photos, video or “motion-picture” footage provides a vital dynamic element to the photographic record of rocketry events. In addition to the dramatic value, real-time footage can be invaluable for analysis of a rocket flight or a motor static test, or other rocketry activities that involves a rapidly moving or changing event. To this end, I purchased an inexpensive movie camera in 1973, a Bell + Howell 670 “super-8” film camera. Compared to today’s video camcorders, the image quality and features paled severely in comparison. There was no sound, the image quality was mediocre, and a film cartridge provided for no more than a couple of minutes of filming (which actually was fine for rocketry events which are typically very short lived). As with still-image cameras, the movie film needed to be consumed prior to taking it to be developed, a less than satisfying feature. In addition, it was necessary to have a movie projector to view the developed film. It was notoriously common for the rather fragile film to get damaged during projection, which involved a complicated mechanical dance through the bowels of the projector. With these drawbacks, the movie camera was not utilized nearly as much as it might have been. Instead I mainly relied on still images for recording my rocket-related activities.

The advent of the camcorder marked a leap forward in videography. By early 2001, camcorders became affordable and I purchased one specifically to film the flight of my Cirrus rocket. This was a Samsung SCL610 unit that recorded analog video on magnetic tape. It was a hit and I used it extensively to film rocket launches and static firings. There were a few drawbacks, such as unexceptional image quality and the fact that it performed poorly in cold weather. When digital camcorders became affordable, I purchased one, expecting that the drawbacks of the Samsung unit would be history. Indeed, the Canon ZR70 with 22X optical zoom performed beautifully and set a new benchmark for recording in vivid detail. Until the infamous CCD flaw raised its ugly head, that is. Good news is that Canon fixed the camera free-of-charge. The one irritating drawback to this camera was the lack of eyecup. In place of an eyecup, the viewfinder had a rubber bumper, which was useless as a substitute. To resolve this, I removed the excellent eyecup from my now-obsolete Samsung camcorder, and macgyvered it onto the Sony. Video technology was changing rapidly, a mixed blessing. Greater megapixels, more compact size, image stabilization were some of the blessings. Obsolescence was the opposite side of the coin. One day I discovered that my new computer couldn’t download the video file from my ZR70. No “Firewire” card, which had gone to the side-of-the-curb with my erstwhile computer.

My present-day camcorder, a Sony HDR-CX405, has proven to be an excellent camera for filming rocket flights. The good points of this camera are its High-Definition recording, it is small and lightweight, has a 30× optical zoom capacity, autostabilization and functions in extreme cold.  One key drawback, however, is lack of viewfinder, solely having an LCD screen for imaging. When I first started using this camera, I found it impossible to use an LCD screen to follow a rocket in flight, especially in bright sunlight. I nearly “threw the camera away”, but an idea to overcome this shortcoming came to me just prior to writing off the camera as a $400 mistake. More on this later.

Weather conditions are definitely a factor that plays a role in photography. I’ve photographed and videographed rocketry events in all sorts of weather extremes, from plus 35 degrees C. to minus 27 degrees C. Winds gusting to 35 km/hr. I’ve learned that certain practices improve the likelihood of successful photography under these adverse conditions.


My tips:

1)    If equipped with autofocus, camera or camcorder MUST be put on manual focus setting, set to focus on “infinity”.  This is accomplished by manually focusing on a far-away object. Never try to film a flight with autofocus on, as the autofocus will kick in once the rocket has ascended nearly out of visual sight. Also smoke quite effectively fools autofocus.

2)    When filming video of a flight, sit in a comfortable folding chair with a back that’ll allow you to lean back as the rocket ascends overhead. Don’t stand while filming. Especially if there’s a strong wind blowing. A gusting wind wreaks havoc on one’s ability to film when using high-zoom. Two legs make for a poor tripod. It has been suggested that laying flat on one’s back is the best way to film a flight (certainly a stable position). However, I have not yet tried this.

3)    In cold weather use gloves with appropriate finger tips cut off to operate a camera. If gloves are not used, and the temperature is low enough, your hand become numb and unable to finely finger the zoom control. Keep your hands warm and nimble with chemical hand-warmers in your mitts prior to filming.

4)    Camera (or camcorder) should have at least 20× optical zoom. Not digital zoom, which is useless and should be turned off.

5)    A must-have feature for your camera (or camcorder) is image stabilization, either optical or virtual. My Sony HDR-CX405 has a feature deemed Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, which uses a built-in gyro sensor to detect camera shake and automatically shifts the lens to help prevent blur without sacrificing image quality. This attribute is essential when using high-zoom to film the rocket along its flight path. This feature makes a world of difference, which is very apparent when comparing rocket videos taken with my Sony compared to videos taken with my older Canon camcorder, which lacked this feature.

6)    Overcast sky provides a poor backdrop for filming a flight. Best conditions are blue sky with bright sun and little wind. Bright sun illuminates the smoke trail and pyro-charge smoke clouds. Also the sun reflects off the rocket, helping to track the rocket through the viewfinder. Shiny chrome or aluminum tape bands affixed to the rocket are very helpful, generate glinting or flashing. Bright or contrasting colours help visibility to some degree. In overcast conditions, fluorescent orange shows up well. In sunlight with a blue sky, alternating black and white colours work well.

7)    When filming a launch, have the sun at your back. The sun will illuminate the rocket, making it easier to see. Also, this eliminates glare from the sun shining on the camera lens.

8)    Take lots of photos and video. With digital storage media, space is not a problem. It costs nothing more to take 50 shots than it costs to take 5 shots.

9)    Include people in your photos and videos. This serves two purposes – provides a useful size reference and adds an appealing human element to the activity.

10)  Use the highest resolution setting of the camera for launch photos. There’s arguably no photos more important than your rocketry photos.

11)  LCD screens are useless other than for showing REC and the ZOOM level. This is particularly true in bright sunlight. I have never been successful in following a rocket in flight using the LCD screen. Camcorder should therefore be equipped with a viewfinder fitted with an eyecup. Many camcorders come with a “bumper” instead of an eyecup, which is useless. A real eyecup needs to actually cup your eye. This is necessary to block outside light which can flood your eye and make it difficult to see the image in the viewfinder. Some camcorders (and cameras) can be fitted with an eyecup that can be purchased separately.

12)  If your video recording device does not have a viewfinder (only an LCD screen) such as my Sony HDR-CX405, a “scope tube” can be used instead to visually follow the rocket in flight. A scope tube is simply a tube, which can be made of any suitable material, that is mounted on the camcorder, utilizing a suitable bracket and duct tape. It is important that the scope tube be aligned. The can be achieved by zooming-in on a distant object than adjusting the tube mount such that the object is perfectly centered in the tube.  I have found that this device works very well, and “saved” my Sony HDR-CX405. The camcorder is held about a foot (30cm) in front of your eye, with the subject (rocket) visually centered in the tube. The LCD screen is used to view your zoom level setting, which can be changed “on the fly”. With some practice, you’ll learn how to use the zoom effectively.

13)   Use a tripod for videographing a static test. There is no need (or benefit) for holding the camera, as there is when videographing a rocket launch.

14)   When videographing a static test, locate the tripod-mounted camera upwind. This is to prevent exhaust smoke from obscuring the footage.

Last updated

Originally posted  August 10, 2016

Last updated  December 9, 2022

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