Last Friday SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket which illuminated the skies above Southern California at a spectacularly unusual way, leaving several unsuspecting individuals to wonder whether they were witnessing a comet, assault, or the end of days. SpaceX founder Elon Musk confessed the bizarre atmospheric impact but did not help clarify things much.
Photographer Jesse Watson was in local Yuma, Arizona to picture a timelapse of the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Having never filmed a rocket before he wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but this 40 seconds of footage has been well worth the attempt. PetaPixel has some additional details about how Watson managed to find the shot.
This particular launch was close to my hometown in Yuma, Arizona, roughly 400 miles away but perfectly viewable for people in Arizona. I’ve one previous rocket launch years ago from White Sands Missile range in the morning time at sunrise and knew with the correct lighting from the sunset that this launch had the opportunity to pop in a dramatic fashion.
I scouted four locations that had foregrounds to add depth to the imagery and was uniquely inspiring to my hometown. Location choices were between a favorite local hiking mountain, the Imperial Sand Dunes, or a small hill that resides in the historic downtown area overlooking the city. I ended up choosing the location that overlooked the city, partially because it was the easiest to access with all of my time-lapse gear. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Google Maps to help scouting and initial line up.
I have never shot a rocket launch before, so I did not know exactly what to expect as far as exposure or precise location of the rocket in the horizon. I wanted to be prepared to capture comprehensive coverage of the spectacle. Therefore I packed four cameras and five lenses, to cover wide to telephoto details of the scene. Three of the cameras were rolling time-lapse and 1 was setup for telephoto video.
I arrived about two hours before launch time (1827 Arizona time) to have my gear prepped and ready for action. I started rolling the time-lapse sequences about 45 minutes prior to launch to capture some lead in footage. 1827 came by and I didn’t see anything, I was a little disheartened at first thinking maybe it wouldn’t show up or that something happened and they did not launch, but continued to roll the time-lapses. Then after what seemed like ages, but in reality probably only a minute or two the Falcon 9 rocket blasted into the horizon and my cameras’ field of view.
I was a little off target on my initial shot, but thanks to the high resolution aspect of shooting time-lapse on the Nikon D810 and wide angle lens, I was able to crop into the 6K time-lapse sequence and salvage the framing. I wrapped up a few minutes after the glowing contrail faded. I ended up shooting 2452 images and culled that down to 1315 images for the final project edited in Adobe After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro.