As a member of the media, I have the opportunity to leave automated cameras significantly closer than any human will be during the rocket launch. This article breaks down a multitude of complexities that go into setting those cameras up and ensuring they capture the amazing shots that you all see in articles and posted on social media.
Triggering the camera
Since it is not safe to be out at the pad during the launch, we require our cameras to be automated mainly this is usually accomplished with sound triggers. A company called MIOPS makes camera triggers that can also be used for rockets, and while a lot of photographers do use them, I personally prefer to make my own triggers and so do a few of the other photographers.
Sound may be the most popular way to trigger cameras, but it isn’t the only way, two other common methods are light and timed. Sound is always an excellent option for rockets as they are deafeningly loud, but sound can also be slow and add some delay to when the remote camera is triggered, particularly for cameras set farther from the rocket. For night launches, a remedy is triggering our cameras with light; without the sun present in the sky, there is a sharp increase in light when the rocket engines fire up.
One issue with some sound triggers is false triggers, triggers like miops use a set sound threshold a serious issue with some sound triggers is false firings. Triggers like MIOPS use a set sound sensitivity threshold, which is often set lower to fire earlier. Anything loud before launch can set the cameras off; for example, a rain storm may leave SD cards full, and camera batteries dead if the trigger is set too sensitive. One great feature of my remote camera triggers is that they utilize average sound level rather than a locked sensitivity threshold, enabling my cameras to survive even a heavy rain storm without false triggers.
Time is another good way to trigger cameras, particularly video cameras as it is desired to begin the video before the rocket’s engines ignite. Time can, however, run into issues with long windows where the camera would have to record the whole window, and if launch scrubs or delays, the camera records anyways.
Wireless RF triggering, a method that may appear to be excellent, but is actually prohibited. The satellite/payload is often sensitive to RF signals, so anything left at the pad during launch must not emit any RF. So remote triggers can’t use anything wireless and any camera has to have its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned off, and any cell phone remote must be in airplane mode, it’s also never a bad idea to ask the launch provided ahead of time if you plan on using a cell phone as a remote.
Risks to Gear – Protection
Surprisingly, the rocket isn’t the biggest threat to our remote cameras, rather mother nature is, particularly with rain. There are two main ways we protect our gear; bags and boxes. Each method has its ups and down, and there is no real best way to protect gear. Bags are generally just trash bags that have a hole made for the front of the lens, to poke out, and the large opening is secured below the camera, This method is fast and gives excellent access to the camera when setting and resetting, but there is a risk of accidently ripping the bag, or having holes. Boxes are generally regarded as more protective, but also can limit your access to the camera during set and reset, slowing the photographer down and making it easier to make mistakes.
Personally, I use a mix of bags and custom 3D printed boxes. With my boxes, I have no access to the camera when the box is on, but my boxes attach to the hot shoe of my cameras. This makes them easy to remove and put back on, allowing me to work completely unobstructed by simply taking the box off when I need to access the camera. One downside of my box design, however, is that the bottom is not protected. This isn’t an issue in normal situations, but if the camera was ever knocked over, it would be left mostly unprotected.
For our cameras to be successful, it is important that the tripod stays in place. For that, we have tent stakes, Not all photographers use them as it takes valuable time away from setup, but most do. There are two things that can knock over a remote camera rig – wind and rocket. At lift off, the rocket forces an enormous amount of air, water, and smoke out the flame trench, if a camera finds itself on the receiving end of this it may end up knocked over. There are two popular ways of staking a tripod: either staking the legs directly or using a bungee cord to attach a stake to the center point of the tripod. Personally, I usually stake just my front leg of the tripod; occasionally, I’ll stake more legs when closer, and conversely, when I’m farther I’ll often not stake. I have only ever had one camera fall over – a GoPro on a very small tripod.
The other thing we have to protect our cameras from is solid rocket booster exhaust, while liquid Another concern the cameras must be protected from is solid rocket booster exhaust. Unlike liquid engine exhaust, the combustion byproducts from solid propellants are very corrosive and basic. Solid exhaust will cause tripods to rust and can destroy the front element of lenses. Photographers could try to protect the tripod, but most will just use our tripods like normal and rinse them off when we get home. In the close remote camera spots, when a rocket uses solids, it is usually wise to use a clear filter to protect the front element.
Brush fires, while fairly rare, have killed cameras before. A notable example is when a small brush fire lit by a Falcon 9 during a Vandenberg launch once spread to where Bill Ingalls had a camera set, destroying the lens of the camera and damaging the body.
While not a threat to the camera, dew and humidity is a threat to getting the shot right for night launches, and sometimes even day launches. The most common way to prevent dew is to heat the front of the lens. The most common way to heat the lens element is with chemical hand warmers. A more complex option is electric lens heaters, but those are less common because they are very power hungry. A more passive solution is to keep the front of the lens covered until the launch window opens.
The chemical heaters last longer than their rated 10 or 18 hours in our use case, because our hand warmers are still, unlike they would be for a human. They harden and aren’t mixed around, slowing the reaction as the iron oxide crystals are receiving less oxygen.
You don’t have to risk your best gear to get good remote shots, lots of rocket photographers buy used and have cheaper cameras for remotes. While there are a variety of reasons newer cameras are better, old cameras are still perfectly capable of getting good shots. The oldest camera I have used as a remote is a Canon 40D, a 10 megapixel camera released in 2007, there isn’t much room to crop, but other than that I don’t mind it as a remote and it takes good photos. My cheapest remote only cost me around $100~125 with a Canon SL1, Canon 18-55mm, tripod, 3d printed box, and trigger.
It varies based on launch provider and pad, but generally we aren’t given a large amount of time to set up our cameras, so having cameras prepped before remote setup is important to properly utilize the time you’re out there. Generally, I take a little under five minutes to set each of my DSLR remotes, and about two minutes for my one GoPro. The more cameras you want to set, the more you are pressured to set fast. I only set 3-5 cameras and can finish with time to spare, but others who set more cameras often run out of time, and have to leave with unset cameras. Additionally, besides setting remotes, we like to get photos of the rocket on the pad. Luckily, this process usually doesn’t take up too much time and is often just a few shots taken from next to our cars when we are putting our gear away.
KSC is a Wildlife Refuge
Kennedy Space Center is located on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, so even the pads aren’t as controlled of an environment as you might think, while I’ve never seen any wildlife inside of the pad fences, there is still plenty of nature inside the fences, such as tall grass, mud, and plants with burrs. Some of the spots we set remotes can get muddy so don’t wear your good shoes and pants to a remote set. One partially annoying piece of nature that you can’t escape no matter the pad is burrs, we are usually kneeling down in the grass when we set our cameras and usually we leave with dozens of burrs on our pants; on multiple occasions the burrs have even broke my skin. The grass around pads isn’t the most consistently cut, so the grass is often tall, not a real issue, but it can limit camera placement options if a short tripod is being used. Driving to the pad for remote set I have however seen wildlife, I have had to swerve around tortoises in the road probably a half dozen different times.
Scrubs and Delays
Rockets don’t always launch on the first attempt, often weather or issues with the rocket or pad will Scrub or delay the launch. When this happens we usually get to go out and check on our cameras and make sure they are still working, generally we will wipe lenses, change batteries, clear SD cards, and replace handwarmers. We are supposed to set our camera for 48 hours so we won’t always get a reset for only a 24 hour delay, but we often do. Photo cameras have battery life for a while, at least 1 to 2 weeks in ideal conditions and without false triggers. Video cameras, however, are usually a little more needy because of their increased battery and storage needs, also due to them often being scheduled to record instead of being triggered by the rocket, recording whether or not the rocket launches.
There are a lot of different things that limit how long a remote is good, camera battery life, trigger battery life, storage space, and heaters. Generally 18 hour handwarmers do last longer than 18 hours, but they are still usually the first thing to go. There are many factors that limit how long a remote is still reliable, including camera battery life, trigger battery life, storage space, and heaters. The hand warmers used to keep lenses from dewing are the first to have time-related issues, with the 18 hour warmers lasting just more than one launch attempt. However, these aren’t always needed, as lens hoods are often sufficient in preventing dew, and can work in concert with dew heaters. Cameras have an automatic sleep mode that is very efficient, so as long as the camera isn’t false triggering, it will be alive for a while Similar with storage, a non-issue without false triggers. Trigger life is a weak link for a lot of media who use MIOPS, as they only have enough battery for about 3-4 days.
What is in My Remote Bag
I use a large canvas tote to carry everything I need to set my remotes, stakes, hand warmers, scissors, tape, and a mallet are the main things I need in my remote bag. In addition to carrying my supplies to set, I usually put either some of my boxes or cameras/tripods in the bag too. Most times I will bring two remotes out of my car to set at a time before going back to my car to grab additional remotes.
The remote setup locations that we are permitted to leave our remote cameras at is unique to each pad. Most of the time we will convoy out to the pad in our own cars, but sometimes we will take buses to set our remotes. We much prefer to convoy to the pad because this allows us the flexibility of being able to work from our cars to set remotes. Additionally, we can avoid the hassle of moving our gear to a bus.
Shot Types – Wide
The most common remote shot is wide, these shots are typically at 18mm(crop) or wider and fit the whole rocket into the frame along with a significant part of the pad/foreground. In order two make sure the rocket and foreground are bright enough, the flame is usually blown out.
Shot Type – Engine
The next most common shot type is an engine shot, an engine shot is typically a tight shot with The next most common shot type is an engine shot. An engine shot is typically a tight shot with not much more than the engine exhaust/flames are in frame, and the rest of the shot is purposely under-exposed in order to properly expose the flames. Most engine shots are done at 1/8000th of a second to try to freeze the flame as much as possible The aperture is also typically stopped down a bit to further to reduce the exposure and prevent the flames from being over exposed.
After launch we have to retrieve our cameras, this usually happens either soon after launch or the morning after. We will either convoy or bus out to the pad. The time we are given for pickup varies, I prefer to unbox and unbag my cameras and disconnect them from triggers/tripods, but often I will run out of time and just end up throwing them in my trunk as is
I hope you enjoyed reading about all that goes into remote cameras. I wanted to make this breakdown as detailed as possible, but if you still have questions my socials are linked below.