An Unhelpful Guide to Shooting A Rocket Launch

I like to think that I’m funny with my title. But for now it’s true since I am certainly no expert in the field of ‘rocket launch long exposure photography’. Boy that doesn’t roll off the tongue. view of rocket launch from my back yard (ISO 100 | 16mm | ƒ/20 | 118.0s)

Why is long exposures of rocket launches a slow learning curve? Well.. for the simple reason that they are not a daily occurrence (at least not yet) and they only happen at select places. Mainly, where there are launch pads – duh right?

When my husband and I first decided to move to the Space Coast of Florida, seeing the rockets was a big reason. We figured it would be a really cool location to raise our kids. I mean, how many people can say they feel the rumble of a launch on a monthly basis?

At the time of writing this blog post, I have taken 1 successful launch photo since starting 5 months ago. To be honest, not a great track record, hence why my guide may be unhelpful. But I do still want to share what I’ve learned.

This is the worst hobby for a mother of 2 under 2

me trying to stay up for a launch

Why? well.. long exposures are normally done at either twilight, dusk or in the dead of night.
I rarely get sleep as it is. It takes an extra amount of will power to wake up at 3 AM and set up my tripod and take minute long exposures. There have been times when I tried to stay awake for a launch and failed, crashing HOURS before lift off (pun intended).

Although increasing, launches are not a daily occurrence.

It would be great if I had a chance once a day to test my camera on the sky and see which settings are best…. but I can’t. I get one solid chance for each launch. So, if my settings are no good. That’s it until next time! Plus, the setting used for daytime and nighttime shoots are vastly different. After a few day time shots, I realized I had to invest in a very dark filter to even try again at dusk.


I am already a photographer with a decent equipment set up. But for anyone who wants to get into this for fun, it can be expensive. If you’re looking to focus on long exposures, you’ll need the camera body, wide angle lens ( 16-35mm), preferably a remote to set off your shutter, a dark filter for twilight/dusk and a really steady tripod. All of that is not cheap.

camera lens collection
My current set up. Not overly impressive, but good for a variety of situations.

Now if you’d rather get close ups of the actual rocket, you’ll need a telephoto lens, 100 mm and above to start. I personally only have an 85 mm currently at most. For portrait photography I never need anything higher and so I haven’t taken the plunge into investing in another expensive lens for the infrequent chance to use it. I mean, I definitely will one day. But definitely not today. I got a business to run!

Location, Location, Location

Fortunately for me, I can stumble into my backyard and take the shot. Despite how great that is, the direction of the launch isn’t in my favor. As you can see from my one and only successful capture above, the rocket is launching away from me and not left or right – missing the beautiful arc.

Daytime launch (ISO 500 | 85mm | ƒ/2 | 1/8000s)

The best option is to take the 30 – 60 minute long drive to either of the beaches adjacent the launch pad to get the best view. To be brutally honest, the drive isn’t what is stopping me. It’s a matter of safety. I haven’t been brave enough to go to a beach alone in the middle of the night. As a woman, I know in the darkness anything could happen and since we have two babies at home, my husband needs to stay with them. Perhaps one of these days I’ll just say f*** it and head there with a big old knife.

Timing is Everything

There’s been plenty of times when I get the notification on my phone that it’s T-5 minutes to launch (FYI, this is the app I use). Yay! Unfortunately I’m getting groceries, or driving, or in another city that day etc. It can be so infuriating when a month goes by and you’re unavailable for each possibility. 🤷🏻‍♀️

In the image below, you can see the trail is already dissipating as my daughter watches on. I was going back and forth between getting her in the shot or not. But with each chance comes choices.

rocket launch and child
dissipating smoke from rocket launch

Scrub a Dub Dub

Lastly, you just can’t count on them. These captivating experiences are highly dependent on weather variables. Florida weather cannot be relied on. It’s like a match made in hell sometimes. I’ll set a launch date in my calendar, set an alarm. Get everything ready, and within minutes of the big bang boom, it’s scrubbed. Obviously, this is a lot worse for hard working engineers at Space X and NASA, but I feel bummed as well.

I follow groups on Facebook with fellow rocket launch enthusiasts that share helpful information on photography settings and best locations for viewing. But I always feel sad when I see someone came to the area with the goal to witness a launch for themselves and it gets scrubbed.

C’est La Vie.. Mais Pas La Paradis is what I always think to myself when seeing that. Perhaps those of us who are able to witness the forefront of Space Exploration should just take them as they come and be grateful.


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