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Home > How-To

Shooting the Space Shuttles

Ben Cooper combines photography with rocket science.
  • By Stan Horaczek on March 10, 2010
Related Tags:
  • How-To
  • Ben Cooper
  • photography
  • Shuttle
  • Space

An Atlas 5 rocket launches on the world's first mission to Pluto, with the New Horizons space probe atop. New Horizons will get to Pluto in mid-2015 after a decade long journey. See more of Ben's photos here:

Photo: Ben Cooper

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Popular Photography first caught up with Ben Cooper back in 2008 when he was shooting with film cameras and sacrificing his lenses for the sake of the shot. Since then he has gone digital (for the most part) and racked up some impressive new work that somehow takes an epic event like shuttle launch and makes it even more impressive.

What is your process like on launch day?
Shooting a launch requires some preparation and some knowledge if you want to get the right shot, especially for night launches. The real challenge is the remote cameras; setting them up at the pad a day or two before sometimes, and leaving them there to get the shot. This is the big process, taking hours sometimes, and requiring a lot of planning. Sometimes I spend more time than others, especially if I am after a real particular angle like the fisheye seen here. I had to get special permission to set up that close.

How much of a challenge are the ever-changing launch schedules?
The schedules are always changing, so I have to be prepared to shift days and work around the launches and other events. I have to set up cameras for several days of launch attempts, in case we cannot come out and check on them, which sometimes happens. It's not just battery life, but also preventing pre-launch misfires and, of course, protecting from weather.

What kind of gear are you currently packing?
I've got two D200s still that I use for all my handheld stuff. And quite a bit of Nikkor and other lenses from 10mm to 400mm. For the remote cameras, I've been using Canons for the most part. It could be anything from a 10D to a 50D. I generally share equipment with a couple of friends so we make the most of it.

Are you currently gearing up for your next shuttle launch?
The next launch, the STS-131, is slated for April 5. Then STS-132, the last flight of Atlantis, is in late May. Real planning for what shots I want has not begun. I just had two weeks of non-stop events that included a trip to Utah to photograph the last shuttle SRB test. In a couple of weeks I will begin deciding what photos I want of the next launch. Although, if STS-131 launches on April 5, it's schedule for 47 minutes before sunrise and could provide a beautiful blue-black wide angle from the viewing sites.

Have you been following the recent astronauts on Twitter?
Yes, I have been following Soichi Noguchi and the other Twitter astronauts, but have never chatted with him. The commander of the next shuttle mission, interestingly, is a photographer. He is making his second flight. Sometimes when he travels to KSC in Florida for training he can be seen with a camera.

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