Photographer Travor Mahlmann of Ars Technica was kind enough, despite saying words were his “secondary toolkit,” to detail his experience photographing the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy back on February 6th. While the piece is worth a read, filled with interesting detail, some may prefer the tl;dr account. Here are some surprising takeaways for those of us who haven’t had the chance to capture such a rare, breathtaking event. Yet. 

Timing Is Crucial

As you may expect, preparation for such a shot is intense, starting “many days prior.” One of the first questions a photographer must answer is when the launch is. This, he says “will influence everything.” While night or day shoots require their own set of alterations, dawn/dusk launches leave him “empty-handed.”

Preparation is Precise

Mahlmann diagrams, on a bird’s eye-view of the space station, where he will be photographing from at various times of the day. Along with each location he includes what he hopes to capture, what size camera he will use, and any extra notes he needs to keep in mind. For example: “use an extremely underexposed setup to show the exhaust.”

The Importance of Friends

Because the cameras need to be placed quite far from the base itself, one needs time to set them up and retrieve them. For Mahlmann, this became difficult as he was also presented with the possibility of photographing Elon Musk. As he put it: “photograph a famous rocket or a famous rocket man.”

Luckily, he didn’t have to choose between the two, as friend (and fellow rocket chaser) Craig Vander Galien offered to set up his cameras for him in return for using one of Mahlmann’s triggers. He would also later retrieve it for Mahlmann, allowing the latter to photograph the post-launch post conference. And people wonder what friends are for.

Sound Triggers

Mahlmann uses a sound trigger with a “built-in vibration sensor” to automate his cameras. Not only are rockets extremely loud, but doing so allows him to avoid taking any wasted shots when launches are delayed (as they often are). The Falcon Heavy, for example, had a launch window from 1:30-4, rendering time-based triggers useless.

Be Thankful for What You Got

Mahlmann is saddened to learn that one of his two cameras did not work during the launch. However, he quickly amends this sentiment, explaining that though he says “unfortunately,” he really means “thankfully.” After all, he could have had no remote camera images if it weren’t for the help of Mr. Galien. His advice: “being thankful for what you have in this situation is important.”

No One Does It Alone

Along with the help of friends, Mahlmann makes sure to recognize the assistance and mentorship he’s gotten along the way which have led him to this point. “If it weren’t for a few gentleman who showed me the ropes,” he says, referring to Walter Scriptunas II and Mike Deep, “I would not be discussing the experience of photographing the Falcon Heavy.” And then we wouldn’t get to read about, either, so let’s thank them as well. 


Feature Image Courtesy SpaceX