Launch photography


Launches are spectacular events so it’s no wonder why people love photographing them. We don’t have a lot of experience with launch photography since our focus was more on capturing video, especially 360° VR footage, which we’ll discuss below. Because of this, we won’t be going too in-depth but will provide you with links to some amazing photography guides we’ve come across. We’ll also go over some in-depth 360° tips to help get you started in this new field!


first-timers and cellphones:

Before we get started, we really want to stress that most people should focus on watching the launch with their own eyes — especially if you’re attending your first launch. We see people holding up their cellphones during launches all the time and it’s easily become one of our biggest pet peeves. Trust us, the majority of launch pictures taken by phones just look like blurry dots and the footage doesn’t look much better. Some phones might be able to get decent audio, but most will just capture a staticky rumble. Even if you have a nice DSLR or UHD camcorder, our advice to you remains the same: if it’s your first launch, try experiencing it with your own eyes as much as possible. It’s best to let professional launch photographers do all the work while you enjoy the launch.


General tips:

These basic tips will apply for both photography and video, as well as 360° media:

  • Use a tripod — especially if you’re doing long exposures. Though we probably don’t have to say this, but you’d be surprised how many people try to freehand their shots at night/early-morning launches. Even a cheap tripod is better than nothing.

  • Turn off your flash! This is incredibly important at night when others next to you may be taking long exposures or video where a flurry of flashes can ruin their shot.

  • Get a remote shutter/cable release. This is a must if you’re trying to get that popular streak shot! Many newer cameras, including 360° cameras, will have this feature built-in via an integrated phone app.

  • Pick up the right lens for the shot you’re wanting to get. Lenses can be one of the most expensive aspects of photography, so we recommend renting some for the launch so you’re not dropping hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a lens that you’re only going to use a few times.

  • Use flightclub.io! This handy tool will give you an outline of the flight trajectory from whatever location you input. What this means is that it will show you which way the rocket is going to fly from the location you’ll be viewing from! This is great for planning out your shots in advance. We see more people using it for streak shots and photography, but we use it quite a bit when planning our camera placement for 360° videos.



360° VR videos and photography


If you read through the guides above, you’ll probably realize that we didn’t include any guides about capturing launches in 360° — this is because there aren’t any. We started completely in the dark, shooting launches in 360° hasn’t really been done all that much before so there wasn’t anyone there to teach us any of it, we just experimented and learned as we went. Below we’ll share some basic tips based off what we’ve learned in case you’re wanting to try capturing some launches in 360°.


getting a 360° camera:

We recommend picking up a camera that can at least shoot in 4K. Anything less than 4K will look very blurry and pixelated, this is because you’re shooting a spherical image. When you stretch a 4K image into a 360° sphere, it comes out looking similar to how 1080p would on a flat screen. If you ever plan on shooting launches in the late-evening, night, or early morning, make sure you pick up a camera that has decent low-light performance. Below are two of videos we took of night launches:

This our video of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Telstar 18V, this was shot on a Ricoh Theta V at 4K. Note the amount of noise in the dark areas of the image and the over-exposed lighting. If you look to the side you can see a difference in lighting between the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera after liftoff with the stitch line clearly visible throughout the video.

This is our unedited video of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 launch we took from the roof of the VAB, this was shot on a GoPro Omni at 8K. With this one there is considerably less noise in the dark areas, the lighting is realistic, and the colors are great. There’s also no clearly visible stitch line running down the middle of the sphere due to the Omni utilizing 6 cameras rather than 2.

As you can see, there is a clear difference two camera perform way differently under low-light conditions. While the Theta V doesn’t capture the best videos in low-light, it can capture some great photography! The point we’re trying to make here is that not all 360° cameras perform the same, make sure to figure out what the strengths and weakness of the camera you’re planning on getting are and play them to your advantage!

The most important thing to keep in mind while getting into VR media is that this field is rapidly changing. New VR technologies are constantly released that can either greatly improve your current cameras and software or render them obsolete. Technology is always tough to keep up with — and VR is practically the fast lane.


tripods for 360°:

You’ll hear many differing opinions on what tripods are the best for 360° videos and photography. While none of them are necessarily wrong, you have to consider what you want to do with your shot and pick your equipment accordingly. We personally enjoy using Viltrox VX-18Ms for our videos since we want a heavy tripod to keep our camera steady (and safe) during relatively windy launch days. We then attach an extender onto tripod to distance the camera some, this is so the tripod doesn’t take up the whole bottom half of the shot. If you look down in our videos you’ll see our logo, this is a bit of clever placement to hide the tripod from sight. But what if you didn’t want to put a logo/image over the tripod but still want to hide it from sight? There are a bunch of editing techniques you can use to do this, we suggest looking up a tutorial based on the specific nature of what you’re trying to do and the software you have at your disposal. But we will say doing that it is much easier to accomplish when using a dedicated 360° tripod, like this one from Smatree, just keep in mind that 360° tripods are really light-weight and particularly susceptible to wind.


Audio:

The two most important factors of 360° video are the image quality and the audio. It’s important to realize that audio can make-or-break the immersive experience offered by 360° videos. Some cameras have built in ambisonic microphones for full 360° audio capture and mapping, while others require an external microphone for true ambisonic audio. Either way, we’ll always recommend using an external microphone for higher fidelity audio as well as wind suppression — which most internal microphones currently lack. Our go-to microphone right now is the ZOOM H3-VR, which is a handy recorder to have because it eliminates the need for external processing by offering built-in Ambisonics A-to-B conversion. You just orient the microphone, hit record, and drag it on to your video during post. Easy peasy. You can check out the difference in audio immersion between two videos we took of the same launch below:

This one was taken with a GoPro Omni and our Zoom H3-VR. If you move your head around in this video, the sound tracks with it. If you turn to the right the roar of the rocket will come from the left, the sound of the waves will be behind you, and the onlookers will sound like they’re to your right. While this 3D effect only works with headphones, it makes a huge difference in immersion — especially while viewing with a VR headset.

In this video, we used our Theta Ricoh V with binaural external microphones hooked up to a Zoom H2. While watching the video try moving your view around a bit, you’ll notice the sound is the same no matter where you’re looking. While this might not seem as noticeable on a flat computer screen, it breaks the immersion while using a VR headset.


What to do after recording your 360° footage:

The stitching and editing process can be either really streamlined and easy or painstakingly hard depending on what camera and software you’re using. Post might only take 15 minutes for the Theta V, thanks to internal stitching, but can take up to 3 days for the GoPro Omni (mostly due to GoPro shutting down Kolor and discontinuing the software needed to stitch the Omni’s footage). Each camera will have a different stitching process that utilizes different softwares, so we won’t get into that. As for editing your stitched footage, we recommend using Adobe Premiere Pro since it has integrated immersive video options that help streamline the process. But if you’re more of an Apple person, Final Cut Pro X also has integrated immersive video options! Here are some great tutorials we recommend watching:

Jason Levine has some amazing tutorials for editing 360° video in Adobe Premiere Pro, we definitely recommend checking them out!

If you’re editing 360° footage in Final Cut X, Kevin Kunze has great tutorials on his channel that will definitely help get you started!

After you’re done exporting your edited video you can just upload it to YouTube or Facebook, both support 360° video as well as 3D ambisonic audio. Just keep in mind that Facebook only supports up to 4K VR, while YouTube supports up to 8K VR.