How I Shot This Photo: Underneath the Delta 4-Heavy rocket
Back to Delta 4-Heavy / DSP-23 launch photos

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After many requests for more information and an enormous generation of interest following a post on Gizmodo, being featured as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day (Dec. 14 2010), publishment in Popular Photography magazine (Dec. 2009), and being posted on Airliners.net as well as recurring posts on Reddit & Imgur among other sources, here is the rest of the story about how I shot this photo:

This photo shows the first night launch of the massive Delta 4-Heavy rocket, the largest rocket in the world. It stands as tall as a 24-story building and produces 1.9 million pounds of thrust from its three RS-68 hydrogen engines. For the ten years since its 2004 debut, it has launched just seven times.

Just the second launch of this vehicle, it took place on the evening of November 10, 2007 from Cape Canaveral, FL. It's mission was to deliver DSP-23, the final Defense Support Program Missile-Warning satellite, into orbit 22,000 miles above the earth.

Like many photos you see on this website, a launch shot taken anywhere near the launch pad must be done without human intervention, as people cannot be closer than a few miles from a launch. Anywhere from a few hours to two days before a launch, the cameras are set up around the launch pad, protected for weather and from the launch, and set to be activated when the rocket's incredible engines ignite. Most of the time, sound is the trigger, but other methods can be used as well.

This particular photo was taken with a film camera (the next-to-last roll of film I have shot to date), with the intent of probably not recovering a working camera post-launch. Though I was shooting digital as well, I chose to do this one on film for both the risk and because of its exposure latitude.

Knowing the forecast didn't call for rain between setup and launch time, I did not bother protecting the camera for weather as I would normally do. With the hopes of doing all I could to make it withstand the tremendous force and power from the rocket lifting off just about 140 feet away, it was secured to the ground with three stakes (one for each tripod leg) as well as a nylon ratchet anchored to a corkscrew stake (a typical setup for a remote-camera launch photo this close, though sandbags can also come in handy). I have personally witnessed cameras thrown hundreds of feet by the fury of launches that were not properly secured, and even some that were...

...If you want to know what the camera can experience, watch this short IMAX feature to the end.)

The result on this one: a spectacular shot, a lens destroyed (though still in one piece), a camera still working and the sound-activated trigger ripped from is holding. The half-inch nylon rope was severed in half by the heat and the tripod knocked over. A careful search of the area finally found the sound trigger further from the pad, stopped only by the pad's perimeter fence several hundred feet behind the camera. And yes, it still worked.

Please note this image was shot on film and is not adjusted or manipulated in any way. One of the emails I received a while back came from someone at a major photo brand name. They asked me how this could possibly be one image, with such a latitude of light and exposure. I replied that I had taken it on film. They replied, having assumed digital at the time, "Oh, didn't think of that!" This photo remains one of my most popular to date.

All photos below copyright
Greg Frechette, a fellow photographer in attendance.