How did you get hooked up with Kennedy Space Center, NASA, and SpaceX?
I started volunteering for SpaceFlight Insider, a website that covers the space industry from all angles. SpaceFlight Insider helped with my credentials on recent launches.
The launches are the big events, but I have been to other events covering space industry. For example, I was at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex when they held the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame inductions and unveilings.
Above: Ryan and fellow photographers and journalists await a SpaceX launch
I can apply to launches, however there is an accreditation review process for individuals. Being part of a media organization or a special project with a history and readership is generally required.
Space has always been an interest of mine. It’s incredible to witness and experience what I believe is an exciting rebirth of the space industry.
For each launch with a science payload or space station resupply mission they put out an opportunity for different influencers in all industries to witness a launch. You get to tour the facility, go behind the scenes, participate in press events, and photograph the launch.
People from a wide variety of industries and communities attend; fashion, science, travel – you name it. Everyone who attends presents a unique perspective. I had a chance to do that for SpaceX CRS-5 in 2015; a resupply mission for the International Space Station. It was incredible to see a rocket up close. That experience planted the seed to film the rocket flames.
Your slow-motion rocket flame videos are spectacular. How do you do that?
No one can be near a launch pad during a launch. I set-up my camera with a sound activated trigger. It will start filming at a certain time, or it can be triggered by sound.
It’s been difficult to figure out how to get the videos right. I had a lot of failures before I got the results you see now. It’s still challenging, but I now have things aligned and it works out.
“For the rocket flame images, there is a three second window. If I fail, I have to wait for the next launch. That creates a lot of anxiety.”
One of your photographs of rocket flames really stands out. Tell us about that image.
That photograph was taken from a remote camera – just like the slow motion videos. It took a lot of strategy and trial and error to get that photograph. That image sparked a lot of interest in my work.
Tell us about what it’s like to photograph at these events.
SpaceX typically escorts media to the launchpad for remote camera setup the day of the launch. There’s a considerable gap of time between setting up the camera and when the launch happens. Cameras need to be set up totally independent of humans. They also need to be able to withstand the elements including rain and intense sun.
Rocket launches don’t always happen on schedule. Battery life needs to last 24 to 48 hours. Most photographers use sound triggers. The camera goes to sleep for a day and then starts photographing or filming with a sound trigger.
The trick is to set the sound trigger to start with the sound of the rocket launch, not a truck driving by. If it triggers when the rocket launches, it takes as many photographs or video as the camera battery or memory card allow.
There is a lot that can go wrong because of weather, launch delays, and set-up miscalculations. Fortunately, you can bring more than one camera to increase the odds of success, and get multiple views.
For the rocket flame images, there’s a three second window. If I fail, I have to wait for the next launch. That creates a lot of anxiety. Time on the launch pad goes incredibly fast, and we usually only have a few minutes to set up each camera.
You have to pack everything ahead of time, ride the bus, and set up the cameras. Then the media hosts try to corral the herd back to the bus. There’s extra pressure which adds to the moment.
In one of your videos (see above) you show a slow motion lift off of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. What is the story behind that video?
There are two sides to the coverage of every launch; the internal side for the company that’s launching the rocket, and the public media side. The company responsible for the launch has the best cameras, the best people, the best access, and everything is filmed with state-of-the-art technology. Some of that coverage is released to the public or used during the live launch webcast and some is kept internal.
I’ve always been fascinated with pushing the limits of consumer technology, combining systems and experience with visual capture. The high-speed rocket slow motion system I’ve developed is a result of that passion.
The next frontier for me is ultra slow-motion, high-detail flame video using high-speed cameras. I want to push the technology with more dynamic range. This video was my attempt at high-speed video capture of a launch. In the future, I will be pushing my way deeper into this technology, and improving upon it.
“Seeing a launch is like nothing else. It’s really cool to watch the crowd’s reaction. People are cheering and going crazy. People are even crying.”
SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk, the inventor and serial entrepreneur behind Tesla, Neuralink, and many other future-focused companies. Have you had any interactions with Elon?
When we post a SpaceX rocket photo, there’s always a chance Elon will see or share it. Some of the rocket photographers I’ve worked with have been retweeted. I have received one instagram heart from Elon.
Elon’s social media reach is just phenomenal. He sometimes retweets or posts a photo from an up and coming photographer who covered a SpaceX launch. Elon’s retweet or post instantly creates a wave of people who will follow and like him/her.
Above: Ryan’s Capri at the Vehicle Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Where do you camp when you’re at the launches?
I wish we were able to stay overnight at the Kennedy Space Center, but that is not permitted. The press site has certain hours. Those hours are pretty long because of the launch, but are not indefinite. They post hours credentialed media are allowed to be on campus. They check you at the gate and have certain areas you can visit. Sometimes I’ll catch a sunrise or sunset at the Vehicle Assembly Building.
From the parking lot I can see the countdown clock outside my camper’s window and I’m looking at the Vehicle Assembly Building while I make coffee. It’s surreal. It adds to the already incredible surreal moment. To have your home there with you is incredible.
Depending on the launch and crowd size, media is typically able to go to a launch view location. They allow us to drive our vehicles or they bus us out. Then we park and wait. I can photograph the launch from a civilian close location. It’s a couple miles away, but we can hear and feel the rumble and see the brightness.
Seeing a launch is like nothing else. It’s really cool to watch the crowd’s reaction. People are cheering and going crazy. People are even crying.
What cameras and lenses are you using to get those amazing photos?
A Sony a7S and Sony a7R II are my workhorse cameras. They allow me to get a large megapixel image so that I can crop certain views. I can blow up the picture to a big size. It has challenges with big file size and low speed. I don’t have a huge camera budget, so I rent cameras like the new Sony A7R III.
I fell in love with Sony cameras four to five years ago. That’s when I switched from Canon. I love the dynamic range of Sony’s sensors. I do a lot of low light photography like the night sky. These rocket photos are like shooting a mini sun. A lot of times that’s what gets blown out. With the Sony cameras I have more dynamic range to balance the exposure.
Above: Sunset at Cocoa Beach, Florida – close to Kennedy Space Center
I try to underexpose. That’s risky because I also need a cool foreground. I also want a strong composition. I’m really shooting for the flames. During the launch, the whole scene is lit up with rocket flame light. That light paints the picture without much noise. That’s the challenge area I’m working on.
I have a telephoto lens because it allows me to zoom into the engine. I set it up to get close and hope my exposure strategy works out. There are only a few seconds of opportunity to capture something when you’re zoomed in. Sometimes you only get one or two composed shots in that window.