Recently we had the chance to have a talk with MIOPS Ambassador Erik Kuna for an interview where he shared his experiences about how he became a rocket photographer, what setup does he use or his tips to today's photographers..
Q. How did you first get accredited as a Rocket Launch photographer?
A. For years I’ve had a passion for photography and also a passion for spaceflight. Living in Florida, I took the opportunity to merge the two in 2016, by starting to photograph launches from a distance offsite around the area. Then, as I was building that portfolio of work, I was given an opportunity to attend a NASA Social event to watch a Rocket Launch up close. I took the skills I had learned and the access that opportunity would give me to capture some new images from that same site that many press are able to shoot. From there, after all that work, I took my portfolio to a new agency and a magazine to see if they’d be interesting in Credentialing me to cover a launch. One of them said yes and the rest is history. Now I’ve shot for multiple agencies and outlets from around the world and multiple spaceports.
Q. What does photography mean to you and what was the reason that you became a Rocket Launch photographer?
A. Photography has always been in my DNA. I started out my career in video production which is essentially photography just at a higher fps with audio, so the transition was very easy. I feel in love with capturing a single moment in time and freezing it for all of history, that’s what Photography is to me. It’s all about the capturing our world in it’s best light and telling that story in one single frame of time. Before starting down this journey of Rocket Launch Photography, I started covering professional sporting events and developing my skills in landscape and travel photography. Then, when I saw SpaceX and a booster in late 2015, I just knew I had to be part of capturing these moments in our history. I saw something special, almost a rebirth, if you will, of our space program and I was excited. I’ve always felt that humanity is better when we are exploring and adventuring and seeing what better place is left than the Cosmos.
Q. Briefly talk us through what a shooting day of a Rocket Launch is like for you...
A. What many people don’t know is that shooting day for a Rocket Launch starts way before that countdown clock hits zero. Not only do you spend days of prep and planning getting our shots, gear and equipment setup, we’re also having to set out our equipment on the launchpad days in advance. It all begins with a plan, what are our shots trying to communicate, what is the purpose of the mission, where’s the story. So, many times launch shooting being with a meeting, a brainstorming session, with my editor, creative director or even other photographers I’ll be on assignment with so we can coordinate efforts on telling the story. Then, we move into prep. I have to study the weather and see what conditions my cameras will have to deal with, and get the proper equipment setup and weather sealed for their journey on the launchpad. From there, the setup begins! Since these are very secure facilities with a rocket ready to go to space, many times we’re talking minutes or a hour to get all this gear setup and ready to go once we get out on location. Then once that’s setup, we wait... At launch on shooting day the game changes from remote setups to telephoto shots from 3 to 10 miles away. I’m back in that fast pace world of Sport Photography, where we’re tracking action, the only difference is the athlete is a 20 story tall rocket zooming away from me miles away. So, the launch goes off and the launch day isn’t over by a long shot. Now, it’s back through security, back to a secure transport and back out to those cameras on the pad. We run out to our equipment like children on Christmas morning to see if we got the gift we planned for or if we’ll end up with just a bag of coal. But, it doesn’t end there, now it’s back to editing and uploading these images. So, that’s a brief understanding of a day in a rocket photographers shoot. If someone was interested in actually see the process and follow along and learning I actually filmed an entire training class on the process for KelbyOne, it takes you through this entire process live on location and it can be found at https://members.kelbyone.com/course/erik-kuna-photograph-rocket-launch/
Q. What is the most difficult part of being a photographer for you?
A. Honestly, the most difficult part is to embracing the process. As a photographer, I sometimes don’t slow down and really look at all that goes into it. My photography really changed once I accepted the process it takes to really make a photo. From that point I went from just taking photos to really making them. Photography is an art and a science but with both there's a process to making something. If you really want to elevate your photography my advice would be to accept what it takes to make a photo. With that said, the other difficult part is embracing failures in that process. In much the same way, I learn more for embracing my failures and learning from it than just praising my successes.
Q. What kind of tools do you use for post processing?
A. Lightroom and Photoshop. That was an easy answer, but that’s about all there is to it. If you see one of my photos and wonder about the post, it’s Lightroom and Photoshop. Wanna learn it, it’s all over at KelbyOne.com
Q. What MIOPS products do you own, and what challenges do they allow you to overcome?
A. A bunch of MIOPS Smart+ triggers. They’re essential for rocket photography. We need a way to trigger our cameras out on the pad and one thing you’re guaranteed to have at a launch is an abundance of sound so I use the MIOPS triggers to fire off my cameras continuously when the sound threshold is reached. I usually keep my sensitivity somewhere between 20-35 based on distance and weather conditions, the most common for me would be 24 (just a luck number for me). For example, if I know it’s going to rain and they’ll be a lot of thunderstorms (very typical for Florida) I might turn down my sensitivity threshold so I don’t get a bunch of false sound triggers. The MIOPS allows you to really dial in these setting from launch to launch.
Q. What is your setup for a photo shoot?
A. For a rocket launch my setup varies based on the photos we’re going after, however in general, we’re talking about 4 cameras for the pad, two that are usually wide and two that are tight. All the cameras on the pad are used Canon DSLRs with weather sealed bodies, but they’re usually 7-10 years old. For telephoto shots, I usually have one wider telephoto and a super telephoto that I’m using to track the rocket. As far as focal lengths, my favorite at the pads are somewhere between 24-70mm on the wide side and 135-300mm on the telephoto side. For telephotos I’m usually around 400-800mm. In contrast to the pad, the telephoto shots are better and updated bodies and lenses, but still about 7 years old. I will say that it’s more about the right settings, prep, and technique with Rocket Photography than it is about the gear. But, that goes for about every style of photography I shoot.
Q. Rockets are pretty fast subjects, what camera settings do you need to freeze them in their tracks?
A. While rockets are fast, they’re actually not as fast as you would think in most instances. When they’re coming off the pad, they kinda build up speed. With that said, the thing that’s fast is the exhaust. The flames that come out of the engines are super bright and super super fast, so for that we need a very high shutter speed. Most of the shots in my portfolio where you see the flames frozen it’s going to be around 1/8000th of a second. Anything above 1/500 of a second will freeze the rocket but you need that extra speed to freeze the flame. Good news is that the rocket is so bright that it’s easy to balance shutter speed, iso and f-stop to achieve the desired effect. Again, if you want to know more and see how this works, check out that class on KelbyOne, we break it down in details.
Q. What’s been your proudest moment as a photographer so far?
A. Definitely getting to work with my daughter on a shoot we planned and executed together. We made an image of her in an astronaut costume standing underneath the Parker Solar Probe with a quote from one of our favorite cosmic thinkers, Carl Sagan, and it all came together brilliantly. The whole plan just worked and the final result has been used by companies, non-profits, been featured in publications and even sold a bunch of prints to fund future projects, which is usually what my prints sales end up doing. Here’s a little writeup on it from DIY Photo: https://www.diyphotography.net/this-is-how-to-capture-a-rocket-photo-like-erik-the-rocketman-kuna/
Q.What makes the good picture stand out from the average?
A. It’s about the holy trinity of photography for me. Something I learned from a mentor and friend, Jay Masiel; Light, Gesture and Color. These are the three things I search for in every image I produce. The light in every scene conveys an emotion and being able to capture that light, or I like to say, put the rocket in it’s best light, that’s my first goal. Next, there has to be a gesture, there has to be something in the scene that speaks a meaning or emotion. This could be a person in the foreground watching the rocket lift off with some sort of body language or just the rocket powering off the launchpad full of drama and excitement. Finally, the colors need to speak the emotion as well. This can be a devoid of colors like in a black and white, or in my style it tends to be isolating colors into harmonies that speak to us in the same way master painters used color harmony to speak on their canvas. Color harmonies are huge for me. Now, if you’re interested in the concept, Jay actually wrote a whole book on the subject of Light, Gesture and Color: https://youtu.be/sIXiG65guN8 As Jay says in the video, I strive see that “rip in the fabric…something that breaks what you expect to see.” That’s a great photo, something that has that power to speak words and emotions without audio, without video, without additional commentary. That’s a powerful photo.