We recently caught up with Tom Cross, a man with the self-confessed “coolest job in the world”, a credentialed rocket launch photographer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He shared with us how he got started in such a niche and impressive type of picture taking, and what equipment he uses to capture awe-inspiring images of his subjects leaving our planet.
Can you explain the kind of photography you do for anyone unfamiliar with your work?
I’m a press-photographer for Teslarati (www.teslarati.com). I simply call it rocket launch photography, it encompasses nearly all genres of photography. Landscape, Astrophotography, Artistic, Nature, Action, Night, Aerial, Panoramic, Time-lapse, Documentary, Event, to name just a handful.
What came first, your interest in space exploration or photography?
When I was young, I was fascinated with space because I grew up in Central Florida and would watch the Space Shuttle launches from my house 50 miles away. Also, local schools would take students on field trips to the Space Center, and it was pretty common to meet someone who worked in the space industry or had retired from it. Then, as a young adult, I got interested in photography and began shooting extreme sports and events. The space industry was in a depression at this time after the Space Shuttle retired, and though my interest in it never waned, there wasn’t much going on. Then, when rocket launches began to occur again, I naturally began to photograph them. I’m passionate about it.
How did you first get accredited as a rocket photographer?
Years of perseverance. It wasn’t easy and it’s not for everyone. I work with an amazing team at Teslarati, a media outlet that covers SpaceX rocket launches.
Briefly talk us through what a shoot day is like for you…
It’s pretty dynamic and always changing. The days are incredibly busy, with packed schedules of media events, prelaunch brief, science brief, post-launch brief, press conferences, photo editing, camera setup, camera collection, etc… The days typically last 12 hours. Sometimes I find out in the last minute that a launch is scrubbed, and I’ll need to come back at the next attempt and do some of it over again.
What MIOPS products do you own, and what challenges do they allow you to overcome?
I own Miops Smart camera trigger and Miops Mobile Remote units. They enable me to shoot with multiple cameras simultaneously. All personnel has to be a few miles away at the time of a launch, and the only way to photograph it from close range is to set up cameras around the pad and leave them to capture it remotely.
I use a Miops Smart Trigger on each of my remote launch pad cameras, they trigger them to capture the launch from a dangerously close-range. The sound of the rocket is a shockwave that would turn your insides to mush if you are standing where I place my cameras. MIOPS Smart triggers take a beating every launch and work perfectly every time. The triggers are so reliable, that I compare them to having a second shooter with me, who’ll wait for days in a field for a 30-second event. If a launch attempt is scrubbed and I have to come back a couple of days later, I can confidently leave my camera knowing that the Miops Smart will still be on and ready when needed, because the software is so reliable and the battery large enough to last a week on a single charge.
For time-lapse or night time launches when capturing a streak image, I use a MIOPS Mobile Remote. I typically have more than one camera with me, so having a Miops Mobile Camera Remote attached to a camera that I can remotely trigger manually on demand, is also like having a second shooter. The Bluetooth connection is reliable, I can preset my settings in the smartphone app, tap the screen when it’s time, and let it work automatically while I’m working with my other camera.
What does your setup for a shoot normally consist of?
It’s dynamic, always changing. I use Canon DSLR’s with Miops triggers inside custom-made boxes that protect them from weather and launch debris. Due to time constraints, while setting up launch pad cameras, I preset my cameras the night before, knowing where I am going to place them for a launch. Then, I stake them to the ground, make a few adjustments for composition, turn on the triggers and leave. It all happens very fast, in just a matter of minutes.
Rockets are pretty fast subjects, what camera settings do you need to freeze them in their tracks?
1/1000 will work actually, I then just set the f-stop and ISO of my camera’s to expose the scene properly without much noise. I do vary my exposure settings though. All the way from a 5-minute exposure to 1/8000sec, it depends on our goals and what shot I’m trying to capture. It also depends on the weather and celestial bodies.
Has any of your gear been damaged while shooting a launch?
Yes! I like to experiment every launch and take risks. On the CRS-13 launch, I set up 2 cameras in the path of the exhaust from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both cameras were fitted with Miops Smart triggers, and both cameras were destroyed. They were full of dirt and water, the lens glass was split and broken inside from the blast, they were staked down to the ground and the blast flipped them over. The MIOPS Smart triggers were full of water also. I disassembled them, dried them out, reassembled them and they worked perfectly again, I was amazed! I still use them now, but I had to replace the 2 cameras and lenses.
What’s been your proudest moment as a photographer so far?
In this industry, there have been many because it’s all history in the making, the latest and greatest of what humans are capable of. I’m proud to be involved and a part of it.
What would your dream photo shoot be?
Photographing rockets being manufactured in SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California. The people who design and build them are artists. Those specially fabricated and assembled hardware are works of art to me. I’d love to photograph all of that.
What’s the best way for anyone interested to begin taking some rocket images of their own?
Go to a few launches and experience them, truly feel it. Then, try to capture that feeling with your camera. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center is a wonderful place to do so, they sell tickets for a close launch viewing, in some cases, it’s closer than press-photographers stand during launch!
You can see more of Tom’s work here: www.stellarthings.com
Related Article: How to Photograph a Rocket Launch at Night