Sunday, December 6, 2009

Again, forced to settle on a rocket launch scene, sans Christmas lights

Sure, I meant to cut off that streaking rocket trail. It's art, after all. I can do what I want. (Truthfully, though, the colors and clouds turned out kind of neat.) This is the 95-second time lapse, taken at f/18, that I ended up getting of a Delta IV launch. After finding a perfect spot in Cocoa Beach for the 7:23 p.m. launch, with Christmas lights in the foreground (see below), the liftoff was eventually delayed to 8:47, forcing me to drive back to the office to work in the meantime. When it launched, I watched from the edge of the Indian River in Palm Shores, just down the road and across the street from my workplace.

Persistence is key for any amateur photographer dying to get the shot he lives for. But a guy's gotta make money, too, to pay for all that camera equipment. Santa's not going magically bring that new macro lens for Christmas.

Once again Saturday night, the old newspaper editing gig was a hindrance in my photographic adventures. In this case, it was another nighttime launch of a Delta IV rocket. Several FLORIDA TODAY staff photographers cover such an event, of course, so my services were needed at the office, 30 miles or so south of Cape Canaveral - not the most conducive location for getting that shot I'm still seeking.

But I thought Saturday was going to be different. The rocket was scheduled to blast off at 7:23 p.m., a time that I could squeeze into a dinner break away from the office. Rain showers earlier in the day had cleared nicely, and there were no technical glitches throughout the fueling and preflight checks by the folks at United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin responsible for launching military satellites into orbit. It was looking like I'd get my chance. To further solidify my chances, I even reacted when Tim Allen flickered across the television screen, yelling that I wanted a cool rocket photo for Christmas. That's it. Forget the macro lens.

The object was to create a time-lapse exposure of the arcing fire trail, with Christmas lights of some sort in the foreground. I would lovingly title the art piece "A Space Coast Christmas" and possibly put the photo on a card and send it to all the assorted relatives no later than Dec. 25. In the Knapp family, while I was being raised in Maine, we'd judge the best Christmas card. I was hoping that my parents would pick mine this year.

This whole photographic scheme may sound premeditated, but it wasn't. I didn't have a specific location in mind to shoot from. Instead, I left work 40 minutes before the launch, drove to Cocoa Beach in about 10 minutes and started looking for a south-facing light display so I could shoot the cheery scene and the launch (off to the north) in the same photo.

The police must have been on break in Cocoa Beach because I sped through the entire city in no time at all. Considering the 50-degree temperature, compounded by the chill of a stiff wind, they likely were kicking back in a cozy Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks. Ticketless and excited, I settled on a small city-sponsored light display near the beachside Lori Wilson Park. I parked across the street in a Publix lot and ran across the busy State Road A1A, tripod in tow.

Three minutes until launch. Cutting it close. Had to hurry.

At the base of Santa's sleigh, I set up my D90, equipped with my 11mm wide angle. I waited. Jumped up and down. Blew on my hands. I looked at my iPhone clock: 7:24. Rats. Must be a delay. Sure enough, weather balloons indicated that the upper-level winds were too strong for launch, and it was delayed until 8 p.m. - beyond the range of my dinner break.

Back to the office to make the money. Jolly Old St. Nicholas is a sham.

After further delay to 8:47 p.m., the last possible time that it could have launched Saturday, I was relegated to shooting the streak down by the Indian River near the newspaper headquarters. No pretty Christmas lights in sight.

That being the case, I took a different tack by zooming in on the launch pad's strobe lights and making the exposure that way. I told my co-workers that I made the mistake of letting the spacecraft streak beyond the edge of the frame, but I think I'll tell you, dear readers, that it was deliberate: I purposely cut the heat off my subject. At such a distance from the Cape, it's difficult to achieve interesting results at a wide angle, like I could have in Cocoa Beach. So, the above shot is what I settled for.

Overall, it wasn't a satisfactory night in the least. I wasted car fuel on the drive to Cocoa Beach. I wasted my dinner hour and went hungry for the rest of the shift. And I never got that shot for my Christmas card. But as a longtime Red Sox fan throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I've always been accustomed to saying, "Wait till next year." In this case, I'll just have to wish for a night launch next December, when the houses and palm trees are once again decked with a festive glow.

So, Santa, I'll be speaking with you sometime in 2010, even though I don't think you really exist. Especially after you failed to come through for me this time.

With my wide-angle Tokina, I was all set to capture the Delta IV rocket, which would have arced over Santa in the above display near Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach. Two of the staff photographers had similar ideas for a shot (here). But their results, I thought, would have paled in comparison to the above one, if I indeed were to pull it off. Alas, I didn't because the wind was too strong for a launch.

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