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SpaceX caught a dramatic photo of this weekend’s rocket landing

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Preparation, luck, and some flare

Photo: SpaceX

Photography is mostly about preparation, and the decisions a photographer makes in turn. But many times it’s also about luck, and there’s no better example of what happens when those two things mix than this incredible photo that SpaceX just published.

The photo shows the 14-story-tall first stage of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket moments before it landed on a barge at sea this past weekend. SpaceX has photographed this moment during other landings, and has been publishing high-resolution photos of its launches for a while. But this particular frame got a dramatic boost because the rocket happened to come down right in front of the camera’s view of the Sun.

The result of that chance alignment is that the rocket appears surrounded by a sort of ethereal halo of light. Sunlight was also partially blocked out by the rocket’s landing legs, creating dark lines in the swirling smoke that extend all the way to the edges of the target painted on the ship’s deck. (Those lines help reinforce just how spot-on the landing was, too.) You can check out the high-resolution version here.

It appears that there was some post-processing done on this photo, which adds to its dramatic nature. But even without the added contrast and vignetting, the photo is still a rather lucky sum of a number of fast-moving parts. The rocket is in the middle of using its engines to remove itself from its free fall from space. The drone ship had been positioning and steadying itself against the ocean’s waves while it waited for the rocket to descend. And all this obviously happened while the Sun slowly “moved” through the sky thanks to the Earth’s rotation.

A similar but much less dramatic capture from a landing in May of 2016.
Photo: SpaceX

But the photo also wouldn’t have been possible without some preparation. A glimpse at the photo’s EXIF data gives us a bit more information on how the moment was captured: the photo was shot by a Canon 6D with the shutter locked to 1/2500th of a second and the ISO set to “auto,” so this was likely one of a sequence of (probably a few dozen) images that was triggered automatically.

That kind of photography is pretty common when it comes to shooting rockets — after all, you don’t want to be anywhere near the engines when a rocket is taking off or landing. So you use all the information you have at your disposal to get the settings right, and then let the camera do the brave work for you. That photo up top is what you plan (and hope) for, even if you don’t wind up getting it just right.

In fact, SpaceX has come really close to capturing a photo like this before, and yet this appears to be the first time all these factors have aligned. The company even published a second photo from this particular sequence of landing images that was taken a moment later, and while the rocket is again backlit, the scene is much less dramatic. Preparation and luck (and editing) — a photographer’s best friends.