First Time in the US: Gulf Photo Plus is Coming to Seattle.

Night Shuttle

Florida-based photographer Jon. M. Fletcher took advantage of a recent shuttle launch to make a unique family portrait. Obviously, you only get one shot in a situation like this. But Jon had a few tricks up his sleeve to make his odds a little better.

Jon's walk-thru, inside.

Sez Jon:
It was really a spur of the moment shoot. 

My wife (at right in photo) was online and noticed the shuttle was launching in about an hour. I stepped outside to see how the weather looked and saw a wonderfully clear sky. My daughter and I started looking for places to shoot in my neighborhood and thought of the pond because of the wide expanse of water (no trees to block the view and the possibility of a reflection). 

After slogging through some mud in the dark to get to a concrete bank overlooking the pond, I set up my 5d Mark II on a tripod and put two SB-800s on PocketWizards on camera right and left. When we saw the glow of the shuttle below the tree line, I took three 30 second exposures at f/8, ISO 800 (without the strobes firing) in immediate succession as the flame trail rose above the horizon. Then I put the camera on timer, turned the Pocket Wizard transmitter on, and ran to be with my family to expose an image of us and watch the last little blip of the shuttle disappear behind a bank of pines to the northeast.

I processed all the files in Lightroom and plopped them on top of eachother using a screen blending mode in PhotoShop. That's the workaround I use to do multiple exposures since most DSLRs (including the 5D) won't do them in-camera.

Family portraits are always the hardest for me, so I was overjoyed to get both the shuttle and my 'ohana in the same frame. As far as the shuttle coming up in exactly the right place, that was a gift. I knew it would come up somewhere in that vicinity, but when I saw it lining up the way it did, I had to stop and give thanks.


Fletcher is a staff photographer for the Florida Times-Union. Like photographer Peter Yang, who cut his teeth shooting for the Austin American-Statesman, Fletcher is constantly working to expand the boundaries of newspaper photography.

Any staff PJ feeling constricted and beaten down by The Man need only look to Fletcher's portfolio for inspiration.


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Blogger Octavian-Andrei Brezean said...

a special family portrait. excelent :)

September 18, 2009 1:34 AM  
OpenID quarteryear said...

Hi all. Long time listener first time caller.

Could you explain why he chose three 30-second exposures instead of - say - one 1:30 exposure?


September 18, 2009 1:45 AM  
Blogger David said...


Less noise in the file, would be my guess


September 18, 2009 1:50 AM  
Blogger TenisD said...

Realy cool stuff :)
Amazing moment captured!!

September 18, 2009 2:14 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Very cool composite. I'd guess he could have actually done it with an incamera double (or quad) exposure, but I think he chose right. I wouldn't want to blow something on a once in a liftime shot. Better to have played it straight with the knowledge of what he needed to do is PS. Whatever why he chose, if it were my family a nice big enlargement would be hanging over my desk.

September 18, 2009 3:22 AM  
Blogger Nicolaj said...

Wtf?! Canon 5dmkII AND SB800's? :D

September 18, 2009 4:02 AM  
Blogger Ywiz said...

Without a long exposure the trail wouldn't look that cool (and long).

September 18, 2009 4:28 AM  
Blogger Ywiz said...

Without a long exposure the trail wouldn't look that cool (and long).

September 18, 2009 4:29 AM  
Blogger Dean said...


longest exposure possible without remote release is 30 sec on all nikon, canon could be the same?

great concept for a family photo, well done

September 18, 2009 4:56 AM  
Blogger oneredpanther said...

My inner strobist can't help but wish he'd used some CTO there.

September 18, 2009 8:15 AM  
Blogger Ilkka said...

Hey David,

I'm not sure whether using a link shortener is a great idea (Fletcher's portfolio site seems to be address): once the shortener service goes out of business, the links are gonna be dead, which would hinder anyone just starting to wade through the backlog of posts. It's not like long links break any layouts or character-count limits here, after all.

Otherwise, great stuff, big fan. You're an inspiration.

September 18, 2009 8:26 AM  
Blogger Trune said...

Very well done. Amazing unique family shot. Grats.


September 18, 2009 8:28 AM  
Blogger pete25r said...

wished I lived near a shuttle launch site...

September 18, 2009 8:49 AM  
Blogger A J FRENCH said...

re: 3x 30sec shots: also I guess that you can time a 30sec shot in camera, but you need to keep your eye on the watch when set to bulb?

September 18, 2009 9:28 AM  
Blogger AG Lim said...


my guess would be so he would have more flexibility later. if he had just one 1:30 exposure, he wouldn't be able to choose how long he wanted the trail to be

also (i'm not sure of this), maybe the 5d2 doesn't expose for longer than 30", unless in bulb mode, in which case he'd lose precious time fumbling with metering

re noise, if he had chosen a longer exposure (1:30), he'd have needed to use a lower ISO, meaning less noise (or maybe the longer exposure time would negate that advantage?)

in any case, i think he did well to get the three 30" shots rather than the longer one: aside from flexibility post-shot, he could adjust his settings right after the first shot if needed

congrats on the great portrait!


September 18, 2009 9:28 AM  
Blogger rjgreenphoto said...

Looks excellent. I wished I lived closer to see a shuttle/rocket launch.

September 18, 2009 10:06 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Would it be rude to point out that his wife appears to be smoking hot?
Your luck would seem to not be limited to shuttle launches.

September 18, 2009 10:46 AM  
Blogger M said...

I can only imagine how much the kids will treasure this shot when they grow older... and space shuttles are taking off from regular airports without the big blast off. Wonderful photo!

September 18, 2009 11:08 AM  
Blogger CAR said...

Wow - wonderful - but the real delight is the click through to his portfolio. Just absolutely stunning...

September 18, 2009 1:29 PM  
Blogger David Godwin said...

Bah. I had great weather in SC for each of the delays, then 100% clouds for the actual launch. I was going to do something similar, but with about 20 second exposures on the 5D (based on some earlier tests).

I'm glad someone got it, though.

September 18, 2009 1:46 PM  
Blogger FastGlass said...

...and after 30 seconds exposure, the stars start to visibly move, blurring them into big smudges instead of pinpoints...

September 18, 2009 2:11 PM  
Blogger VT said...


I was thinking the exact same thing. The shot would have been killer if the faces were a bit warmer, reflecting some of the orange shuttle trail. The family pops a little too much which makes it a little unreal. If they were warmer, you'd get the feeling that they are bathed in the shuttle afterglow ;-)

September 18, 2009 2:42 PM  
Blogger Jose said...

Fantastic and evocative photo.. great work!

September 18, 2009 2:57 PM  
Blogger kenrchoat said...

My 5DmkI only allows up to 30 sec exposures except in bulb mode.

Nice quick thinking!

September 18, 2009 4:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for sharing,
his portfolio is amazing.

September 18, 2009 4:11 PM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

Awesome shot, And his portfolio is to die for. I'm wasting my time learning all this strobist stuff. I need to learn how to get an imagination instead.

September 18, 2009 4:18 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Saw this, thought everyone would get a kick - his lighting set up is righteous --

September 18, 2009 4:20 PM  
Blogger arianabauer said...

This photo is a treasure for you and your kids. Make sure you hang on to this one! It is beautiful.

September 18, 2009 6:09 PM  
Blogger S.L. Dixon said...

Wonderful image. Family portraits are tough to do at the best of times. This makes for a very special one.

September 18, 2009 8:20 PM  
Blogger aries67 said...

The 5DII must have fast long exposure internal processing to take 3 x 30secs in a row. I would have had to wait 30 seconds in between each frame for my 400D to catch up and take the next frame!

September 18, 2009 8:47 PM  
Blogger Photography 514 said...

3 letters can describe this image WOW!! Superb! Everything is perfect, location, timing, and of course a very unique family portrait. Excellent work.

September 18, 2009 9:51 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

This is an amazing amazing portrait. Reminds me of E.T, Film with E.T riding his pushbike over the moonlit horizon.

Its truly a master craftsman with all the math ratios that would need to be calculated out to get the shot to work as it does. 9.5 / 10

September 19, 2009 12:35 AM  
Blogger Ileen Bocchino Cuccaro said...

Absolutley beautiful

September 19, 2009 6:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin Blackburn Photography said...

Wow these are great images I truly love the shuttle launch. so much of the love and passion has been dropped out of the space program in recent years because it seems so routine. But this shows it is as romantic and inspiring as ever given the chance to be that is.

September 19, 2009 8:12 AM  
Blogger Pamela Vasquez said...

Let me just say that I have admired and taken thousands of pictures, but Jon Fletchers work took my breath away. The one with the most impact, immediately as I clicked on it, was the Holocaust Survivor. I am not jewish and I have no personal connection to anyone who experienced that awful time in world history, but a knot caught in my throat looking at the shot and it is still there as I type this. Mr. Fletcher, you have a gift to tell stories through your photographs and you use that gift well. Hats off to you. Fabulous work. You should teach - and if you live near Tampa..I'll be your first student.

September 19, 2009 11:26 AM  
Blogger grigorisgirl said...

His work is fabulous, thanks for the link.

September 19, 2009 6:17 PM  
Blogger ceblakeney said...

Wow. Oh. Wow. Quick thinking and a carpe diem attitude makes for the best, most unforgettable photos. And this is one of the most inspiring shots I've seen in a long time, thank you. I have not done any composites yet, looks like it's time to start!

September 19, 2009 8:33 PM  
Blogger John said...

Absolutely awesome! Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest family portraits yet.

Thanks for sharing this, and his work is quite inspiring.

September 19, 2009 9:53 PM  
Blogger OaklandMisfit said...

Whoa, I am stunned, what at amazing picture! It is an incredible picture, and it is also a great family portrait, double whammy! Between the short notice, the expertise to make it happen, and the fantastic result, kudos!

September 19, 2009 11:55 PM  
Blogger Sahdev Thakur said...

Beautiful, really innovative concept, keep up the great work.

September 20, 2009 1:19 AM  
Blogger Peter C Berkman said...

sorry, I didn't find anywhere to post a comment for Jon's photo... Simply amazing!!!!

What a fantastic opportunity!

September 20, 2009 1:59 AM  
Blogger Viktor Pravdica said...

Fantastic work!

September 20, 2009 3:46 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Just stunning work! Thanks to all of those people who contribute to Strobist that train us for situations like these. For me, it's what enables me to step outside my door and be able to capture moments like these.

September 20, 2009 9:30 PM  
Blogger Jon M. Fletcher said...

Thanks for all the great feedback! And thank you David for this wonderful and far-reaching forum you've created. What a blessing!
I wanted to answer a few questions that are popping up.
As I mentioned in the post, it was a spur of the moment shoot, and it was really dark (forgot my flashlight) and my kids were getting bitten by mosquitos (forgot the bugspray), so I defaulted to what I knew would work with the tools I had in my Domke bag.
I decided to shoot three exposure in immediate succession to keep the noise level down as David mention, but also because I just bought the 5d mii and haven't acquired a cable release yet that would allow me to keep the exposure going on bulb. Thirty seconds is the max on this camera outside of locking it open with a release.
It would've been cool to do this all in-camera, but the as far as I know the only DSLR I've used that can do in-camera multiple exposures is the Nikon D2X. Are there any others? I wonder if Canon could add that feature through a firmware upgrade (along with a 24 fps in video mode, right?).
And thanks for the suggestions. I, too, think the image would've been better with a little CTO on the strobe on camera left. I keep my gels for the SB's in my wallet, which I neglected to grab on my way out the door. No excuses, but now I know I need an extra set in the Domke. ;)
I did revisit the image in Lightroom to warm it up a bit, and I'm pleased with the result. It's on the front of my site (scroll right). I'd love feedback from anyone willing to peruse the pixels. Thanks, again. Jon

September 21, 2009 8:19 AM  
Blogger Tessa said...

@aries67: You just need to turn off long-exposure noise reduction in order to remove that after-shot delay entirely.

September 21, 2009 9:56 AM  
Blogger Ameed said...

Simply wonderful,

September 21, 2009 1:54 PM  
Blogger Luis said...

Aboslutely amazing capture of this special momment. Thanks for sharing

September 23, 2009 3:30 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

What a breath-taking portfolio. Truely genius. I'd love to hear a little bit about the Tebow photo or any of your others that you are particularly proud of from your portfolio - especially the sports portraits, as I am a photojournalist always looking for new angles for portraits.

Also - the Nikon D200 can shoot multiple exposure.

October 05, 2009 6:44 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

The Nikon D90 has it too, under the shooting menu (green camera) there is a multiple exposure setting (1-3 shots)

February 02, 2010 3:39 AM  

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