On an unusually clear fall afternoon at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif., Matt Hartman lugged a tripod, camera and heavily-modified plastic Home Depot bucket to the edge of a hill overlooking a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad.
The photographer stood up his tripod, mounted his camera on a small platform inside the horizontal orange bucket and, as a test, called out, “Fire.” A moment later, a plexiglass door the size of a large deck of cards popped open at the base of the bucket, and there was a steady click, click, click of the camera.
A tiny $1 desktop computer fan mounted inside the bucket keeps the lens moisture-free as it shoots photos of a rocket that costs at least $62 million per launch.
Hartman is one of a handful of photographers who regularly shoot launches at Vandenberg and set up remotely operated cameras on the hillsides and flat ground near the launch pads to get close-up images of rockets blasting off.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. Launch debris has cracked lenses. Heat from the engine fire sometimes melts camera bodies. And the usually ever-present fog at Vandenberg can cloud camera lenses, leading to blurry photos no one will want.
But every few months, these photographers gather their gear, cross their fingers and hope for a great shot of liftoff to sell to wire agencies or publications for as much as $150. Others might get paid a day rate and, if it’s for a photo agency, perhaps a portion of the picture’s sales.
“It’s something different than the grind,” said Gene Blevins, a freelance photographer who has also shot forest fires and chased storms. He shot a Titan IV rocket for his first Vandenberg launch in the mid-1990s. These launches, he said, are “high level” photography.
Launch of a ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base with a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office payload on August 28, 2013.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
A ULA Atlas V rocket takes a U.S. reconnaissance satellite aloft on Dec. 6, 2013.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
In its 70th mission, a ULA Atlas V rocket blasts off with another U.S. reconnaissance satellite on March 1, 2017.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
A bank of photographers watches the liftoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 Iridium communications satellites on Jan. 14, 2017.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
A Delta IV rocket blasts off with a classified U.S. spy satellite on Feb. 10, 2016.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
A ULA Atlas V rocket holding a powerful Earth-observation satellite lifts off on Nov. 11, 2016.(Matthew Hartman / Matthew Hartman)
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 satellites for Iridium launches toward low-Earth orbit at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Jan. 14, 2017.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket with a payload for the United States National Reconnaissance Office lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Mar. 1, 2017 .(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launches a classified United States National Reconnaissance Office satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Oct. 8, 2015.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 satellites launches to low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 22, 2017.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
Another view of the Dec. 22 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 satellites.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
Another view of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 satellites launching to low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 22.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 satellites takes off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 22.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket achieves stage separation after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 22.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
First-stage boosters burn on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket just before stage separation on Dec. 22.(Gene Blevins / LA Daily News)
In Florida, areas near the launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and neighboring Kennedy Space Center are crowded with a variety of protective remote camera enclosures ranging from mailboxes to boxes without a cover.
There, launches are more frequent — sometimes as often as three a month — because missions from the Cape can launch to an orbit that’s over the equator. That’s ideal for commercial communications satellites, resupply missions to the International Space Station and GPS satellites, said Ramon Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute and former deputy program manager of the launch services program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Vandenberg’s location is best for missions going to polar orbit, which is typically used for satellites that monitor the climate and environment.
Over the last year or two, the base’s launch pace has increased slightly, mainly because of SpaceX, Hartman said. Still, West Coast launch photographers have fewer chances to get the perfect shot.
Over the years, all of the regulars have honed their techniques, built or modified protective camera rigs and developed a process that works.
Blevins began his photography career in high school, before he even had his driver’s license, as a photo assistant for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 1986, he became a full-time freelance photographer, shooting for outlets such as the Los Angeles Daily News and Reuters and photo agencies like Polaris Images and Zuma Press.
Rocket launches are much different from his other assignments.
“They’re exciting to shoot, but they’re a challenge,” he said. “You’re only going to get one shot at it, so you can’t screw up.”
While shooting a Space Shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1999, he wrapped his camera in a black trash bag to protect it from debris, cutting a hole in the bag so his lens could poke out.
Since then, his methods have evolved. Blevins now secures his camera inside a 10-in diameter PVC pipe.
Like many of the photographers, he uses a sound trigger that sets off a Rube Goldberg-esque sequence. The trigger is timed to turn on during the rocket’s launch “window” — the hourslong period in which it’s clear to go. That activates a microphone, which listens for the rumble of rocket engines. Once that’s detected, a door attached to the end of the tube flips open, and the camera wakes up from sleep mode and starts shooting. Once the sound disappears, it stops firing. After a minute, the camera goes back into sleep mode.
“It’s just a really noisy, hostile environment for cameras and equipment,” said photographer Bob Fisher, who uses sound triggers he initially built to shoot the last three space shuttle launches and landings.
A reporter and other photographers gently ribbed veteran aerospace photographer Bill Hartenstein on his protective boxes, calling them “toaster ovens.” But, he said, “I can’t even remember the last time they failed me.”
Photographers who want to shoot the launches must work for a verifiable news organization and pass a rudimentary background check that’s required for anyone who comes on base. Once credentialed, they are escorted to specific areas around the launchpad the day before to set up their remote cameras; Blevins generally sets up four.
Those cameras will have to operate without human assistance for hours or sometimes days.
The photographers also shoot images from the press site, which is a few miles away from the remote cameras. Blevins will shoot photos using two to three cameras at the press site. From any one of his cameras, he can get six to eight different shots.
“Things can go wrong,” Blevins said. “You’ve always got to have a back-up.”
The challenges of the job and the small number of compatriots have led to close friendships.
Blevins credits Hartenstein with teaching him all he knows about launch photography. Hartenstein shot his first Vandenberg launch in 1989 for Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine and shot shuttle missions with Blevins.
In 2003, the two went up to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory near Big Pine, Calif., to shoot the reentry plasma trail of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it returned from space. They thought the scene would be perfect — mountains on the side and radio telescopes in the foreground.
Hartenstein and Blevins set up their gear the night before and woke up around 3:30 a.m. to get ready for the reentry. They saw a bright light streak across the sky. Then Blevins started to see some red chunks dropping off like lava. Right when he stopped the exposure and the camera shutter closed, he said he saw what looked to be a large red flare dropping.
They didn’t think much of it until Hartenstein got on his phone to listen in on the shuttle’s landing procedures. He remembers hearing a commentator from Johnson Space Center say that the last data received from the shuttle was over Texas.
“I knew right then something had happened,” Hartenstein said. “The shuttle can’t be late.”
Columbia had broken up over East Texas during reentry. One of Blevins’ photos showed a red line in the plasma trail.
Today, Hartman, who began shooting launches at Vandenberg in 2011 with a Delta IV Heavy rocket, often works alongside Blevins, trading tips and asking for advice. On a shelf in his home office, Hartman has two Lego figures that look like the two of them, complete with a tiny box on a tripod. Lego-Blevins wears his namesake’s signature baseball cap and vest.
Times staff video journalist Jeff Amlotte contributed to this report.