After making her first pass over the National Air & Space Museum (Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center) Space Shuttle Discovery left to make her appearance over Washington DC. Since she would be gone for a little while I used this time to review my images, transfer some of my favorites to my iPad and to change compact flash memory cards.
Since this is a photography blog I thought I’d spend a little time talking about my equipment choices and the camera settings I used.
When I arrived at the Air & Space Museum I had a car full of camera equipment but I made the decision to only use one camera body and a single lens. While I was planning on getting some pictures I was also there as a spectator. Often when you’re an event photographer or photo journalist you experience everything through your viewfinder and the experience just isn’t the same. By using a single lens I knew there would be a time when the Space Shuttle would be too big for my frame and I’d have to put the camera down and that’s when I’d get to see Discovery with my own eyes.
I decided to use my A900 because I love the look of full frame images. My lens of choice was my 70-200mm f2.8. I love the 70-200 and I planned on being at 200mm as much as possible but zooming down to 70mm to keep Discovery filling my frame as long as possible.
One of the benefits of using fast lenses (f2.8 and faster) is that they let more light into the camera system than a slower lens and that helps you get faster and more accurate focus. Even if I’m shooting at f8 the lens is open to f2.8 right up to the moment I fully press my shutter release button. Most professional camera bodies even include additional focus capability when fast lenses are attached. This is a big reason that sports shooters use the faster lenses (f2.8) even if the focal length is only 200mm or 300mm.
To help me lock in my settings I captured a few shots of some landing airplanes including this NASA T-38 Talon escort. My understanding is that this T-38 was running low on fuel so it landed, refueled and then re-joined Discovery.
To keep my camera steady I brought my Manfrotto monopod. Plenty of people around me were set up on tripods but I rarely use a tripod for sports/action/event photography. Something about a monopod just feels faster to me.
In full daylight it can be argued that there was enough light to get shutter speeds well above 1/3000th of a second (which is plenty fast for hand holding and getting sharp shots). But a full frame camera with a two battery grip and a 70-200mm f2.8 lens isn’t light. The monopod helped me conserve my arm strength as long as possible while I watched the shuttle flying in through my viewfinder.
For camera settings I went with aperture priority mode and set myself at f8. To keep my shutter speed super high I went with ISO 800 and I set my drive mode to high speed continuous (about 5 frames per second until the camera buffer and card transfer speed slow things down).
I heard that Discovery was returning so I got myself ready for my second batch of pictures. I was excited to hear that this would be another flyby and not her final approach. According to someones air traffic control radio Discovery was going to be passing by at about 500 feet this time.
Once again the parking lot erupted in cheers as Space Shuttle Discovery came into view. This time instead of flying directly over my head she flew more in front of me.
And once again Shuttle Discovery was gone from view. The next time I saw her she would be coming in for her landing.