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Rocket Man: A Q&A With Space Shuttle Photographer Dan Winters

Photograph by Dan Winters

Dan Winters, whose photographs of Endeavour appear in the October issue of Los Angeles magazine and in Last Launch, his soon-to-be-released photo tribute to America’s space shuttle program, tells us how he captured such detailed shots of the engineering feat in motion:

The process you follow when shooting a space shuttle starts the day before a launch—and includes drilling, electronic trigger settings, sandbagging your tripods. Sounds like a workout.
It’s a lot of work. It’s also painfully hot and incredibly humid with massive amounts of mosquitoes, so that exacerbates the process of setting everything up. I’ve photographed in some pretty weird situations before, whether extreme cold or heat, so I’m definitely no stranger to adverse conditions—that’s just part of the deal. It makes things not so pleasant, but on the flip side it’s incredible to be so close to the shuttle and that piece of history. It’s inspiring. The good outweighs the bad. 

You couldn’t be anywhere near the cameras, which are set with shutter triggers, during the launch. What went through your mind while you waited to see what was captured on film?
The only thing I thought about is if the trigger worked, because I already knew the picture I was going to get. It’s just a matter of if it works. I’ve had it not work before and that’s the frustrating part. You do what you can to make sure the camera is going to fire, but misfires happen. I got very few misfires, though. I just try to take in the launch, which I shoot from the press site, as well. 

It sounds a lot like what the engineers and astronauts must be going through for the shuttle—hoping all systems go.
You’re so right. Absolutely. 

For those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, what is it like to witness a space shuttle launch?
It’s really interesting. The first time I saw a launch was in 1998, and the thing that surprised me the most was the sound. The shuttle clears the tower before you can hear it, in the same way that if you’re at a baseball game and you see a ball hit, it takes a second to hear the ball’s contact with the bat. There’s a delay, and so you see the intense cloud of smoke when the main engines start, and then after six seconds the solid rocket boosters start, and this all happens before you hear anything. I had an idea in my mind of what a launch would sound like, but it was so vastly different from the truth. It actually sounds like packing materials—like, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop

What work is done on the photographs once the launch is over?
I take all the files and really quickly back them up onto three different hard drives and load them up on the computer. Then, what I like to do is take the images and play with them at night at the hotel and do a quick edit. It’s really funny, the launch is so loud that even after the shuttle is out of view the cameras [which are triggered by sound] continue firing, so I end up with a lot of frames of just smoke. As a rule I don’t delete anything. I just play around a little bit and then we get back to the studio and run through it. For the photographs of Endeavour, I didn’t do a lot of manipulation other than synchronizing color intensities so the photographs match and look like a consistent piece of work. 

ALSO: See Dan Winters' photographs of Endeavour in The Final Frontier