This Story About The Nikon Shooters At The Apollo 11 Launch Shows What It Used To Be Like To Be A Photographer

by Bret Hoy1 Comment

For shooters my age, it’s hard to fully imagine a world in which professionals only used film. I still shoot film and I develop my own black and whites, but when I’m sitting down on Lightroom or editing in Premiere Pro, I find myself thankful that I can so easily access my photos and footage.

Everyone always talks about the difference in look for film, and the work that it takes to get your image out, but this detailed report of the Nikon cameras used to capture the Apollo 11 brings up something else.

Working with film turns you into a different kind of shooter and in doing so, trains you in an ethic defined by these photographers.

The kind of technology used by these photographers was very rudimentary and some elements of their set ups were homemade.

John Slack, a photographer at the launch used a homemade amplifier to trigger the shutter in his camera. Nowadays, this is nearly impossible. With the amount of licensing and collaboration with the manufacturer that it takes, the average person can’t imagine venturing to the hardware store to build something like that.

The point is that, with the advent of digital photography and cinematography, I believe we’ve lost less in our images, than we have in our ethic in capturing them. This fantastic historic account of the Apollo 11 launch is just a slice of what it used to mean to be a photographer.

Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon

Nikons to record Apollo 11 image 3

Via Nikon Rumors:

There were so many people taking pictures at blast-off at the site, the pros were in the minority. The only way you could distinguish between the pro and amateur was the pro's more abundant equipment and a pink press-badge. The working photographer inevitably was shooting with two or more cameras, in most cases with motorized Nikons, and with very long lenses. A spot survey indicated that about 71 % of the photographers used Nikons. Life magazine's Bill Eppridge, for example, covered his part of the launch with 6 Nikons with Motor Drives, 2 Nikons without a motor and 4 Nikkormat cameras.

Many of the pros had special setups to insure good photo-reportage of the event. Some of these set-ups were fascinating. Several of the media – National Geographic, Life, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, to name four – placed light-actuated, motorized Nikons, on the launch pad or close to it. These cameras automatically began operating at the moment the Saturn V rocket fired.

Credit National Geographic photographers for the ingenuity to devise the light-actuated setup. All that is needed for such a device, in addition to a Nikon with a Motor Drive, is a telescope or spotting scope, a slave unit connected to the scope and a wire connection between the slave and battery pack of the Motor Drive…………about $20 worth of material, all easy to get. National Geographic's final setup was somewhat more complicated and sophisticated. John E. Fletcher used a variable telescope (15 to 60x) and a light-actuated silicon-controlled rectifier (LASCR). The sensitivity of the LASCR was controlled by a variable potentiometer (set by a screw in the center of the back of the camera assembly).

Nikons to record Apollo 11 image 1

The LASCR was mounted in a microphone connector which was attached to a black collar, a specially machined unit securely attached to the telescope to assure proper optical alignment. An electric cord wired into the LASCR at one end and to a male plug at the other completed the assembly. When the rocket's engines ignited, the light was concentrated by the scope optics onto the LASCR which acted as a switch or electrical gate to start the motorized Nikon.

National Geographic used 10 motorized Nikons at and around the launch site (305 meters away or less) and at the Press Site, with lenses from 28mm to 200mm. Special tripod bases were used to prevent vibration from the rocket blast sound waves hitting the cameras. The Nikons at the Press Site, for example, were mounted on a steel post with a steel plate on top for the cameras and another steel plate buried in the ground. Sandbags were piled on top of the latter and against the post to make certain it didn't move.

Read full article at Nikon Rumors “Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon”

Note: it is our policy to give credit as well as deserved traffic to our news sources – so we don't repost the entire article – sorry, I know you want the juicy bits, but I feel it is only fair that their site get the traffic and besides, you just might make a new friend and find an advertiser that has something you've never seen before

(cover photo credit: snap from Nikon Rumors)


  1. Little tidbit that goes to show how complex launch photography is these days (or rather about 10 years ago):

    Friend of mine’s dad is a successful medical specialist in Florida, photography has always been a hobby of his. He actually needed a fairly high quality DSLR for his career as he often had to take photographs of patients maladies before and during procedures (accidentally scrolling through his iPhoto was a horrible experience). His medical specialization is a very lucrative area of expertise and he has done quite well, and so began buying a lot of vintage equipment about 8 years ago to supplement his past time. One of his favorite purchases was a panoramic camera that was manufactured around WWII, its original price (according to him) was somewhere in the $1-2million dollar range (I’m sure he got it for far less on eBay but you know it was probably still quite expensive). I have no idea of the brand, and I can tell you that it looked nothing like a camera in any traditional sense. Us living in Florida, he had contacts at NASA and was able to negotiate his way into a photography position (mainly for the regional newspapers) for shuttle launches which were pretty active at the time. Even photographers and press were not allowed to set up anywhere close to the launch site, and to make things even more complicated, they had to have their equipment set up days in advance and could only operate their equipment remotely. Again, this panoramic camera he was using was over 50 years old, and did not have a remote function. So, my buddy’s dad devised a pretty complex system based on a bulky sequencer computer (Raspberry Pi’s weren’t around at the time) hooked up to a motorized “finger” to activate the shutter on his camera, and a set of pulleys and motors. The motors were used to release clamps which held a tarp over the entire apparatus, protecting it from the elements. So, he basically had to write a sequence to release his protective cover and simultaneously start snapping photos, and had begin the sequence with precise timing so that he could capture the launch. Then he would go set it all up 2-3 days before the launch and let it sit out in the Florida heat, hoping above all hopes his sequence program was properly written, and that his sequencer’s power supply wasn’t interrupted in the days to come. And keep in mind, this is all for a shuttle launch, which can easily be delayed or cancelled at a moment’s notice for any number of reasons.

    Every image he captured was stunning, the photos turned out incredible, and were printed on the front page of a few Florida newspapers from about 2007-2009 (whenever they initially suspended the shuttle program). I remember seeing one of them on the cover of a mass-publication magazine a few years later. These images cemented his relationship with NASA and he has had the privilege of tagging along as a photographer on astronaut training sessions and the like in the years since. But, long story short, as a photographer/videographer, I’ve always appreciated the amount of thought, effort, and faith he had to put in to his equipment in order to get the images he wanted.

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