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Oh boy – have you got mail!

15/08/2011 Take one £28,000 top of the range Hasselblad H4D-60; add a $9 white-painted US metal mailbox, a couple of bungee straps, an assortment of plastic bags, some Duck tape, a couple of sticks with corkscrew legs, a big 12 volt marine battery and a decent tripod. And there you have the perfect ‘capture bundle’ for shooting the launch and landing of the last ever Space Shuttle at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre – reveals US-based photographer Matt Rece.

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Rece, a technical manager for a 3D CAD design software group, has been fascinated by the US space shuttle programme since he was a small boy. He’s spent countless hours photographing various shuttle missions over the years – and when the opportunity arose for him to use a Hasselblad H4D-60 to cover the launch and subsequent landing of the final mission last month, he jumped at the chance.

He said: “I struck up a conversation with a Hasselblad dealer at a NASA Trade Show three years ago. I happened to tell the guy I had a keen interest in high-speed technical photography and that I had designed and built a very high-speed microflash that was capable of 300 nanosecond exposure times. I told him I would love the opportunity to work with a Hasselblad – and we finally got the chance with the last shuttle mission. It wasn’t the high speed idea we were originally working on but it married up perfectly with my shuttle photography plans.”

Rece and a couple of friends started researching a ‘shopping list’ for the shuttle shoot. “We knew there were a number of technical challenges for this remote shoot. Cameras must be placed out about 1,500 feet or so from the shuttle pad, at least twenty four hours before launch, so we had to find a way of keeping the camera powered for a long period of time. The equipment must be protected from the weather too – it rains pretty much every afternoon in Florida – so our contrived power option turned out to be a voltage regulator and a 12 volt marine battery.”

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Rece had to worry about stability too. He added: “You’ll see other cameras with quite elaborate housings on the shuttle site – but there is a trade off there because the bigger the housing the more top heavy the whole thing becomes, and it is vital the unit stays securely anchored, in case of high winds. 

We put big corkscrew poles into the ground – the type of thing you’d use to hook your dog to on a leash. We used bungee straps over the tripod and sunk it all in tight. Then we placed a plastic bag over the camera and taped it up to make sure it was kept perfectly dry.”

Then came the fun bit

“This camera costs a great deal of money” admitted Rece, “I wanted to afford it the very best protection I could and make sure overheating wasn’t an issue. I went to a Home Depot store and bought a $9 US mailbox. On the back end of it I cut a little mouse hole for the lens to peep through.

The mailbox was made of thin metal so it was pretty simple for me to screw through it and into the removable plate at the bottom of the camera. Then we manoeuvred it into position with the tripod, manipulated the plastic bag as necessary and taped it all up.” He joked: “I am sure all this must be in the Hasselblad user manual somewhere.”

But Rece’s creative ingenuity didn’t end there. “ We built the sound trigger from a Radio Shack decibel meter – and added some ‘logic’ to ensure the sound didn’t respond to something it shouldn’t – like a lightning bolt or the sound of the plastic bag rubbing on the microphone.

If that happens you can end up with 2,000 images you don’t want, on a full memory card and with a dead battery. Our special trigger was able to average out the sound over a couple of seconds, which gave it a slow rise time.”

 The remotely-operated H4D-60 came into play right on time at T-minus 6 seconds in the countdown... and through the launch.

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But the landing was tricky too

Explained Rece: “We had hoped for a sunrise landing because it would have made a truly beautiful shot. We planned to put the camera high up on a vehicle assembly building, so we would be at the same level as the shuttle as it came by at 220 mph.

The problem was that NASA changed the landing time and the shuttle came back in the dark – backlit by ten million watt Xenon spotlights that shone down the runway behind the shuttle itself.

So really all we really got was a silhouette – but we did our best. You can only go so fast on the shutter speed because it is dark out there. But with a bit of clean-up in Photoshop to erase a lot of the noise, we still came away with very useable pictures.”

He said: “We had a unique opportunity and we wanted to make the best of it – that’s why Hasselblad came to mind. Their cameras have been on every manned NASA space flight mission so it seemed appropriate from all angles.

The amazing versatility of the H4D-60 allows for unprecedented detail. For us to be able to zoom and crop and get the shot, even if shooting circumstances dictated that we weren’t able to be as tight as we would have liked, we still came home with some great images – and the Hasselblad was just the perfect camera for the job.” He added: “I will keep on shooting future rocket launches but I don’t think anything will ever be as beautiful as the shuttle.

Find out more about Matt Rece at: www.tonylandimaging.com