How I Got That Shot: Last Flight of Endeavour

Photographer Matthew Kuhns (www.matthewkuhnsphotography.com) is a California-based landscape photographer with images published in Popular Photo and PDN. Matthew has been producing landscape imagery across the United States for many years. Matthew is also a practicing aeronautical engineer. This endeavor has helped him better understand the forces of nature and its energies: the movement of wind, the play of light, and the relentlessness of geologic change. Today, Matt shares his experience photographing the last flight of the Endeavour space shuttle.

While visiting San Francisco for the PSA 2012 conference, I learned that the Space Shuttle Endeavour would be making a fly-by of the city on the back of a 747, and its projected flight path had it passing over the Golden Gate bridge. Since the shuttle would be passing by such a great landmark and I happened to be in town, I slept that night with visions of epic photographs floating through my head.

To plan this shot, I started by reviewing the flight plan published on the NASA website. The next step was to review pictures of the Golden Gate online, where I decided on a view from the North so San Francisco could be seen in the background. With that information, I drove out to the Marin Headlands and scouted for the best location. I ended up deciding on the Battery Spencer so that the Endeavour would stand out between the towers of the bridge and not get lost in the city, which I thought was a potential risk from the higher Hawk Hill vantage point.

In anticipation of traffic, I spent the night near the Marin Headlands and arrived at Battery Spencer before sunrise. After shooting several shots of sunrise, I scouted more locations, and was very impressed with the number of people who showed up for the fly-by on a week day. With the time approaching, I settled on the final angle and readied my camera. NASA was updating the Endeavour's position over Twitter, and the crowd got very excited as it got closer. All of a sudden the 747 with Endeavour on its back and an F-15 on its wing roared over the Marin Headlands from the North and flew low over the crowd to everyone’s delight. It then looped around the south side of the city and swept over the Golden Gate 300 ft above the towers. Flying past the headlands a second time, it then turned south for its final journey to the California Science Center.

Because the flight had been delayed due to fog, the bridge was very back lit by this point in the day, appearing more black than red in color. There was no time, and certainly no parking, to get over the south side of the bridge, so I made do as best I could making sure to shoot in RAW and use a polarizer. The shot I got is seen below with only basic curves adjustments.

After looking at the color version, I realized it did not properly reflect the impact of the event. To better reflect the grandeur of the occasion, I decided to convert the image to black and white. This removed the distracting elements the color and back lighting were causing and lets you focus on the bridge and the Endeavour. The conversion was done using Nik's Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin with a Neutral preset as a starting point. From the starting point, local adjustments were used to darken the sky, lighten the bridge, and bring out the texture of the clouds. A global luminosity mid-tones adjustment was used to darken the image slightly, and the final step was to apply sharpening to only the bridge.

It was wonderful to see the majestic Endeavour and the iconic Golden Gate together, but bittersweet as well in that that it signified the end of the Space Shuttle program. I hope this image captures those emotions, the completed image can be seen below.

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