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

Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon1
Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon2
Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon4
47 years ago the Lunar Module 'The Eagle' landed on the moon...

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

When Apollo 11 slowly lifted skyward from Cape Kennedy on its lunar flight, spewing violent clouds of smoke and flame in its wake, more cameras than pairs of eyes seemed to be aimed at the launch pad.

The prospect of being able to record history while-it-was-being-made was too great a temptation to the thousands of newsmen and newswomen at Press Site 39. Every reporter who owned or could borrow a camera seemingly put aside his or her typewriter and notebook and turned photographer to record the spectacular event on film.

Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon6
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).

Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon3
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.

Most pros used Nikons to record Apollo 11 blast-off to moon5
Sound waves also were used to trigger motorized Nikons at the Apollo 11 launch. John Slack, 20-year old photographer for the Gannett newspaper Today, Cocoa, Fla., pioneered the technique at the Apollo 9 launch. He used a homemade amplifier produced from $15 worth of electronic parts by Les Frost, an engineer at WEZY Radio, and Jim Rife and Hoyt Ingle, both of Today's mechanical department. For Apollo 11, Slack used 4 motorized Nikons and a more advanced stereo amplification unit with a sensitivity control, a small crystal microphone.

All the cameras were less than 366 meters away from the launch pad. One was set up with a 105mm Auto-Nikkor on the east side of the pad. A second was on the west side, at the base of the escape slide wire, hooked to a fence. Two were on the southeast side, one with a 5Omm Auto-Nikkor and the other with a 85mm Auto-Nikkor. One captured a spectacular scene, in colour, of the rocket firing with seagulls in the foreground which was used, full page, in the July 28 issue of Newsweek as well as many other publications.

Life magazine's special equipment was both plentiful and frequently intricate. Ralph Morse, shooting both for the NASA photographic pool and for Life set up 12 motorized Nikons in and around the launch pad. Three Nikons with 2S0-exposure Motor Drives in nitrogen-purged boxes (filled with nitrogen to prevent sparks from the batteries causing an explosion) were placed near the rocket. One camera was bolted to the gantry at the 110-meters level, 12 meters away from the rocket. It was inserted in a firebox to protect it as the rocket passed by and was hooked into the missile sequencer. The camera got a series of dramatic shots of the rocket lifting up and passing by.

A second 2S0-exposure motorized Nikon was bolted to the gantry at the 98-meters level. A clock was built into the box holding the camera so that when the 'suit man' for the launch threw a magnet - the camera operated for 2 minutes (120 exposures at the rate of one per second), cut off for 8 minutes, and then turned on again to shoot until the balance of the 250-exposure film load was exposed.

The third 2S0-exposure motorized Nikon was bolted to the shaft of the elevator facing the path along which the astronauts had to pass. A blockhouse worker had the job of throwing a switch that set the camera in operation when he saw the astronauts walk toward the elevator on his television monitor. Morse himself shot the lift-off from a helicopter 11km away.

Toshio Kato, a staff photographer of Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, and his assistant, Koichi Kugimiya, had two motorized Nikons wired to a pistol grip so they could be operated in tandem. Each camera was equipped with a 600mm Auto-Nikkor and was mounted on a special base so that both cameras could track Apollo 11 in flight.

Several photographers were using foot switches wired to their motorized Nikons so they could keep both hands free to track the rocket when it lifted up into the sky. One of the unusual rigs worked out by Ron Thompson, Nikon technical representative, for Charles Scherer of Washington, D.C., was a wire device that started 6 motorized Nikons operating with a single pull of the wire.

At 9:32 A.M. July 16, Apollo 11 slowly lifted from its pad, the many Nikons and Nikkormats were shooting constantly and in 10 seconds or so it was all over.

Historical research, images & text compiled by Ron Volmershausen.

Sources/Credit - Nikon, NASA, LIFE Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, George Berkowitz.

This entry was posted in Other Nikon stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Fujimoto

    And some Reynold’s Wrap!

  • S Cargill

    Cool story about Nikon. Too bad 47 years later the United States must rely on Russia just to get to the space station.

    • T.I.M

      yep, but Russians rely on USA to rescue Russians nuclear submarines !
      In today’s world, everyone depend on someone else, I personally depend on NR to announce the D900 !

      • Schtatten

        Hats off for the clever wit. :p

      • Fly Moon

        Well said, man!

  • Ryan

    Hmmm not sure if those long tele lenses will fit in my camera bag!

  • BayouBill

    Nikon ruled the roost back then. Go to any important event nowadays, and you will see just as many, if not more, photogs using “Brand C”.

  • DP

    And almost half a century later, Nikons are just as clunky and unwieldy, if not more so!

    Talk about sad!

  • T.I.M

    Nitrogen purged boxes does not mean “free of air” but free of oxygen.
    If I remember my sciences classes (few decades ago), air is a mix of 79% nitrogen, 20% oxygen and 1% others gases + vapor.

  • T.I.M



    (the pixels resolution is not what expected, but it has a revolutionary new feature, now you can use it as a phone !)

    • Mato34

      By looking those specs, I’d say it’s late.

      Any info about quality problems and recalls it will have? Is it something about AF, or more like lock ups or shutters breaking?

  • That was the camera of the day. When I was deciding on my first really serious camera in 1975, it was an easy decision. The Canon F1 had been introduced a few years earlier (1972?), but Nikon had been around for a quite a while. I went with the more established brand and was bolstered in my decision by knowing that most pros used them. Today, each brand has its plusses and minuses and it’s more about what feels better functionally.

  • TheInfinityPoint

    Sounds like me with my night time lapses. My absolute record was 8 simultaneous shots set up in and around Keck Observatory (6 were inside, 2 on the roof). That was a super busy night even though all the shots were at least 4 hours long. I even purchased a 2nd 14-24 just for that shoot lol.

    • No wonder Sean Goebel’s motto is “No Cameras Left Behind”… 😛

  • 1741

    It’s made me think that maybe all those who complain about buffer speeds an general auto focus speeds should try a manual film camera

    • Carleton Foxx

      Film cameras have no buffer and those motor drives used to blaze at 12 or 15 frames a second for the whole 250 frame magazine. So we’re only just now getting back to where we were 40 years ago.

      • AlphaT

        And video cameras take like 24 to 30 films per second since time immemorial.

        I believe he’s talking about consumer products that’s available off the shelf.

        • harvey

          consumer cameras of 30 years ago could take battery powered winders that easily get through 36exp roll of film at 3.5fps. And then do the next one and the next one until the batteries gave out.

      • PhilK

        Umm, no.. the top motor-drive speed then was 4 FPS for the standard production “F36” motor for the Nikon F. (And that required the mirror to be locked up – otherwise the top speed was 3 FPS)

        The Apollo 11 launch was in 1969. The F2, which had a higher-speed option (5.5 FPS with mirror locked-up and special power pack) was not on the market until 1972.

        Nikon also made some special limited-production cameras, starting in 1971, which used stationary “pellicle” mirrors, which could run at higher speeds. (If you didn’t mind the light and image-quality loss of exposing the film through the semi-transparent mirror) The first of those, in 1971, ran at 7FPS. The 2nd generation in 1978 – based on the F2 – ran at up to 10FPS. They all were very rare, special-order, very expensive, and were missing certain features from the standard models as well as being quite large and heavy in some cases.

  • Fly Moon

    Very cool. Thanks for sharing

  • MonkeySpanner

    I wonder what happened between then and now. I sometimes scan the sidelines at sports events when the cameras happen to pan across the photographers. Its pretty easy to tell the canon togs from the Nikon (big white lenses a dead giveaway). And I have to tell you, a quick, unscientific count usually reveals more C gear than N gear. I wonder what happened and why canon rules the pro sports world now. It seems Nikon makes extremely competent sports gear. I wonder why I so regularly see more c gear?

    • Carleton Foxx

      According the photo editor of a newspaper I used to work at, what happened was that in the 80s and 90s Nikon quality really started to fall off so news outlets (which used to buy photo equipment by the pallet load) switched to Canon. And once you own four or five 600mm lenses and a couple of dozen 70-200s and a bunch of 400mms it’s very expensive to change brands.

      • harvey

        not it at all. When the first EOS film cameras came out in the late 80s’ at the beginnings of AF, Canon would take anyone as professional and would sell them product, through their local dealer, at cost. The dealers still received a kick-back from Canon. Nikon made people jump through hoops to become NPS and you still didn’t get your gear at cost. And the most important, Nikon and some others, used their old mounts as a basis for AF, using the so-called screwdriver-driven AF, where the motor was in the body. Canon went with motors in the lenses. Their af was faster. With that, Canon was able to bring out much faster big tells – the ones used for sports and wildlife. So, cheaper gear and faster af. That’s what made EOS so prevalent in the pro market. ps. back in the day, I compared an F5 and an Eos-1. Everything, IMO, was better on the Nikon, except AF. And depending on what I was shooting, that made a huge difference. Metering on the Canon was crap compared to the Nikon – which introduced the 1005 segment matrix metering system, which was fabulous except for small bright objects in dark backgrounds.

        • Carleton Foxx

          Wow. That’s great insight. I had no idea. And NIKON always had more accurate flash exposure too. But as anyone who has worked at a corporation knows, the decisions that go into picking tools and equipment usually have nothing to do with which one will do the job the best.

          • true

            Well AF is pretty important in some fields

          • PhilK

            Canon’s EOS jump was definitely the deciding factor. Canon didn’t have the professional following Nikon did at that time so orphaning the old lenses wasn’t as big a liability as it was for Nikon which had been using the same lens mount since 1959. (And to this day, actually)

            Canon also took advantage of their electronics resources and made the new EOS mount fully electronic with no mechanical coupling – electrically-coupled AF, electronically-driven aperture. The EOS mount also has a wider diameter and shorter back-focus than the F-mount so this gives Canon more flexibility in designing certain types of high-speed and/or compact lenses. (Which is why you see several F/1.2 Canon lenses today which are hard to replicate in the Nikon F mount for technical reasons)

            Canon was also the first company to incorporate ultrasonic AF motors in their lenses – they got a several-year jump on Nikon there.

            So those factors put Nikon on the defensive for a while but Nikon has had its own technical firsts along the way. I actually think 2016 may be the year they pull closer to Canon’s sports/photojournalist marketshare than they have for some years, as the D5 and D500 are demonstrably superior to what Canon is offering now in a variety of ways.

  • Mike

    $20 for parts was a lot of money 47 years ago. 47 years from people will think it’s quaint that the D4/5 needed a $650 gadget to send images wirelessly.

  • Carleton Foxx

    Those were the days when photographers strode the media universe like gods. Now it’s Kanye West and Megyn Kelly.

  • And most millennials wonder why nostalgia is such a fun part of photography for some folks. It’s not a matter of obnoxious fanboy behaviors, it’s a respectful appreciation of history and the feats of engineering that made such amazing things possible.

    I can only hope that we have even more exciting times to come, in the realm of photography and such milestones in human history…

  • Focuspuller

    Uh…Most pros used Nikons, period.

  • MB

    50 years ago Nikon listened to photographers and what they need.
    These days Nikon listens to accounting department and what they think will lower the costs and increase profits.
    The result … Canon is selling twice as much photo gear … and Nikon is struggling to keep up the business running …
    It seems to me accountants do not know that much about photography business …

    • Allen_Wentz

      It is simple corporation-wide arrogance at Nikon Marketing.

      When I attended a very small D500 seminar for recent purchasers the 2 Nikon reps had LESS THAN ZERO interest in the feedback the very experienced, very diverse group of users had to offer. Instead of taking advantage of a great one-on-one market research opportunity the reps just strutted their stuff.

      Corporate idiocy.

  • T.I.M

    Another terrorist attack tonight, this time in Germany.
    I am French and I was in shock last week when that Muslim guy killed 84 people in Nice.
    Our world is beautiful, people are all unique and wonderful.
    I came in USA in 1999, I did not speak a word of English, but I choose to live in USA so I’m not trying to change USA, I changed myself to become an American.
    Nobody has the right to take someone’s life, even (and especially) for religion reasons.

    • Member

      Thanks for sharing your opinion.
      Especially this part
      ” I’m not trying to change USA, I changed myself to become an American.”
      I appreciate very much and agree with wholeheartedly.

  • Scott M.

    Very cool history to see today.

  • Gizmologist

    My Dad was a Tech Rep with EPOI during the 70’s. I have one of the VOX switches used to trigger cameras during some of the later Apollo missions. The device was one of John Slack’s ideas. It used a simple inexpensive Radio Shack “Science Fair Kit” VOX. It had a simple carbon mic that was put inside a toilet paper tube covered in gaff tape to provide some directional gain. The red plastic case that doubled as the circuit board was placed inside a Tupperware box to need it dry

  • Adolf Vukic

    Shame that nobody from USA was on moon !!!

  • Adolf Vukic

    Shame that Apollo and US cosmonauts never landed on MOoN !!!

    • Vortex

      yeah real shame that SOME russians are in rio 2016….
      cheating scum….

  • Spy Black

    “Special tripod bases were used to prevent vibration from the rocket blast sound waves hitting the cameras.”

    I wonder what that consisted of.

  • Vortex

    most japanese battleships attacking pearl habour used nikon made optics too.

  • Back to top