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Blastoff from the Bounce House

How a photograph of a rocket launch captured from UCF’s football stadium landed among Time magazine’s top 100 photos of 2020. 

Spring 2021 | By Jenna Marina Lee 

UCF’s proximity to the Space Coast allows anyone to soak in the site of a rocket soaring to space from just about anywhere on campus, including the 50-yard-line of the football stadium. In fact, the 50-yard line sits on the same latitude as NASA’s historical Launch Complex 39A. That’s by design.

In November, Conor Kvatek — a 22-year-old photographer who grew up cheering for the Knights and now works part-time in the athletics department — thought the stadium presented a unique opportunity for capturing his first rocket launch on camera. He ended up with one of Time magazine’s top 100 photos of 2020 and amplified the university’s reputation as SpaceU.

Here’s the back story of how the photo came to be.

Jenna Marina Lee: How long have you been shooting photos for UCF Athletics?

Conor Kvatek: Since 2017 and it kind of happened spontaneously. I had just graduated from high school and at the time, I was helping out the UCF Athletics video department, which my dad has worked for since 2004. I had only ever shot some photos of sporting events for the Boone High School newspaper. During UCF’s home game that year against Memphis, one of the interns who used to take photos had to leave at halftime. Brad Helton, who was the staff photographer at the time, looked at me and said, “Your dad told me you’ve shot photos before. Here, take a camera and shoot and maybe you’ll get two or three good ones.” I ended up getting a full gallery after the game, and Brad thought I might have some talent so he said that they were going to keep letting me shoot during games. Slowly I started to learn more and got better at shooting. Now I’m one of two part-time photographers and handle a lot of the photoshoots and game coverage.

JML: Walk me through the night of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. Why did you want to shoot it from the stadium? How did you set up your shot?

CK: Originally I wasn’t going to shoot the launch because it was scheduled during our game against Temple on Nov. 14.  But when the launch got scrubbed until the next day, I knew I was going to be on that side of town and decided to shoot it. I thought [assistant athletics director of #content] Eric DeSalvo ’09 might want it for our social media account.

I’ve never shot a launch in my life. Around 6 p.m. I met up with another freelance photographer Alex Menendez, who has shot launches before and offered to help me through it. I had a couple of angles in my mind knowing that the rocket would be right over the horizon looking out from the stadium tower — I figured it would be the best shot that showcased everything. Alex and I went to the very top of Roth Tower and decided it would be better if we went down a floor to get a little more of the field in the shot. We shot it from the coaching video booth on the fifth floor, which had a garage door you can pull up, so I didn’t have to shoot through glass.

We set up cameras on tripods. We had intervalometers on top of our cameras, which is a tool that allows us to take photos over certain intervals of time without having to hold the shutter down. Alex ran through settings with me. I took like five test shots and he took like four, just at various intervals of time to see what it looked like. We both agreed that because of some ambient light in the air the best shot would be about a three-minute exposure so that when it started going up we’d get the trail of the rocket. When the rocket went up, I hit the button on my intervalometer and the photo started to take by a long exposure. Three minutes later I had the photo.

JML: What kind of camera did you use?

CK: UCF Athletics provides my equipment. I used a Nikon D5 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 on a Geekoto photo tripod. I just looked up intervalometers on Amazon and bought one of the first ones I saw that had a lot of good reviews.

JML: What did you think when you saw the photo at first?

CK: When I initially looked at the photo I thought, “Ehh, it’s an OK photo.” The rocket went up, it was a nice line, you could see the stadium logos. But the rocket eventually disappeared behind a cloud. In my opinion at first I thought it ruined the photo because you only got the line for a brief moment.

I’m overly critical of myself and the quality of my photos. People pointed out all these aspects of it that they loved and it made me begin to appreciate the photo more and more. It was a unique take. The colors were cool. The line looked great. I needed to just accept that I took a good photo.

Click to view tweet on twitter
Screenshot of a tweet from UCF Football account

JML: How did you feel once you saw the reaction to the photo on social media?

CK: An hour or two after taking that photo, my phone was blowing up because it got so much love from the UCF community on the UCF football social media accounts. Just seeing the UCF community really love that photo as much as they did that first night was awesome. You know, 2020 took so much from people and it limited our ability to be together as a community, as a fan base. To have a photo bring all these people together virtually — it made me feel so good to be able to give something like that to UCF. It really made me feel emotional. I didn’t know 24 hours later Time would put it up. We have a licensing deal with Getty and Collegiate Images where people can buy those photos. That’s eventually how that photo got to Time magazine.

JML: Bring me back to the moment you found out Time picked up the photo, and then selected it for its top 100 photos of 2020.

CK: The day after it was shared on the UCF social media accounts, I had a photoshoot with our softball team that took all day. I got home from the shoot and was just relaxing on my couch and petting my dog and I got a tag on Instagram saying, “Time has tagged you in a post.” I thought, “Who’s Time? This can’t be the magazine, right?” I opened the notification and saw the Time magazine logo but no verified checkmark, so immediately I’m like, “It’s a fake account.” Then I clicked on the profile and the checkmark popped up with 10 million followers on the account and I screamed, “Oh, my God!”

About a month later, Time tweeted: “See TIME’s top 100 photos of 2020.” I thought, “I’m going to go into this not expecting to be on the list.” I clicked and the first three photos were some emotional pieces of work. I was like, “Wow, these photos, I don’t know if I’m going to make it — oh, there I am. There’s my photo. Wow.” Mine was the fourth in. I browsed through the rest of the list because I really wanted to understand what it meant to be a part of it. There was a particular photo of a woman hugging her grandmother through a plastic curtain because of COVID. It made me cry. When I look at my photo, I feel happiness. I feel this sense of pride, love and community. When I look at that photo I feel this somber recognition of the time we live in, so the fact that my photo is among these, it’s an understatement to call it an honor. It’s a level of recognition that I will never take for granted.

JML: Your photo obviously got a ton of attention. What ended up happening to Alex’s photo?

CK: We both settled on the similar settings — he was shooting a little wider. His photo went up on CNN. When I posted about mine getting bought by Time on my Instagram story, the first call I got was from him congratulating me. I could hear him smiling through the phone. He said, “This is a big moment for your career and UCF, and I’m happy I got to help you.” He will forever have my gratitude because without him, I don’t think I would have captured this photo properly. I’ve messed around with long exposures, so I had a general sense of what I had to do, but the key with launches, as he told me, is that they’re a lot brighter than you’d expect, especially when you do a long exposure. If you don’t set your aperture and ISO appropriately, it will blow out your frame. Without his help, I very easily could have set my camera wrong and it would have been an unusable photo. So I really credit him a lot for any success I’ve had with this photo.

JML: What’s next?

CK: I’m hoping to one day be a full-time staff photographer here. I would love to stay with UCF and continue shooting for a school that has meant so much to me. But there are other things I’d like to accomplish in my life too. I’d like to shoot for a pro team at some point. I’d love to continue to get better in my portrait work. I want to keep refining my craft. There’s a lot more for me to learn and I’m looking forward to every single day that comes with it.