Photographing the ISS
With some amazing passes of the International Space Station coming up this month, it's time to get your camera out and snap space.
Credit: Andreas Möller
The last couple of months have given us an array of great things to see in the night sky. Planets, meteor showers, SpaceX Starlink satellites and the SpaceX/NASA Crew Dragon spaceship have all featured in our blogs and on our social media platforms. One regular night sky sight is the International Space Station (ISS). About 400km above the surface of the Earth, this orbital space laboratory will make 16 orbits of the Earth a day – and often passes over the UK in such a way that sunlight can reflect off of its large solar panels, allowing us to see it streak for a few minutes across the night sky like a fast moving star.
And while for most of us, just looking up and watching this bright dot whizz overhead, in the knowledge that there are astronauts up there looking back down is enough, increasingly people are interested in trying to take photographs of the ISS. In this blog, we will look at how you can find out when the ISS will pass over your location, set up your digital SLR camera and adjust settings to get a gorgeous long exposure shot capturing the station streaking by.
Spotting the Station
The first thing you will want to do is get familiar with what the ISS looks like when it goes overhead, and how to know when to go outside and look. There are many websites and apps that will allow you to predict a good pass, but our favourite is the official NASA one, SPOT THE STATION. This allows you to select your location, and will then give you a list of dates and times when the ISS will have a good visible pass (often these are not the only times you can see the station, but the best possible viewing opportunity).
The website also gives you details on where the ISS will appear, peak and disappear, allowing you to plan your shot. Unfortunately, the next pass won’t be until July, but that gives you plenty of time to get ready!
Setting up Your Gear
While you can see the ISS from your own doorstep, going somewhere with as little light as possible will help you to get a more spectacular image. Once you know when the ISS will be doing a visible pass, get outside a good 20 minutes or so before hand to get set up. You will need:
- A DSLR camera
- A tripod
- The widest-angle lens you have
- If possible, a remote trigger (to stop you jolting the camera when you take the picture)
- A compass (or compass app on your mobile phone to locate where the ISS will rise and set
Set up your camera on its tripod. Using your compass, position your camera so that it is looking at the night sky between where it is set to emerge and disappear. Take note of the elevation angle – the lower the angle, the lower in the sky the ISS will appear to travel (as a general guide, 10 degrees of elevation is about the height of your fist held at arm’s length).
Once your camera is positioned, plug in the remote trigger and set the camera to manual mode.
Focusing your camera is tricky! The best way to do this is to point your camera at a star in the sky in the vicinity of where the ISS will pass. Slowly, manually adjust the focus until the star is crisp and clear. Now, the ISS will be closer than this star, and you will want to experiment with this focusing to find what works for your own set up, but this is a good starting point.
Setting up the Shot
The specifics of this will depend on your camera. You will be taking a long exposure shot – so that the ISS is seen as a bright streak across the sky. But this long exposure will allow more light in, making the sky appear brighter than it is and possibly washing out the ISS, so beforehand make a couple of test shots. Set up an exposure of 30 seconds and see what the sky looks like. If the sky becomes too bright, then shorten the exposure, just remember this means you will get less of an ‘ISS streak’ across your image. This should be enough to get you a shot, but if you want to play around with some more of your camera settings then for your first attempt set your ISO at 400 and aperture to f/5.6.
If you are VERY lucky, you might get a great shot on your first try, but this is very unusual. With a bit of practice, and adjustment to suit your own location and camera you should soon be capturing the ISS. And once you have a clear sky shot, you could start to bring in some foreground images, such as trees.