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A Quick Guide to Catching the ISS

ISS photography

A regular visitor to our skies, the International Space Station (ISS) silently glides overhead at 17,500mph, and for many, goes unnoticed.

By Tim Burgess

The ISS provides a striking feature to a night-time landscape image, it adds excitement and a focal point into the night sky and gives us a different take on astrophotography. Having shot it for the last 7 years, I have had some successful images as well as those that haven’t quite gone to plan through various reasons such as daft mistakes, forgotten kit, and simply poor planning. I’ll run through my own process for capturing images and processing them once you’re back behind the laptop!

In this case we will be talking about the use of any DSLR camera, however if your camera has a manual mode you should be able to follow the guide and take great images!

1. Plan accordingly

This is the part of the process that takes the greatest amount of time as you need to consider your foreground subject in relation to where the ISS will pass.

Firstly, check out when the ISS will pass over your location. This task is made easy through one of the many apps that can be downloaded on your smartphone. Try the official NASA app or GoISSWatch for sighting opportunities.

The brightest of ISS passes is normally directly overhead. However, this is a tricky angle to make the most of the foreground aspect. Passes anywhere between 20 – 60 degrees above the horizon work best, depending on your planned shot.

Make sure you leave in good time to arrive at your location with time to spare to get set up and ready for the pass!

2. Bring the right camera gear

Try to travel light when shooting at night, it reduces the chance of dropping or forgetting something and also make things a lot easier when you dash out the door or walk up a hill to get the shot!

The basics essential needed are:

  • Your DSLR camera. (rather obvious but I have been known to forget it once!)
  • A sturdy tripod to ensure your camera holds its position.
  • An intervalometer or remote trigger.
  • Your widest camera lens. Most kit lenses start at around 18mm, which will work fine.

3. How to set up the shot

Try to arrive at the location with at least 30 minutes to spare, perhaps a little longer if it’s your first visit to that location.

Use a compass to identify where the ISS will appear, peak, and disappear. Note that 10 degrees of elevation above the horizon is around the size of your fist at arm’s length.

Once the tripod is set up, camera is attached, and your intervalometer is plugged in, set the focus and set your camera mode to Manual (M).

Manual mode start settings

It’s good to have a “go-to” setting, as this makes focusing easier and also gives you a known start point to begin shooting from. You can set this up as a custom setting prior to heading out.

  • Dial in the ISO at 400
  • Set the shutter duration to 30 seconds
  • Aperture to f/5.6
  • Make sure your camera is set to continuous shooting mode (not single shot)

Note: Your preferred start point may differ due to lens used and camera model.

Focusing your lens

This is the most important part of the setup! The time you have put into planning and getting the right composition is easily ruined if you don’t get your focus set correctly. Here’s how I do it.

  1. Switch Lens Stabilisation off, as this can cause additional optical movement during the shot.
  2. Select M (Manual) as the lens focus mode (not AF – autofocus).
  3. Start the Live View mode and use the screen zoom function to zoom into a bright star. If you don’t see anything change your focus a little towards infinity or up the ISO till you can see the stars.
  4. Carefully, manually focus on a bright star. This takes a little practice to find your focus point.
  5. Once you have it set don’t touch the lens again as it’s now set for the stars.

4. Test, test, and test again!

Test shots are needed to be able to check everything is ready to go for the pass.

Use the lens hood to reduce any lens flare (unless that’s part of the look you’re going for), and adjust your exposure to the conditions you’re shooting. If you’re overexposing, reduce the shutter time down from 30 seconds.

On the other hand, underexposed images can be brightened by changing your ISO or aperture to suit. Remember that a high ISO will bring more noise into your shot, and that a lower f-stop on the aperture will reduce your depth of field, meaning your foreground may not be in focus!

If you’re shooting during the blue hour(s), make sure you keep checking your test shots as the brightness of the sky will constantly change.

5. Shoot!

Start shooting 30 seconds before the ISS is due to appear, this ensures you capture the very faint start or end of the trail.

After the pass completes, shoot a dark frame. Simply fit the lens cap on and take another shot of the same duration and camera orientation as you shot during the pass. This creates a black image which contains any sensor or pixel noise you may have, which will be subtracted from the finished image at the end to reduce noise.

ISS astro photography
ISS passing over Stonehenge. Photo: Tim Burgess

6. Post process your photos

This is the fun bit. After all the planning and shooting you get to see what your whole finished image will look like.

The most common tools for this are Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Other programs, such as GIMP, exist which will also work.

Import your images and make any tweaks to exposure, highlights, shadows that you need to create a pleasing image. In Lightroom you can sync this setting across all your shots of the ISS (excluding the dark frame). You may also at this stage want to remove any aircraft trails that gate crashed your images!

From here there are a few options.

  1. Export / save the images and use stacking software such as StarStax to build your final image
  2. Export the images into Photoshop as layers, and merge the layers together with the lighten mode. Both methods create the same result.

You will now have all of your images in one place, showing the shot you planned.

You will notice there are gaps between the shots where your camera’s shutter was closed. It’s totally up to you whether you clone the gaps out or leave as is. Tanja has covered this process in this tutorial!

7. Remember to share your images!

It’s always great to share what you have captured!

About Tim Burgess


Tim Burgess has been snapping photos since he can remember, over the past 7 years he’s diverted his lens upwards to the sky’s above. His love of nighttime and astrophotography has earnt him a finalist place in the coveted Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and several images having been shared from Orbit. Tim’s passionate about sharing his own experiences as well as advice and practical demonstrations to get anyone, with almost any camera taking great shots of the night sky! You don’t need to have an expensive telescope and imaging kit to be able to capture one of our greatest natural wonders!

See more from Tim on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.

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