Science

How to photograph the ISS

The ISS is a laboratory that orbits the Earth 400 km above its surface, at a speed of more than 27,000 km per hour. To put that large amount in some perspective, that’s around 8 km / s and a full orbit of the Earth takes just 90 minutes. Despite all this, the International Space Station is not that difficult to photograph, you just need to do a little planning and have a basic understanding of astrophotography.

The ISS is often visible from Earth as a point of light slowly and silently passing through the sky. In the hours after sunset or before sunrise, the Station remains illuminated by the sun while the Earth is still in darkness. Since the trajectory of the ISS can be calculated, this means that with a little planning, the right equipment, and clear skies, it can be a surprising subject to photograph. Here’s how to shoot the ISS, from planning to filming to editing.

How to find the ISS

Fortunately, you don’t need an astrophysics degree to calculate where the ISS can travel on a particular night; various websites do all the hard work for you.

See a satellite tonight

One of our favorite options is See A Satellite Tonight by James Darpinian, a very clever website that allows you to select a location and will not only show you a Google Earth view showing what the ISS will look like from space, but also a view from Google Street View with a simulation of what the ISS (and many other satellites) will look like when they pass overhead. As you can see in the image below, it can be a really useful tool for previewing your compositions.

See a satellite tonight

(Image credit: See a satellite tonight)

Heavens above

Heavens Above is possibly the best known and most detailed website for tracking the ISS. It has a slightly dated interface, but is still relatively easy to use. On the site’s landing page, click ‘Change your viewing location’ and select where you will take photos from. Then back to the home page, click on ISS below the 10-day predictions. If there are visible passes at your location, the website will provide you with times and directions.

Find the station

NASA’s own Spot The Station is an alternative that provides a simpler interface and live tracking feature, allowing you to see where the station is hovering above the ground. It also has a useful alert service, which will send you emails or text messages when the station is visible from your location.

What equipment do you need to photograph the ISS?

Photographing the ISS does not require specialized or expensive equipment. The ISS is a bright point of light in the sky – any lens will be able to capture it, but the faster the better. Therefore, at a minimum, you will need:

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual control. If you want to know the difference between the two, we have a guide to DSLR vs Mirrorless cameras.
  • A lens at a suitable focal length, to capture a good trail, you will need a wide angle lens.
  • A tripod. The tougher the better.
  • Some kind of trigger. It can be a cable connected to your camera or a remote control that allows you to capture images without physically touching your camera. To get the sharpest image possible, this is an important device to have in your arsenal.
  • A spray heater. These are inexpensive USB-powered devices that prevent moisture (ice, dew, or mist) from forming on the front of the lens during shooting. In general, you are more likely to find this on longer shoots, such as when capturing Star Trails, but you would be surprised how quickly dew can form. If you are looking for more guidance on this, we have a full article on astrophotography lens warmers.

Planning the shot

Anglos

First, consider the angle of the ISS pass. If you are arcing close to the horizon, then you might consider a wide angle shot that shows the arc juxtaposed with an interesting foreground. If the ISS passes directly overhead, you may want to capture the ISS when it meets the horizon, creating a vertical light band across the entire image.

Think of an interesting close-up for the image. If you are shooting a wide angle arc, what can you include to anchor the image? If it’s an air pass, can you line up the path of the ISS with a foreground interest?

ISS over llangorse

(Image credit: Matthew Browne)

Climate

A completely clear night is ideal, but you can still try a photograph of the ISS with light or patchy clouds. In fact, bright light coming in and out of cloud areas can create an interesting image, as seen above.

Locations

If you’re looking for inspiration for photography locations near you, or ISS compositions to try, then there are some places to look.

PhotoHound is a website for photographers to share information about attractive places to take pictures, how to get there, and under what conditions (including astrophotography). If you have a particular location in mind, look it up on Instagram and check out the latest images. You don’t want to travel to a shooting location to find that the angle you want is not accessible or that your view is blocked in some way.

Google Maps has great Street View coverage, which can allow you to visually compose your shot and explore the location without leaving your home. Get to your location early and take lots of test photos to make sure your composition works. You’ll want to have your setup ready to go when the ISS shows up.

Setup for photographing the ISS

To photograph the ISS, you will need to capture a sequence of images, usually 8 to 20 seconds each, depending on the focal length, which can later be combined to become a single beam of light. It is a process similar to photographing Star Trails.

A flyover of the ISS can take a couple of minutes, so you might think that leaving the shutter open the entire time is sufficient; This is a rookie mistake! There are two reasons to avoid this approach. First of all, it is almost certain that a capture of several minutes will be overexposed. Second, if there are stars in your image, they will also start to create a trail of light.

Stars at different exposures.

Stars in different exposures: 150 seconds to the left, 10 seconds to the right. (Image credit: Matthew Browne)

When creating your test shots, check your stars to make sure they remain as sharp points of light. Above you can see a comparison: on the left is an image taken with a 150 second exposure, where the stars creep and are overexposed, and on the right is an image taken with a 10 second exposure, which has crisp, sharp stars.

Although there is no hard and fast rule about settings, here are some tips for finding a setting that works for you.

  • Set your camera to manual mode, giving you full control over each setting.
  • The aperture should be as low as possible so that the camera collects as much light as possible. We generally recommend shooting astronomical scenes at f / 2.8 or f / 1.8, if your lens is up to the task.
  • The shutter speed should be as long as possible without dragging stars. It is usually 8 to 20 seconds.
  • ISO depends on your environment. In a very bright area, such as a city landscape or if the moon is high, it could be as low as 400. In rural areas, with dark skies, it may need to be as high as 3200. Many modern cameras will happily shoot at ISO values. Taller. with very little noise. However, if you are concerned about this, we have a guide to reducing noise in astrophotography.
  • Make sure continuous shooting is enabled so that your images are captured evenly during shooting.
  • Always shoot raw, it allows you to capture better details and more dynamic range from your camera’s sensor. It also gives you a lot more data to play with during the editing process.

Editing your photographs of the ISS

Well done, you have captured an ISS pass! Your work is not done yet, there is still the task of combining these images into one using a method called stacking. Adobe Photoshop makes it easy. Other software is available to combine ISS images (and other Star Trails) such as Starstax (Mac and Windows) and Startrails (Windows). Below is our step-by-step guide for the Photoshop method.

Image 1 of 7

Photoshop editing interface

(Image credit: Adobe Photoshop)

Step 1

Open all images as layers in Adobe Photoshop

Image 2 of 7

Adobe Photoshop editing interface

(Image credit: Adobe Photoshop)

Step 2

Select all the layers and set the blending mode to lighten. (Side note: If there were stars in your image, these too will have started to creep. If this is the look you’re looking for, then great. If you want sharp stars with the ISS trail, read on.)

Image 3 of 7

Adobe Photoshop Image Editing

(Image credit: Adobe)

Step 3

Duplicate one of the layers and save it as a new layer. You may want to call this ‘Base Coat’ for easy reference

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Adobe Photoshop Image Editing

(Image credit: Adobe)

Step 4

Select the rest of the layers and group them in a new folder. You may want to call this ‘ISS’ for easy reference.

Image 5 of 7

Adobe Photoshop Image Editing

(Image credit: Adobe)

Step 5

Add a layer mask to the folder. Click on this mask. Then take a black brush and paint on the ISS trail. The trace of the ISS will be removed by doing this.

Image 6 of 7

Adobe Photoshop Image Editing

(Image credit: Adobe)

Step 6

Finally, invert the mask. This is accomplished by right-clicking on the mask and pressing Cmd + i on the Mac. Now only the trace from the ISS will be overlaid on your base image.

Image 7 of 7

Full stack of images of the ISS night sky

(Image credit: Matthew Browne)

Final picture

The full stack of images from our ISS night sky shot

Once you’re satisfied that your image stack is complete, you may want to continue editing to correct things like color tone or dodge and burn your foreground. Of course, you can continue to edit it in Photoshop or save it for processing with other image editors like Lightroom or Luminar.

Before and after image

Before editing, this image was overexposed with a strong orange color emitted by street lights hitting the clouds. To achieve the final edit, we applied some color correction, contrast, as well as dodging and burning. (Image credit: Matthew Browne)

The International Space Station is a spectacular and reliable subject to photograph. With these tips, clear skies, and a little patience, you can create images with a real wow factor.

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