How to take photos of the International Space Station and Iridium Flares
Firstly check out the Oldhamandrochdaleastronomy Facebook page to see when the ISS or an Iridium Flare will be visible, you can also use www.heavens-above.com. You need to look at the Sky charts to see where the object will be traveling in the Sky. We advise going out early to look for the stars on the Sky chart so that you know exactly where to point the camera and to practice with the camera settings.
DSLR camera (so you can manually change the settings) but a decent point and shoot camera should work too
A tripod to keep the camera steady (for long exposure photography this is a must otherwise the image will be blurred)
Things to check before heading out:
Battery is charged
Memory card is in the camera (yes, seems obvious but we have made this error before)!
Planning the shot:
Now that you are prepared head out, its a good idea to find a spot where you can get a nice backdrop to the image to make the photo more appealing. If you are not familiar with sky charts, use the compass to locate the correct spot in the Sky, don’t forget the start time off the ISS is only when it begins to start crossing the sky, you may want to plan to start imaging it when it is a little higher in the Sky to avoid Light Pollution. Check the Sky Chart before hand so that you can plan when you want to take the shot, then you can align the camera correctly. You will be taking a long exposure of around 20-30 seconds so bear this in mind when planning the shot!
Now set the camera on the tripod and change the setting to Manual shooting.
The first thing you need to do is get a good focus. The best way to do this is to zoom right out with the lens to get a wide view (don’t forget to take automatic focus and flash off), point the camera at the brightest star you can see. Use the live view LCD screen as it is easier to see. Taking photos as night can be difficult as there isn’t much light coming into the camera but its easy when you know how! Hopefully now you should see the star on the screen, if you can’t see the star try increasing the ISO to around 1600 and the shutter speed to around 15seconds.
Once you have the star onscreen use the zoom button on the camera (on a Canon this is to the top right on the back of the camera body) and zoom in as much as you can on the star (don’t zoom in with the lens as you want to focus the camera without changing this). Once zoomed in you should them focus the star by manually turning the end of the lens, be careful not to turn the whole lens, just the end of it, holding the main body of the lens whilst doing this so it doesn't move can help.
Now you are focused in, it is a good time to take some test shots and get your settings right. You may have to change the settings a few times as every ones levels of light pollution will be different. Also keep in mind that if it hasn’t been dark for long, the higher exposure and shutter speed will give a rather bright image! So ..... Set ISO to about 800 and change the shutter speed to around 25-30 seconds. Take a test shot and view the results. If the image looks too bright reduce the ISO. Try not to reduce the shutter speed too much as you want to take a long exposure image to get as much of the Flare or ISS as possible. Your final test shot should have a fairly dark background and you should be able to see the stars and the main star you were using to focus the camera on. If you don’t have a remote shutter release button it can be a good idea to put a 2 second delay before a picture is taken to avoid the camera wobbling when the shutter is released.
Now find the spot in the sky where the ISS/Flare will be, align the camera up so you can see the stars it will cross. Take another test shot to ensure you have the correct constellation in the picture to be sure you won’t miss the object.
You are ready for the shot!
Now it’s just a case of waiting, as soon as you see the object coming into the part of sky you chose, hit the button and take the picture. Take a few shots, as depending on your exposure time you may be able to get two or three shots.
Don’t be disappointed if you got get the image you planned. Try again another night, and practice focusing and using the camera to take pictures of the stars and night sky, as when you are against the clock it doesn’t help when learning this hobby!
Don’t hesitate to for any help on our COMMENTS page there are no stupid questions!
© Sarah Hall & Colin Campbell