How to Photograph International Space Station
Step-by-step how to photograph the International Space Station photo. If you follow these steps, you might get a photo like the one shown below.
Step 1 – Planning the Shoot
The International Space Station (ISS) travels at 5 miles per second and it’s only visible for short duration. The photo above was shot at 6:35pm (time on my camera, the official time of the event is 6:37pm) on Friday, November 22, 2019. On this particular day and time the ISS is only visible for 4 minutes. So plan to arrive early.
The optimal time to view the ISS is within a few hours before or after the sunrise or sunset. This photo was shot exactly 1 hour after sunset which occurred during Astronomical Twilight. You can find upcoming sighting opportunities at Spot The Station. Just enter your location or selecting it on a map. Spot The Station gives you upcoming dates, times, duration the station will be visible, and compass directions of where it will appear and disappear. You can sign up for email or mobile text alerts so you don’t miss the next sighting opportunity.
On Friday, November 22, 2019 at 6:37pm the ISS appears WNW. This compass direction W is west. So WNW is west by north west. Plan a shooting location with a clear view of the horizon in the direction the ISS will appear. The Gulf of Mexico is a quick 15 minute drive. So I picked Crystal Beach Pier in Palm Harbor, FL for my shooting location. If you don’t live next to a large body of water with the right view, you might consider shooting from an elevated location. You might shoot from hilltop or from inside a tall building.
Step 2 – Understanding Camera Exposure
My photography intention for this photo was to show the movement of the ISS and show the stars as points of light. There a rule in Astrophotography to calculate the maximum exposure time before star trails begin. 500 Rule for Full-Frame Camera: Max SS = 500 / focal length. I shot this photo using Nikon 50mm f/1.8D lens. To calculate maximum shutter speed 500 / 50 = 10 seconds. So maximum shutter speed to avoid star trails on 50mm lens is 10 seconds. However, the rule depend on your camera’s sensor size.
This photo was shot on Nikon D750 with full-frame sensor. As a result, my shutter speed is 10 seconds. If you shoot on camera with crop-sensor camera, the 500 rule is different. Canon crop-factor is 1.6. Nikon and Sony crop-factor is 1.5. 500 Rule for Crop-Sensor Camera: Max SS = 500 / (crop-factor * focal length). For example, the maximum shutter speed on Canon crop-sensor camera with 50mm lens is 500 / (1.6 * 50) = 500 / 80 = 6.25. When there’s a reminder, round down. Therefore, the maximum shutter speed is 6 seconds.
Step 3 – Locking in Sharp Focus
Camera lenses have Auto/Manual focus switch. Your camera also has Auto/Manual focus mode dial. When your subject is very far away such as stars or International Space Station, you want to set your focus to infinity. Here’s the steps on how to lock focus on infinity.
- Set your lens and camera to autofocus.
- Set your camera to single point focus.
- Look through viewfinder and position the single focus point on a far away point of light and autofocus on it.
- Switch the lens focus switch to manual.
You have now manually locked infinity focus on your lens. As long as you don’t move the focus ring on the lens your camera will have sharp focus on subjects far away to infinity.
Step 4 – Photograph International Space Station
To stabilize your camera for long exposure you will need to attach camera to tripod or place the camera on a non-moving surface. Set your camera to manual mode and select an open aperture. I shot this photo with aperture of f/4. You can also use larger aperture such as f/2.8. Make sure you turn off auto-ISO. Manually adjust ISO based on the image brightness you desire. I shot this photo at ISO 400. The International Space Station will be moving fast so you’ll need to reposition the camera for multiple shots.