Tips for Tracking and Photographing the International Space Station

By Wesley Fenlon

What do you spy arcing across the night sky? That's no moon: it's a space station!

Passions collide! Photographer Shane Murphy recently posted an awesome guide to photographing the International Space Station on his blog, bringing together some fancy photography techniques with the innate coolness of anything and everything to do with space. There are two major challenges in photographing the ISS: timing and darkness.

Murphy points to a site called Heavens Above, which tracks the station and allows registered users to see all the flyovers occurring within the next 10 days. More importantly, Heavens Above also lists the brightness values for each flyover, giving you an optimal window for shooting unless clouds get in the way. Will also recommends Twisst, a Twitter account that will pull the location data from your Twitter profile and send you targeted replies based on the International Space Station's orbit.

Photo credit: Flickr user Paul Williams via creative commons

Configuring a night shot with the proper ISO and aperture requires more work. As Murphy points out, setting will make or break a picture. He recommends having something interesting in the foreground of a night sky shot, but getting away from brightly lit civilization and light pollution is priority one. Weather can be a killer, too: cloud cover may well ruin any chance of a good photograph.

The rest of Murphy's photography tips are worth getting straight from the source. The slow shutter speed photography requires some equipment, like a tripod and a manual shutter release, but the payoff is a bright photograph of the night sky with the ISS streaking across the frame.

Dedicated stargazers might even be interested in Canon's new 60Da, a DSLR geared specifically towards astro photography. The 18MP camera is an offshoot of the 60D and adds " modified infrared filter and a low-noise sensor with heightened hydrogen-alpha sensitivity" for an extra $400.

Photo credit: Canon

A pair of comparison shots from Canon show the 60Da (right) captures a brighter picture of far-off nebulae than the $1000 60D (left). Not pictured: the telescope lens used to create that image, which probably cost in the neighborhood of $3000. Start with Murphy's method before dropping almost five grand on equipment. It's a bit more practical, and the results are pretty cool.