Tips & Resources For Photographing Satellites

Some satellites are so bright that they can be the brightest objects in the sky after the moon. The International Space Station can reach the same brightness as Venus and flares from Iridium Satellites are known to even double that brightness. With your camera and almost any lens you can photograph this man-made objects as they cross your skies.


What to Photograph:

The International Space Station

The ISS is a very big man-made object a pass of the ISS before sunrise or after sunset lit by the sun below the horizon can be really very bright. It’s a beautiful sight knowing there are people inside the station just going overhead our planet and you can see that from your home!

Iridium Flares

Iridium satellites have really big solar panels, when those solar panels are aligned with the light of the sun below the horizon after sunset or before sunrise a flare can be produced. The flare can make the satellite glow up to -8 in magnitude, compare that to Venus (-4) or the moon (-13). Yes, very bright. The flares only last a few seconds so they are more difficult to photograph than the ISS and they need perfect conditions.


Step 1: Determine your location

Use google earth or a GPS unit to determine the exact latitude and longitude for your location.

Step 2: Synchronize a watch

Make sure you have a watch perfectly synchronized, those Casio watches that receive a signal from an atomic clock are great, if not just make sure you get your watch perfectly synchronized.

Step 3: Predict the satellite passes

There are two great resources to predict passes of the ISS and Iridium Flares. One is CalSky and the other is HeavensAbove  both are free. Once you enter your position you will get predictions for the upcoming ISS passes, Iridium flares and other events.

Step 4: Prepare for the photo

One you know the date and time for the event you want to photograph you need to setup your camera. In your first adventures use a very wide lens to make sure you don’t miss it. Point it to the direction and angle indicated by CalSky or HeavensAbove. Use long exposure times like 30 seconds. Make a few test shots to make sure your exposure is right. As the time of the event approaches start taking photos, one after the other. Sometimes the flare is a little before the predicted time, sometimes is a little after and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. In the case of the ISS if the pass is a bright one you will see it approaching and you can prepare better for the photo.

Results depend a lot on the time of the event, your light pollution, your sky conditions, the brightness of the event and some random factors so chances are each time you try this you will ge a different result.

It’s a fun activity that needs careful planning and can produce some unique results, try to get those elusive flares in your photo collection!

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