6 top tips for taking photos of some of the 6,500 satellites orbiting our planet
Look carefully at the night sky just after it gets dark and you’ll see satellites. Most commonly seen in summer in the evening morning twilight, they buzz in every direction and speed and there’s about 6,500 up there, and counting.
Often overlooked by night photographers, capturing satellites can add an unusual dimension to a composition. They’re also really easy to photograph from your home. Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Get your timings right
Seeing a bright satellite streak across the night sky is an impressive sight, but it helps to understand when and why you can see them.
"Often overlooked by night photographers, capturing satellites can add an unusual dimension to a composition."
Satellites are not light sources, but merely reflect sunlight. Consequently they’re at their brightest when they cross in twilight– close to either dusk or dawn – when the Sun is low enough under the horizon for the sky to be dark, but also high enough for its light to catch the satellites. So you won’t see satellites as much during the middle of the night when the Sun is on the other side of the planet. That ‘satellite window’ lasts longest from May through July from northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere when the Sun doesn’t get too far below the horizon.
Is it a satellite, an airplane for a meteor? In a photograph a satellite is a constant white line (and occasionally a diamond-like shape if they briefly glint), a plane has blinking red tail lights so contains a line and a dot, while a meteor creates a line that begins faint and gets bright. Unlike an airplane, satellites tend to be bright as they ‘rise’ but quickly fade after crossing the zenith (the sky directly above you).
2 Dial-in settings for satellites
By far the easiest shot to get of satellites is of them streaking across the night sky. Typically this is going to be the ISS, which is consistently the brightest satellite in the night sky.
Firstly, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera in manual mode, and a wide-angle lens, a remote shutter control or intervalometer, and a tripod. About 20 minutes before the predicted flyby, set-up your camera, fix the lens to infinity focus (∞), and take some test shots (try ISO 100, f/2.8 for 30 seconds if the sky is fairly bright).
Tweak until you’re happy with the shot, then take five or six identical shots when the ISS appears; you can stack them later in Photoshop and manually fill-in the inevitable gaps in the satellite streak caused by your camera closing and opening its shutter. Another technique is to take one long exposure using your camera’s ‘bulb’ setting for about five minutes; take test shots using higher f-numbers until you’re happy.
Always think about composition. In your photograph a bright satellite is going to look like a slightly curved line in the sky. Intriguing and unusual, yes, but you still need an interesting foreground. A satellite rising above buildings or trees – or even your own home (if you switch-off all of your lights!) – can work well.
3 Imaging the International Space Station (ISS)
Extremely bright and unmistakably white, the International Space Station (ISS) appears to take about five minutes to cross the sky as seen from any one location.
Orbiting around 250 miles/400 kilometers above our heads every 90 minutes, it’s moving at 17,500 mph! Sign-up for a daily email from NASA’s Spot The Station service, which will let you know when it will appear where you are. Pay attention to its predicted height; if it’s close to 75º then it’s going to be very high up in the sky, so brighter. Heavens Above and CalSky are also great sources of information.
Since the ISS always rises in the southwest and crosses to the east, the best way to capture it is to be ready with a tripod and camera set-up pointing roughly southwest.
You’ll occasionally see a close-up of the Sun or Moon with the ISS transiting it. It’s a really difficult shot, demanding incredible timing (it only takes a second to cross the disk of the Sun or Moon!) as well as a DSLR or mirrorless camera with 600mm lens. You’ll also need a tripod, a super-fast SD card, and for a solar transit, a solar filter. If you want to give it a try visit ISS Transit-Finder or Sky & Telescope’s Satellite Transit Tool for timings specific to your location. Good luck!
4 Shooting a SpaceX ‘string of pearls’ swarm
You’ll often hear reports of strange lights in the sky seen just after sunset – and they usually come just after a rocket launch by SpaceX that unleashes vast batches of small satellites. Often described as ‘trains’ of bright lights moving across the sky, the resulting ‘string of pearls’ swarm is an incredible sight to see, but tricky to capture.
A network of about 12,000 satellites is planned, with SpaceX launching about 60 at a time. Once they’re at their operational height they’re fairly dark and hard to spot and they also separate, so are less impactful a sight. So the trick is to catch them as they roam in packs in the few weeks after their launch. As with all satellites, Starlink ‘trains’ are easiest to see in summer close to dusk and dawn.
Capturing a Starlink ‘string of pearls’ is part luck, part-preparation. Keep an eye on Spaceflight Now for the date of the next launch, then find predictions for visible passes using Heavens-Above and the Find Starlink website and smartphone app.
5 Catching the Chinese Space Station (CSS)
The ISS has been orbiting Earth since 1998, but it was joined in May 2021 by the first module of the ‘Tiangong’ ('Heavenly Palace), otherwise known as the Chinese Space Station (CSS). About 230 miles/370 km up, what you can see right now is ‘Tianhe-1’ (‘Harmony of the Heavens’), the first of three modules, which is already hosting ‘taikonauts’ (Chinese astronauts).
Much smaller than the ISS, it’s therefore got fewer solar panels so isn’t as bright as the ISS, but that will change as it grows. Visit Heavens-Above.com for predicted sightings of Tianhe-1 under the ‘satellites’ tab on its home page.
The CSS will grow bigger and brighter over the coming months as China finishes constructing its latest space station. So while getting images right now isn’t easy, they’ll make nice comparisons later when the CSS becomes as bright as the ISS.
6 Capture a satellite in a startrail
Startrails capture the apparent motion of the stars in the night sky. Point your camera to the north and you’ll capture – over the course of about an hour’s worth of long exposures – circles of stars around Polaris, the North Star. It’s also this region of the night sky that tends to feature glinting satellites, particularly in the northern hemisphere’s summer.
You’ll want to use ISO 800 and as low an f-number as your lens can manage (for example f/1.8 or f/2.8), but take test shots until you’re happy. Then put your camera into continuous shot mode and take a long series of 30-second exposures over the course of at least an hour (but the more, the better!).
Then drag those 100 or more shots as JPEGs into StarStaX for Mac or Startrails for Windows (though Photoshop can do a similar job), which will stack your photos to produce one composite image of star trails – and hopefully include a satellite glint! You’ll also be able to go through your original JPEGs one by one to find that one shot containing a satellite glinting brightly.
Whenever you’re taking multiple long exposure images that will later need to be overlaid or stitched together be careful around your tripod. It’s all too easy to kick or knock a tripod in the dark. If you’re just captured a rare bright pass of a satellite then you may have to wait hours, days or even weeks before the next one.