How to take Photos of the ISS (International Space Station) with a P900

Mick West

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Staff member
20160929-215312-f1r50.jpgISS at about 83° above Shingle Springs, California, ISO 400, 1/250th, f/6.5. Manual focus. Handheld.

In case someone else want to try the same thing, here's ALL the settings and procedures

  • This is for a Nikon P900, but other cameras should be similar.
  • Turn the selector dial to M mode (manual)
  • ISO 400 - You need to set the ISO manually otherwise it with try to compensate for the blackness and select a really high ISO, and overexpose. M Mode does not fix the ISO, you need to to Menu->M->ISO Sensitivity->400
  • Set the exposure to 1/250 1/2000 and f6.5 (you can select a wider aperture when not zoomed in, but at full zoom you are limited to f/6.5)
  • Select manual focus. The autofocus system WILL NOT focus on the ISS 95% of the time, and you only need one focus setting - infinity.
  • Image Quality to FINE. This doubles the file size, but really you should have FINE as default.
  • Image Size to 16M. Obviously you want the highest resolution possible
  • Use maximum OPTICAL zoom. On the P900 that's 2000mm
  • Turn off digital zoom as it messes with snap-back zoom, making it very hard to frame manually
  • Vibration Reduction should be ON. But I'm not sure if "Normal" or "Active" would be best. I used "Normal".
  • Manual focus on the P900 is a little complicated. I suggest you familiarize yourself with it well before the event. Some things I did:
    • Turn off peaking - that the white fringe that goes around things when they are in focus. The problem being the ISS and stars appear white. So the peaking just makes them look bigger and out of focus when they are in focus. So turn it off (you can just set it to 0 on the focus screen). The exception here is if you pre-focussing on the moon.
    • Focus on something else first. Don't waste time setting your focus on the ISS as it whizzes overhead. Focus on something else in the sky first. In order of preference:
      • The Moon - is ideal, as you can see the focus really well, and can use AF (Auto Focus)
      • Venus - also good, as it should come out like a tiny disc, and it's easily spottable if it's up, however you will need to focus manually.
      • Another planet - Mars or Jupiter can work if you can find them. Jupiter is a good test of focus, as you should be able to see the moons.
      • A bright star, if none of the above is available
    • If you are focussing on a star or planet, then use the manual focus to simply make it as small as possible (while zoomed in all the way). i.e. focus past it until it goes out of focus, then back again, and repeat a few times to find the middle.
  • Use snap-back zoom every time you lose the ISS in the viewfinder.
  • Turn off Image Review. (Setup->Image Review) this obscures your view for too long, wastes time, press the Play button if you want to look at the last image.
  • Take lots of photos, especially when the ISS is at its highest point

Things to consider
  • Tripod? The problem is that the best shots are when the ISS is nearly vertically overhead. You need to make sure your tripod allows you get the shot - which means you need one with a center column you can raise to allow you to tilt the head to 90°. You'll probably need to use the rear monitor screen folded out and rotated rather than the electronic viewfinder. I did not use a tripod as my fluid head tripod does not have a center column, and my other one is rather flimsy. But I think I'll try it next time. (especially as I just discoved I can reposition the handles on my fluid head tripod, doh!)
  • Exposure Settings? These shots are probably overexposed. What should I adjust? I'm thinking I'll try 1/2000 next time (UPDATE: Having seen some 1/2000 shots, that seems to work a lot better)
  • Lower ISO? ISO 400 is normally reasonable, but as every pixel counts here, perhaps it would be better to use ISO 100? (UPDATE: 1/2000 @ ISO 200 gives good results, so could also use 1/1000th at ISO 100).
  • Pre-shooting Cache? Do not use, this degrades the image quality too much.
  • Continuous-H? Takes multiple shots rapidly, but then has a longer pause for processing them. You will need to snap-back zoom. But probably would anyway. You might be able to use these to increase resolution with stacking.
  • Digital Zoom? Supposedly better than blowing it up later, but makes it incredibly hard to keep in frame. Maybe with a tripod.
  • Video - Since it records in 1080p, and the actual image is 3456 lines, you are shooting at 1/3.5 the actual resolution you would need to record at 4x digital zoom to get all the pixels. This would make it incredibly difficult to keep in shot. Fluid head tripod is needed
When and where?

You can find out when it's going to be visible by subscribing the the NASA "Spot the Station" site, which can email you whenever there's going to be a good flyover, or just give you a list of all upcoming times when it will be visible, for example, near me:
https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sig...ion=California&city=Cameron_Park#.V0x_X5MrLmE

20160930-085211-2l22b.jpg

This shows (in red) the time of the flyover. The 9:25 time is when it is first visible over the horizon (10° above South West). It starts out as a disappointing slow moving dim dot, but quite quickly gets higher, brighter and faster. A "good" sighting would be anything over 45° Max Height, but the closer to 90° the better.

You also need to position yourself so you have a clear view to where it will "rise", so you can see it coming.

Post Processing

You will end up (hopefully) with photos like this:
20160930-092834-xxou8.jpg

You will need to crop and enlarge them. Just enlarged to actual pixels it looks like:
20160930-092933-ccads.jpg
Or zoomed in:
20160930-093020-ds4gh.jpg

You can remove the blockiness by increasing the resolution to 400%
20160930-093020-ds4gh.jpg20160930-093149-209qo.jpg

Then you can fiddle with it until it looks good.
20160930-094532-verdl.jpg

Have a look at other photos to see what you are looking at. Here's a comparison with a photo taken though a telescope:
20160930-095028-crk92.jpg
Source: Josh Borup, Reddit.

The shape of the ISS varies a lot, depending on your view angle, the position of the sun, and the configuration of the solar panels. Here's a better telescope image, but with the body at a different angle.
20160930-095426-5iomf.jpg
Source: Ralf Vandeburg, spaceweather.com

Vandeburg's telescope is significantly larger than a P900:
20160930-100215-lhowv.jpg
 
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