Sometimes you take what you’re given

The original plan was to capture a long-exposure shot of the International Space Station passing over Garden of the Gods. This cloud had other plans.
The original plan was to capture a long-exposure shot of the International Space Station passing over Garden of the Gods. This cloud had other plans.

There was a small piece of paper outside the door to my graduate student lab that read, “sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men are about equal.” When it comes to night photography, you have to have a plan. My plan was to capture a long exposure image of the International Space Station (ISS) as it passed over Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, CO.

I first identified when the ISS would be passing over, using the Spot the Station website. From there, I knew that I needed a vantage point looking North, as the station would be appearing in the NNW sky and moving to the East. I knew exactly where I could get such a spot in Garden of the Gods.

Just for fun, I met up with a few local photographers to share the moment, and I brought my five year old son along, too (he has a small Coolpix camera). Being modern times, I used the Compass in my iPhone to orient ourselves properly, and we set up to shoot right at sundown. With night photography, you need to be able to focus your camera and that can be hard once it gets really dark. We focused on Kindergarten Rock (the pyramid-shaped formation in the photo), and waited for the ISS to come calling.

Of course, this huge cloud had other plans. It started rolling in right after sunset, and it had no intentions of passing through before our scheduled flyover time of 7:18pm. At 7:15pm, we looked to the west and caught a brief glimpse of the station heading our way… and behind that cloud.

While our main plan was spoiled, we did long exposure shots anyway. I started by metering in Aperture Priority mode. At ISO 100, the base exposure at f/2.8 on my 14-24mm Nikkor zoom was 30 seconds. For the image above, I wanted to go longer, as my original plan was to do a 2+ minute exposure to capture the station’s pass. I stopped down to f/5.6, used bulb exposure in Manual mode, and set my iPhone as a timer. I have a simple  locking remote release that is perfect for longer exposures.

Even though this shot was captured in near darkness (twilight had ended 15 minutes earlier), the amount of color from city lights reflected in the cloud made it dramatic. As an added bonus, a few cars were still passing through the park and I captured the trails from their lights during the shot. Despite not getting our ISS photo, we still had fun and learned a lot.

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