Careful plans - and glorious surprises

How happy accidents when photographing the ISS can be the making of the shot

Those of us of a certain age, who grew up watching the classic original A Team on a Saturday afternoon, will remember with great fondness that moment when satisfied grin swept across Hannibal’s face as he lit yet another celebratory cigar and we waited for him to utter his catchphrase: ‘I love it when a plan comes together!’ The entertaining thing about this quote was that he usually uttered it after it had seemed like the plan was about to do anything but come together. They made it, just about, in the face of some rather significant bumps along the way.

I’ve always loved Hannibal’s quote much more than the rather self-important motivational poster John Lakein quote: ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’ Apart from its cheesiness, what Lakein’s quote fails to recognise for me is that very often the greatest pleasures in life come from the happy accidents, those moments of surprise blessing that you could never have expected. Sometimes the spontaneous moments are the moments of triumph, not failure.

And so it is with astrophotography.

The plan that needs to come together

Of course, planning is often an important element. If you are wanting to shoot Orion, there’s no point going out in May - Orion never comes above the horizon where I live at that time of year. You need to know what you’re looking for, when it will be in the sky, and the best times of year to view and photograph it. Planning, in that sense is the key to success.

So, when I wanted to photograph the International Space Station, I needed to know when it was passing overhead, where it would track across the sky and for how long. All of those elements needed a little bit of research from me to help me choose my location and my time.

How do I plan to see the ISS? There are various sites and apps you can use to track the position of the ISS. I follow @virtualastro on Twitter - he updates regularly when and where the ISS can be seen. Also, the [meteorwatch website][1] gives lots of details on the precise dates, times and positions of the ISS as it travels overhead. [1]:

With my plan well and truly made, I set off for the reservoirs above Carrick. There would be light pollution from the urban areas to my south, but the clear skies and open expanse of water gave me the chance to capture a long, bright pass by the ISS - and perhaps even get some reflections in the reservoir.

ISS at Woodburn dam (large) WM.jpg

I got into position, used my compass to orientate myself properly to get some of the key elements into the shot that I wanted - the ISS coming across the full frame; the Moon to my top right; and Jupiter to my left. I did a few test shots, just to make sure everything was set and ready. The brightness of the sky and the Moon meant that I was able to shoot at f4.5 and keep the ISO at 600 to control noise.

I had planned to do a series of 30 second exposures to track the ISS in its 4 minute pass overhead which I would then stitch together to create one seamless track of the ISS. I set up my intervelometer in the camera to shoot for 6 minutes to get all the shots I needed. And I waited.

The anticipation

One of the things I love about shooting the ISS is the anticipation. You literally have one go at it. Get something wrong, and everything else has been a waste. So, as I counted down the time to its arrival, my sense of anticipation was rising. About a minute before it was due, I started my intervelometer and stood back to watch it all.

Soon, the ISS started to fade into view below the Moon. Travelling at 5 miles per second at a height of around 200 miles, the ISS can catch the light of the Sun that has long set, making it shine brightly, a burning star-like object streaking across the night sky. As it swept across my field of view, it grew brighter and more intense, gently arching above me as my camera did its work.

My plan was coming together very nicely.

The glorious surprise

And, yet, unbeknown to me, another element was about to appear in my shot - something that would be the icing on the cake. Woodburn Dams lie below the flight path for Belfast International Airport and very often you will see planes fly overhead. But, as I stood watching the scene unfold in front of me, an intense spot of light appeared low to the horizon in the middle of my shot. It was clearly a plane, but one flying directly towards me. The spot of light got brighter as it approached. But then the most delightful of happy accidents happened - the plane started to bank around to my right, sweeping majestically across my field of view, in the opposite direction to the ISS.

It was as if some celestial light dance was taking place above me, the two dancers sweeping serenely and beautifully across the night sky, a counterpoint to each other in terms of height, direction and track.

Over the next few minutes, the ISS tracked up and over Jupiter, and out of the top left corner of my frame, as the plane finished its banking and flew off to the right, over the trees and horizon line as the camera kept snapping away.

A minute later, and it was all done. My plans had worked. But, the most wonderful and unplanned surprise was the thing that pleased me most. Yes, planning is important. But you just can’t beat that wonderful dollop of luck!

I may not have lit a celebratory cigar while watching it all, but I’m pretty sure that in the darkness, I had a satisfied grin on my face Hannibal himself would have been proud of.

I had a similar experience with happy accidents and the ISS in March this year too. This time, it was the ISS that accidentally photobombed my shot. I was actually out photographing Orion at Ballintoy. Here's something I wrote on Facebook at the time about that experience. 

When the ISS photobombs your shot

There are times your plans come together. And then there are times that even your most careful of planning couldn't hope for.

Last night was one of those nights.

I've been on a mission to photograph Orion over various iconic locations in Northern Ireland. Having done Cave Hill and Dunseverick waterfall, next on my list was the arch at Ballintoy Point.

Again, all I needed was some clear skies. There haven't been too many of those over Easter this year, but last night's forecast gave hope, and to the North Coast I went, to meet up with Steven Hanna and Tyler Collins.

It had been raining all day - the kind of day that would make you think you'd be better to stay in somewhere warm and cosy that evening. But, as we arrived at Ballintoy, the skies were clearing nicely. We were game on!

After a quick sunset shoot, it was time to get into position. As twilight set in, more and more of the bigger stars popped out into view, and it wasn't long until Orion faded into view above the shape of the sea arch.

As I got set up to shoot it, suddenly Tyler shouted out, "There's the ISS!" "Where?" I replied. "Heading for Orion!" was his excited response.

And, lo and behold, there indeed it was. Racing past at 17,000 mph. There was no time to waste. I quickly fired off a series of shots as its bright pass took it right under the stars of Betlegeuse and Bellatrix, through the heart of the Hunter.

I had planned for Orion. The ISS was the most delightful of added extras. Sometimes it's good to be surprised!