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In the old days, you needed a lot of film and a lot of luck to capture a photograph of a meteor streaking overhead. Today, thanks to the digital revolution in photography, we have a much better chance of getting great photos of shooting stars entering Earth’s atmosphere. Why? Because with digital cameras, you can take hundreds, or even thousands of cost-free photos per night of a meteor shower.
Here are some tips to get you geared up and prepared to get the shot!
Meteors can hit the upper atmosphere at any time, but there are some “showers,” when the Earth passes through debris from passing comets, that are known for providing an increase in the amount of activity in the night sky. Many of you have heard of the Perseid and Geminids meteor showers, but there are others that occur throughout the year. Showers are named after the astronomical constellations from which the shooting stars appear, from the ground, to originate. The showers happen around the same time every year, and there are myriad mobile apps and websites that contain the schedules and associated information.
The moon, my favorite celestial photographic subject, is an enemy of good meteor viewing. The moon’s cycle and the meteor shower schedule don’t always work in the favor of the meteor shower. A gibbous or full moon near the peak activity of a meteor shower can result in very poor viewing conditions. So, before you embark on a voyage to capture the meteors, check the moon phase and hope the moon is new, or stays below the horizon for a good part of the night. The moon is not a deal-breaker, but the darker the sky, the better your chances.
Regardless of the moon phase, or the amount of meteor activity, you need to get somewhere with dark skies in order to view the show. You cannot walk out of the B&H SuperStore in New York City and look up to see a shooting star—in fact, it’s difficult to see any stars. You will need to drive outside of the urban environment. Again, there are websites and apps that can help you find the dark regions of the planet and, hopefully, one is in your backyard or a short drive from where you live.
You can use almost any camera for the meteor capture mission, but it is best to have one that allows manual exposure control. Also, there are some advantages to cameras with larger sensors for low-light photography. A DSLR or mirrorless camera with an APS-C or full-frame sensor would likely perform better than a point-and-shoot with a smaller sensor.
Some meteor chasers recommend extreme wide-angle lenses or even fisheye lenses. Some prefer standard wide-angle glass. The advantage of the ultra-wide angle lens is that your field of view covers more of the sky and gives you a better chance of catching the streak of a meteor. The disadvantage is that the sky will look more distant than it will with a mid-range wide-angle lens. It is really a matter of preference, but it is best to stick to wide-angle optics because your chances of catching a streak in a normal or telephoto lens are considerably less due to the much smaller field of view.
Wide-angle lenses with larger apertures, like f/1.4, f/2.0, or f/2.8 will allow you to better capture the light of a burning piece of comet debris or space junk. Lenses with narrower apertures can still work, but the larger lens openings will give you an advantage. More on aperture later.
Meteor photography is night photography, with all its applicable techniques and gear. Chief among these is the venerable tripod. You will be creating long-exposure photographs, so you will need a steady tripod for this task. What kind of tripod do you need? If you are heading out into the field, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that doesn’t weigh you down. And, you will want a heavy one to keep your camera rock steady during long exposures. Fun, right? Get one that is light enough to be portable, but heavy enough to support your gear and keep it steady.
Second in the night-photography gear must-have list is the remote shutter release. In the olden days, a threaded release would be twisted into the camera’s shutter release. Today, many cameras do not accept this type of release, but give you the option of a plug-in wired release, wireless release, or mobile application control. A word to the wise about electronic releases for meteor hunting: Likely you will be pushing the battery capacity of all your gear while shooting in the dark; this might be a great time to use the batteries-not-required threaded release, if your camera accepts it. If it doesn’t, a wired release powered by the camera may be preferable to remote releases.
Some releases have interval timers and countdown timers built into their circuitry. Many of today’s digital cameras allow you to program the camera’s shooting frequency and intervals, as well. In the absence of this type of control, you can do continuous shooting manually, or set up your camera’s “drive” mode to capture images continuously.
As I mentioned above, you’ll be pushing your camera’s batteries to the limits, and beyond. Nighttime is generally colder—a drain for batteries. Nighttime means long exposures where the camera’s sensor is energized for long periods of time—a drain for batteries. So, head out into the field with a full charge and bring spare batteries. I promise you that the best meteors will appear immediately after your camera runs out of power.
Bring plenty of memory cards. Again, you will probably be shooting continuously for hours at a time. Be cognizant of how many shots you will get on each card and be ready to switch when and if the cards get full. I promise you that the best meteors will appear immediately after your memory cards fill up.
In general, you want to shoot using your camera’s raw file format; however, as you will be firing off a lot of shots, you may want to consider shooting in the highest resolution JPEG format to preserve space on your memory cards. Shooting the night sky in JPEG is not the end of the world, and it might help speed your post-processing work and the search for those frames where you caught a meteor streaking overhead.
You want to set up your camera for a proper exposure of the night sky. There are three variables in play, and shutter speed is one of them. The longer the shutter is open, the more light enters the camera and the more meteor streaks you can capture in a single frame. However, the Earth spins on its axis, so the stars overhead will turn from points of lights into trails of lights in your image. It is a dilemma. Star trails or star points? You must decide.
If you want to avoid star trails and just stay with the points of light, use the 600 Rule: for a full-frame camera, divide 600 by the focal length of your lens and the solution is approximately the longest exposure you can make and not have the stars begin to trail noticeably. Example: 600 divided by a 21mm lens = 28.57 seconds.
If you are shooting an APS-C camera, you can convert the 35mm focal length equivalent and use the 600 Rule formula or, without converting, use the 400 Rule. Same formula, different numbers. Example: 400 divided by a 21mm lens (35mm equivalent of 31.5mm) = 19.0 seconds.
When it comes to aperture, you either want to shoot with your lens wide open, or if you need to stop down to preserve some sharpness, somewhere within one or two stops of the wide end of your aperture range. Why open up the lens? Meteor trails are generally faint, so you want to maximize your light-gathering abilities. You can certainly stop the aperture down and make a long exposure of the night sky, but a faint shooting star might not be bright enough to register on the frame. Therefore, shoot wide open or as close as you can while keeping your lens sharp.
When you are setting your exposure, you will have selected your shutter speed based on whether you want to freeze the stars or have them streak. You’ve also opened up your aperture all the way. Now, you will adjust your ISO from its native setting, if needed, to compensate for your exposure. Therefore, there is no predetermined ISO to share with you. Try to keep the ISO as low as possible, because digital noise is bad for your images, especially in the night sky.
An image that just contains stars and sky is completely fine, but some photographers like to add foreground objects into the frame, like a mountain or trees or structure. This can enhance your overall composition and feel of the image, as well as provide some geographical context to the shot. However, the more “stuff” you include in your frame, the less sky you will have in which to catch a meteor.
Having mentioned composition, there are some things that will help you maximize your chances of getting a good shooting-star photo. The constellation where the meteor shower appears to originate is called the radiant. Shooting stars originating from other parts of the sky are not part of that specific meteor shower.
To get the longest meteor trails, try to position the camera at a 45° right or left offset to the radiant so that the meteors are not coming straight at the camera. On the vertical axis, tilt the camera at an up angle of between 40° and 50° to cover the portion of the sky that will see the most activity.
Preset your mind with a good dose of patience before you head out to capture a photo of a meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Even during the heaviest meteor showers, you might not see more than one shooting star per minute. Plan to be outside for a long time and cross your fingers that the camera is taking a photo at just the right time.
Also, know that those photos you see (some illustrating this article) with multiple shooting stars in the frame are most likely composite images where the meteors from several different images are combined into one photo.
To summarize your plan: Head out where it is dark, set up your tripod, get your camera pointed in the right direction, decide if you want to capture star points or trails, expose for the sky, and start firing your camera on continuous shooting mode as the night sky passes overhead. With luck, you will get a few frames with the streak of a shooting star and, as a bonus, the foundations for a cool time lapse video of the night sky.
And, while your camera is doing all the hard work, lie back in a lawn chair or pull up a comfortable piece of real estate, look up to the stars, and enjoy the show!
What tips have you successfully employed in photographing meteor showers? Let us know in the Comments section, below!