Photography / Tips and Solutions

How to Photograph Meteor Showers

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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!

Planning

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.

Dark Skies

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.

Camera

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.

Lens

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.

Tripod

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.

Remote Shutter Release

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.

Timer

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.

Power

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.

Memory

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.

File Format

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.

Exposure: Shutter Speed... Star Points or Star Trails?

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.

Aperture

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.

ISO

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.

Composition

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.

Aiming

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.

Patience

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.

Enjoy the Show

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!

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Todd,

Thanks for posting this article, I have a vast interest of photographing the night sky, more specifically the Milky Way. This article proved to be an invaluable source of knowledge and tips...thanks bro and keep up the good work! I'll be using a 5DIII and the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8.

Thanks, ShermN8r!

I am glad you found the article helpful! Good luck catching shooting stars and thanks for reading!

The thing I'm never clear about is the time it takes the buffer to load the file to the card.  And how to set the intervelometer interval.  I was doing fifteen second shutter openings(with a 60mm Sigma. Hey, I want big meteors).  It seemed like the Sony was taking a long time to process the shots so I set the interval at ten seconds.  I got a great blended picture of dotted lines!  Kind of unique but I only want to do that once.

Hey Jeff,

In my experience, when set to interval timing, the camera will take the next shot either as soon as you tell it to, or as soon as it is ready. If the camera is taking a long time to write to the card, you might need faster memory cards. There is a considerable difference in delay when it comes to slower versus faster write-speed memory cards. Also, if you are asking the camera to do noise reduction, that will delay the system being ready for the next shot.

Most modern cameras can fire off many frames for second before the buffer fills. Night exposures shouldnt be bumping up against buffer limits unless your cards are really slow or you are asking the camera to do a lot of internal processing of files.

Standing by for follow-up questions, Jeff! Thanks for stopping by!

Great article and discussion. Just to add my 2 cents, I use the dollar hand warmers   (Hot Hands/Warm Pack/Grabber Warmers/etc.) wraped around my lens and held on with rubberbands...they seem to keep just the right temperature to eliminate condensation.

A automotive emergency jumper battery (w/12v & USB outlets) is great for extra power afield, it can even recharge batteries with a cigarette lighter charger plug where ever you are (it can also be used as a hanging weight for your tripod).

It's probably too heavy to carry afield, but a bag of lead shot is a great weight for your tripod.

I have on occation had to "jack-up" the photos in post processing to find the faint meteors, so I usually use a relatively high ISO and 30 sec exposure with an 18mm lens (crop/APS-C sensor camera), this is to catch the meteors and less about the noise ( I use the long exposure and high ISO noise reduction functions in the camera...it takes twice as long to take a photo, but the results of the black field noise reduction is worth it) and the  possible "colors" in the sky (try a UV-IR converted camera or the Nikon specifically for stars and you can get some better colors).

Hey Magic,

Great tips! Thanks for sharing! Why is it always cold at night?

I am curious...do you ever miss a good meteor while the LENR is running? The Law of Murphy says that is likely. Also, what aperture do you use with your 30 second exposures?

Thanks for reading! Sorry for the delay in replying, we are just back from an extended break!

Great discussion on lens warmers and weights to hold the tripod.  One thing missed is that it is also easy to over expose the stars and making what is colorful look white.  This is certainly true with star trails but I suspect also with the meteors that is not shown in any the photos here.  Perhaps that is too hard for sensors to pickup.

Thanks, Eddie! Good point about losing the color of the stars when/if they go white on long exposures.

Sorry for the delay in replying...just back from break!

Where does all the beautiful green, gold and purple light in the photos come from?

Hey Sherry,

I wish I knew! These were stock images from a website and very few of them have supplemental information.

My guess is that it is a combination of the end of twilight and some noise pollution.

Nicely done.  Glad B&H supports this sort of information.    Jim

Thanks, JimCan! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Great article. Very imforative. I am curious as to post processing and which images are composits and which aren't.  This would save alot of trail and error for your readers.

Hey Tom,

That is a good question to pose. Unfortunately, I am not a composite shooter by trade, and have limited experience with composits—and no composite night sky experience.

My educated guess is that you want to establish a base image with solid stars and a good overall exposure. Then you would drop in the meteor streaks using layers and masks.

There may be some tutorials elsewhere on the interweb. Sorry I am not more help and sorry for the delay in replying...was on break!

Condensation: Use a small personal fan attached to the lens with gaffers or electrical tape or if you have power a fan blowing gently over the camera to keep frost and condensation off the lens. You must get a fan that is essentially vibration free if you attach it to the lens. This has worked for me to the mid 20 degrees F. A heater/fan allows you to go to well below zero. When you bring the camera into a warmer environment after shooting, cover the camera to avoid condensation.

Use batteries from the camera company rather than clone batteries as clone batteries tend ot have about 75% of the power the original equipment batteries. Four batteries with generally get you through the night shooting all night continually.

Avoid camera movement: Use huge memory cards. Securely lock all trip fixtures. Buy a clone invervalometer. They are cheap.

Shoot manually: Focus to less than infinity then tape the focus on lens. Turn image stabilization off.

Shoot thousands of photos saving as both jpeg and RAW files. It is faster to review jpegs.

Don't discard files. You can make great star trails by stacking the images. You can make even better composite videos showing cloud, moon, and star movement.

Compose your photograph at high ISO values to check for composition and focus. Then reset your camera to your desired conditions. Use a foreground. Meteors with-out a foreground are boring. You have no dimension references.

Hang a weight from the tripod to add stability-especially is there is a wind.

Hey Midnight,

Cool name! Great tips!

I have never heard the tip about using a fan. Interesting!

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing!

You could also set the cameras self timer for a 10 second delay to avoid camera shake.Your article was very informative. Thank You. 

Hey John,

Great tip! I find that on wider-angle lenses, a 2-second delay with a steady rig is more than enough to get everything still. For longer lenses, 10-seconds is needed.

Thanks!

Condensation on the camera and lens can be an issue which I found out the hard way the first time I tried photographing the night sky. Since I mostly shoot from my house, I use a heating pad, set on low, carefully positioned so that the lens is not blocked but kept warm. Some modern heating pads have an auto off safety feature so check carefully before use; also check that the heating pad does not get too hot. I also use an AC power supply for my camera. This way I can shoot from dawn to dusk, at temperatures as low as 4 degrees F, and have successfully created many night sky timelapse videos. Some people use handwarmers, I have not tried this yet but like the idea. There are also food warmers which are larger. For remote shooting I have an AGM battery and an inverter to convert the DC to AC. This is only suitable for car accessible locations, as the battery weighs about 75 pounds, thus not really feasible for remote locations.

Great tips, Allen!

Only 75 pounds? I think that is what my camera bag weighs when I head out on a trek! I'll take the battery!

Shooting from the comfort of your home...jealous! I could try that in Brooklyn, but I doubt I would get many good meteors before my camera gets stolen!

Hahaha, agree

Would you also please do a similar in-depth discussion on photographing the Northern Lights? Thank you.

Hi Nancy,

I would be happy to write such an article...if someone were to fly me to where I can see the lights!

Until then, enjoy this article with a Q&A of B&H's own Gabe Biderman: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/8-questions-about-photographing-aurora-gabe-biderman

Thanks for reading!

Also remember that you may need to cover up the rear viewfinder with a piece of light-proof electrical tape after composing your shot. This will prevent stray light from entering into the rear of the camera during long exposures. 

Good tip, Paul!

This tip only applies to DSLR cameras as mirrorless cameras and rangefinders will not have light leaking from the viewfinder.

Thanks for reading!

Night time and cooler temperatures also means the possibility of dew or frost forming on the lens, which can lead to a huge disappointment.  You can either carefully wipe any accumulating moisture from the lens with lens paper or a micro-cloth in between shots, though that risks altering the camera's position slightly (in case you're planning a series or stacking images); or one can utilize chemical "handwarmers" strapped carefully to the lens to keep it warm and help prevent the condensation. 

Great tips, Steven! Thanks!

Todo está muy claro y explicado, pero para mi se les olvidó decir que lentes angulares se deberían usar, poner ejemplos. Agradecería mucho su respuesta.

Un lente gran angular es recomendado pero en realidad depende de la cantidad de cielo y de fondo plano usted quiere incluir en su composicion.

Editing also makes a difference. If the meteors are bright enough, they look best against a dark black sky. If the meteors are feint, then don't set the black point too close to the hsitogram or you may lose your meteors. Enhancing the sharpness also increases the visibility of feint meteors (and feint stars). 

If anyone mentions a meteor storm, get ready. My grandmother told me about the Haley's Comet visit in 1910. The earch passed through the tail of the commet. She watched all night as thousands of metors fell. The 2001 Leonid meteor shower was not that dramatic, but it qualified as a storm. Shooting with a Minolta SLR and 800 speed film I caught dozens of metoer images. This image is a composite of 4 frames. 

https://photos.smugmug.com/photos/i-k4fD8mp/2/O/i-k4fD8mp.jpg

Cool shot, Ron! Thanks for sharing!

I am ready for the storm! Say when!

If you don't have a remote shutter release, you can have excellent results using a hat. Set up your camera but before you have to touch the camera to fire the shutter, simply hold a hat in front of the camera to block the light getting to the camera Then fire the shutter, wait a dozen seconds or so to let the vibrations settle out, and then carefully move the hat out of the way. After the exposure is done, place the hat in front of the camera to block the light and then touch the camera to close the shutter. The goal is to have the hat block the light going to the camera whenever you have to touch the camera.

Great tip, Dave! Thanks!

But, I would use this only as a last resort. Standing outside all night with the camera on continuous shooting mode means a lot of hat work for those who forgot the remote release!

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