If you've ever spent any time photographing the night sky, you are aware of the challenges. Despite what we see with our bare eyes, the stars are not stationary. They move across the night sky all night long, and because they only come out in darkness, that makes them tricky to photograph. Even trickier to photograph are those objects that we can see move with our own eyes — I'm talking, of course, about meteors, or falling stars.
[ Top image Perseid Meteor Shower over Lake Tahoe's Chimney Beach by Flickr user Beau Rogers]
On an average night, it is possible to see a meteor or two, but by the time you spot one, it's too late to take a picture of it. Meteors happen in a split second, which makes them extremely difficult to photograph. So how do photographers get photos of meteors? Is it pure luck, or is there some skill involved? Keep reading to find out.
What is a meteor?
A meteor is a streak of light that you can see in the night sky. Meteors become visible when small pieces of rock and debris enter the Earth's upper atmosphere and vaporize at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Very few meteors ever reach the surface of the Earth—most of them are destroyed by the heat and friction that is created when they travel through the atmosphere. Meteors can happen at any time, but occasionally they happen in clusters, called meteor showers. A meteor shower describes an event where there is an increase in the number of meteors that can be seen on a single night. Meteor showers usually happen when a comet passes close to our planet—the comet's tail sheds ice and debris, and when the Earth's orbit passes through that debris, we are able to view it as a meteor shower. Meteor showers are usually named for the constellation where you'll be able to see the most meteors, which is one way you know where to point your camera.
Astronomers can predict where meteor showers will occur and what part of the sky will be the best for viewing them. Upcoming meteor showers are usually published on astronomy websites — our next meteor shower of 2017 will be the Perseids shower on the night of August 12. This is an annual meteor shower — it's caused when the Earth passes through the long tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which is something that happens every year. This year's shower is predicted to feature about 80 meteors an hour, but because the moon will be three quarters full, it may be harder to see the meteors than it has been in previous years. Still, with a little bit of patience and perseverance and the right technique, you may still be able to capture photographs during the event.
2013 Perseid Meteor Shower by Flickr user Louish Pixel
What you need
I'd love to be able to tell you that you can do this with a point-and-shoot camera, but you're really going to have much better luck with a DSLR. You also need a wide angle lens, preferably one that is pretty fast, or one that has a large maximum available aperture. The wide angle is going to allow you to capture more of the night sky—since you can't predict where those meteors will appear, you want as much of the sky in the frame as possible in order to maximize your chances of actually capturing a meteor as it falls. You also need a tripod and a large capacity memory card. It's also a good idea to bring along extra batteries since those long exposures can drain the battery pretty quickly. Finally, you will need a remote release, which is important not only for preventing camera shake but also for timing those long exposures. If you're planning to shoot late into the night, it's a good idea to have a dew heater, which can prevent condensation from building up inside your lens. A dew heater is an inexpensive device that warms your lens — a basic one will usually run you about $15 and should do the trick for those all-night meteor showers.
If you live in the city, you're going to be better off going on a little drive to where the air light pollution isn't so bad. The brighter the sky is, the harder it's going to be for you to capture meteors. And that's going to be particularly problematic when the moon is up—try to place the moon behind you, if possible, so its light will have the least amount of impact on your photographs.
Perseid Meteor Shower 2016 by Flickr user Jaykhuang
The first thing you need to do is make sure that your focus is correct. Start by placing your camera on a tripod. You'll need a very sturdy tripod so that a breeze or a careless bump won't completely change your camera's position. Make sure you know what part of the sky the meteors are most likely to appear in, and then point your camera directly at that part of the sky, using the widest possible field of view. Now, turn off auto focus and set your focus to infinity, then take a test shot. If you're in your own backyard it's a good idea to take the card inside at this point, open the image up on your computer screen and check to see how in-focus it is. It's pretty easy to miss minor focusing issues if you're just using your camera's screen, and you don't want to commit yourself to an entire evening of shooting and then find out that your focus was wrong. If your image isn't nice and sharp go back outside and refocus. Try to find a bright star to focus on—you can also use the moon—and zoom in as close as you can. Focus on that bright object, then remove your card and check your results out on the big screen. If you're not at home, it can be a good idea to bring along a laptop for this purpose.
Once your focus is locked in, it's time to start shooting. Try to keep your ISO low if you can, since longer exposures can also generate noise and you want to keep as much noise out of your photos as possible. Stick with ISO 100 to 400, depending on the conditions. Generally speaking, you want to use the widest aperture that you can, because the wider aperture is going to allow you to capture fainter meteors. Your exposure time should be between 10 and 25 seconds. You don't want to go any slower than 25 seconds because then you'll start to see star trails. Star trails happen at longer exposures because you are actually capturing the movement of the stars across the sky, which can make the stars look a little bit like meteorites themselves. For the best possible impact when you do capture a meteor, you want the stars to look like stars.
Eye by Flickr user Jaykhuang
If your camera has the ability to shoot in both RAW and JPEG, that's a very good option since it will make it a lot easier for you to review the photos later on. Remember that out of a few hundred shots you might get in a single night, only a few of them are going to include meteors, so you're going to be spending a lot of time the next day just looking through them. RAW files are going to taking a lot longer to render than JPEGs do, so if you have smaller JPEG files to flip through that will make the review process a lot easier.
You're going to want to take a few test photographs not just to get the focus right but also to make sure you have the exposure right. You want to avoid the sky looking too washed out, which is something that can happen if there's a lot of light pollution in your area or if the moon is close to being full. Brighter skies call for shorter exposure times, so be sure make sure you check your exposure on your camera's screen, and/or on your computer screen if you're at home or you brought one along.
At this point you can just set your camera up to continuously take pictures until you either run out of batteries or fill up your memory card. If you're shooting in RAW, which is a good idea anytime you're photographing a scene where the exposure is a little tricky, your memory card is going to fill up a lot faster, so make sure you have a high-capacity card or you may be calling it quits a lot earlier than you intended. I know some photographers who will set their camera up during a meteor shower, leave it there and go to bed, then come back and retrieve the camera at dawn. After taking photographs all night long, and with a wide enough field of view, you're almost certain to capture at least a handful of frames that include meteors. If you're going to leave your camera, keep in mind that your battery will probably not last the entire night. Some astrophotographers use a "power tank" to keep the camera operating until dawn, but if you don't have that just keep checking to see where you are and keep a charged battery on hand that you can swap in when power starts to get low.
Perseid Meteor by Flickr user John Getchel Photography
When the night is over, you'll have a big collection of nearly identical shots of the sky—with a few gems that contain images of meteors. So break out your camping chairs and invite the family outdoors for a late-night sky viewing. Keep that shutter clicking and enjoy fun, friends and photography. And remember that meteors really aren't hard to shoot, they just require a little bit of patience and a lot of time.
- What you need
- A camera with manual settings
- A wide angle lens
- A remote release
- Extra batteries
- A dew heater
- Where to go
- Avoid light-poluted areas
- Setting up
- Place your camera on a tripod
- Focus to infinity, take a test shot
- View your test shot on a computer screen and refocus if necessary
- Keep your ISO low
- Use a shutter speed of 10 to 25 seconds
- Shoot in RAW/JPEG
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