You may already be aware that to photograph a meteor shower and capture one of the most spectacular sights in both astronomy and photography, a lot of preparation and patience is needed.
Ranging from timing and location to equipment and camera settings, we hope to show you just how fun and rewarding a meteor shower photoshoot can be!
Planning for a Meteor Shower
Although meteors can enter the Earth’s atmosphere at anytime, meteor showers do not occur on a regular basis. So it’s important to keep on top of when they will be appearing and if they will be visible in your area. A great website to note all of the astronomical displays taking place above your head is seasky.org.
Be sure to check out the moon phases as well, as the light of a full moon can cause some disruption to your final images.
Although a bright moon may cause a disturbance, it’s the light pollution from towns and cities that you will want to avoid.
As you’ll be entering into the world of long exposure photography (more on that later), you’ll want to avoid stray light as much as possible. For some great information on light pollution near you, check out lightpollutionmap.info. It’s a very handy website for seeing where the darkest skies are in your area.
Planning and finding the right location are important when it comes to capturing the night sky, but all that preparation can be wasted without the right equipment.
- Tripod – When shooting long exposure, any movement or camera shake will be picked up in your image. To avoid this, it’s best to use a tripod. Although some people find that planting their camera onto rocks or an elevated surface is good, for a guaranteed still and sturdy shot we recommend a tripod. There are many tripods to choose from, including a sturdy travel sized one like the Joby GorillaPod1K Tripod Kit.
- Shutter Release – The second most important piece of equipment for capturing meteor showers is a remote shutter release. Like the tripod, this will eliminate any possibility of camera shake when pressing down on the shutter release. From wired and wireless shutter releases to mobile controlled apps, there are many to choose from.
- Batteries – Remember, you’ll be shooting all night. So a long lasting battery for your camera and other equipment is well advised. It may be worth having a spare battery handy as well.
- Memory – You’ll be capturing images ALL NIGHT LONG, which means you’ll need plenty of storage room. As well as a large capacity, you’ll also want a memory card that has a fast enough write speed to keep on shooting. Much like the SanDisk 64GB Ultra SDXC Card 80MB/s.
It’s possible to capture a meteor shower with a number of different types of cameras, but best results will come from a camera with manual exposure control. Another point to consider is the sensor size of a camera, as larger sensors perform much better in low-light conditions.
When capturing a meteor shower, it’s considered best to use a wide-angle lens for more coverage of the sky and to increase chances of capturing a meteor. Many consider ultra wide-angle or fisheye lenses to be the best for this, but wide-angle optics are just as good.
Something else to consider when choosing your lens is the aperture (f stop). The lower the aperture the more of the subject’s light will get into the frame. Lenses with an aperture of between f/2.8 and f/1.4 will be ideal.
However, there can be disadvantages to many types of lenses when shooting a meteor shower. For example, using an ultra wide-angle lens can make the sky appear too distant. And using a normal or telephoto lens means less coverage of the sky, thus lowering your chances of capturing a shooting star.
When setting up your camera, be sure to disable auto-focus and turn the camera’s focus to infinity.
However, with the camera pointed towards the darkest part of the sky, and aimed at the radiant of the meteor shower, it may be hard to determine the focus. If this is the case, use other objects like the moon or a bright star to achieve focus.
Shutter speed is just one of three attributes that combine to produce long exposure photography. The longer the camera’s shutter is open, the more light enters and results in more meteors caught in a single frame. However, with the shutter open and light pouring in, movement in the frame becomes an issue.
With the Earth spinning on it’s axis, an open shutter may turn your stars from still points of light into streaks of light. Unless you want to achieve an image full of light trails and streaks (which can look fantastic!), you’ll need to know a correct shutter speed. This is where we can use something called the 600 Rule:
“The rule states that the maximum length of an exposure with stars that doesn’t result in star streaks is achieved by dividing the effective focal length of the lens into the number 600. A 50mm lens on a 35 mm camera, therefore would allow 600 / 50 = 12 seconds of exposure before streaks are noticeable. That same 50 mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor camera would only allow 7.5 seconds of exposure.” – starcircleacademy.com
SEE MORE: 10 Long Exposure Photography Tips
After selecting a lens with the recommended aperture range, you’ll want to set the f stop to the lowest number possible. With the lens’s aperture set to it’s widest setting, more light will be able to enter the frame and increase the chances of capturing a meteor.
With the shutter speed set correctly and the aperture wide open, it’s time to think about your ISO settings. Depending on other settings, the ISO can be a personal choice. So it may be best to take a few practice shots with different ISO numbers to see what looks best.
But remember, the higher the ISO the more digital noise/grain you’ll have in your images.
Enjoy the show
Lastly, enjoy yourself! You only get two or three chances a year to watch a wonderful array of comet debris fall into the Earth’s atmosphere, so take it in. It’s also a great chance to improve on your camera skills and get really creative with long exposure photography.