We are currently experiencing several active meteor showers – including the Orionids, the Southern Taurids, the Northern Taurids and the Leonids, with several more scheduled to begin in December. If you’ve ever wanted to drive out to the country and capture these celestial shows, here are several tips to make sure you get the most out of your night of shooting.
Find the darkest spot available
If you live in city with a lot of light pollution, capturing a worthwhile meteor image will be extremely difficult. Since you will be using long exposures and wide apertures, any environmental light will creep into the frame and overpower the image. If possible, head out to the country where streetlights and neon signs are less likely. A full or gibbous moon are also deterrents of good meteor viewing. The moon’s cycle, along with the shower’s schedule, don’t always work in the favor of the meteor shower and can result in very poor viewing conditions. Before you embark on a voyage to capture the meteors, check the moon’s phase (try to make sure the moon is new or stays below the horizon for a good part of the evening). The darker the sky, the better your chances.
Bring a tumbler of coffee or take an early nap
The best viewing time starts around midnight, but things will start getting more exciting as the night goes on. Shooters who can stay out until the early morning hours (before sunrise) will be rewarded with a more active show.
You can use almost any camera to photograph meteors, but it is best to have one that allows manual exposure control. 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.
Consider putting something in the foreground
If you fill the viewfinder with only the sky, you’re going to have a bunch of light streaks in the frame and not much else. Try putting other objects in the frame like mountains (even if they only create silhouettes). It will add a level of difficulty to the session, but it will also result in more satisfying images. Capturing images in RAW format will also help you adjust your white balance in post-production.
Use a wide, fast lens
Those bright cosmic wonders won’t be in front of the lens for very long, so it’s best to keep your aperture wide open. Because they’ll appear sporadically, having a wider lens will increase the chance that you’ll actually capture one or more over the course of the night. 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.
Choose the proper ISO
Every camera model reacts differently during low-light long exposures, so start at ISO 800 and adjust accordingly. You will probably get some noise (depending on your camera’s specifications), but it’s best to try and avoid the brightly-colored pixel noise often associated with digital cameras and extremely long exposures.
Determine your exposure time
Most digital cameras can handle a 30-second exposure before noise starts getting out of hand. That’s also a short enough time span to keep stars from becoming light streaks due to the rotation of the earth.
Fully charge your batteries before heading out
Even if your camera isn’t giving a low battery notification, it’s worth topping off before heading out for a night of long exposures. With the long shutter times, you’ll find that you’ll get fewer frames out of a single charge than you would in a normal shooting situation. Lower temperatures will also reduce your battery performance, so winter shooting requires more batteries to ensure you don’t run out of power during the session.
You will be creating long-exposure photographs, so you will need a steady tripod for this task; preferably a heavier model that will keep your camera steady during long exposures. Another helpful piece of gear is a remote shutter release to reduce movement when engaging the shutter; some cameras have interval timers and countdown timers built-in. In fact, many of today’s digital cameras allow you to program the camera’s shooting frequency and intervals as well.
Bring plenty of memory cards. You will probably be shooting continuously for hours at a time, so be aware of how many shots you can get on each memory card and be ready to switch when and if the cards get full.
Since you will be taking a lot of shots, you may want to consider shooting in the highest resolution JPEG format to preserve space on your memory cards. Shooting in JPEG may also help your memory card’s read/write speed.
Know where to point your camera
The direction of the meteor paths will vary depending on a wide variety of factors, so putting in some research before you head out will pay off. One spot may work great for one meteor shower and not work at all for another. Watch for a few minutes without the viewfinder to get a feel for where they’re coming from and where they’re going. 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° angle 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.
Star Points vs Star Trails
You’ll want to set up your camera for a proper exposure of the night sky. 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. 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. For example: 600 divided by a 21mm lens = about 28 seconds. If you are shooting with a crop sensor camera, use the 400 Rule. For example: 400 divided by a 21mm lens (35mm equivalent of 31.5mm) = 19 seconds.
Like lightning, meteors are very unpredictable, which is part of what makes capturing them with a camera so satisfying. Don’t be afraid to shoot back-to-back frames on continuous mode. There’s nothing more frustrating than having the shutter snap shut just a few seconds before a beautiful streak shoots across the sky. Also, know that some photos you see 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
With a little planning and good fortune, you should get a few frames with the streak of a shooting star and maybe even the foundations for a cool timelapse video of the night sky. While your camera is doing all the hard work, lie back, look up and enjoy the show!