Pursuing Perseids: How to photograph a meteor shower

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high (Colorado)

John Denver

Yes, it’s that time of year again! The emanations of the Swift-Tuttle comet, visible each year from approximately July 17th through August 24th, will be reaching their peak levels this weekend. The Perseid meteor shower, so named because the meteors originate in the area of the constellation Perseus, is widely considered the best meteor shower to view from the northern hemisphere as it is the only sizable shower in the warm summer months. Throughout the nights of August 11th and 12th (stretching into the morning of the 13th), the grain-of-sand-sized meteors are slated to light up the night sky at a rate of 60 or more per hour. Get your wishes ready and grab your camera bag—assuming the weather cooperates, a meteor shower is a great opportunity for a photo trek. Here’s what you need to know to get ready.

Equipment Checklist

Before you go, make sure you know…

Astral photography is not inherently extremely difficult, but it requires two things in abundance: preparedness and patience. Your location will be of critical importance. Use your own experience or dark sky maps (like this one) to find a place with as little artificial light pollution as possible to maximize your chances of success. Fortunately for us, this year’s moon should be a thin crescent, so natural light pollution shouldn’t be a problem.

Cloud cover is another factor that can make or break your experience. Start looking now at satellite predictions to help you determine where you’re most likely to have clear skies. Bear in mind that the best viewing is usually very late (or very early, depending on how you look at it), from about 2:00 AM until dawn comes to spoil the party, so plan for the clearest skies at that time if possible.

The final piece of the puzzle is knowing exactly where to point your camera. Meteors are not quite as obvious as other subjects, so look up star charts for your area and get an idea of which direction you’ll need to point over the course of the night (don’t forget that the central location will move across the sky as the Earth rotates).

Lens Choice

Unless you feel particularly lucky, use a very wide-angled lens with the widest aperture you’ve got. Although a telephoto lens could theoretically give you dramatic, enormous star trails, your odds of actually catching one in your photo go up significantly if you’re capturing a wider patch of sky. You can also get away with longer exposures without unwanted star trails (see below).

Exposure Settings

The light from a shooting star lasts for a very short period of time, so to capture as much brightness as possible, crank that aperture all the way open. Be sure to set your focus to “manual,” dial it in with a few test shots, and then don’t touch it! You won’t have to worry about a narrow depth of field at such a great distance, once you’ve found a decent focal point.

To determine your shutter speed, the “500 rule” is a good way to get started (you can read more in my night photography guide here). You’ll want your exposure to be as long as possible, to maximize your chances of catching a meteor, but—assuming that you don’t want trails of light behind other stars, as those tend to dilute the effect of the meteor trails—you’ll want it to be short enough to freeze the rest of the scene. To get the approximate maximum shutter speed you can use without star trails, divide 500 by the focal length (35mm equivalent) at which you are shooting. For example, with a 16mm lens, you should be able to clear 31 seconds. With a 50mm “normal” lens, your stars would get blurry after only about 10 seconds. This is, of course, only a guideline, and you’ll want to do some test shots to make sure you’re happy with your results before you fill your memory card.

With your aperture and shutter speed thus decided, you can use your ISO to make the scene as bright or dark as your taste requires. Be sure that you’re also aware of any noise reduction settings on your camera. In some cases, stars and other celestial objects may be lost, mistaken as noise; even if the noise reduction algorithm works well to eliminate any high-ISO or long-exposure noise, your down-time between shots and the drain on your battery will significantly increase. If you are able, shooting in RAW and processing later will probably enable you to get better results.

Get comfy

As noted above, the best viewing time is from approximately 2:00 AM until dawn. Between that time, since you’ll never see one coming fast enough to catch it, your best bet is to shoot over and over and sift out the good shots later. Make sure that you have somewhere comfortable to sit, maybe a little coffee, and some way to remove dew from your lens between exposures. Once you approve your test shots, you can either set an intervalometer (built-in or external) to automatically fill up your cards or use a shutter release cable or remote to trigger each one from afar. If you lack access to either of these, make sure that you set your self-timer to 2 seconds. Even if your tripod is rock-steady, you still want to give your camera time to settle down after the shutter-press!

The secret ingredient: get creative

The most problematic thing about astral photography is making your shot stand out. Once a certain level of technical competence is achieved, they all come out pretty much the same.

You can make a big difference right off the bat by finding an interesting foreground—or background, for that matter. Dramatic silhouettes of trees, abandoned towers, mountains, etc. can add a lot to the final photo, as can things like complete constellations, long swaths of Milky way, and even (depending on your taste) the characteristic dot-dot-dot pattern of a plane flying through.

Even if you can’t get your stars precisely where you want them in the same shot as the foreground frame you’d like to use, go ahead and shoot them separately! Even at their most rapid rate, meteors are not likely to appear more than once or twice a minute. If you want a nice, dramatic shot full of several meteors, you’re going to have to layer multiple photos together anyway, so layering in some overhanging tree silhouettes shouldn’t be too much work out of the way.

Final tip: Have fun, and show us your results!

We can’t wait to see what you come up with. Once you’ve processed your best shots, check out mikescamera.com or come into any store to talk to an imaging specialist about the best way to bring them to life. Personally? I think an face-mounted acrylic print would be stunning.

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