10 Tips For Photographing Meteor Showers (Get Reay For Tomorrow’s Shower!)

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Photographing a meteor shower is more like photographing a time-lapse than traditional still photos. You can never anticipate where or when a meteor is going to streak across the sky. In order to catch them you have to set up and take as many photos as you can throughout the night with a wide angle lens on the camera. If you leave the camera in the same position you can use the resulting images for a short time-lapse clip in addition to the still images you can capture.

On May 24, 2014 and through Memorial Day weekend, we are about to pass through a brand new comet tail.  Not much is known about this meteor shower, but we do know the debris was created by a comet passing through this area of space in the 1800s. The best viewing will be in the Northern Hemisphere (Southern Canada and the continental US). As with all meteor showers it could be a dud or it could be great. The meteors will be radiating from the north in the constellation Camelopardalis and should be visible all night in the northern hemisphere.

So, here are 10 tips for photographing meteor showers:

  1. Find a location that is far away from the light pollution of major cities and towns. You can use this handy website to see at a glance where the dark skies are.  Use this site as a general guide, and keep in mind that there are things like oil rigs and mining operations that don’t show up on these maps.
  2. Get set up as fast as you can, the more time your shutter is open and taking photos the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.
  3. Use a good sturdy tripod in order to get a sharp photo of a meteors.
  4. Focus to infinity. This can be somewhat tricky in the dark, so a good way is to pre-focus the lens when the sun is up and tape the focus ring with gaffer’s or duct tape so it won’t move while you are moving around and setting up shots. You can also focus on the moon (if present) or a bright star, or use your camera’s live-view function.Obtaining accurate infinity focus is critical.
  5. You will need a wired cable release (just a simple cord with a locking shutter release button). Set your camera to the widest aperture the lens will allow, and the highest ISO that you are comfortable shooting with and an exposure that gives the best results for the location, light, and phase of the moon.  A good starting point is f/2.8, ISO 2000 and 15-25 seconds. If you have an f/1.4lens, that’s even better as it will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO and have a less noisy photo. As soon as you have a good exposure you can put your camera on continuous drive mode (where you press the button down and it takes photos until you release) then lock the button down on the cable release.
  6. Use your fastest f-stop (the lower the f-stop number the better) and widest angle lens you have.  You are looking for a lens that is at least f/2.8 and preferably an f/1.4 lens. The lower the aperture the more light will get let into the camera.  You will capture about double the meteors with a lens that opens to f/1.4 when compared af2.8 lens.
  7. Have an adequate power supply (a battery grip on your camera with dual batteries) or direct DC power connector to an external battery pack. You are aiming for shooting all night long with very few or no breaks in shooting (remember the goal here is to keep the shutter open and taking pictures as much as possible while you are out there). The best meteors are generally just before sunrise so try to make sure your camera is taking images all night. In a pinch, it’s fine to use a single battery with a replacement that you can quickly swap.
  8. Position the camera facing anywhere from the Northwest to the Northeast will give you the best results. I have found that positioning the camera slightly away from the radiant point of themeteor shower results in longer meteors since they are not coming straight at the camera. The position of this radiant will make for some incredible time-lapse footage spinning around the north star.
  9. A large capacity and relatively fast memory card for your camera. You want to try to get a card that will hold an entire night’s shooting and also has a fast enough write speed so your camera can empty the cache and continue to take images without having to pause. If you have to stop to change cards you may miss a giant fireball meteor. I usually shoot with 64 Gb compact flash cards and have found that you can generally get through most of a night even in the winter with oneof these cards.
  10. Composition – after all the techy stuff, you still want to make acompelling image. Choose a foreground element, such as as stand oftrees, a rock formation, or mountains. Something to anchor the photoand give it a great look rather than just a shot of the stars andmeteors alone in sky. At the same time, you want to include as muchsky as possible, and this why we recommend the widest possible lens.

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Now, get out there and capture some meteor showers!

About The Author

Thomas O’Brien is a landscape and Architectural photographer based out of Aspen Colorado. You can see more of his work on his website and workshops site. This article was originally posted here.

  • https://www.facebook.com/wim.vandergeest Wim van der Geest

    Thanks! Just in time. We expect some meteor showers this weekend (at least, in Holland. Don’t know if it is visible from other locations)
    Somewhere round the Polar star, saturday to Sunday (?)

  • OsFa Urbex

    “You can use this handy website to see at a glance where the dark skies are”…..link?

    • http://www.diyphotography.net/ udi tirosh

      the link must have fallen off, it is there now.

  • https://www.facebook.com/stewart.norton.37 Stewart Norton

    I’m no expert but isn’t it better to shoot at as low a iso as possible and keep the shutter open longer to get exposure ? Less noise.

    • Byourself83

      Shorter exposure means less motion blur. Even on a tripod you have motion and earth rotation to contend with.

    • http://wip-tricky.com Rosencratz

      The tip does say the highest ISO you are comfortable with, how much noise you are happy with is up to you.

      Higher ISO lets you reduce your exposure time. If you want pin-point stars you want the shortest exposure possible to avoid the trails. You usually do want to do this to get the contrast of pin-point stars and the streak of a shooting star.

  • http://wip-tricky.com Rosencratz

    I would add an 11th tip that is always forgotten that is, strictly speaking, little to do with the photography tbh but it can easily screw an evening up.

    Preperation and consideration for the environment of your intended location.
    I do a lot of coastal shooting and it took me a good while to get the hang of checking the tides(which block off whole routes to certain good spots). Also the military shuts off some areas I like to shoot depending on their training schedules, which they thankfully post publicly online.

    Never forget to check the weather. Barely any point going out if the predicted weather is overcast all night for example.
    Don’t forget to check temperature, visibility and wind.
    Always remember the moon. Several times I’ve forgotten the moon only to hike miles to a location and have a full moon explode over the horizon washing out all the stars. It makes for some awesome night photography itself but it rather trashes star photography.

    (I use a free application called stellarium to work out how much of a problem the moon can be)
    http://www.stellarium.org/en_GB/

    Every location has it’s own problems, where do you park?
    Is it accessible at night?
    Is it safe? etc.
    Plan ahead for these things because you don’t want to regret it when you’re sat in the pitch black several miles away from civilisation and it’s cursed light pollution and emergency services.

    Don’t forget yourself .
    if you’re going to the country side to plant your camera for a several hour shooting effort don’t forget that you’re likely going to be present and, potentially quite bored if you’re waiting for it. Possibly it’s implied for most people that they’ll be camping but if you’re not intending to camp, consider camping equipment, at the least a camping chair… with a beverage holder built in.

    Pack torches, water, maybe some food and make sure you’ve got a means to stay warm if necessary and dry if things go wrong. Lastly, if you’re bringing bottles or food or whatever, don’t forget to bring a means to carry your waste home again.

    • https://www.getoutcast.com/ Dan Price

      As for the weather part, I have an app that checks all those things for you, giving a score from 1 to 10 letting you know how good the conditions are. Hope you find it helpful:

      https://www.getoutcast.com/usa/va/richmond/photo-stars

      • http://wip-tricky.com Rosencratz

        Thankyou, i’m afraid I personally live in the UK though.
        Thankfully we have the met-office who provide a lot of data and are pretty accurate, considering how unpredictable weather can be.

        • https://www.getoutcast.com/ Dan Price

          Ah, yeah, US only at the moment, but the UK will be coming very soon. Sign up (free) and I can let you know when we are ready in the UK.