How to photograph meteors and meteor showers

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Watching meteors cross the sky is one of the most awe-inspiring sights we can observe at night. To successfully photograph meteors and meteor showers using your camera, you will need to be armed with some prior knowledge of your subject, patience, and a little bit of luck. It wasn’t that long ago that you would have had to invest a small fortune in film rolls and development costs in order to get that elusive meteor image, and even then there was no guarantee you would get a quality photo. Now, with modern technology at your fingertips, it’s never been easier to spend a night under the stars and return home with your own suite of awesome meteor images. Yes, there is always an element of luck in photographing meteors, but we’ll see how to maximize your chances of luck playing a much smaller role.

Our guide on how to photograph meteors is one of a range of features on Space.com to help you better capture the night sky. We also have advice on How to photograph the moon, and a guide on how to photograph the northern lights.

Choose a meteor shower

To understand the best times to photograph meteors, let’s first consider what is a meteor: a rocky space object, known as a meteoroid, entering the Earth’s atmosphere at very high speed and ionizing the air around it, producing light as it burns. These particles vary in size from fragments the size of a grain of sand to some larger than a soccer ball. Most of this rock material is debris left behind by comets and asteroids.

At regular times throughout the year, Earth traverses the dusty paths of comets orbiting the Sun. When this happens, the higher concentration of cosmic particles hitting Earth’s atmosphere results in a meteor shower. Meteor showers are usually named after the constellation closest to the meteor’s apparent point of origin. The most famous meteor shower is undoubtedly that of the Perseids, originating in the region of the constellation Perseus and peaking in mid-August. The other major meteor showers are the Orionids, Leonids, Geminids, Taurids, Aquarids, Quadrantids, and Lyrids.

In this 30-second exhibit by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls, a meteor crosses the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower on August 12, 2016, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

(Image credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA on The Commons / Flickr)

There are great resources available to help you determine the dates and times of these meteor showers throughout the year. The Photopills The smartphone app, for example, has detailed information specific to your location, which will help you choose a date that coincides with high weather activity. Another useful online resource is the American Meteor Society. Typically, the peak activity period during a meteor shower (and therefore best for photography) is from midnight until the early hours of the morning.

Other factors to consider when choosing your target meteor shower are light pollution and the moon phases. Many small meteors will be swept away by the relative brightness of the moon and other sources of artificial light.

What do you need?

Now that we’ve decided when to shoot, let’s take a quick look at the equipment you’ll need:

Camera: A modern digital camera with a manual mode. Full frame, APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras are ideal.

Lens: Wide or super wide angle lenses are best for meteor showers. Keep in mind that the shorter your focal length, the wider your field of view will be, increasing your chances of capturing a meteor. Lenses in the 14mm to 35mm range for full frame (or around 10mm to 50mm for APS-C) with the widest aperture of f / 2.8 or less are great for the job. Pull at the lowest f-stop available. If your aperture opens very wide, you can afford to reduce the aperture slightly, which will help preserve the sharpness and star shapes.

Camera with wide angle lens

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tripod: The more robust it is, the better it is to avoid a shot without jerking.

Intervalometer: You will be taking multiple images one after the other over an extended period of time, so you will need an interval timer, either as a plug-in accessory or using the internal interval timer supported by some camera models . They are between $ 20-40 from most stores.

Lens / Dew Heater and Portable Power Bank: There is nothing worse than shooting continuously for several hours before realizing your lens has fogged up a long time ago, rendering most footage unnecessary. It can get cold at night, even during the summer months, so it’s important to keep your lens free from dew for the duration of your photography session. A dew heater is a battery-powered heating element that wraps around your lens to keep it warm and keep dew away. Remember to charge the power bank before you leave the house! Again, it’s not much more than about $ 20-30 in cost.

Spare battery: Continuous shooting will drain your battery, especially in cold weather, so make sure you have a backup battery in case you run out of battery.

Warm clothes: Spending hours in the cold isn’t fun if you’re not prepared for the conditions. Lie down to stay warm and comfortable.

Where should I point my camera?

Camera focusing on the night sky

(Image credit: Getty images)

Meteors can be seen anywhere in the sky. As we have seen previously, meteor showers have a point in the sky from which they appear to originate – the “Radiant”. Use the online tools and phone apps at your disposal to locate the radiant position for the time and date of the meteor shower you have chosen to photograph.

While this is tempting, try not to point your camera directly at the radiant, as meteors closest to the radiant will look small and unimpressive. Instead, place the radiant toward the edge of the frame, roughly at an angle of about 40 to 60 degrees to the radiant. If you point your camera about 60 degrees upwards, your wide-angle lens should cover a large part of the sky and also include land for extra scale and interest.

Camera settings

The process of photographing meteors is very similar to that used for general nighttime photography. We won’t cover the settings in detail here, but you can find more information about the recommended settings in our guide at astrophotography for beginners.

First of all, make sure you are shooting in manual mode. If you plan to post-process your images later, make sure you are shooting in the RAW file format. The large JPEG file format is suitable if you do not plan to process your photos.

December is usually marked by a series of meteor showers.  Geminid meteors (like the one seen in this Florida photo) light up the skies earlier this month, while the Ursids - which peak tonight (December 22) - put on a show just before Christmas.

(Image credit: Jean Clark)

Once you’ve framed your sky composition, use your camera’s Live View feature to digitally zoom in on a distant star or light source to manually adjust your focus. It’s a good idea to do this with your dew heater on, if you have one, so that the focus point doesn’t accidentally get out of place when attached. You can also stick tape on your lens to prevent the focus ring from moving.

With your lens aperture at f / 2.8 or less, use the “rule of 500” to set your shutter speed. Start with an ISO sensitivity of 3,200 or 6,400 and adjust from there (experiment to find out what works best for your location). If Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) is enabled on your camera, turn it off… you’re sure to miss the best meteors while your camera creates a noise reduction frame!

You are now ready to take action! Set your intervalometer to run as long as you can, with 2-3 second intervals between exposures to maximize your chances of catching a meteor or fireball. Get comfortable, sit back and enjoy heavenly entertainment while your camera does all the hard work!

DSLR versus mirrorless for astrophotography

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Creative ideas for your meteor images

After your photoshoot you should have plenty of images on your memory card, hopefully several meteors and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a fireball or two. If you post-process your images, you can compose multiple meteors into a single image so that the meteors you captured all reflect the radiant that you included in your composition. Alternatively, you can create a star trail using a stack of your footage, or even a stunning night time lapse.


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