Perseid Meteor Shower This Weekend!

It’s time for one of the best meteors showers of the year. The annual Perseids typically produce rates up to one meteor per minute, but the rates could be even higher at times.

The projected peak period is the early morning of this coming Sunday, August 12. However, the Perseids occur over several days and the actual peak can vary by several hours. In fact, good numbers of Perseids are already streaking across the night sky. The International Meteor Organization is reporting current rates of about 15 meteors per hour. If you want to experience the Perseids fully, you should go out this weekend on all three nights. If you have to choose only one, it’s probably best to go out on Saturday night/Sunday morning. 

The shower’s radiant (the point from which the meteors appear to emerge) is the constellation Perseus, which can be seen fairly high in the north/northeastern sky around midnight. However, you don’t have to look toward Perseus to see the meteors, as they can occur anywhere in the sky. It’s just that if you trace their route back to its apparent origin, it will point toward Perseus. If you look directly toward the radiant, some of the meteors you see will appear to come at you, while if you look at a right angle to the radiant, the light streak will cover more distance in the sky.

The best viewing location is far from city lights, although the Perseids often produce very bright fireballs that leave persistent trails. The moon will interfere somewhat with the viewing experience. On Saturday morning, a 34% illuminated moon rises at 1:18am and its light will wash out the faintest meteors. On Sunday morning, an exact crescent moon (25%) rises at 2:04am. It will interfere a little, but won’t horribly dampen the show. On Monday morning, a thinner crescent moon rises at 2:55am and should have little effect on the viewing experience.

A Leonid meteor streaks in the night sky in the constellation Orion

A bright Leonid meteor streaks across the night sky in the constellation Orion.

On all three mornings, the moon will rise in a sky with Venus and Jupiter. On Monday morning, the 13th, the thin crescent moon will be very close to the planets in the dawn sky, creating a terrific encore to the meteors.

There are several different approaches for photographing the Perseids. The two principle ones are shooting a star trail sequence that has meteors streaking across the trails and shooting a static star scene. For the star trails, you’d set it up just as you would any star trail scene and hope that some meteors occur during the sequence. (A safe bet.)

I typically prefer to photograph meteors as part of a static star scene, using the meteor streaks as complements to the composition. The idea is to compose a scene that works well WITHOUT meteors. Ideally, you’ll want some sort of foreground element in the scene, instead of just stars. Just make sure the foreground is far enough away that you can shoot wide open and still have enough depth of field so that it, and the stars, are in focus. For a wide-angle lens, 100 feet is sufficient. Also, you want to include as much sky as possible to increases your chances of capturing a meteor, so choose the foreground carefully.

Once you set up the composition, the exposure will be the same as on any other night. Assuming a relatively dark site, the main limitation will be shutter speed, because at a certain length the stars will begin to streak. For this reason, as well as for making the best compositions, a wide-angle lens works best.

To determine the point at which stars appear to show obvious streaks, divide the focal length of the lens into 500. So for a 17mm lens, you can get by with about 30 seconds. This is just a general guide and it depends on the direction in the sky that you shoot. (The stars will appear to streak more when shooting toward the south, and if you magnify the image, you can see streaks after only a few seconds with any lens.) Since it isn’t precise, and since 30 seconds is the longest shutter speed that my camera allows without using the Bulb setting, I typically shoot night skies scenes at this speed with focal lengths from 14mm to 18mm.

Set the aperture wide open or close to it. For most lenses, this will be f/2.8 or f/4. The only reason not to use f/2.8 (or wider if you’re lens offers it) is if your lens suffers from coma, a lens aberration that causes stars to record as little snow angels instead of pinpoints of light. Coma is reduced as you stop the lens down. Even the difference between f/2.8 and f/4 can be significant, and by f/8, it is usually not noticeable. My Nikon 17-35mm lens has horrible coma, so I never shoot it at f/2.8. Actually, I rarely use the lens for night photography anyway, much preferring the Nikon 14-24mm.    

Try ISO 1600 as a starting point. Do a test exposure and see how it looks. If there is a lot of light pollution in the sky, you might have to back off a little. At a dark site, you can definitely shoot 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 without any problems. If your camera doesn’t have a lot of noise, you can shoot at even higher ISOs.

Once you get the composition and exposure set up, set the shutter to shoot continuous exposures and just let it rip. With a locking cable release, you can set the shutter dial to shoot continuous exposures and then walk away and let the camera do all the work. Most Nikon cameras only allow you to shoot 100 exposures this way, but with an intervalometer, you can shoot as many as the battery allows. Of course, it’s a simple matter to shoot 100 and then start the sequence again. Regardless of how you execute it, the idea is to let the camera shoot continuous exposures and hope a meteor streak occurs during one of them.

Okay everyone. Get out there this weekend and catch a falling star!

Note: All times stated are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which is 4 hours behind Universal Time.      

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3 Responses to “Perseid Meteor Shower This Weekend!”

  1. rdmphoto Says:

    Thanks for the tips! See you at Fotofest next month!

  2. Windwood Says:

    I will be with a group this weekend to shoot the meteors and had my settings all planned out. I will be using most of what you have recommended but I don’t understand the ISO setting of 1600. It would seem that ISO 200 would be your setting of choice due to noise in long exposures. What are your thoughts behind this setting? TIA

  3. Kevin Adams Says:

    Rick, at ISO 200 you won’t be able to record very many stars and only the very brightest meteors. ISO 200 is a good choice for shooting star trails, but for night sky scenes where you want the stars to appears as pinpoints and see as many of them as possible, I’d recommend at least 1600. Most newer camera have minimal noise at ISO 1600 when the exposures are relatively short. My Nikon D700 does a very good job with it. If noise is an issue, I run the photo through Nik Dfine and it takes care of it pretty well.

    Foto Fest will be here before you know it! Looking forward to it.


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