Photographing the Lyrid Meteor Shower

It’s time for another meteor shower! April’s Lyrids are predicted to peak in the early morning hours on Sunday, although it’s worth going out on Saturday morning as well.

The Lyrid meteor shower is not a major shower, producing maybe 15 – 20 meteors an hour on average, but meteor showers are unpredictable and you never know when a burst will occur. Rates as high as 90 per hour were observed in 1982, as well as an incredible burst of up to 300 over a period of a just few minutes. While it’s not likely that you’ll see rates like that this weekend, you never know what’s going to happen. One thing’s for sure: you won’t see ANY meteors if you don’t get out there and look for them.

The new moon occurs at 3:19 a.m. (EST) on Saturday morning, making the conditions for viewing the Lyrids ideal. Try to find a location far from city lights. The radiant, or point from which the meteors appear to originate, is near the constellation Lyra, between Lyra’s bright star Vega and the constellation Hercules. In the eastern United States, Vega rises above the horizon in the evening hours of Saturday, but you have to wait until until the radiant rises high above the horizon before you can observe most of the meteors that occur. The peak period should be from around 2 a.m. (EST) until dawn. The radiant at that time will be roughly toward the northeast.

Just because the meteors appear to radiate from a certain point, it doesn’t mean that you have to look in that direction to see them. You’ll be able to see them anywhere in the sky. If you look directly toward the radiant, 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. One compositional approach for photography is to use a wide-angle lens and compose with the radiant on a thirds placement in the frame. Another idea is to center the radiant in the frame so any recorded meteors appear to radiate from the middle of the photo.

My usual method for photographing meteors is to set up the composition with the camera locked tight on a tripod. Then I do a test to get the exposure in the sky just right. Next, I use a programmable interval timer to shoot continuous exposures until the battery dies, then change batteries and let er rip again. My Nikon D700 will let me shoot continuous exposures up to 30 seconds without having to use a separate interval timer. Only problem is, it will shoot only 100 exposures at a time, so I would have to reset the camera every 50 minutes. This really puts a cramp in my catching-a-wink time, so I like to use the separate interval timer, which will run forever.       

Here are a few more tips for photographing meteor showers:

Lenses. Wider focal length lenses include more sky, which increases the chances at capturing a meteor. The drawback is that the meteors appear fainter as the lens gets wider. Telephotos record the meteors brighter and bigger, but the chance of capturing one with a long lens is very low, so it’s a tradeoff. The ideal focal length is probably between 28mm and 50mm, but I often use focal lengths as wide as 14mm.

Composition. Just capturing a bright meteor on your sensor is reason for celebration, but why not make the image special? Try to frame the scene with something interesting in the foreground. Mountain ranges, lighthouses, bridges—most anything that creates a nice silhouette works well. A lighted foreground of some sort can work well as long as the lights are not bright enough to drown out the meteors. Obviously, you’ll want to get as far away from city light pollution as you can. Also, remember that the idea is to include as much sky as you can so you increase your chances of capturing a meteor.

Focusing. If the foreground has a light you can autofocus on that. If all you have is the sky to focus on, try finding a bright star or planet that you can autofocus on. If your camera has a Live View feature, use it to focus on the stars. See Focusing in the Dark for more information on achieving sharp focus.

Exposure. Aperture is king with meteors. The wider the aperture, the fainter the meteors that you are able to record, regardless of the ISO and shutter speed setting. If you want the meteor streaking across a sky of static stars (not star trails), you’ll want to keep the shutter speed to no more than 30 seconds or so with a wide-angle lens, and shorter with longer lenses. Try ISO 1600, f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds as a starting point. Make sure you do some test exposures to make sure you aren’t overexposing due to light pollution.

Wishing you clear skies this weekend!

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