Photographing Tomorrow Night’s Meteor Shower

A meteor (shooting star, falling star) is the visible light that is created when a meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere. If the meteoroid does not burn up and reaches Earth’s surface, it is called a meteorite. Photographing meteors is surprisingly easy. Basically, all you need to do is point a camera at the sky and use a fairly wide aperture. If a meteor happens to occur while the shutter is open, the camera sensor will record it. The idea is to shoot a continuous series of exposures and hope that a meteor will occur in one of them.

While the basics of photographing meteors are simple, implementing them properly to optimize your chances at getting the best shot is a little more complicated. The first thing to consider is when to shoot. On any given night there is a good chance of seeing a meteor, but you never know where or when it will occur. Fortunately, several times a year we have meteor showers, during which the number of meteors increases substantially. And during many of these showers we know approximately from where in the sky the meteors will emerge. With this knowledge at hand, we can greatly increase our chances at a good shot.

Tomorrow night’s meteor shower is called the Quadrantids. The radiant, or point from which the meteors appear to originate, is in the constellation Bootes, which is near the Big Dipper. The Quadrantid meteor shower is among the best of the year in terms of the numbers of meteors you might see (up to 120 per hour), but the peak period for viewing lasts only for a few hours. In my neck of the woods (Eastern Time Zone), the peak is forecast for around 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning.   

Leonid meteors at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Leonid meteors streak across the sky above Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

The best viewing conditions are a location far from city lights, with no moonlight. Unfortunately, the moon is going to be 80% full early Wednesday morning and will drown out the fainter meteors. The good news is that the moons sets about 3:30 a.m. (EST), leaving the rest of the night dark. During the peak  period around 2 a.m., the moon will be low in the sky and won’t adversely affect the viewing as long as you don’t look in its direction. To see the most meteors, your chances are probably best if you look toward the radiant, in the north/northeast sky. However, you can see meteors anywhere in the sky. In fact, some of the better views are at right angles to the radiant, where the meteor streak often covers more distance.

My usual approach to 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 of 24mm and wider.

Composition. Just capturing a bright meteor on your sensor is reason for celebration, but why not make the image something really 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.

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/4 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds as a starting point.

Hope you catch a falling star!

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2 Responses to “Photographing Tomorrow Night’s Meteor Shower”

  1. Q&A: do you know the light pollution man? | So Ask Me Says:

    […] Night Photography | Digital After Dark » Blog Archive … […]

  2. Night Photography | Digital After Dark » Blog Archive » Nightly Night Photography Notes–Meteor Shower Tonight! Says:

    […] (Eastern Time Zone) on Wednesday morning, which will leave a couple of hours of dark-sky viewing. Check out this post for more info about the shower, along with tips on photographing […]

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