With the Perseids meteor shower set to peak in the next few days, it's a great time to review the techniques and gear involved in capturing a meteor. Want to know how to catch a picture of a shooting star?
Meteor showers, caused by the Earth passing through the dust and debris left from comets, can be an amazing sight, as well as a great photo opportunity to plan around. The showers are named after the constellations that they appear to come from — this is called the radiant. The best showers feature dozens or hundreds of shooting stars in an hour, and a heavy shower that coincides with a new moon is an awesome experience. Showers occur throughout the year, so keep an eye out for the combination of clear skies and no moonlight to find the best opportunity to shoot.
Any meteor shower presents the same challenges to a photographer: a quick moving object, in low light, coming from a seemingly random direction. It can be a challenge to catch a good picture, but with a few essential pieces of equipment, you should come back with some great pictures.
I say come back, because unless you live in a very rural area, you’ll need to drive out somewhere dark. Think state parks, national forests, or for the best experience, one of America’s 60+ dark sky parks and reserves. These areas will have lower light pollution, giving you a better chance of spotting the fainter meteors.
Before you make the drive out, however, you’ll need the essentials. For these shots, a full frame or APS-C camera will work. You’ll need to be pickier about your lens, however. The wider and faster the better — wider lenses will let you fit more sky, and correspondingly more meteors, in the frame; faster lenses mean less noise and brighter streaks. Think 24mm f/1.4 or 14mm f/1.8 for the best shots.
Also essential is a tripod, since the shooting technique revolves around repeated, long exposures of a patch of sky. If you don’t have a tripod, you can get away with propping your camera up on a beanbag or similar, particularly if the shower has a radiant that is low on the horizon.
A timer or intervalometer, which you can configure for repeated exposures, will save you a lot of shutter clicks, freeing you up to enjoy the view. Also, the regularity means you can combine all your frames to create an additional image showing off star trails. Many newer cameras already have an intervalometer built in, so check your manual or Google your camera’s model to find out if you’re good to go. If it isn’t built in, Amazon or B&H should stock a relatively inexpensive trigger featuring this function. You’ll need the right type of cable to connect to your camera, so pay attention to the model number.
There are a few last pieces of equipment that can make your time in the field easier. Gaffer tape or painters tape can be used to fix your focus ring in place, letting you lock it down once focus is dialed in. Spare batteries and memory cards are essential, since you’re effectively shooting hundreds of frames to get lucky with a few. Extra batteries are extra important for winter meteor showers, since the cold will sap the batteries even faster. Apps like Photopills or another astrophotography guide can be used to identify the radiant. Lastly, comforts like snacks, a chair, blanket, and hand warmers can make the time spent in the field more enjoyable.
In The Field: How to Setup Your Camera
So, once you’re in the field, setting up your camera for the shot is easy. I’d suggest dialing in focus first, and taping the focus ring in place. Bumping that ring partway through could mean coming back with hundreds of out of focus shots. To focus, don’t rely on the infinity marker on the lens — this can change slightly with temperature, and doesn’t provide the tack sharp guide you’d think on modern lenses. Instead, adjust your settings so you can see the stars in the live view, then zoom in on a bright star in the center of your frame. From here, you can tweak focus back and forth until it’s as sharp as possible.
Your aperture should be as wide as possible; the greater amount of light let in at f/1.8 over f/4 means less noise and more chance of catching faint meteors. If your lens is particularly weak wide open, stop down by 1 stop to keep a balance between brightness and sharpness.
Your next priority is shutter speed. Too long of a shutter speed can cause your stars to start streaking from the Earth’s rotation. There are a number of calculators available to tell you the exact maximum speed, based on your lens and sensor, but here are some rough guidelines for a given sensor size and focal length. Keep in mind, having sharp stars will make it easier to blend the frames where you do catch a meteor. The settings shown are pretty aggressive, so if you have a lower megapixel body or are less “pixel critical”, you can get away with a slightly longer shutter speed.
Lastly, for ISO, adjust it to create a balanced exposure based on your aperture and ISO — something like 1600 will be a good balance between noise and being too dark. Newer full frame bodies could go higher, but unless you’re in a phenomenally dark sky region, your sharp-star shutter speed should already be letting enough light in.
Once your settings are dialed in, try a few test frames. If it’s too bright, try reducing your shutter speed a bit, since it is better to have a bright meteor in a greater number of frames than it being too dark because of a low ISO. If it’s too dark, and you’re already using the maximum shutter speed, go ahead and raise your ISO. You can combine a number of frames in a stack to reduce the noise in your final image- my favorite app for this type of stacking is called Sequator.
Once you’re happy with the test frames, setup your timer and lean back. Keep an eye out for any stars, and don’t stress if you miss one- they’re pretty random, and I’ve missed a bunch by moving my camera to where I last saw one, only for a huge streak to appear where I previously had the camera aimed.