Photographing the Geminids Meteor Shower: How Failure Turned Into Success

Photographing the Geminids Meteor Shower: How Failure Turned Into Success

Photographing the night sky can be fun, especially when there is a meteor shower. Every year, I try to capture the famous Perseids during my summer holiday in August. But in December, there is the Geminids, which also can be quite spectacular. This year, I had bad luck and a lot of luck at the same time.

For last year’s Perseids meteor shower, I traveled to Luxembourg. Although we didn't have a very clear night sky, we managed to capture some nice meteors during the maximum. Because the Perseids are so famous, it is often forgotten there is another spectacular meteor shower, the Geminids.

The Perseids meteor shower of August 2018. I captured quite a few meteors and a hint of air glow from a dark location in Luxembourg. Unfortunately there were too many clouds and a few hours later it started to rain. (EOS 5D4 + Laowa 12mm | ISO12800 | f/2.

The Perseids meteor shower of August 2018. I captured quite a few meteors and a hint of air glow from a dark location in Luxembourg. Unfortunately, there were too many clouds, and a few hours later, it started to rain. (EOS 5D4 + Laowa 12mm | ISO12800 | f/2.8 | 15 seconds | stacked)

The Geminids occur in December, when the Earth passes through the dust trail of the asteroid Phaeton. During the maximum, up to 120 meteors can be spotted at a dark location. This year, there was only a small crescent moon that went behind the horizon early in the evening. As a bonus, there is the comet 46P/Wirtanen that shines in constellation of Taurus, which I thought to be a great subject also. The weather predictions were very promising, so I decided to give it a try during the night of the Geminids maximum.

So, I planned the evening carefully: a nice and dark location, a car full of equipment, and warm clothing for the hours I wanted to stay in the field. I had good hopes, which went sour on my way to the location. Just as I feared, the clouds rushed in and obscured all stars. Frustrated, I went home again, with only a single shot of the sky just before the last stars were gone.

Discovering its becoming real cloudy after half an hour drive. It was quite frustrating when I watched the stars disappear. I waited a bit, took a few photos but gathered my cameras with disappointment and went home. (Nikon Z7 + 24-70/4 @ 24mm | ISO6400 |

Discovering it was becoming real cloudy after half an hour drive. It was quite frustrating when I watched the stars disappear. I waited a bit, took a few photos, but gathered my cameras with disappointment and went home. (Nikon Z7 + 24-70/4 @ 24mm | ISO6400 | f/4 | 10 sec)

No Geminids for me. That was my first thought. As the evening progressed, I went out a few times to check upon the sky, but all I saw were the clouds. Until midnight. Just before going to bed, the sky cleared just enough for me to give it a try, not from the location I tried earlier that evening, but from the park just around the corner, in the suburbs of the city of Helmond, the Netherlands, a place flooded with light pollution. I did not dare to take the risk of traveling to a better location, because this was a window of opportunity that I did not want to miss.

After midnight the clouds broke and showed a glimpse of the starry night sky. Although the constellations of Orion and Taurus are barely visible, comet 46P/Wirtanen isn't unless you know where to look. No Geminids meteors unfortunately (Sony A7R3 + FE 4/2

After midnight, the clouds broke and showed a glimpse of the starry night sky. Although the constellations of Orion and Taurus are barely visible, comet 46P/Wirtanen isn't unless you know where to look. No Geminids meteors, unfortunately. (Sony A7R3 + FE 4/24-70 @ 24mm | ISO6400 | f/4 | 8 sec)

So, I ran outside with two cameras, two tripods, and three lenses. I started the time-lapse function of one camera, pointing at the sky where I hoped to capture the meteors. With the other camera, I took more preparation, because I wanted to capture the comet 46P/Wirtanen. It was barely visible with the naked eye, but I knew its location in the night sky and a camera sees more than us humans. It was not long before I had the satisfaction of watching the comet in the constellation of Taurus on the LCD screen, a fuzzy dot among the stars in the night sky, together with the Hyades star cluster, the star Aldebaran, and of course, the famous seven sisters, the Pleiades.

The constellation of Taurus with the Hyades and the star Aldebaran (left), and the Pleiades at the top. The greenish spot is the comet 46P/Wirtanen (Sony A7R3 + FE 2.8/70-200 @ 70mm | ISO12800 | f/2.8 | 2 sec | stack of five images)

The constellation of Taurus with the Hyades and the star Aldebaran (left), and the Pleiades at the top. The greenish spot is the comet 46P/Wirtanen (Sony A7R3 + FE 2.8/70-200 @ 70mm | ISO12800 | f/2.8 | 2 sec | Pure Night light pollution filter | stack of five images)

Next was a closeup of the comet. I did not had my guiding system with me, so I needed a short exposure time to compensate for the Earth's movement. Luckily, modern cameras can handle high ISO settings very well. ISO 12,800, an aperture of f/2.8, and a two-second exposure made it possible to capture 46P/Wirtanen with a 200mm focal length, even from a light-polluted location.

I did a quick check on the images before I went to bed after an hour of photographing the night sky. But it was only the next day before I realized I had a very, very lucky shot. One of the images I took with the 200mm focal length of Comet 46P/Wirtanen showed a beautiful meteor streak, right through the frame. It was a one in a million shot.

With a lot of luck: comet 46P/Wirtanen shines through the clouds and a beautiful Geminids meteor captured within the frame. (Sony A7R3 + FE 2.8/70-200 @ 200mm | ISO12800 | f/2.8 | 2 sec | stack of five images with one of them containing the meteor)

With a lot of luck: comet 46P/Wirtanen shines through the clouds and a beautiful Geminids meteor captured within the frame. (Sony a7R III + FE 2.8/70-200 @ 200mm | ISO12800 | f/2.8 | 2 sec | stack of five images with one of them containing the meteor)

When I processed the photo, I was thinking about the luck capturing that meteor right next to the comet. It was exactly in the frame as seen in the photo; I did not crop the image whatsoever. I always dreamed of capturing such a photo, but never thought it would happen. I was there at that exact time and place thanks to the clouds that prevented me from photographing the meteor shower earlier that evening. I would like to think it had to be this way, but perhaps that’s imaginary. It is a nice thought, though.

There is a chance the next meteor shower will be not that much fun. The chance of capturing such a photo again is almost impossible. But hey, I am very happy with this one, and I know for sure I will enjoy myself again watching the next meteor shower. After all, the uncertainty of what kind of photos you'll end up with is all the fun.

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2 Comments

Refrac Sean's picture

Nice shots, and thanks for sharing the story. Night sky photography is such a fight against weather, light pollution, equip and settings it is always a great feeling to capture a once in a lifetime shot.
You should share a timelapse too if you managed anything good.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Thanks for the comment. A good idea, that timelapse. Perhaps in another article.