Photographing Meteors

When setting out to photograph a meteor shower, there are a few essential items that you need and some tips that will give you the best chance of getting a good shot.

Kit:

  • Tripod
  • Wide lens with fast aperture (f2.8 or below)
  • Shutter release cable

The 3 items above are essential when trying to photograph a meteor shower and without them it will be almost impossible to succeed.

Once your kit is packed, a few other items will help such as a compass, a red torch, warm clothing, a deck chair and a flask of tea. Photographing meteors is all about sitting, waiting and enjoying the night sky.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing

 

So, the skies are clear and you have your kit ready, you will now need to think about your location. It goes without saying that you should get away from the city lights. These will have a dire effect on your image. The glow will wash out the night sky, making for a very low contrast image, terrible colour balance and will effect how your eyes see the stars. My advice is to try and get at least 5 miles from any large town or city.

Think about content and foreground interest. An image with a meteor streaking through the night sky is one thing, however if you can include some foreground interest then you will improve your photograph 10 fold. It doesn’t have to be anything as striking as a snow capped mountain or cascading waterfall, but something that helps balance the image or shows something of local interest such as on old farm house, a tree, castle ruins or even a human figure. Use your imagination. Meteor showers have massive pubic interest, so if you can include a local landmark, then you have a high chance of getting your image published in the nationals.

Northumberland Castle Ruins add interest.
Northumberland castle ruins add interest.

 

The frozen lake helps lead the eye to the meteor.
The frozen lake helps lead the eye to the meteor. (Pure luck).

Technically: How to do it.

  • Find the constellation from which the meteors emanate. To help with this, I recommend downloading Stellarium. It is free and is an amazing bit of software.
  • Shoot in RAW for a higher quality finish.
  • Frame your image, making sure at least 2/3 of the image is sky.
  • Once you are happy with your composition, you will need 2 exposures. One for the foreground and one for the sky. The first exposure for the foreground can be taken on a lower ISO, greater aperture and longer shutter speed to get a cleaner, sharper image. Focus on the foreground interest and expose. You can choose to keep your foreground silhouetted or you can choose to bring out some detail with a longer exposure or a little light painting. This is up to you. Once you have your first image, very carefully adjust your focus to the stars. This will need to be done manually. Simply turn on live view, digitally zoom in to the brightest star you can see and focus. Alternatively, focus your lens to infinity, which will also give you sharp stars.
  • Keep your composition exactly the same, dial in a high ISO and a large aperture with the aim of exposing for no more than 15 seconds. This will ensure you capture most meteors that shoot across your frame. If you expose for longer than 15 seconds, with a lower ISO then there is a chance your camera will not capture the light emitted from some of the meteors. Most will dart through the sky for less than half a second, and although they are bright, if you are exposing for 20 or 30 seconds, your sensor will not be sensitive enough to capture the light.
  • Set your camera to continuous shooting mode. This is usually indicated by 3 rectangles over lapping each other. Lock your shutter release cable open and your camera will continue to fire for as long as you allow. Effectively you are creating a time lapse.

It will only be a matter of time until you start capturing those meteors and it is up to you whether to continue to capture lots of meteors and create a composite image or to move on and find a new composition.

A rough guide

Rule of 600:
There is a rough formula to follow, which will help you avoid unwanted star trails/blurry stars.

600/focal length = number of seconds to expose before stars become soft.

Once you are home with a memory card full of images, you need to weed out the duds and keep only those images with meteors in the frame and remember, don’t delete the 1st image, which is exposed for the foreground. This will be the foundation of your final image.

 

All the hard work is now complete. Simply open the foreground image in Photoshop and paste your favourite meteor image over the top. There are 50 ways to bring through the sharp foreground, the easiest is to simply use the eraser tool to brush out the soft, under exposed foreground and hey presto! Your image is complete.

Please join me on Facebook. There is a link in the column to the top right of this blog and if you’re feeling very generous, please share this blog. Remember, all of the above is not an exact science and there are many variables involved. Use this blog as a helpful guide and experiment with your photography and you will be sure of some great results.