By Henry Shaw of SummersMagic Photography in Baltimore, Maryland.
[Editor’s Note: Meteor showers are going on now and will last through mid-August! We’ve already been getting photos of Perseid and Delta Aquarid meteors, plus a Perseid outburst is expected in 2016. For general reference, here’s EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016]
Have you ever been outside on a clear night and had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a shooting star go whizzing by?
Ever wanted to try and capture a shooting star – also called a meteor – with your camera?
In this post, I’ll tell you the equipment you need, and also the steps you should follow, to capture your very own meteor. Follow the links below to learn more about how to shoot photos of meteors, or shooting stars.
To find that perfect meteor shower check the calendar here on EarthSky. Along with the dates of coming of meteor showers for the year, you’ll find the peak date, expected rates per hour at this year’s peak, where to find the meteor shower radiant point in the sky, and details of past performances.
Once you’ve selected your meteor shower, there are three factors that need to be considered before you head out: the location you’ll work from, the weather and the phase of the moon. All of these will have a direct impact on your success.
You’ll want to shoot from a location as far away from city and ambient light as you possibly can. State Parks make a great choice but check in advance to make sure they’re open after dark. Also, scout your campsite in advance to find the one with the most open view of the night sky.
The weather is critical. You need a very clear night. Hope for a cold front to push through just before you plan to shoot to clear out the skies.
If the moon is up and full, you’ll have to shoot before the moon rises or after it sets because the light from the moon will block out over half of the shooting stars you’d see otherwise.
Next … gather your equipment. You’ve picked a location, checked the weather and determined where the moon is going to be during the event, and have picked the ideal date and time to observe. Now what?
Grab your camera bag and select the hardware you’ll be using. Below is a basic check list of the minimum requirements to capture a shooting star.
• DSLR body
• All of your batteries (and spares batteries; if you have an extended grip that holds AAs, bring it)
• Fast wide-angle prime or zoom lens (f2.8 or faster) with UV or skylight filter attached
• Heavy duty tripod
• Cable release or intervalometer (see below)
• A really comfortable outdoor reclining chair
• A good flashlight
• Lens-cleaning supplies
Why do I suggest a wide-angle lens and not a telephoto lens? Probability. The more sky you cover, the greater the likelihood of capturing a shooting star. You can cover twice as much sky with a 24 or 28mm lens than you can with a 50mm lens and the difference gets more dramatic the longer the lens gets. You may get lucky and pick just the right spot with a telephoto lens, but your odds of getting your perfect shot increase tremendously as you cover a greater area of sky.
The intervalometer is one item on the equipment list that you might not be familiar with. Think of it as a cable release on steroids. With a cable release, you’re shooting one frame at a time. With the intervalometer, you can program the length of the exposure, and the delay between shots. And you can program the number of frames you want to shoot. If you look on Ebay you can get a nice intervalometer for $30 or less.
Finally … capture your meteor! Okay, now you have the logistical aspects mapped out. You know when and where you’ll be shooting, and you have the equipment you’ll need. Now let’s examine the capture process itself.
Below is a check list to follow in setting up your camera:
1. Open and level the tripod.
2. Mount your camera and estimate where the best position and angle is for shooting.
3. An app for your smartphone called “Starglobe” is invaluable at finding the location of constellations in the night sky.
4. Set the shutter speed on “B” or Bulb.
5. Set your lenses focus control switch to “MANUAL” this will keep it from searching for infinity in the dark.
6. Set the aperture to wide open.
7. Attach your cable release or Intervalometer.
8. Set the focus to INFINITY by manually aligning the infinity mark on the lens with the focal length point on the barrel you are using.
9. Set the ISO to either 800 or 1600 to start (experiment from there).
10. If your camera has mirror lock-up, use it (this will reduce vibration caused by the mirror).
11. Verify your exposure settings (I shoot at 30 seconds to avoid star movement and spiraling).
12. Press the start or release button.
13. Check your first frame for focus by zooming in on the LCD display screen and adjust if necessary.
If there’s ambient light in the frame, you may want to set the duration of the exposure shorter so that this area is correctly exposed. If there’s no ambient light to consider, a good base exposure is 30 seconds. At 30 to 45 seconds your star background will look like a night sky. Any longer and you begin to get blur in the stars as they rotate or spiral. The longer the exposure the more of Earth’s rotation you’re going to capture.
After shooting the first frame, check the focus. Infinity may not be perfectly on the mark for you, with your lens at wide-open. Adjust focus accordingly.
Then check the exposure. If you’re working with ambient light in the scene, adjust the length of the exposure accordingly to correct for it. Don’t change the aperture as this will prevent all but the brightest shooting star from leaving an impression on the sensor.
Once you’ve started shooting, you’ll want to watch your camera’s power closely. An unexpected power shut-off to the camera can trash your night by corrupting your memory card, so stay ahead of it.
Some more tips, plus dealing with cold weather. Be aware of where your tripod and camera are, and of where you are in relationship to other people, if they are present. I’ve seen more than one camera end up on the ground after someone tripped over a black tripod and black camera in the dark.
On the question of which file format to shoot, RAW or JPEG, RAW files are preferable from an editing standpoint but take up considerably more space on your memory card. Because you will be shooting a lot of frames, you will need to shoot JPEG if you have a limited amount of memory.
Cold temperatures will quickly kill your battery power. During last year’s Geminid meteor shower, the mercury in Maryland was hovering at 26 degrees. At cold temperatures, special attention needs to be given to insuring you’re prepared. Foremost, plan on running through batteries quickly. Batteries don’t hold a charge well when it’s below freezing. A lithium-ion battery will only last about 1.5 hours of near continuous shooting. A set of 6 AA’s will last 45 minutes if you are lucky. Keep the batteries tucked close to your body, inside your coat, to keep them warm.
Cold temperatures can also provide a challenge with frost on your lens filter. You can see this clearly on your LCD display as a haze or glow building up around the brighter stars in the frame. Do not use any kind of moisture or cleaning solution; it just freezes and makes things worse. Same with trying to use your breath. I’ve had limited success using a dry Norwex glass cloth but the best solution is to have a portable propane heater or other source of heat in the general area of the camera to keep temps above freezing.
The cold doesn’t just affect the batteries and filter. After several nights of freezing my buns off, I have started wearing several layers of clothes that include a down parka and thermal gloves. I’ve combined this with an insulated sleeping bag and a heating blanket tucked inside. I am lucky to have access to power where I shoot. Plan accordingly to stay warm. You could stay in your car if you are using an intervolameter, but I like being close to my hardware so I can check my power and lens often.
Shooting meteor showers during the summer months is a lot less complicated. Aside from the equipment all you’ll need is bug repellent … lots of bug repellent.
If you have any comments, suggestions or questions about the information posted here, please take the time to leave a comment here. Or email me directly at my website, SummersMagic.com, or visit me on Facebook. I’d love to help.
Based in Baltimore, Maryland and operating under the name SummersMagic Photography, Henry Shaw has had 20 years experience as a photojournalist and commercial photographer. He says he was originally fascinated with lightning, after receiving a challenge to capture a bolt with the Atlanta skyline some 30 years ago. It wasn’t until he and his wife became RVer’s, he says, that he became obsessed with shooting stars. Fortunately shooting lightning translates well technically for catching shooting stars.
Bottom line: How to capture a meteor on film.