When a meteor shower is coming up, have you thought of trying your hand at meteor photography? Here are some techniques to help you on your way.
Photographing meteors is relatively easy, with two big caveats: you need a “fast” lens — photography-speak for a wide-aperture lens that lets in a large amount of light — and luck. Long story short: the best way to shoot a meteor shower is with a fast, wide-angle lens on a DSLR camera mounted on a tripod, with a shutter-release cable and clear, dark skies. Read on for more advice ahead of this weekend's potential meteor shower.
The Right Stuff
Meteor photography is a bit different from nightscape photography or capturing auroras because, unlike the Milky Way and the Northern Lights, the typical meteor only blazes for a fraction of a second. Longer exposures won’t help you capture these quick flashes. Even moderately bright meteors of magnitude 2 or so will barely register when shooting with the standard f/3.5 zoom lens that commonly comes with DSLR cameras. To record most naked-eye meteors, you’ll want to use a fast, wide-angle lens, such as an 18-mm f/2 lens, and a high ISO value (800 or greater).
That’s not to say you can’t get anything with a point-and-shoot camera. Most pocket cameras do not have lenses as photographically “fast” as what’s available for DSLR cameras. But if your pocket camera meets these requirements, then go for it! Even a slower lens should still catch the brightest meteors, if not the fainter ones. Two capabilities you’ll need for sure, though, are sequential shooting (often a setting on your camera that looks like three overlapping rectangles) and the ability to keep the shutter open for longer than a few seconds.
Tracking isn’t necessary for meteor photography because even 30-second exposures will not trail stars objectionably if you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens. Still, mounting your cameras on a tracking head will allow you to combine all your meteor shots into a single composite, which is how the experts create deep images with dozens of meteors.
Catching the Big One
Part of meteor showers’ allure is their transience, but that also means you can’t predict where any given meteor will appear. So many successful meteor photographers use more than one camera, aiming each one at a different sky location to ensure they don’t miss “the big one.”
If you aim at the radiant (the point in the sky where the meteors all trace back to), you’ll capture mostly short streaks and occasional “head-on” meteors that appear like a star winking in and out. But the best shooting stars are often seen about 90º away from the radiant, where they appear as long trails or multiple flashes. The very rare trail might remain for a few minutes. The trick is to point your camera and then leave it there —resist the temptation to chase after meteors around the sky.
For your best chances at catching meteors, choose a dark location far from city lights. A picturesque foreground can only add to the appeal of your night’s work. Clear skies and good luck!
Want to try your hand at other types of astrophotography? Check out our free astrophotography ebook, Sky & Telescope's Astrophotography Primer, for tips and techniques on getting started in all types of astrophotography.