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How to Photograph a Meteor Shower

Photographing the night sky is not only about the Moon, planets, stars, deep sky objects or the Milky Way. Comets and meteors are also some inspiring objects worth photographing.
This article will show you how to photograph meteor showers so you can get started with meteor photography.

What Are Meteors And When Can You Photograph Them

Meteors are space debris that burn up in the atmosphere when falling to Earth. While burning up, they leave behind a light trail across the sky.
Extremely bright meteors are called Bolide meteors.

A Bolide meteor photographed near Brussels. How to photograph a meteor shower
A Bolide meteor photographed near Brussels. Credit: Bart Declercq.

If the meteor is large enough to make it to the ground, then what remains is called a meteorite.
Meteorites can scar the landscape, like in the case of Meteor Crater in Arizona. Created some 50,000 years ago from a 50 m impactor, it’s more than 1 km wide in diameter and 170 m deep.
Luckily for us, these are very rare events, even in geological terms.
The famous Meteor Crater, in Arizona (US). meteor photography
The famous Meteor Crater, in Arizona (US). Image Credit Wikipedia.

More often, meteorites are found on the ground in the form of small iron-rich rocks. As a curiosity, the best hunting ground for them is Antarctica. They are easily spotted on the icy ground.
Meteorites fall on all bodies in the solar system and are responsible, for instance, for the many craters that make the Moon such an interesting object to photograph.
A stunning close up photo of the moon - astrophotography tips
The battered surface of the Moon is the results of billion of years of meteorite impacts.

On Earth, meteors fall all year long, but they are more frequent during certain days of the year, when Earth crosses some “busy” parts of the solar system in its orbit.
Those periods are known as meteor showers. There are nine main showers in the year, named after the constellation where they seems to originate from:

  • Quadrantis (Begin January);
  • Lyrids (End April);
  • Eta Aquaridis (Begin May);
  • Perseid (Mid August, may be the most famous one);
  • Draconis (Begin October);
  • Orionidis (End October);
  • Geminids (Mid December);
  • Ursidis (End December);

The exact dates change from year to year. Check this calendar to see when the peak occurs.

Calendar of the meteor showers for 2019. Credit (https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/meteor-shower/list.html).
Calendar of the meteor showers for 2019. Credit (https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/meteor-shower/list.html).

How to Photograph a Meteor Shower

Photographing a meteor shower is a bit of a hit and miss process, Most meteors are small and their trail lasts only for fractions of seconds.
You can’t really hope to photograph them by triggering your shutter when you see the trail. I can’t even wish upon them that fast.
But the technique is fairly straightforward. Frame the right part of the sky (called quadrant), take many long exposures of the sky and hope for the best.

What Equipment Do You Need to Photograph a Meteor Shower?

Meteor photography does not require much in terms of equipment. Mount your camera on a tripod and grab a wide angle lens or, even better, a fisheye lens. These will help you frame most of the sky, particularly if you have a crop sensor camera.
The tripod should be a solid one. If your camera does not have a built-in intervalometer, a remote shutter/intervalometer is a must have. It will automate the process of taking a long series of images one after the other.
If you are imaging in a cold and humid environment, you should use a lens heater strip powered with a power pack or place an hand warmer on the lens with a rubber band. By slightly heating up the front element of your lens, you will prevent dew forming on the lens.
Finally, ensure you have a high capacity memory card to store your images and that your battery is fully charged.
For long sessions in cold weather, keep a spare battery in your pocket, so that it stays warm, and swap the two regularly.

Camera Settings

For meteor photography, we can use the same settings as for star photography. Let’s detail those a bit more.

Exposure Time

Photographing meteors is no different than photographing stars. You need a fast lens to collect as much star light as possible in a relatively short period of time, especially if you are photographing from a fixed tripod.
You don’t want star trails. If you are imaging from a fixed tripod, you should calculate your maximum exposure time using the 500 rule.
ET=500/(CF*FL)
ET is the maximum exposure time (in seconds) before stars will trail noticeable.
CF is your sensor crop factor (1.6 for Canon APS-C, 1.5 for Nikon APS-C and @ for micro four-thirds cameras). And FL is the focal length of your lens in mm.
The image below was taken with my Olympus EPL-6 MFT camera and Samyang 7.5 f/3.5 fisheye lens. My exposure time was, therefore, 500/(7.5*2)=33 sec. I used 30 seconds to be more conservative.
You can see stars are round and that the fisheye allows to pack in the frame a lot of interesting targets.

A small chapel near the Belgian town of Busval make the perfect foreground for a fisheye astrophotography.
A small chapel near the Belgian town of Busval makes the perfect foreground for fisheye astrophotography.

In the image above I was lucky enough to get one meteor, visible next to the chapel steeple, right below the Great Orion Nebula, or M42.

ISO and Aperture

As per the ISO value to use, a value around ISO 1600 is a good starting. Use the widest aperture possible, but be careful. Many fast lenses can exhibit quite strong comatic and chromatic aberration when used wide open.
In this case, it is better to close your lens a little, at least to avoid coma, which is more difficult to correct in post processing.

Image Stabilisation and Auto Focus

Your camera is sitting on a tripod so you can disable the image stabilisation. Certain cameras will try to compensate movement that is not there, thus blurring your photo.

An architecture photographed at night, blurry due to camera motion blur
This motion blurred came from the camera trying to compensate for non-existent movements. This effect was systematically there in all the images I took before realising my mistake.

Autofocus will also not be of any help. Just disable it and manual focus on a bright star. Use the magnification focus aid on your live view screen to help you focus.
Look for the classic signs that your star is in focus:

  1. Chromatic aberration is at its minimum;
  2. The star size is at its minimum;
  3. More faint stars are visible on the screen.

You can also try to place a kitchen sieve in front of the lens and look for a sharp diffraction pattern around the star.

Strong and sharp diffraction patterns from a kitchen sieve placed in front the lens - meteor shower photography tips
Strong and sharp diffraction patterns from a kitchen sieve placed in front the lens will appear when your image is in focus.

Location and Composition Tips

Most meteors leave only faint trails. A dark location will maximise your chances of capturing more of them.
As for the composition, if you are using a wide angle lens, you will probably include some foreground. Unless you are going for all sky photography.
When you have the foreground in the frame,  you should ensure it is an interesting one. This could be a building, a lone tree, or yourself.
Be sure to frame the area of the sky from where the meteor shower originates. If you look at that spot sideways, you will have the meteor crossing the sky from side to side.
If you can frame it so that it is in front of you, then you will have the meteors coming towards you. This will add a 3D feeling to the image.

Perseids meteor shower.
Perseids meteor shower. Image credit: Nasa/JPL

All Sky Photography

All sky photography is a kind of photography where you use a fisheye lens to frame only the sky. From horizon to horizon.

All sky photography. Image credit: how to photograph meteor showers
All sky photography. Image credit: Bart Declercq.

Traditionally this is done with an astro camera fitted with a fisheye lens, placed under a plexiglass dome and connected to a computer.
You can achieve a similar result with your camera and a fisheye lens aimed at the Zenith.

Stacking Frames for Meteor Photography

Despite the name, meteors will still be a rare event during a meteor shower. A good one can peak at 60/70 meteors per hour. But many can be so faint that light pollution renders them invisible.
Be prepared to stay in the field for some hours.
If you want to improve your odds to photograph meteors and if you cannot get many meteors in your single exposures, stack them together to obtain something like the image below.

A nice nocturnal landscape showing many meteors coming towards the photograph, adding a 3D feeling to the image
A nice nocturnal landscape showing many meteors coming towards the photograph, adding a 3D feeling to the image. Image credit: David Kingham.

When Is a Meteor Not a Meteor?

It is easy to spot a meteor in the field, but once you are home reviewing your images, you can be unsure whether a light trail in the sky is a meteor or not.
Other possible sources of light trails in the night sky are planes, satellites, and the ISS (International Space Station).
Planes are easy to identify as their trail is not continuous. It’s a series of dots and you can even see the red and green light.
If the plane is approaching an airport, it will be low and its strong front light can be on. This will leave a very obvious trail.

My M42 images was photobombed by a plane approaching Brussels International airport.
My M42 images were photobombed by a plane approaching Brussels International airport.

Satellites are rather faint and, being much higher than planes, leave a very short trail on your frame.
A trail from a meteor will only appear in a couple of frames at most. In the case of satellites, planes, and ISS, you will be able to track their path across multiple frames. This is regardless of the exposure time used.
Two small trails from artificial satellites are barely visible in this shot from my series on M42.
Two small trails from artificial satellites are barely visible in this shot from my series on M42.

Conclusion

If you are after something different with night photography, particularly if you want to make your nocturnal landscapes unique, check out the next meteor shower and get out there.
With these tips, you’ll have every chance of coming home with some great images.

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