Meteors are difficult and challenging to capture photographically. They are typically dim, there is no advanced warning of when and / or where they will appear, and except during meteor showers they are rare. So what do you need and how do you capture these elusive streaks of light in the night sky?
Here are the requirements and tricks we’ve learned over the years.
What do you need?
To photograph meteors you need a camera that allows you to take long exposures, especially one with a “bulb” setting. Extended exposures are needed to allow the dim light of the stars to build up on the film / CCD imager and it gives more opportunity for a meteor to appear and travel across the frame. Point-and-shoot type cameras can’t be practically used to photograph meteors.
You will also need a tripod or other sturdy place to mount the camera for the extended shots.
A remote camera trigger or a delay timer to prevent camera shake when triggering the photo is a plus.
Exposure Length and Settings
To give your camera the best chance of catching faint meteors you’ll want to use higher ISO settings, however higher ISO settings can mean more noise in your image. I recommend using the highest or better the second highest ISO setting, to reduce noise, (i.e. 3200, 1600, 800) when you are under dark skies. If you are under bright moon or city lights than a middle setting is better (i.e. 800, 400). We also recommend setting your f/stop one step from being fully open (i.e. 4.5 instead of 3.2), this lets as much light as possible into the camera while helping to eliminate errors created at the very outer edges of a lens.
The length of your exposures may be a matter of trial and error. However, to have the best opportunity to catch a meteor you want your exposure length to be as long as possible (typically 30 sec.). This is why we recommend using lower ISO settings (i.e. 800, 400 vs. 1600) under bright moon or city lights.
The other consideration with exposure length is star trails. As you photograph the stars, the spinning Earth will make the stars appear to trail. The amount of trail depends on how long you leave the shutter open and how much you magnify or how much you zoom your lens has. Star trailing can add a beautiful element to your image, especially if you have objects or landscapes in the foreground or it can be something you wish to avoid. You can avoid trails with shorter exposures or wider-angle lenses. The other option is to put it on a mount or telescope which has a drive to track the stars.
Without Star Trails
If you don’t want star trails then using the advice above you’ll want to experiment with various settings and lenses to find the lens/exposure you want to go with. Then set the camera up to start taking exposures over and over again. For example I’ll get the camera setup with 30 second exposures, then using a cable release, i’ll start it at 10pm and let it go unattended for 2 or 3 hours taking 30 sec. exposure after 30 sec. exposure. When I’m done I’ll have 100-200 images to go through and if I’m lucky I’ll have good meteors in 2 or 3 of the images. (plus a lot airplanes and satellites!)
With Star Trails
If you want star trails in your image, this is where the bulb setting on the camera is used. Once you have the camera aimed and set you start the exposure and let it run for an hour or more depending on light conditions. If the Moon is out or you are within the city, you may only be able to run the exposure for only a few minutes before the image is washed out. If you are under a dark sky, you can extend the photograph for an hour or more. Just make sure your camera is on a firm mount and it is protected from the wind. These can make for beautiful shots, but if you’re doing hour long photos you’ll only get a couple shots a night.
Which lens you use is a matter of trade off. If you use a wide-field lens you are looking at a much larger area of sky and thus the chances of catching a meteor is greater. The trade-off is the meteors will appear dimmer and smaller in the image vs. if it had been taken with a close-up lens. It will also not catch dimmer meteors. Conversely, if you use a telephoto lens that covers a much smaller area of sky you can catch dimmer meteors and they will appear to have longer tracks across the frame. Of course, since your covering less sky there is less chance of catching one and greater chance when you do it’ll track out of the frame.
Where to Aim Your Camera
This is where your creativity comes in. The first two tips below apply only when there is an active meteor shower. There are an infinite number of possibilities, but a few things to consider:
Radiant – The radiant is the area of sky where the meteors in a meteor shower appear to come from. If a meteor is coming straight at you, it will appear as a pinpoint or a single flash in the sky. The farther away from the radiant you look, the more you’re looking at a side view and the longer the meteor will appear. If you aim at the radiant the meteors will appear shorter, but there is a greater chance of catching one and they will appear to ‘radiate’ or shot out in different directions from that central point.
Away from the Radiant – As discussed above, the farther away from the radiant you aim your camera the longer the meteor streaks will appear to be.
Constellation – One common technique is to frame a familiar constellation (such as Orion or the Big Dipper) in the image and try to catch a meteor flying through your favorite star group.
Foreground – Using a wide-field lens, put a familiar or landmark object in the foreground and catch an image of this object with the stars and a meteor in the background.
Last Minute Tips
- Moonlight – Try to aim away from the Moon if it is up, although, if it is, you can use it to effectively light up foreground objects in an extended exposure.
- Practice your technique a couple of nights before the peak of a meteor shower. This allows you to learn before the shower and since most meteor showers produce meteors a couple of nights before their peak, you might also catch one!
- Make sure your batteries are fully charged. They are typically working under cool / cold night time air and this can drain them faster.
- Turn off the display screen on your camera. If you are going to leave your camera to shot exposure after exposure the image preview that comes on after the photo is taken can create a gap before the next one starts and since the screen comes on it will drain your battery faster.
- Dew. If it is a moist night dew can build up on your lens and destroy your photos. You need to keep the lens warm to keep this from happening. Their are products you can buy to help with this and there are homemade remedies. In a pinch I’ve used a hair dryer to blow warm air onto the lens. Just be careful not to get the hair dryer to close to the lens as too much heat can ruin them. Here is a great article on Dealing with Dew.