The Perseid meteor shower is possibly the best meteor shower of the year. It takes place from mid-July to near the end of August, so it’s usually met with warm summer nights in the northern hemisphere. It can have a peak rate of 100 or more meteors per hour. And the Perseids tend to be fast, bright, and often make long streaks across the sky. NASA has determined that the Perseid shower has more bright meteors than any other one. Those reasons make it a top contender for the best meteor shower of the year. And it’s an excellent one for meteor photography. And you might be surprised to see you probably have everything you need to photograph meteors. Read on to see how to photography meteors.
This year’s Perseid shower peaks on the night of Tuesday, August 11, and the morning of the 12th. Unfortunately, there is a quarter Moon visible on the latter half of that night. That means you’ll want to photograph from the end of astronomical twilight until a bit before the Moon rises. So start shooting around 10 PM and continue until the Moon is about to rise.
Meteor showers are notoriously hard to predict. While peak times for other meteor showers usually only last a few hours, with the Perseids, there is an excellent chance to see numerous meteors on the nights that surround the peak time. There will be fewer meteors, but you might want to plan on photographing the Perseids on the nights of the 12th or 13th. The Moon will also rise later on each following night, just before 1 AM on Aug 12th and about 1:30 AM on the 13th. Keep in mind – you can still shoot after the Moon rises. It’s just that the dimmer meteors will not stand out as much. But the bright ones will always look spectacular!
Meteor showers radiate from a particular part of the sky. That is, for each meteor shower, all the meteors appear to come from the same area of the sky. For the Perseid meteor shower, look for them to stream out from the constellation Perseus. You don’t know where that is, that’s OK. I don’t really either! But I do know Perseus is right next to the constellation Cassiopeia, which is easy to find.
So look to the Northeast and find the big “W” shape near the Little Dipper – that’s the constellation Cassiopeia. It’s right above Perseus. You don’t need to aim your camera there, that’s simply where the meteors will appear to originate. They will streak across the sky away from Perseus.
Meteor Photography is actually not difficult. You’ll want a camera with manual settings, a fast lens with a wide field of view, a tripod, and an intervalometer to trigger the camera. But let us look at where to shoot from first.
Where Should I Shoot?
Find as dark of a location as you can, as you’ll see more meteors with darker skies. Any spot with an open view will work well. You may not be able to photography the entire sky at once, but it will make your viewing experience more enjoyable! If you need help finding a dark sky, check out DarkSkyFinder.com. You can zoom in to locations near you for photographing meteors.
There’s a couple of options on where to aim your camera. Look for a foreground subject that will add interest to your photo. Like with other types of night photography, an interesting or exciting foreground makes your image stronger. If you have a really wide lens, try including the radiant point in the camera’s view. You may show the meteors streaking out of the radiant. Another option is to aim your camera overhead; you may catch more meteors by photographing a large area of sky.
Then put your camera on the tripod and put on a fast and wide lens. Don’t wait until it’s dark – you can have your camera set up and ready to go before dark.
Bring an extra battery, maybe two. Your camera will probably run for a couple of hours of non-stop shooting, but you may want to shoot longer, especially if you’re enjoying the celestial fireworks!
Set your camera to shoot RAW files. If you want to shoot, JPG+RAW, that’s fine, make sure you have RAW set. Make sure you have an empty memory card in your camera. Shooting images continuously, even with an interval of 30+ seconds, will fill up smaller memory cards fast! Put a 64 Gig card, or bring a couple of 32 gig cards with you.
Connect an intervalometer to your camera. You don’t even need to program it for shooting intervals or a time-lapse. Just set it for continuous shooting. A simple wired remote will work great for this. Some have a locking shutter release button. If you have one built into your camera, go ahead and use it.
Adjust your ISO to 1600.
Lenses and Focus
Use a 24mm or wider on full-frame (16mm for APS-C). Ideally, you want to have an f/2.0 or faster lens. You can get by with f/2.8, but you will capture fewer meteors. Then set it to its widest aperture; maybe stop down a half stop to sharpen stars in the corners of your image. If all you have is an f/2.8 lens, like a 35mm or 16mm, go ahead and use it. You will still be able to capture the brighter meteors.
If you are shooting anywhere except the desert – you’ll want a lens warmer. It’s a fabric device that has a USB-powered heater inside. You wrap it around your glass and fasten the heater on with the Velcro strap. Make sure the heater doesn’t block access to any of your lens controls.
Lens heaters work well, and you really will need one sooner or later. In a pinch, you can rubber band a chemical hand warmer to your lens. You might want to bring a small microfiber towel to wipe up any moisture that collects on the outside of your camera as the night progresses.
Turn off your autofocus. You don’t want to have your camera accidentally refocus. Now manually focus on the stars. Don’t trust the infinity setting on your lens; actually, focus on a bright star. Take a couple of test shots to make sure you’ve nailed the focus!
If you are shooting with a DSLR, you will want to block your camera viewfinder to keep stray light from striking the sensor. Mirrorless users, don’t worry, you don’t need to do this.
Use an app like PhotoPills to check the maximum exposure time for sharp stars for your lens and camera. For a 24mm on full-frame, you’ll probably need to use a time that’s 20 seconds or less. Zoom in on your test shots and check for star streaks.
Then take some test shots at 10, 15, 20, and 30 seconds. Look at the histogram for each shot. Use the exposure time that places the hump on the histogram about 1/3rd from the left side. Don’t use one that’s too far to the middle, as you’ll blow out the sky in your images.
Check Your Histogram
If the hump of your histogram is not about 1/3rd from the left with the shutter speed you need, then you may want to bump up your ISO. You usually don’t need to go too high, as we don’t want to wash out any color that may be present. So resist the urge to use a high ISO. If your skies are relatively bright, and your histogram is near or above the middle of the histogram, go ahead and drop it a little.
The thing to remember is shutter speed will not affect the brightness of a meteor on your image. ISO and f-stop do, but not shutter speed. Set your shutter speed to control the sharpness of the stars, leave your f-stop open as much as possible to let as much light from the meteor into your camera, and use the ISO to control the histogram. Simples.
Ooh, here’s my favorite part – set your intervalometer to shoot shot after shot after shot, and let it go! Now it’s just a matter of luck getting a bright meteor to pass right in front of your camera!!
Enjoy the Night
Bring a lawn chair, a blanket, or sleeping bag, and something warm to drink. (And don’t forget the bug spray.) Then lay back and watch the show as your camera shoots away. Bring a friend to share in the excitement of seeing a really bright fireball!
You can start looking for meteors shortly after twilight ends. You have a better chance of seeing “earthgrazers” early in the night. Earthgrazers make long streaks as they skim across the thinner upper atmosphere. Perseids can also be colorful and leave long trails in the sky as they burn up.
Fireballs are also known for “fireballs.” Fireballs are brighter than regular meteors and can glow longer than a regular meteor streak as well.
Even if the Moon is up, it can still be worthwhile to watch for more meteors. Like glare from the sun during the daytime, glare from the Moon can make it hard to see the meteors. Look in a direction away from where the Moon. Also, you can place a building or a few trees between you and the Moon.
As the night proceeds, the radiant will rise higher. This will help produce more meteors across the sky as the dawn approaches.
Keep in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. You don’t need to concentrate on looking at the radiant. Look into the darkest area of the sky for your location. A few nights ago, I saw a Perseid meteor that was traveling perpendicular to the radiant. But it might have been a Perseid – it was bright and had a very long trail.
Later, after you’ve caught up on your sleep, look through your photos. Hopefully, you caught some good ones. If it’s a good shower and you’ve captured numerous meteors, you can blend them onto one image. It makes a cool photo, and you will probably see that the meteors actually do radiate from one location in the sky.
My Meteor Shower Gear
My Milky Way shooting gear is similar to what I use to for meteor photography. I plan to use my Sony mirrorless cameras this year, both full-frame and APS-C.
- Sony a7 III – 24 MPixel Full-Frame Camera. I typically use it to shoot various compositions through the night as I let both my a6300 shoot time-lapses. For meter photography, I’m going to set the a7III up and let it shoot away to increase my chance of catching a meteor.
- Sony a6300 – 24 MPixel APS-C camera. I have two, and they are my goto cameras for shooting time-lapses. The a6300 has been superseded by the a6400.
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM ART – This is my nicest, widest lens. It’s going on the a7III.
- Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 16M-E – this will go on one a6300. It’s equivalent to 24mm on full-frame when on my APS-C cameras.
- Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS – this will go on the other APS-C a6300. I think I’ll aim this one up towards the sky.
- FEISOL Tournament Tripod CT-3342 Rapid – My one carbon tripod. The rest of my tripods are aluminum Manfrotto/Bogens from the 90s.
- Feisol LB-7567 Leveling Base for CT-3342, 3442 Tripods – Stop wasting your time getting your tripod level by adjusting the legs. Use this instead.
- Benro 3-Way Geared Head (GD3WH) – Stop wasting time with a ball head trying to get your camera level. Use this instead.
- SanDisk 64GB Extreme SDXC UHS-I Card – I can get over 2000 images on these with my a6300 24 Mpix cameras.
- Black Diamond Storm Headlamp – Works great!
- PROTAGE Condensation Prevention /Lens Heater / Dew Remover USB P-LH02 – This item keeps moisture from condensing on your lens.
- Neewer 2 Pack Black Heavy Duty Photographic Studio Video SandBag – I don’t usually put rocks in these, but I use it to hold my batteries and cell phone.
- Sony NPFZ100 Z-series Rechargeable Battery Pack for Alpha A7 III, A7R III, A9 Digital Cameras
- Case Relay USB Dummy Battery – Power your camera for hours with an external USB battery pack. You’ll need a dummy battery for your camera to go with it – here’s an AC charger that has a Sony NP-FW50 dummy battery adapter.
- New Version AC-PW20 Dual USB Power Adapter DC Coupler Replacement NP-FW50 – this device is the only way I’ve figured out to get un-ending power for my Sony cameras. It runs until the battery pack is dead.
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Happy Meteor Photographing
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