The Geminid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year. The 2020 shower peak should occur during the early evening hours of December 13th for North America. The Geminids have a maximum hourly rate of 120, which tops all other meteor showers. And this year, it happens during a new moon, making it a must-see event.
The Geminids appear different than August’s more popular Perseid shower. Perseid meteors are quick and often gone in a flash. Geminids enter Earth’s atmosphere about 40% slower than the Perseids, giving you a better chance to see them. Best of all, the Geminids often make long, intensely colored streaks as they cross the sky. Some even leave smoke trains high in the sky that persist for several minutes, twisting into unusual shapes as they dissipate.
Photographing the Geminid Meteor Shower
All that makes the Geminid shower excellent for meteor watching and photography. You probably have everything you need to photograph the Geminid meteors. Read on to see how to best photograph them.
When to View the Geminid Meteors
The Geminid shower is active from December 4th to 17th. This year, the peak is forecasted to occur at around 1h UTC on December 14th. For North America, that puts it early in the evening of Sunday, December 13th – that is 8:00 PM EST and 5:00 PM PST.
The Geminids typically remain at peak strength for about 8 hours, both before and after the maximum happens. That means viewing should be relatively good for Europe as well as East Asia. Southern Hemisphere viewers still have the opportunity for a good show.
If expecting clouds in your area on December 13th, go out one or two nights before. The Geminid shower builds for several days before the peak. There will be fewer meteors, but the hourly rate can still be above 50 during those two nights, which would be excellent for any meteor shower. Sadly, after the shower peaks, counts drop off quickly over the next day.
Up All Night
Meteors can appear at any time of the night. Most meteor showers tend to be best after midnight when the radiant is high in the sky. But the Geminids should be plentiful from mid-evening until dawn. So, you may want to start shooting around 8 PM.
Where to Look for the Geminids
Meteor showers happen when Earth passes through a stream of particles left behind by a comet, or in the case of the Geminids, an asteroid. That causes each meteor shower to radiate from a particular area of the sky. For the Geminid shower, they appear to stream out from the constellation Gemini.
If you do not know where that is, that is OK. I did not either! Fortunately, Gemini is right next to the easily recognized constellation Orion. The stars of Orion are bright so that they are visible even in urban areas.
Mid-December, Orion rises well above the eastern horizon by 9 PM. Follow an imaginary line from bluish Rigel, the star at Orion’s right foot, through reddish Betelgeuse, in his left shoulder, towards the bright and golden-hued star, Pollux. The Geminid radiant just a little above Pollux in the sky.
Planning apps like PlanIt Pro for Photographers and PhotoPills can help determine where the Geminid meteor shower radiant will be for your location. Both apps are available for Android or iOS, and they cost around US$10. PlanIt Pro is my go-to landscape photography planning app. But I recommend getting PhotoPills, too, as it has some features I regularly use.
Finding Meteor Showers with PlanIt Pro
To find the Geminid meteor shower radiant in PlanIt Pro for Photographers, begin by swiping down from the top of the screen. That opens the Ephemeris Features. Look for the Meteor Shower icon – it’s the fourth one listed on the Night Photography row. Tap it, and you’ll see the meteor shower info right above the map. If you tap in that area, a list of upcoming meteor showers is listed mostly by order of the expected peak hourly rate. Geminids will be near the top of the list. Tap on Geminids, and it returns you to the map display.
At this point, PlanIt Pro still has whatever date you had displayed before you selected the Geminid shower. In the second line of the shower info, the peak date is given. Do a long press on that date, and the timeline will change to the peak date. Scroll the timeline into the night. You’ll see a yellow line with a meteor radiant icon on it appear on the map. It shows you the compass direction, as well as the elevation of the radiant.
You’ll be able to see the meteor shower icon in both PlanIt Pro’s Augmented (AR) and Virtual (VR) Reality displays. PlanIt Pro’s Virtual Reality mode is the killer feature that makes PlanIt Pro my go-to landscape photography planning app. In the VR mode, you can see where the radiant will appear in your camera’s viewfinder.
To see it, center the map on your shooting location and tap the Plus sign to add a camera pin at that location. Swipe the timeline, the position the meteor shower icon will move across the landscape. Then drag the green viewfinder area to include the shower icon. Then press the Camera Frame icon in the lower right corner of the map and select Viewfinder (VR). The VR mode will now render what your composition will look like from the camera pin location. You may need to drag the VR display up and down some or change the Focal Length and Landscape/Portrait settings to see the radiant. Being able to see your composition before even getting into the field is PlanIt Pro’s “killer feature.”
Finding Meteor Showers with PhotoPills
To find the Geminid meteor shower radiant in PhotoPills, enter the planner screen and add a pin for your shooting location. Then, swipe the toolbar at the top of the screen until you reach the Meteor Shower tool. The first time you use this tool, it will probably tell you the “No meteor shower is loaded.” Tap on the button, and you’ll be presented with a list of meteor showers. Scroll until you find “Geminids” along with the dates for that shower. A blue bar to the left of the shower name shows you the expected shower strength. Tap on the listing for Geminids, and PhotoPills returns you to the Planner screen.
Look close at the timeline – PhotoPills automatically advances you to that shower’s expected peak time. It also places an icon on the timeline. The icon is a black circle with 4 streaking meteors depicted in it. It also adds a grey line, identified with the icon, on the map. This line shows the compass direction of the radiant. When you scroll the timeline, the direction of the radiant line will change. The meteor shower icon on the line will also change position, denoting the radiant’s elevation. PhotoPills actually plots a curved line on the map with a series of dots on it. These dots show where the radiant will be as the night progresses. And you can also see where the Moon will be by looking for the blue circle on the timeline or the map’s blue line.
PhotoPills has one nice feature for planning meteor showers. On the bottom of the timeline, there is a grey area. The grey is a plot of the relative number of predicted visible meteors for that night. The grey plot increases as the radiant rises in the sky. But as the Moon rises, the plot shows how moonlight will decrease the count.
And of course, the shower radiant is shown in PhotoPills Night AR function.
Where to Photograph the Geminid Meteors
You can watch and photograph meteors from many places. Find a dark location with a wide-open viewing area like a field, a lakeshore, or a ridge clear of trees. You do not need to see the entire sky at once, but it can make your viewing experience more enjoyable! State or local parks can be an option, but make sure they are open after dusk. National parks are almost always open and often have dark skies.
Most Important – Dark Skies
Dark skies are a meteor photographer’s best friend. While brighter meteors are visible from any location, you will see more meteors with darker skies. So, find a place away from city light. Darkskyfinder.com has an excellent map to help locate a dark sky site near you.
What to Bring
One nice thing about photographing meteors is you can set your camera up, turn on your intervalometer, and then you can enjoy the show. We will look at camera gear in a second, but first, let’s think about photographing in cold temps. And December nights in the Northern Hemisphere can be chilly!
There’s nothing worse than freezing while trying to photograph and enjoy the shower. Dress warmly in layers so that you can adjust your temperature. Consider hand and foot warmers. Just bring enough clothes that you’ll stay warm. A thermos full of a hot drink can help keep you warm.
Once you get your camera running, it’s time to watch for meteors. Have a blanket to lay on, or better yet, a lawn chair, so you can comfortably lean back and look for meteors. A warm sleeping bag to snuggle in can make the difference between a good night and a great night. You may also want to bring binoculars so you can explore the night sky.
Getting Ready to Photograph the Geminids
Meteor photography is not difficult. You aim your camera at the sky and let it shoot away! You want a camera with manual settings, a fast lens with a wide field of view, a sturdy tripod, and an intervalometer to trigger the camera.
Bring an extra battery, maybe two, as they do not last as long in cold temperatures. Your camera will probably run for a couple of hours of non-stop shooting. But you may want to shoot longer, especially if you are enjoying the celestial fireworks!
Make sure you have an empty memory card in your camera. Shooting images continuously with an intervalometer, even with 30-second exposures, will fill up smaller memory cards fast! Put a 64 Gig card or bring a couple of 32 gig cards with you.
If you are shooting anywhere but the desert or in sub-freezing temps – you may want a lens warmer. It is a fabric device that has a USB-powered heater inside. You wrap it around your glass and fasten the heater with the Velcro strap. Ensure the heater does not block access to any of your lens controls or block your lens’ view.
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 also want to bring a small microfiber towel to wipe up any moisture that collects on the outside of your camera as the night progresses.
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Compositions for Meteor Photos
Even though meteors radiate from Gemini, generally, fewer meteors are seen there. So, you may not want to aim your camera there. Since they will streak across the sky away from Gemini, try framing Gemini at the edge of your camera’s field of view.
Orion can make an excellent, recognizable backdrop for meteor photos. Consider placing Orion on the right side of your viewfinder. With a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, the radiant falls on the frame’s left edge.
With an ultra-wide lens, try including the radiant point in the center of the camera view. If you composite the photos, you can show them streaking out of the radiant. Or try the part of the sky opposite the radiant to show the stars streaking into the distance. Another option is to aim your camera overhead; you may catch more meteors by photographing a large sky area.
There are many options for 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.
Tracker or No Tracker
A star tracker lets your camera follow a particular area of the sky. You can track Orion and composite the images. It will reduce noise in your finished photo and allow you to combine all the meteors you captured into one image.
Camera Settings for Meteors
Place your camera on the tripod and put on a fast and wide lens. You do not have to wait until it is completely dark – you can have your camera set up and ready to go before dark. You could take this opportunity to do a day-to-night “Holy Grail” timelapse.
Put your camera into Manual Mode. Set your camera to shoot RAW files. If you want to shoot JPG+RAW, that is fine; make sure you have RAW set. You want RAW files for processing your images.
Turn off AutoFocus for your lens. You will want to focus manually and not use AF. Also, turn off Long-Exposure Noise Reduction.
Connect an intervalometer to your camera. You do not 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.
If you are shooting with a DSLR, you will want to block your camera’s optical viewfinder to keep stray light from striking the sensor. Do this after you get your camera set up and are ready to start your intervalometer. Mirrorless users do not need to do this.
Lenses and Focus
Use a 24mm or wider-angle lens on a full-frame camera (16mm or shorter 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. Lenses slower than f/2.8 will diminish your chances of catching meteors.
Set your lens 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 or f/4 lens, go ahead give it a try. You can bump the ISO to 3200 to capture the brighter meteors.
Place the lens warmer on your lens before focusing. You risk bumping the focus if you try to put it on after focusing.
Focusing on Meteor Showers
Turn off autofocus. You do not want your camera accidentally refocusing. Now manually focus on a star or bright planet. Do not trust the infinity setting on your lens; actually, focus on a bright star. Take a couple of test shots to make sure you have nailed the focus!
When photographing meteors, it’s essential to know that shutter speed does not affect the meteors’ brightness. ISO and aperture do, but not shutter speed. And we do not want to set the ISO too high. That may overexpose the brighter meteors and reduce your chance of capturing any color in them. So we will initially set your lens f/stop, pick an ISO, and then take a test shot.
You’ll want to photograph with your lens wide open to capture the most meteors in your photos. If you need to stop your lens down for sharpness, try only to stop it down one f/stop. Remember that meteors, while bright, move quickly, so you want to let as much light hit your sensor as possible.
Pick your ISO setting based on your lens f/stop setting. Try the following:
- f/1.4, use ISO 1600
- f/2.0, use ISO 3200
- f/2.8, use ISO 6400
You need to decide if you want your stars to appear as sharp points of light or streaks for meteor photography. The focal length of your lens dictates how much time this takes.
Use an app like PhotoPills to determine the maximum exposure time for sharp stars for your lens and camera. Look in the Point Stars pill. For a 24mm on full-frame, you will probably need to use 10 to 25 seconds. Zoom in on your test shots and check for star streaks.
If you want your stars to streak, use a shutter speed longer than the Point Stars time. You may be able to use an exposure time two or more times longer.
Check Your Histogram
Take a test shot. Look at the histogram for your test image. You want to use an exposure time that places the hump about 1/3rd of the way from the histogram’s left edge. Do not let the hump get too far to the middle, as you will blow out the sky in your images.
Resist the urge to use raise your ISO too much. You do not want to wash out any color present in the meteor streaks. If your skies are relatively bright and your histogram is near or above the histogram center, use a shorter shutter speed instead of a lower ISO.
Remember that shutter speed does not affect the brightness of any meteors in your image. ISO and f-stop do, but not shutter speed. Set your shutter speed to control the stars’ sharpness and where the histogram hump falls. Leave your f-stop open as much as possible. Then use a combination of shutter speed first, then ISO if needed, to control the histogram. Simples!
You may want to use a more prolonged exposure to capture your foreground. Try one that’s about 2 or 4 times longer than your sky exposure. You can then use this image to blend in with your sky exposures.
Fire at Will
Finally, double-check your focus at this point. And here is my favorite part – set your intervalometer to shoot shot after shot after shot with the smallest gap between photos. And then let it go! Now it is up to the Fates to get a bright meteor to pass right in front of your camera!!
Enjoy the Night
Remember your lawn chair, blanket or sleeping bag, and something warm to drink. Then lay back and watch the show as your camera shoots away. Since Geminids happen during the evening, it can be an excellent opportunity for young people to experience a fantastic meteor shower.
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.
The Geminid meteor shower is also known for “fireballs.” Fireballs are brighter than regular meteors and can glow longer than a regular meteor streak as well. Geminids can also be colorful, often with a greenish tint, and leave long trails in the sky as they burn up.
Keep in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. You do not need to concentrate on looking at the radiant. Look into the darkest area of the sky for your location. As the night proceeds, the radiant will rise higher. That will help produce more meteors across the sky as the dawn approaches.
Later, after catching up on your sleep, look through your photos. Hopefully, you caught some good ones. If you captured several meteors, blend them into one image. It makes a cool photo, and you may see that the meteors do radiate from one area of the sky.
Meteor Shower Photography Gear
I use the same gear for meteor photography as I do for photographing the Milky Way. Any full-frame or APS-C camera will be great for photographing the Geminids. I plan to use my Sony mirrorless cameras this year, both full-frame and APS-C.
- Sony a7 III – 24 Megapixel 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 Megapixel APS-C camera. I have two, and they are my go-to cameras for shooting time-lapses. The a6600 has superseded the a6300.
I will be shooting with several wide-angle lenses.
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM ART – This is my widest full-frame lens. I’ll put it on the a7III.
- Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 16M-E – it will go on one a6300. It is 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 usually 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 24 Megapixel 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 use it to hold my USB battery pack to power my camera and cell phone. Depending on wind conditions, you may want to put a few rocks in it.
Neewer Sandbag – works great and you get two with your purchase. It can also hold items off the ground, like external batteries.
- 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.
Happy Meteor Photographing
Let us know how your shoot went. Good luck!!