The Perseid meteor shower is possibly the best meteor shower of the year. From mid-July to near the end of August, it’s usually met with warm summer nights in the northern hemisphere. 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 shower. With an impressive peak rate of 100 or more meteors per hour, the Perseids are the top contender for the best meteor shower of the year. All these factors make it excellent for meteor photography. And you might be surprised to see you already have everything you need to photograph the Perseid meteor shower. Read on to see how to photograph meteors.
2021 Perseid Meteor Shower
The predicted peak of the 2021 Perseid meteor shower is the evening of Wednesday, August 11, through the morning of Thursday, the 12th. And this year, the Moon is in a favorable position during the Perseid peak. It will only be about 13% full and sets early in the evening. That means you’ll have a beautiful crescent Moon to photograph for a couple of hours after sunset as you wait for astronomical twilight to begin before shooting the Perseids. So you can start the evening shooting the Moon around 9 PM and continue through the night shooting meteors.
When to Look
Meteor activity is notoriously hard to predict. Typically, it’s recommended to look for meteors between midnight and dawn. But Perseid meteors are often visible after dusk in northern latitudes. In the evening, Perseids appear to be stream from near the northeast horizon. As the night progresses, they will be coming more from overhead. So, the bottom line is to look when you are able.
Where to Look
Meteor showers radiate from a particular part of the sky called the shower “radiant.” That is, for each meteor shower, 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.
Look to the northeast and find the big “W” shape near the Little Dipper – that’s the constellation Cassiopeia, and 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.
You can also use apps for viewing the night sky, like Stellarium or Star Walk, or for photography, like PlanIt Pro or PhotoPills, to find the radiant. Look for the Augmented Reality feature in these apps. For more info on them, check out our article Best Landscape Photography Apps for 2021.
Viewing in Light Pollution
If you can’t get to a dark sky location, don’t despair! Even in light-polluted locations, it’s not hard to catch Perseids as they are often bright. And bright meteors always look spectacular! It’s just that the dimmer ones will not stand out as much against any light pollution. So go ahead, set up a camera, and spend some time looking.
Peak Night Only?
While peak times for other meteor showers usually only last a few hours, that’s not the case with the Perseid meteors. 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 August 10th or 12th. And if the weather is going to affect the peak night, go out the night before or the night after.
Perseid Meteor Photography
Meteor Photography is actually not difficult. You may already have all the camera gear you need for photographing meteors. You’ll want a camera with manual settings, a sturdy tripod, and an intervalometer to trigger the camera. You’ll probably want extra batteries, as you’ll want to be able to shoot with the intervalometer all night long.
For lenses, you’ll probably want a fast lens with a wide field of view, like a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, at f/1.4. But depending on the type of photo you want, you may need a fish-eye lens or even a longer lens like a 35mm or even a 50mm. We’ll discuss the lens selection below when we look at “Where To Aim Your Camera.”
Try shooting some video if you have a camera that can shoot video under low-light levels, like the Sony a7S series. Set your camera to record at 4K. With luck, you’ll capture the motion of the stars as they streak across the sky.
Where Should I Shoot?
First off, observers in the southern hemisphere cannot properly view the Perseid meteors. And latitudes north of about 60 degrees will not have dark enough skies. So, if you’re not in either of those locations, find somewhere with the least light pollution, as you’ll see more meteors with darker skies. Open areas and hill or mountain tops are great locations.
Dark Sky Locations
If you need help finding a dark sky, check out DarkSkyFinder.com. You can zoom in to locations near you to find a suitable place for photographing meteors. Still at a loss on where to go? Check out these stargazing locations at EarthSky.org.
Where to Aim Your Camera
There’s a couple of options to consider when aiming your camera. First, think about the type of photo you want to create. There are, in general, three types of meteor shower photos you can make. For the first two, think about movies with archers shooting arrows. There are typically two types of scenes in these movies. In one, the camera is aimed at the archers as they launch the arrows into the air, where they rain down towards the camera position. The other shows the arrows flying down on their targets, with the arrows streaking sideways to the camera view. The third type of image is the “all-sky” view.
The “Radiant” View
For the first type, One is the meteors streaming away from the radiant point. To achieve this type of image, aim your camera, so the radiant is either centered or slightly to the side of the camera view. Then set your camera intervalometer to take numerous photos through the night. If you’re lucky, you may get several meteors in the same frame. Otherwise, you’ll need to stack several images where you did catch meteors together into a single image.
The “Diagonal Streak” View
The other type of image is of meteors forming parallel diagonal streaks across the frame. For this type of image, aim the camera 90 degrees away from the radiant. For the Perseid meteors, that would be towards the northwest or the southeast. Think about using a medium-wide or normal lens for this type of photo. Again, you’ll probably want to combine several frames to create the final image.
The “Look Away” View
Aiming your camera towards the sky opposite the radiant will capture meteors as they appear to fall downwards towards the earth. They will be more vertical in this view than in the “Diagonal Streak” view. Fewer meteors will appear in this area of the sky, but it creates an interesting view.
Aref Alragehi captured the image above using a Sony a6000 at ISO 6400. It’s a composite of four sets of images – one for the foreground, one each for the two meteors, and a stack of about 80 frames for the sky from a timelapse sequence. The camera did not move during the exposures. You can see more of Aref’s work at @arefalragehi on Instagram.
The “All-Sky” View
Next, look for a spot with a wide-open view. You may not have a lens that can photograph the entire sky at once, but it can make your viewing experience more enjoyable!
To get an “All-Sky” photo, simply aim your camera overhead with a circular fish-eye or a diagonal or “full-frame fish-eye” lens on it. You will have the chance to catch more meteors by photographing a large sky area. However, these types of lenses let less light into the camera, so they will not record all the faint meteors that a faster lens would see.
You can still aim your camera upwards if you don’t have a really wide or fish-eye lens. Try including the radiant point in the corner of the camera’s view. You may show the meteors streaking out of the radiant.
Then look for a foreground subject that could add interest to your photo. Like with other types of night photography, an interesting or exciting foreground makes your image stronger.
Put your camera on the tripod and put on the lens. Don’t wait until it’s dark – you can have your camera set up and ready to go before dark.
Set your ISO to 1600, maybe 3200 if your camera has low noise at higher ISO settings or you are using a lens with a slow f/stop. If you use higher ISO settings, you risk blowing out any color you may have in the brighter meteors.
Bring an extra battery, maybe two. Your camera will probably run for a couple of hours of non-stop shooting with one battery. 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 quickly fill up smaller memory cards! Put in a 64 Gig or larger 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.
Practice in the Light
If this is your first time shooting with an intervalometer, practice before heading out to shoot the Perseids. Some intervalometers are less intuitive to use than others. You’ll be happy you figured out how to use it at home rather than in the field as the meteors are streaking overhead.
Lenses and Focus
Ideally, you want a wide-angle to normal focal length lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.0 or faster. You can get by with f/2.8, but you will capture fewer meteors.
Use a 24mm or wider on full-frame (16mm for APS-C). Set your lens to its widest aperture; meteors move much faster than stars so you want to let as much light into your camera as possible. If all you have is an f/2.8 lens or slower lens, go ahead and use it wide open. You will still be able to capture the brighter meteors.
To get an all-sky photo, you’ll want to use a circular fish-eye or a diagonal or “full-frame fish-eye” lens. These lenses are typically f/3.5 or f/4. You’ll catch much fewer meteors than with a faster lens, but it could be worth it to capture the entire sky at once.
The Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye is a great choice for full-frame and comes in Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony A, and Sigma mounts. The Samyang 12mm F/2.8 ED AS NCS Fisheye is another full-frame diagonal fisheye and is available in the same mounts as the Sigma 15, plus Micro Four Thirds, Fujifilm X, and Sony E mount. If you have an APS-C crop sensor camera, look into the Samyang 8mm f/3.5 UMC Fish-Eye CS II.
If you are shooting anywhere except the desert – you’ll want a lens warmer. It’s a fabric band with a USB-powered heater inside. You wrap it around your lens and fasten the heater on with the Velcro strap. Ensure the heater doesn’t block access to any lens controls or get into your camera lens’s 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 want to bring a small microfiber towel to wipe up any moisture that collects on the outside of your camera as the night progresses.
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.
Focusing Your Lens
Before shooting your Perseid meteor photos for the night and AFTER setting up the lens warmer, focus your camera. 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!
Turn on your camera’s Live View function and set the ISO to 1600. Find a bright star in the sky, aim your camera at it, so it’s near the center of your viewfinder. With your lens in manual focus, slowly rotate the focus ring back and forth. You should see the star become sharp and then blurry as you move past infinity focus. Make smaller and smaller motions until you center in on the sharpest focus. Depending on your lens, the star may have a slight red or green tinge to it – try to minimize it.
If your camera doesn’t have Live View, you can try the “trial and error” method. Manually try to get your best focus and take a shot. Review that image – zoom in and see how sharp the stars look. Then move the focus ring a little to the left or right and take another test photo. Compare it with the previous shot. If it looks sharper, try another shot, moving the focus ring a little more in the same direction as before. If it is worse, then go back to where you focused in the initial photo. Just keep trying to make small changes until you find the best focus you can.
Check Your Histogram
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.
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.
Shutter Speed and Brightness
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. Then 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!!
Enjoying 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!
Remember to bring warm clothes! Even mid-summer nights can get chilly. Bring extra layers so you can adjust your comfort level as the night progresses.
Start Looking After Twilight
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.
Plan on Staying Out Late
As the night proceeds, the radiant will rise higher. This will help produce more meteors across the sky as 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. In early August 2020, I saw a meteor that was traveling perpendicular to the radiant. But it might have been a Perseid – it was bright and had a very long trail.
The Perseid meteor shower is also known for “fireballs.” Fireballs are brighter than regular meteors and can glow longer than a regular meteor streak as well. Some fireballs explode high in the Earth’s atmosphere and are technically called “bolides.” You don’t need to worry about either fireballs or bolides, so enjoy them as they can be spectacular!
Post-Shower Peak Meteors
Most people get wrapped up in catching a meteor shower during the predicted peak. But data shows that the nights before or after the peak can be extremely rewarding, with hourly counts of about one-half of the peak zero hourly rate.
The International Meteor Organization predicts the 2021 Perseid Maximum at August 12, 19h to 22h UT. That puts it in the afternoon for North America on Aug 12th. So don’t count out the evening of the 12th or even the night of the 10th.
Post-Processing Perseid Meteor Photos
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 into one image. It makes a cool photo, and you will probably see that the meteors actually radiate from one location in the sky.
Sift through your photos and identify the shots containing a meteor. Tag them for use in your composite.
Once you have all your images with meteors tagged, load them into a stack in Photoshop. Put each image in as a separate layer.
Extract each meteor from the image by masking out the rest of the image.
Blend the masked layers into a final composite. Include one image without masking for use as your background.
For a complete and thorough discussion on doing this, check out the following video, BlogChat: How to Process Meteor Shower Radiant Composite Images. Matt Hill and Chris Nicholson, from National Parks at Night, go through all the steps you’ll need to create your meteor shower composite photo.
My Meteor Shower Gear
My Milky Way shooting gear is similar to what I use 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.
- Sony E-mount FE 24mm F1.4 GM – This is a fast and wide lens that performs weel wide open, ideal for shooting meteors. It’s going on my a7III.
- Rokinon 24mm F1.4 ED AS IF UMC – This will go on the one of my a6300. It’s equivalent to 35mm on full-frame when on my APS-C cameras. I’ll point directly at the radiant.
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM ART – This lens is nice and wide, but it doesn’t let in as much light as my 24mm lenses. It’s going on the other a6300.
- Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 16M-E – this will go on the a6000. It’s equivalent to 24mm on full-frame when on my APS-C cameras.
- 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!
- CooWoo Lens Heater / Dew Remover – Keep moisture from condensing on your lens with a Lens Heater.
- 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.
Happy Meteor Photographing
Let us know how your shoot went in the comments below. Good luck!!
For More Info:
To learn more about meteors, the American Meteor Society is an excellent resource.
Check out NASA’s webpage on the Perseid Meteor shower.
For a more detailed 2021 meteor analysis, try the International Meteor Organization.
Your one-stop-shop for the latest in meteor activity: MeteorNews.Net.
A version of this article was originally published on 2020 Aug 8th. KDK updated it 2021 July 29, 776.