Photographing the Perseids Meteor Shower

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I am gearing up tonight to photograph the Perseids meteor shower.  Will be trying over the next couple of night but the best prospect will be Saturday night the 13th based on my anticipated location in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  The actual peak will be tonight and tomorrow early morning hours; however the weather/sky conditions are not predicted to cooperate.  Saturday night in the Flint Hills it is forecasted to be clear in the late hours and as the moon sets after 2am, I am hoping for the best opportunities.  Can’t expect much sleep that night but will hope for the best.  I thought I would throw out a few tips if you are hoping to capture this event.

Recommended Equipment and Misc Items: 

  • DSLR Camera (obviously)
  • Wide angle Lens
  • Tripod
  • Large capacity memory card (16 gigs or higher)
  • Intervalometer or locking cable release
  • Extra Batteries
  • Dew heater.  Many folks will use the air-activated hand warmer packets you can get in most sports stores.  If you fasten these around the barrel of your lens it will help prevent dew from forming on your lens.  You can use rubber bands, a strip of Velcro, or other means to fasten them to your lens.  I use an item called the Lens Muff , made by Kevin Adams, Digital After Dark.  Handy thing for you
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark
    Lens Muff from Digital After Dark

    bag if you do night photography at all.

  • Headlamp or small flashlight.  It’s ideal to have a headlamp with the red light option so you don’t spoil yours and everyone else shot with a sudden blast of bright light.
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Small cloth towel.  This is drape over your camera to keep the dew off.
  • Lawn chair.  You could be up for a few hours.  May as well be comfortable.
  • Bug spray
  • Cooler for snacks and beverages

Background on Perseids:  The meteors we hope to catch are really nothing more than tiny bits of dust or slightly larger particles burning up in our atmosphere.  This particular shower, the Perseids, is a result of the Earth’s passage through the ice and debris associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle.  The intersection of the Earth’s path with this debris occurs every summer and emanates from the constellation  Perseus, from which the shower gets it’s name.

Perseus and Cassiopeia shown in relation to one another. The yellow blob is the approximate are from which the meteors will emanate

Where to Look:  The meteors will emanate from the direction of Perseus in the northern sky.  Perseus is south of the constellation Cassiopeia.  I know, that probably does  not help much.  Actually though, after you see a few of these constellations in the night sky you will always be able to spot them.  Cassiopeia looks like a big sideways W of bright stars.  And once you recognize Perseus, you will always remember what it looks like and easily spot it.  The are between Cassiopeia and Perseus should be roughly where to expect the meteors to  appear but you may see them anywhere in the night sky.  Probably the easiest way to  find Perseus is with one of the numerous IPhone and Android apps which are available for free download.  Google Sky Map is a good one, Stellarium is another, but there are several good ones out there.

Technical Considerations

Cable Release:  Ideally you will want to have an intervalometer. it will make your life easier.  The intervlometer will allow you to control the exposure time, length of delay between shots, and the number of shots through one group of settings.  Some cameras allow this capability within the camera or by using a smart phone app through wi-fi.  Alternatively you can purchase a generic one at a camera store.  Since you exposure times should be 30 sec or less, you could likely get by with a normal cable release set in the locked position to shoot continuous.  Some type of cable release will almost be a necessity.

Lens Choice:  Remember this is a lot about the sky.  You need a good deal of sky in  your composition to increase chances of capturing meteors.  Wide angle is the order of the day, and it should be fast, f/2.8 or faster.  I would say a focal length of 24mm or wider, based on a full-frame sensor.  Some say if you are too wide, e.g., 11 -1 4, the meteors are less impressive.  This makes some sense because of the stretched perspective.  However, you are getting more sky so I guess it is a balancing act and a personal choice.  I  will be using my Rokinon 24mm f/1/4.  My decision is based on its speed.  My 14mm or 16mm f/2.8 would do fine but I am opting for the little extra speed of f/1.4 and sacrificing a little field of view.  Why is the speed so important?  There will likely be many faint meteors that you might not even notice with you naked eye but with the faster speed lens your sensor might pick them up.  It’s all about increasing your chances.

ISO and Exposure Times:  If we were in a New Moon phase, I would say your ISO would be anywhere between 1600 and 6400 with an exposure time  between 15 and 25 seconds, much as if you were taking pictures of the Milky Way.  However, because we will have a 78% waxing gibbous moon, the ambient light will be a factor.  Expect to do a few test exposures to find the best combination of aperture/time/ISO to fit the conditions.  That being said, you want to keep your exposure times to 30 seconds or less.  Not only because you want the stars to register as points of light, but faint meteors will be lost in the sky-glow at higher exposure times.  Once I have my exposure I will set my intervalometer to fire continuously with only about 2 seconds between exposures.

The moon will provide a little ambient light for the landscape  and any foreground elements you may have.  After around 2am the moon will have set and the sky will be darker and this period of the night we might expect to see more meteors.  This might also require adjusting your exposure as you approach this time as well since you will be losing the moonlight.

A Foreground Element:  Speaking of foreground, I feel it advantageous to have some type of foreground element, e.g., old barn, rock formations, interesting grouping of trees, etc. Simply a picture of the night sky with a meteor, while it might be neat, will not likely have strong compositional value.  A good foreground provides that compositional element and context. Doing this, however, is not without some important considerations. Keeping both the stars and the school in sharp focus could be difficult at a wide aperture setting.

Focus: There are two approaches to dealing with focus. It is very important that we have our stars in sharp focus and to do this we must focus on infinity. There are a couple of ways to do this at night, some easier than others. The good news is that there will be a moon to focus on and then set your lens to manual focus. Now, if you are using an ultra wide angle lens like 14mm you may be good to go, depending on how close you are to the foreground. What I expect to do if I am close is actually be sure I refocus and get one good sharp image of the foreground which I can later blend in with the sky images. Simply use of you hyper focal distance may work okay, depending on your focal length and how close you are to you foreground.

White Balance: I would manually set your white balance.  You might select Auto White Balance as we begin shooting and there is still some light, this is fine. However, after it really gets dark, I prefer shooting around 3800 Kelvin. This tilts the balance to a more blue sky rather than the muddy brown or orange tint you sometimes get with AWB at night. You can also set your white balance to Tungsten to accomplish a similar temp. You can always fine tune later in post if you are shooting RAW. This brings up another issue.

RAW vs JPEG: I strongly recommend you shoot RAW. Shooting RAW will give you the most flexibility in post processing. Shooting JPEG results in an image that has been already compressed and much of the data information as been discarded through the compression. If you must shoot JPEG I would recommend you set your camera to shoot both RAW + JPEG, if your camera gives you this option.

Batteries: Make sure you have plenty of batteries all FULLY CHARGED. We will be shooting a lot of frames and the last thing you want is to run out of battery power.

Final Thoughts:   If you are lucky and capture a bright fireball in one of our images, you have an image that could truly stand on its own. If on the other hand you capture single small meteors you can load your photos in photo-editing software and create a composite showing the multiple captures. You may also be able to create a little time-lapse sequence based on your total image sequence. This would show the stars rotating, clouds moving, and possibly a few meteor flashes. Some good options to consider for post processing and stacking might include: Star Stax and Deep Sky Stacker.

I look forward to following up this post with some great images.  Hope to see some of yours as well.

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Rich Lewis

Thanks for the tips Craig, it’s very helpful. I have never heard of a lens muff, great idea. If the clouds clear out of New Jersey this evening, I may head out and try my luck.

Denise Bush

Great post & tips Craig. I love your cover image … the Flint Hills must be an excellent place for star photography. I went out to a nearby reservoir and caught a few meteors myself. Now I’m hooked and can’t wait for the next event!