Night Photography Explored: Part 5 – Meteor Showers

Geminid Meteor Over Gros Ventre River

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III, Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4, Aperture: f/4, ISO: 4,000, Shutter Speed: 10sec., Focal Length: 17mm

By contrast to photographing the northern lights, meteor showers are much more predictable for their peak and thus help to be easily planned out to photograph. Predicting exactly when a meteor is going to streak across the sky though is a lot like trying to predict when lightning will strike. This section will help you get the most out of every meteor shower so that you’ll be able to come away with some great shots of shooting stars!

Setting Up

This is where you’ll definitely want to be capturing more sky than land, even if there is moonlight. Your composition can certainly have some distinct silhouettes, or even features if there’s moonlight, but you want the majority of your image to be of the night sky. Mountain peaks, both near and far, make for excellent objects set against a night sky with a meteor shower. No mountains where you are? Hills also work, as well as a completely flat land, believe it or not. Old barns, cabins, and the like also make for very intriguing foreground objects against a large meteor shower-filled night sky. Whatever you choose, just make sure that the night sky fills up the majority of your composition. The reason is because while you might have a general idea of where to look (or aim, in this case) in the night sky for the most meteors, they can still spread widely across your camera’s field of view. With most meteor showers, you’ll want your widest lens. This will allow you to fill the camera with a night sky and hopefully capture all the best meteors that can streaking down.

Eta-Aquariid Meteor

Camera: Canon 7D, Lens: Sigma 20mm f/1.8Aperture: f/2.8, ISO: 4,000, Shutter Speed: 20sec.Focal Length: 20mm

Regardless of moonlight once again, you’ll want to set your aperture to the lowest setting it will go. This will help you pick up very faint meteors that you might not even see. For that reason, no matter what your foreground object is, you’ll want to keep it at a bit of a distance. This will ensure crispness throughout the image since the aperture will be so low.

For your shutter speed, you’ll want to keep the shutter speed open as long as you can without creating trails in the stars. Here’s where you’ll need the 600 rule again: divide 600 by the focal length of your lens, and you’re left with the longest possible shutter speed before you begin to notice star trails. You want your shutter speed open as long as possible so that you can capture as many meteors as possible in one exposure.

Since the shutter speed is the main focus of capturing meteors, you’ll want to balance out the ISO between your aperture and shutter speed. Since you already know the other two variables, the ISO should fall in place easily.

Perseid Meteor over Mountains

Since your primarily shooting in the same location, this will be a prime example of where you want to set up a nice composition with your settings dialed in with your intervalometer plugged in, and just let it go. You’ll always see one or two meteors that stray outside of the frame, but recomposing and moving the camera around will cause you to miss often the best ones in the primary spot you’re supposed to be looking. Therefore, you should just leave it alone and enjoy on your own the ones that you don’t capture. What this also does is build you up a series of (ideally) a 100-200 shots that can be merged together in multiple ways, which will be discussed in the next section.

Major Annual Meteor Showers

  • January: Quadrantids
  • April: Lyrids
  • May: Eta Aquarids
  • July: Delta Aquarids
  • August: Perseids
  • October: Draconids
  • October: Orionids
  • November: South Taurids
  • November: North Taurids
  • November: Leonids
  • December: Geminids

For more information about each meteor shower, EarthSky has a great meteor shower guide on their website.

You now should have all the knowledge needed to capture a night sky under all conditions, provided some ridiculously rare astronomical events aren’t headed our way. The only thing I haven’t taught you up to this point is post-processing. That will be the next section in this series, so stay tuned!

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