6 expert tips for taking photos of the year’s most powerful display of ‘shooting stars’ in early August
A meteor shower is surely one of the most magical of fleeting natural events, but to capture so-called ‘shooting stars’ with your camera demands dedication, patience and great timing. One of the best opportunities of the calendar year is the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs in early August each year. Although it's active for almost six weeks, its peak – when about 100 shooting stars can be seen per hour – lasts for only one night.
Here are some of our top tips to get those priceless shots…
1 Get your timing right
Plan to spend late evening to dawn that night trying to catch them on camera, though do remember that much more important than predicted peaks in activity are clear skies. If it’s cloudy you’ll see and photograph nothing at all, so have a look at weather apps like Dark Sky and consider going out a few nights before or after if it’s predicted to be clear. There should still be a considerable number of ‘shooting stars’ around either side of the peak nights. On the peak nights you can expect to see ‘up to’ 100 ‘shooting stars’ per hour, though that’s in ideal conditions. Even if you see considerably fewer it should still be an impressive show.
‘Shooting stars’ are tiny particles called meteoroids that strike the Earth’s atmosphere. As they do they energise, and what you see as a streak in the night sky is that energy being released as photons of light – which is precisely what cameras are designed to capture! The particles that cause the Perseids were left in Earth’s orbital path around the Sun by comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last entered the Solar System in 1992 and is due to visit next in 2126.
2 Prepare your camera gear
To take photographs of a meteor shower requires patience and luck. The basic technique is to take shot after shot in the hope that you capture a ‘shooting star’. Digital photography is perfect for such a task; you need a large memory card in a manual DSLR or mirrorless camera and as wide-angle a lens as you have. The more of the night sky you include in your composition, the higher chance you will have of capturing a ‘shooting star’. You’ll also need a tripod and either a shutter release cable or intervalometer so you can automate the process.
Since you’re going to be taking a lot of long exposures and rarely moving the camera, capturing the Perseid meteor shower means a long night. It’s ideally done while camping. Consider bringing someone else with you to keep you company, preferably another photographer or stargazer … or at least someone with as much patience as you.
3 Find a dark sky
You’re going to need a dark sky. The Perseids are well known for featuring ‘fireballs’, brief and bright flashes of light and color that can persist longer than most meteor streaks. These are merely larger particles from the comet, and can easily be captured from a light-polluted garden or backyard. However, they’re reasonably rare; if you want to see and capture anywhere near the maximum number of ‘shooting stars’ per hour promised by the Perseids you’re going to have to get away from towns and cities to a Dark Sky Place, a Dark Sky Discovery Site or simply somewhere away that looks dark on a light pollution map.
Always think about composition. Your ideal result is a beautiful night sky image with a meteor streaking through the sky, not just a bright line in an otherwise empty image. Find something interesting in the foreground, such as a building or tree, or perhaps even a lake if it’s still, which may display reflections of meteors.
4 Know where to look
Every meteor shower has a ‘radiant point’, a place in the night sky where the meteors appear to originate from. For the Perseids that’s the constellation of Perseus, which is rising in the northeast come nightfall in the northern hemisphere during August. However, its ‘shooting stars’ can appear anywhere in the night sky, it’s just that their trajectory can be traced backwards to Perseus. But where you point your camera will make a difference to what you capture. Point northeast at Perseus about midnight and you’ll get short meteor streaks coming towards you. Point southwest and you’ll get longer meteor streaks coming into the top of the frame. Point 90º to the radiant and you’ll get meteors streaking across the frame.
That ‘radiant point’ will rise as the night wears on, and it’s when Perseus is overhead – in the early hours – that the ‘shooting stars’ are often at their best. That’s also when you can point your camera anywhere you want and get a similar effect.
The only reason to point your camera at the radiant point of the Perseids is if you intend to capture multiple photos of meteors and overlay them to create a kind of ‘meteor burst’ image. Although possible, from a stationary tripod you’ll also capture concentric circles of trailing stars. The only way to avoid this is to use a star-tracker, a motorised device that goes between camera and tripod that’s synced with the movement of Earth’s rotation. That will, in turn, distort your foreground image, so you’ll need to manipulate the image afterwards in photo editing software.
5 Master manual settings
Taking photos of the night sky is all about long exposures, even more so when you’re waiting for a ‘shooting star’ to suddenly strike. So even if you have the fastest wide-angle lens that lets a lot of light in at night you’re still going to want to shoot long exposures. Using an 18mm wide-angle lens (or similar), focus on infinity (∞ on your lens dial) while in manual mode, or auto-focus on a brightly-lit building and zoom in on ‘live view’ on your LCD screen to check your focus. Then lock that focus by switching back to manual mode.
Here’s what manual settings to use:
- Use an aperture as low a number as possible (say, f1.8 or f2.8)
- Begin with ISO 800 or ISO 1600 for a clean, noise-free shot at night
- Use a shutter speed of about 20-30 seconds
- Always shoot in RAW as well as JPEG
The aim here is to fill up a memory card of long exposure wide-angle photos of the night sky in the hope that one or two feature ‘shooting stars’. However, if you stack any photos taken from the exact same place you can produce a composite image containing the stars as circles or arcs, depending on where your camera was pointed. A meteor streaking through a star-trail can be an arresting image indeed.
6 When is the next good meteor shower?
The Perseids are the year’s most consistently reliable, and certainly the most popular, meteor shower of the year. However, there are many others, including a few that are as prolific. For those in the northern hemisphere the most dependable meteor shower of the year is the Geminids in mid-December at 150 per hour while the Quadrantids in early January can reach 12 per hour.
However, in 2021 the best (darkest) meteor showers other than the Perseids will be the Draconids on 8-9 October, 2021 and the Southern Taurids on 10-11 October, 2021.
Always check with the Moon. If a powerful meteor shower is predicted, but it coincides with a full Moon, you’ll not be able to see or photograph anything particularly special. Use a moon calculator to figure out if a particular meteor shower might be worth making a plan to photograph; you’re looking for a moonless sky between midnight and dawn, but especially after midnight, which is either side of a New Moon.