A beginner’s guide to using your camera to photograph ‘shooting stars’

Intermediate

Have you ever photographed a ‘shooting star’? A cutesy name for a meteor, they happen when Earth’s orbit of the Sun takes it through clouds of dust grains left in the solar system by comets. As that dust slams into Earth’s atmosphere it energises and glows as it discharges that energy. Caused by specific comets, meteor showers are named after the constellation in the part of the sky where its ‘shooting stars’ are often seen, but you don’t need to point your camera at that specific constellation. Although it helps if that constellation is ‘up’ above the horizon, meteor showers are all-sky events and the ‘shooting stars’ can appear anywhere in the night sky.

Here’s what you need to know about capturing meteors with your camera in 2022… 

1 Photographing ‘shooting stars’

It might seem an impossible task. After all, they whizz across the night sky and fizzle out within a second. However, taking photos of ‘shooting stars’ is incredibly easy. All you have to do is put your camera into continuous mode and shoot the same (very) long exposure image over and over again .. then flick through the thousands of photos later to see if you got one.

A large Draconid meteor falls from the sky. Photo by Teresa Cooper - 6s | ISO 3200

The process is much like any night sky shot:

- Use a wide-angle lens on a camera, on a tripod, with an intervalometer or a shutter release cable.

- Focus on a star using ‘live view’ or switch to infinity focus (then check that stars are sharp in your images).

- Experiment with manual settings, starting with ISO 800, f2.8-f4 and a 30-second shutter speed.

- Take test images and once you’re happy set the camera to continuous and take images every 30 seconds for… as long as you can!

Author tip:

It’s advisable to get to the darkest night sky possible if you want to successfully image a meteor shower. However, that advice only stands if the peak night occurs around between Last Quarter Moon and a few days after New Moon. If it doesn’t fall within that period then a bright Moon will be in the sky – and our satellite is the biggest light polluter of all. In fact, you can forget seeing anything other than the very brightest of ‘shooting stars’ regardless of where you watch from.

Consult a Moon phase calculator before you make the effort to travel to dark skies because there’s a 50% chance you’ll be wasting your time.

2 Perseid meteor shower

Easily the most famous meteor shower of the year is the Perseids, which occur between July 7 and August 24 and peak on August 12/13, 2022. You can normally expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors per hour at its peak, though that’s not going to happen in 2022  because of a 98% near-full Moon rising just after dark and shining all night long. However, it’s still going to be worth setting-up your camera, which may still capture the very brightest ‘shooting stars’. Perseids appear to come from the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern night sky. The Perseid meteor shower is caused by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed through the solar system in 1992 on its 133-years long orbit of the Sun.

Perseid meteor over Brightlingsea Beach, Essex. Photo by Colm O Laoi - f/2.8 | 20s | ISO 5000
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Although the Perseid meteor shower in 2022 won’t be the best it does begin a few weeks that astrophotographers will be excited about. On August 14, 2022 the ringed planet Saturn comes into ‘opposition’ so shines at its biggest, brightest and best of the entire year. It’s quickly followed by a Last Quarter Moon on August 19, 2022 that sees a half-lit Moon rise after midnight. That’s important because the skies will be dark for the Milky Way to look its best of the year. Look to the south to see the galactic centre rise and arc across the night sky. The show will last through to the end of the month. 

3 Orionid meteor shower

Expect about 20 ‘shooting stars’ per hour during the peak of the Orionid meteor shower on October 21-22, 2022. Running from October 2 to November 7, this one is caused by the famous Halley’s comet, which was last in our solar system in 1986. The ‘radiant’ constellation for the Orionids is, of course, Orion, though as with all meteor showers it’s an all-sky event. As a bonus the planet Mars will be close to Orion. After midnight will bring the best views. The good news is that the Moon will be a waning crescent so barely in the night sky during the peak night.  

The West Maui mountains during an Orionid meteor shower. Photo by Ross Kamimoto - f/3.5 | 13s | ISO 4000
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You’ll often see telescopes and binoculars being sold as perfect for seeing ‘shooting stars’ They are not. In fact, the wider your view of the night sky as possible, the better chance you’ll have of seeing and photographing them. So leave your long lenses at home and use the widest angle lenses you can. Fisheye lenses are best, with 10mm or 14mm perfect for capturing ‘shooting stars’, though just be sure to use the widest lenses you have. 

Ready to start your own photography store?

4 Leonid meteor shower

Active from November 6 to 30 and peaking on November 17, 2022 under a soon-to-sink young crescent Moon is the Leonid meteor shower. The Leonids are known for fast-moving meteors with bright trails. The cause of the Leonid meteor shower stream is comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 33 years. However, the cloud of meteoroids that causes the Leonids is orbiting the Sun in the opposite direction to Earth, hence they move faster than a speeding bullet. The Leonids are also known for occasional outbursts that have gone down in history, with out-of-nowhere displays in 1833, 1866, 1966, 1999 and 2001 (eye witness reports suggest that the 1833 event saw 100,000 ‘shooting stars’ in one hour!). So you never know… 

A Leonid meteor shower at Happisburgh with the Milky Way in view and the Andromeda Galaxy. Photo by Roy Howarth - f/2 | 20s | ISO 2000
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The best thing about photographing ‘shooting stars’ is that once you’ve set-up your camera to take a series of long exposures it’s a completely hands-free process. Do be careful not to switch-on any lights and just be patient, keeping one eye on the weather (after all, if clouds drift in then it’s game over!). If you want to help the astronomical community then you could count the meteors you see and report your findings to the International Meteor Organization (IMO), though you do need to be as accurate as possible.

5 Geminid meteor shower

Although it peaks in the darkest hours overnight on December 13-14, 2022, you might want to catch this year’s Geminids meteor shower a few nights earlier. That’s because not only will there be a bright 68%-lit waning gibbous Moon rising a few hours before midnight, but because the peak of the year's best meteor shower tends to be more spread-out than most. The Geminid meteor shower is active from December 4-17, 2022.

The most prolific display of ‘shooting stars’ of the astronomical year, the Geminids can often see about 150 ‘shooting stars’ occur at its peak between late evening and dawn, though that’s in ideal conditions and with an all-sky view. There will be a lot fewer this year, but it will still be worth giving it a try because the Geminids are known for producing some extra-bright Earth-grazing ‘fireballs’ that can look incredible if you capture them on camera.

Geminid meteor over a ham radio satellite antenna. Photo by David Hoffmann - f/1.4 | 15s | ISO 1600
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Not only is it one of the most prolific displays of ‘shooting stars’ of the year, but the Geminids are also the most colourful. That’s because they’re not caused by a comet, but by an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Of all the year’s meteor showers this is the one to wrap-up warm, take a flask of hot tea… and maybe even stay in the car/inside while your camera does its work.