How to Photograph Meteors

There have been a lot of photographers out and about in the last few days, especially early morning as there is a great meteor shower happening. I’ve also seen quite a few people asking how to actually go about photographing a phenomenon like this.

Firstly some quick fun facts, A meteor is the flash and smoke trail left by a meteroid entering and burning up in the earths atmosphere. They only become a meteorite if they actually continue through and fall to earth. So the meteor isn’t an actual tangible object, but it’s all what we want to photograph.

Location is probably the most important area to start with. You want dark skies, the darker the better. You will see the super bright meteors that can burn across the sky closer to towns and cities, but these are extremely rare. By heading to a dark sky area, you will see many many more, and have a better chance to photograph one.

With regards to camera gear, any camera that has manual settings can work. If you can shoot in RAW and know how to post process, even better. Interchangable DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras will work better than others. Knowing you gear does help here.

Which lens you use is a compromise. I generally go with a wide angle lens, this allows you to photograph more of the sky, so a better chance of photographing the meteor, however the downside is you need a longer burning one to really look good size in the frame. A more zoomed in lens will make the meteor appear much larger but at the cost of shorter shutter speed time if you want to keep the stars sharp, which will use a lot more memory card space, more shutter actuation’s etc.

Everything with night photography is a compromise, remember that and you’ll do well.

For me, wide angle is the way to go. Something from 14 to 24mm in focal length on a full frame camera equivalent (8 to 12mm on an Olympus Micro Four Thirds is identical), and a lens that has as wide an aperture as possible. F/2.8 wide open is ideal but F/3.5 will work if you only have a kit lens.

Shutter speed depends somewhat on the lens you use, but for a wide angle start with 20 seconds, take a test shot and zoom right in on the stars on the back of the screen in review. If they are elongated (trailing) shorten shutter speed to 15 seconds. The final piece of the puzzle is ISO. If you are shooting in RAW, 3200-6400 is the ideal range, I go with 3200 on my Olympus and 4000 on a full frame camera. If the sky is too bright with that ISO, reduce it to 1600, or find darker skies.

So lets go with the following. Full Manual Mode, Aperture F/2.8, ISO 4000, Shutter 15 seconds.

Now make sure you have a tripod, yes you need your camera to not move at all, this is long exposure territory. A remote trigger (possibly an app on your phone) or an actual trigger to suit your camera is pretty much also required as you will be continuously shooting. One way around this is if your camera has some sort of timelapse mode, you can pre setup how many shots it will take and let it run. Simply enable continuous shooting in your camera and lock the trigger on. You’ll keep shooting until you run out of battery, memory card, feeling in your fingers etc.

Finally the hardest thing to be honest, focusing. On mirrorless cameras, this is actually very easier as you have aids like focus peaking, just pick a bright star and get it in focus using peaking and digital zoom (don’t zoom the lens!). Otherwise use Live View, and again zoom in digitally on a bright star and get it in focus. Take a test shot and adjust if required.

One other camera setting you have to play with is LENR or Long Exposure Noise Reduction. What cameras do by default is once they have taken a long exposure photograph, they close the shutter, then take another photograph of exactly the same time in the dark, and use the noise recorded on that to remove/clean up a bit the first photo. This means half the time you are not taking a photo. By shooting in Raw, you can turn this off and clean it up later using software like Lightroom. More work, but bigger reward. If you are shooting in JPG, set your whitebalance to something between 3000k and 4000k manually to give a pleasing sky colour, and see how it goes with both LENR on and off (test shots people! They help you learn your limitations!) and go with the best one. With LENR on you will miss half of everything that happens but when you do get it, the result will be much cleaner.

Now you are ready to go. Pick a part of the sky you think you’ll have success in and start taking photos. You may want to include something in the foreground for a really pleasing shot, you may want to just point straight up and really enjoy it. Resist the urge to chase your tail! When you see a meteor in one part of the sky you aren’t photographing, don’t move your camera as sure as anything the next one will be where you were looking. If you consistently see them in one part of the sky, then by all means, reframe to there.

When to go is really up to some research. There are some great apps like Planit! Pro on Android that will actually give you a calendar, or just a simple Google Search will help, and it’s different for northern and southern hemispheres. For those of us to the south, this is a good guide for 2019 : https://weareexplorers.co/meteor-showers-2019/

Finally the last things I recommend, take plenty of warm layers, something to eat and drink, a reclining chair is amazing and saves your neck. And bring family, friends, anyone willing to enjoy the cold with you. Keep lights flashing around to a minimum, it takes around 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and even looking at the back of your camera can give you night blindness again for a few minutes.

Get out there, have a play and a shoot, if it doesn’t work out this time, you’ll learn for next time, there’s always another one 🙂

I used all these techniques to capture my latest Skylines photograph – Wish Upon A Star. This is available for purchase as a high quality Poster, Fine Art Print or on the highest quality canvas, along with all my other photographs.

A barn in a green field with the core of the milky way above it as a bright meteor burns through the sky. Wish Upon A Star - A Skylines landscape photography by Australian Photographer Murray Fox

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog, I look forward to seeing what you can photograph.

Until next time.

Murray

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