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HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH METEORS

by Brian Emfinger

note: you can click any of the images for larger versions of them


I. Equipment

The first thing you have to have if you want to capture a meteor in a photograph is a camera capable of doing so. I know there are still people who use film cameras but the cost/effort of using film to shoot meteors is to great to include (especially when compared with digital) in this, so we will focus just on digital. I have to admit though that in preparing and thinking about this it got me to want to dig out my two Pentax K1000 cameras and use them during meteor showers for long exposures (I think I will).

There are a lot of cameras out there capable of capturing excellent images of meteors. It is possible to catch a meteor on nearly any camera that allows for manual or semi-manual control and exposures of at least 15 seconds. I know many people have the little point and shoot cameras and recently during the Perseid Meteor Shower I used my wife's new digital point and shoot in various modes to see if I could catch a meteor with it... it didn't work. Several meteors flew through its view but it just couldn't pick up on them. You could probably catch a fireball with it but anything less would be invisible. So for this discussion we will focus only on the use of digital SLR cameras. There are many fine models that aren't terribly expensive but most are going to be over 400$. It's not going to matter too much on which brand/model you choose as the differences for meteor photography aren't going to be huge. I have been using a Canon Digital Rebel XT since 2006 and all the meteor photographs you see on this website were shot with it.

Once you have your camera there are several other things you really need to have.

1. a sturdy tripod - no images shot during dark/dusk or in any low light condition will work without it.

2. a cable release - you don't want to be hovering over your camera all night with your finger pressed on the shutter and if you did your photographs wouldn't be as good as they could have been b/c you will cause a slight movement every time you touch the camera. Some cable release cords have settings that allow exposure length (bulb) to be specified which is a big help (more on exposure length and bulb settings below).

3. AC adapter or several batteries - most digital SLR cameras have AC adapters available but if not several batteries should do the trick.

4. memory cards - more than likely you will be taking lots of pictures in attempting to catch a meteor so make sure you have enough memory. An 8 GB card should be good for all night. A 4 GB card should work if your exposures are longer (1-2 mins). Another option is connecting your camera to a computer and controlling it via the computer and having the images saved directly to your computer. I have done this occasionally but there is a slight delay between shots (1-3 seconds) so you could miss something.


II. The Meteors

Once you have all your camera gear in order you may want to rush out and start shooting the night sky and you may have some success as every night of the year there will be a few random meteors. However, for the best chances of capturing a meteor with the least amount of effort you will want to wait until the days around and on the peak of one of the major meteor showers. There are several major meteor showers throughout the year with rates of over 50 meteors per hour. The best are the Quadrantids, Geminids, and Perseids. Of these the Perseids are usually counted as the best all around shower due to its summertime peak (N.Hemisphere) and consistency. The Geminids are great too but are in the winter and clouds are usually a issue. There are other showers that are occasionally quite good as well and include the Orionids, Leonids, Lyrids, & Aquariids (the Aquariids are great but best seen from the Southern Hemisphere). There are several great websites that have much more information on the various meteor showers including specific dates, locations, possible meteor outburst and more.

The International Meteor Organization

The American Meteor Society

Spaceweather.com


III. Location

If a major meteor shower is approaching then you will need to figure out where you will want to setup to shoot from. I am quite lucky in that I live in a good dark sky location and this is the most important factor as far as location goes. There is a scale (the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale-link) that helps to give an idea of how dark your sky is. You can go to this site (The World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness-link) to see the estimated man made light interference in your area. The colors on that website correspond to the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale. I live on the border between class 2 and 3. The darker sky you can find the better chances you have of capturing a meteor (not to mention greater freedom with your camera settings). Other than having the darkest sky possible you may want to find some object of interest to have in the foreground. Manmade structures are typically going to produce light and even if you're in a dark sky location you can be messed up by being near a street light or lighted sign. Some favorites that always look great are to include mountains, rivers, lakes, even trees in your shots. I haven't done too much of this but it would be well worth the effort to capture a nice meteor over a nice landscape.


IV. Camera Settings

10MM , F4.0 , ISO 3200 , & 30 seconds - 2 minute exposures.
Above are the settings I typically use for my meteor photography.

Just previously I talked about location and how a good dark sky location is so important. Here is the why...

If you are in a city you could never use the same settings I typically use because there is so much ambient light that the shot would be overexposed. You probably would be so overexposed your image would be just a blank white image. It is still possible to attempt meteor photography in a city but your settings would have to be adjusted. You would need to drop your exposure time to no more than probably 15 seconds and drop your ISO to 800 or more likely 400. On the plus side you would have less noise in dropping your ISO that low but you would not likely catch any of the fainter meteors. If a fireball crossed your view then you would still catch it easily but they are very few and far between so I would recommend shooting for dimmer meteors and maybe you'll get a fireball by accident. Ok now into some of the specifics of the camera settings.

1. Lens/Zoom - I usually shoot with as wide a angle as possible (for me - 10mm). With a typical 18MM lens you are only covering a small portion of sky so you are going to miss lots of meteors. You can get 10mm lenses or a fisheye lens that will tremendously increase the amount of sky you are shooting. You may not see some of the fainter/quick meteors having such a wide FOV (field of view) but its best to go with the option that gives you the most sky coverage. Now, with that being said. I have gotten some nice results from using a 50mm lens. The 50mm lens with also typically feature a lower aperture (mine goes to F2). Shooting at 50mm at F2 allows for much dimmer meteors to be captured. Indeed it can make what would be a dim meteor with a 10 or 18mm into looking nearly like a fireball at 50mm. The main problem is you are shooting such a small part of the sky you miss a lot but this is offset a bit by being able to pick up the dimmer meteors. My main objective is to capture the brightest meteors/fireballs and using a 50mm lens really isnt the logical choice for that.

2. Manual Settings - below is information about aperture, ISO, & exposure length. These 3 settings are highly interchangeable. You can have nearly the same look with changing the settings all around. There are a few things to know about them that encompass all of these 3 settings.

Most meteors are dim and fast so you want to allow your camera's sensor to gather as much light in as possible through a combination of low aperture settings (<F5), high ISO (1600 or 800), and long exposure (to prevent the image from being too dark). If you are in or near a city you likely won't be able to have your camera capture the most light it can (the image would be overexposed) . Moon light will cause the same problems. I have caught meteors with the moon nearly full but its difficult. You will want to shoot pretty much in the opposite part of the sky from the moon.

If you are in a city area or any place that doesn't have a really dark sky I would suggest starting off with dropping your ISO to 400 and then lowering your exposure length. I wouldnt drop it lower than 15 seconds though. If you are at 15 seconds and your image is still overexposed I would next lower your ISO further until you have a good image. It is possible that even at ISO 100 you could be overexposed (but probably not by much) so then go ahead and up your aperture but its likely you won't have to increase it too much. Just keep messing around with the settings until you get a image you are happy with.

3. Aperture - I usually have the aperture at its lowest setting possible (for me F 3.5). The aperture is the amount of light allowed to reach the image sensor through a opening/hole. Just think of the aperture as the iris in your eye (it contracts in bright light and expands in low light) and its the same thing with aperture except its the opening/hole that's changing in size instead of your iris.

4. ISO - ISO is a measure of the sensitivity of the image sensor to light. You will want to have your ISO set at the highest possible (1600 or 800). The higher the ISO you have your camera set at the more noise (graininess) will be present in the image but you are trying to capture all the light you can (since most meteors are dim and fast) so you want your ISO to be at the highest setting possible per the conditions. If you are not interested in anything but bright/fireball meteors then you can go with low ISO settings since that would produce the cleanest image and a fireball should be plenty bright enough to still be captured.

5. Exposure - I have had most of my success using 30 second exposures. Any shorter and you will have a very dark image and any longer and the stars will begin trailing too much. Here are a couple examples of star trails:

left picture - 30 minute exposure, right pictures - all night star trails

Some people like having longer star trails in their meteor images but I find it makes the whole thing too noisy. I like to be able to pick the meteor out easily at first glance and star trails can sometimes make that difficult. I do sometimes shoot 1 or 2 minute exposures and recently that's mostly what I have been shooting. There is some star trailing at 1-2 minutes but not a ton. Also, doing 1-2 minute exposures cuts down on the total images you have to go through. Most cameras have 30 second exposures but anything more than that you need to use the B (bulb) setting. The bulb setting allows the shutter to remain open (take the picture) for as long as you want. It helps to have a cable release that has a timer so you can specify the exposure length while using the bulb setting. There are ways to eliminate star trails (which really can really increase the quality of your images) including using a barn door tracker, piggybacking your camera onto a telescope that is on a motorized equatorial mount, and various other methods.

6. Focus - First, make sure your lens (any type) is set to manual focus (MF) not auto focus (AF). For meteor photography or indeed nearly any type of night time photography situation you need to have your focus set to infinity. Many digital slr lenses today don't have a marker for infinity so this can be troublesome if your in the middle of nowhere with no lights. If your lens has a marker for infinity focus (sideways 8) then just rotate the focus ring to that. If your lens doesn't have a infinity focus marker I suggest you make your own. Get some white out and head outside during the day. Find something very far away to focus on like trees/buildings etc on the horizon. Basically you need to focus on the farthest object you can readily focus on. I usually focus on a mountain 1 mile away or a cell phone tower light that is 2-3 miles away. To get a proper focus you will want to zoom in as far as you can on the object and focus the object till it is very crisp then carefully zoom back out all the way. Then (being very careful not to move the focus ring) swipe a thin line of white out between the focus ring (the part of the lens that turns to focus) and the main body of the lens (I would make the mark on the middle of the right side of the lens). Infinity focus can be very precise so after drawing the white out line focus again on your distant object and see if the line is exactly matched up. If it is then you should be able to properly focus even in complete dark.

7. Noise Reduction - Many digital SLR cameras have a setting that allows you to turn off or on a feature called noise reduction. Noise reduction is great when you are using ISO 1600/800 and during long exposures. The problem with noise reduction though is the processing time. The processing time is the time it takes for your camera to automatically remove the noise from the image and it does this after every shot is taken. While the camera is processing it can not take another picture. The exact length of this processing can vary by settings and by the make/model of the camera but typically it will take as long for the image to process as the exposure length of the image. So if you did a 30 second exposure it would take 30 seconds before you could take another picture. Its for this reason why I never use noise reduction (you would only be shooting half the time you were out!). Noise can be removed later by image editors anyway.

8. Settings Wrap - Now, with all that said you can come up with all sorts of different setting combinations that will work for meteor photography. The great thing about digital cameras is that you can see if something is wrong with your images right away (overexposure, etc). The most basic thing to remember though is to allow as much light into the camera as possible using aperture, ISO, and exposure without overexposing the image. If you are in a city you can still try to catch meteors... even a fireball in a city can be caught by your camera but having a dark sky is important.


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