Meteors are totally random events so it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when one will occur. On any clear night with no moonlight interference, you may see two or three meteors per hour, but the rates increase (sometimes dramatically!) during a meteor shower so this is a great time to try to take photos of meteors.
You may be surprised to learn that you don’t need a high end camera these days in order to capture meteors. In fact, some newer mobile phones have cameras that are capable of taking good night sky photos. If your phone camera is able to take exposures of a few seconds that allows you to photograph stars, then you can use that to attempt meteor photography.
There are apps that will help with this. For Android you can use Open Camera, for iPhone you can use Night Cap. Both will allow you to take a long sequence of photos (make sure your phone is anchored well so that it doesn’t move!) and if you’re lucky you will pick up some meteors.
Imaging with a DSLR Camera
What you need:
- Camera - you don’t need a high-end camera for this, just one that can take 10 to 15 second exposures. All of the photos in this article were taken with a Canon 1100D but you could use a bridge camera if that’s all you have
- Lens – I have had the best results using the 18-55mm kit lens. Wide angled lenses will cover more sky, but you risk losing the smaller, fainter meteors
- Tripod – essential to keep your camera still!
- Remote shutter cable – this will allow you to take a photo without touching the camera, and if you lock it in place it will continue taking a sequence of photos
- Makeshift dew band – if you’re imaging all night there is a good chance your camera lens will fog up because of dew. You can combat this by cutting the end off an old sock, wrapping it over the lens and tucking a couple of reusable hand warmers into it. This will help to keep the lens glass a little bit warmer than ambient temperature and will prevent dew from forming. If you want to make something a bit fancier, check out my Sky at Night DIY Astronomy article that shows you how to make a simple dew band.
- Set the camera to full manual + manual focus
- Set the ISO to either ISO-800 or ISO-1600 depending on your background light levels. If you have a budget or older camera, going higher than this will introduce a lot of noise into the image. If you have a newer camera and are in a very dark sky site, you may be able to push this higher
- Set the f/stop to the lowest the lens will allow. On the Canon 18-55mm kit lens this is f/3.5
- Set the shutter speed to between 10 to 15 seconds. Meteors generally only last a couple of seconds. You will pick up meteors if you expose for longer, but you run the risk of losing fainter meteors in the background glow if you expose for too long
- Make sure your camera is set to continuous so when you lock the remote shutter cable in place it will keep taking photos
- Focus the lens – do this by pointing your camera at the brightest star or planet you can see. Then use the live view screen and zoom in on the star and adjust the focus until you have it looking like a tiny point of light
- Image quality – for most astrophotography purposes the advice is to always shoot in RAW because it gives you the best quality, uncompressed images. However, if you are shooting all night long for several nights around the peak of the shower, you are going to generate several thousand photographs. If these are in RAW you will rapidly fill up memory cards and computer hard drives! Another important issue is that budget memory cards and older cameras have a very slow write-to-card speed when you shoot in RAW. Those crucial seconds offline between shots may just be the time you miss a bright fireball. For those reasons I always shoot meteor showers on the highest quality JPEG setting
Framing your Shot
Don’t Point at the Radiant! - Meteors that belong to a particular meteor shower may occur anywhere in the sky, but if you trace their paths back, they will all appear to originate in the same spot. The constellation where the radiant lies is where a shower gets its name from. For example, the radiant of the Perseids Meteor Shower lies in Perseus. If you point your camera straight at the radiant, any meteors you photograph will probably have shorter trails. It’s much better to point the camera about 45 degrees up from the horizon and 45 degrees away from the radiant. Chose a direction where you have the darkest skies to get the best results.
Add some foreground context - It is always amazing to get a photograph of a meteor, especially when it’s a bright one, but what makes a photo even better is when you have something in the foreground for context. Think about this when you decide where to point your camera.
Shooting the Photos
Once you’ve decided on your framing and your camera is focused, lock the remote shutter cable in place and just leave the camera running. Because meteors can happen anytime, if you keep stopping to review the photos you may miss a bright event. Also, if you do see a bright meteor that was in the field of view of your camera, don’t stop imaging to look at the photo – if you keep taking photos immediately after the bright event, you may pick up the ionization trail left behind. You can then create a timelapse of that slowly dissipating after the event. If you stop to look through your photos you could miss capturing this. The photo in Figure E shows a bright Perseid that left behind a lovely ionization trail. You can see the timelapse of this on our You Tube video that accompanies this article.
When reviewing the photos it can be difficult to tell whether something was a faint meteor or a satellite trail. This is where shooting on continuous will help you. Meteors are extremely fast events so it would be very unusual for an event to cross over into two images. When reviewing the photos, if your trail is visible in several consecutive frames it’s probably a satellite. With the advent of satellite mega constellations, you are going to pick up a lot of satellite trails on your images.
Also remember that not all meteors you’ve captured will be part of the meteor shower that is at its peak. There are often minor showers running at the same time plus we are constantly bombarded by sporadic meteors. So, make sure you follow the path back to see if it passes through the radiant before attributing the meteor to a particular shower.
Hopefully if you follow these steps, you will pick up some meteors on camera. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get lots – very often I can take several thousand photos around the peak of a shower and only get between one and ten meteor photos! If your camera has been pointing in the same direction you can always load all of your images into StarStaX and create an awesome star trails image. You can also create a lovely night sky timelapse with the photos.