How to Photograph a Meteor Shower
- By: Luis Argerich
Summertime has arrived, the sun shines, the nights are warm and one of the biggest meteor showers approaches its date: The Perseids. Major meteor showers like the Perseids produce 50-100 meteors or shooting stars per hour under unpolluted clear skies it’s a very nice show to see and it’s also a very nice event for photography. In this article we’ll discuss some tips and ideas to photograph meteor showers.
Meteor showers are produced when the Earth intercepts debris left by a comet or asteroid, the fragments usually smaller than 4 inches burn in the atmosphere producing a “shooting star” or meteor. Bigger fragments can produce a fireball as it burns and may even fragment into smaller pieces.
You need to know the date of the event and the direction where the radiant will be in the sky. The radiant is a common point in the sky where meteors converge. For the Perseids the date is 12-13 of August 2011 and the radiant is the constellation of Perseus.
The Perseids develop slowly so the nights before and after the peak can also produce some meteors. To avoid Moon glare the night of August 10 2011 might probably be the best choice for meteors. You need luck, the best show may be the 10th, 11th, 12th or 13th of August, there’s no real way to predict the real thing.
Perseid Meteors are usually beautifully and yellow-green under dark skies a Perseid Meteor Shower can bring you a photograph like this one by Robert Arn:
You can use software such as stellarium (www.stellarium.org) to find Perseus from your location and know where to aim for the meteors. In 2011 the Moon will be a problem washing away the fainter meteors but the bright ones will still be visible and if you are lucky you might even catch a bolide. In 2011 expect from 10 to 60 meteors per hour under dark unpolluted skies.
Use the widest lens you have and aim at the radiant, use the lens wide open, a very high ISO (1600 or 3200) and short exposure times between 5 and 30 seconds. A longer exposure will wash the faint meteors due to sky-glow. If you have an intervalometer program it to shoot continuously and just hope to be lucky. Without an intervalometer prepare your finger because it may hurt!
How to Know if you Got a Meteor
Traces and trails in your photos can be a plane, a satellite or a meteor. Planes are easy to identify as they have several lights, sometimes of different colors leaving a continuous trail in the photo. Satellites show a thin continuous line and might flare in a symmetric way (dim-bright-dim again). Meteors show shorter trails they go from faint to bright and then disappear,usually have a “head” and may display colors such as white, yellow, green, red and even blue. Most meteors will seem to radiate from the same point in the sky, but a few sporadics can appear anywhere. Satellites will not show this pattern as they have no radiant.
The photo above has zero meteors, all the trails are from artificial satellites, compare them to the previous photos showing real meteors to know how to distinguish one from another. Satellites are very common in night-photography so you will probably catch a few of them.
If you get a fireball you will have a precious photo to be proud of,if you don’t but you have a few small meteors you can create a composite loading all the photos as layers in a photo-editing software and see if the meteors seem to radiate from a point in the sky. The final composite can be a good way to remember what you saw from the meteor shower.
This beautiful composite by Phil Hart shows how the meteors seem to radiate from a fixed point in the sky. It’s one of the many ideas you can have for a meteor-shower.
Choose a date, prepare for the session and good luck!
Check out The Monthly Sky Guide (for Kindle); “The Monthly Sky Guide offers a clear and simple introduction to the skies of the northern hemisphere for beginners of all ages.”