Nothing is quite as exhilarating – to me at least – as watching the sky explode with “falling stars” or meteors as they are more properly called. Major meteor showers occur through out the year but the most spectacular and reliable showers are the Perseids in August, the Lyrids in April, and the Geminids in December. Other notable showers include the unpredictable Leonids in November. In fact, in November there are quite a few minor meteor showers including the Northern and Southern Taurids, and the Aquarids.
An absolutely brilliant example of well captured meteors can be found in Gary Randall‘s work.
Photo 1: by Gary Randall. Gary captured 26 meteors over a 3 hour period and realigned them to show their path through the starry sky. 30 second captures f/2.8 ISO 1600 at 11mm on a Nikon D90.
Capturing meteors is much harder than it may seem, however and getting results Like Gary’s is far from a “done deal”. Let’s investigate why and figure out how to successfully capture them.
If you’ve been reading this column for a while you’ve probably already successfully captured a star filled sky. Your camera settings were likely something like this:
ISO 200, f/4, 30 seconds, Focal length 24mm.
There are two components to meteors that make them difficult to capture.
- Meteors do not appear in a predictable location in the sky. Indeed all meteors from a particular shower appear to radiate from a single point in the sky, but the meteors streaks may appear anywhere.
- Meteors are fast. Very fast. And even though they may be bright their speed makes them more difficult to capture because their light does not linger over pixels in the sensor like stars or stationary objects do.
Since meteors may appear anywhere in the sky a common strategy is to use the widest possible lens you can and “fire the shotgun” at the sky. This strategy can work however use of a wider angle lens means the sensor area that will be struck by the light from a meteor is diminished.
Most important, however is the effective exposure. A short exposure with a wide open aperture at the highest acceptable ISO setting will catch the most meteors against a still sky. In other words ISO 2000, f/1.8, 20-30 seconds at 50mm focal length will capture a streak more effectively. If you can stomach it, ISO 6400 will capture even more – and it may not matter that the image is noisy because you may end up using only the “streak” not the whole frame. It may seem tempting to just expose for say 10 minutes but unless the sky is very dark, that strategy will not work well. Skyglow will overwhelm the area through which the meteor passes and thus reduce the contrast.
The second problem is where to point the camera. If you use a wide angle lens or a fisheye lens you can point it almost anywhere you like. But it is helpful to know where the radiant point is. I like to be sure that the radiant point is in the picture. There is a downside to shooting near the radiant point: the closer the meteor is to the radiant point, the more “straight on” the meteor will be and the shorter the trail will be. However pointing the camera somewhere away from the radiant point means your chances of catching a meteor go down exponentially – but what you do capture may have a longer streak.
It took me nearly 1200 attempts to get this one meteor in my back yard in San Jose, California. The camera was a Canon 50D at f/5.6 and ISO 1600. It is much noticeably grainier than a more recent capture on my 5D Mk II from Maui.
Photo 2: One in 1600 shots that caught (almost all) of a meteor glancing through Orion’s belt. Settings: f/5.6, ISO 1600, 30 seconds, 23mm.
Here is an interesting thing to note: the radiant point of the Perseid Meteor is not far from the north celestial pole – that is, where Polaris the north star is. The radiant point of Leo, however is near the celestial equator. Why would that matter? It matters because in 3 hours the Leonid radiant point will have moved a fourth of the way across the sky while the Perseid radiant point will be probably still be in your frame. In fact, David Kingham has written an excellent article about how to point your camera specifically for the Perseid Meteor Shower.
Back to Gary’s work for a moment. The meteors did not all come at once… no sir. The earth was busy rotating and the meteors shown in the photo were captured over 3 hours time! Had they all occurred at once they might have looked like the Photo 1 above. Placing each meteor where it fell in the frame shows a different story – still compelling, but a bit more chaotic.
My thanks to Gary Randall for allowing me to show his excellent work. I heartily suggest you purchase a poster of his work to inspire you. I am doing so!
For more information about meteor showers and how to view them, there are many sites on the internet. EarthSky.org is a great resource, for example.