It’s beyond words the awe that comes with the cosmos and astrophotography. Despite how many hundreds of images we see of the Milky Way, we still are endlessly fascinated. There is no denying the captivating beauty of star trails streaming across the night sky, and with the barrage of meteor showers coming up, we’ve put together some tips on how exactly to capture these stunning scenes of particles soaring around our planet.
Something to keep in mind for photographing stars and a meteor shower is that it’s much more like shooting a time-lapse versus still photos. There is no telling when exactly meteors will blaze across the sky, and in order to catch them, you’ll need to be prepared to take as many photos as you can with a wide angle lens. If your camera stays in the same spot, the resulting images can be use for a brief time-lapse clip in addition to your still photographs.
Here are a few morsels of instruction on capturing meteor showers:
- Find dark skies away from the brightness of the city. This nifty website: http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/ -is great as a general guide to find a place for night sky photography or try this one: http://www.cleardarksky.com/csk/
- Set up as quickly as possible because the more time you have with your shutter open, the greater the likelihood of capturing a meteor.
- Make sure you have a sturdy tripod to get crisp images of meteors streaking across the sky.
- Use a fast, wide-angle lens. This is the single most important facet in your meteor photography rig. With a wider field of view, you can capture that much more sky, and more meteors per hour. Remember that as you go wider, you also lose resolution as more sky is placed into the same number of pixels, thus making each object smaller. While being able to capture the entire sky is ideal, a smaller field of view will produce a better quality photo. Also crucial is speed. A faster lens will allow you to capture fainter meteors. For best results, use something in the < f/2.0 range that’s at least f/2.8 and ideally f/1.4. You don’t want to see a meteor fly through your field of view and check your camera later to see that it wasn’t imaged. There is no best camera for night sky photography, but a Nikon D800 handles a high ISO and noise induced from night photography seamlessly.
- Use a wired cable release—just a cord with a locking shutter release button. Your camera should be set to the widest aperture the lens allows and the highest ISO you’re comfortable shooting with and an exposure that yields the best outcome for the light, location, and phase of the moon. A solid place to start is f/2.8, ISO 2000 and 15-25 seconds. If you’re using an f/1.4 lens, even better as you’ll be able to shoot with a lower ISO and have a less noisy image. Once you’re set on your exposure, put your camera on continuous drive mode so it will take photos until you release, and lock the button down on the cable release.
- Make sure you have ample power supply with either a direct DC power connection to an external battery pack or a battery grip on your camera with dual batteries. The goal is to shoot all night with few or no breaks at all. The best meteors are usually just prior to sunrise, so make sure you’re taking photos all night. Most batteries give you around 2 hours of continuous shooting, which is fine in a pinch if you need to quickly swap.
- Have a large capacity and fast memory card. You want a card that has a fast enough write speed and that can hold an entire night’s worth of shooting so your camera can empty the cache and shoot continuously without having to pause. In the duration of time it takes to stop to change cards, you can miss a massive meteor. A 64G compact flash card should be able to get you through the majority of the night.
- One of the most essential steps is focusing. To image a night’s sky, you’ll need to focus to infinity, which can be a little complicated in the dark. The best is to pre-focus your lens when you still have sunlight. Then tape your focus ring with gaffer or duct tape so it stays in place while you’re setting up shots or moving around. Another option is to focus on the moon or bright star, or use your camera’s live-view function. Achieving accurate infinity focus is vital, and it’s best to quickly check your initial images on your laptop before committing.
- Keep condensation off your lens. If you want to shoot all night long, you’ll need to fend off dew in the summer and frost in the winter that can fog out your lens in just the first hour. The most effective tool in this case is an astronomy dew heater for a telescope. Most are just a Velcro strap that you can wrap around your lens with a heated wire that runs through it to prevent condensation.
- Finally, consider your composition. You can have all the right tools, but still need to frame a compelling shot. Select a foreground element such as mountains, rock formations or a grouping of trees to anchor the photo so it’s not just a shot of meteors and stars, but still maintains as much sky as possible. Positioning also makes a major impact. Pointing your camera slightly away from the radiant point of the shower produces longer meteors, as they’re not coming directly towards the camera.
Ready for some night sky photography? There are a number of sites where you can find upcoming meteor showers including space.com and earthsky.org. Make sure to check the weather as well and the moon phases so that you can be prepared.