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How to photograph meteors and meteor showers

How to photograph meteors and meteor showers - a meteor streaks across the night sky
(Image credit: Stuart Cornell)

Watching meteors flash across the sky is one of the most impressive sights we can witness at night. To successfully photograph meteors and meteor showers using your camera you will need to be armed with some prior knowledge of your subject, patience and a small dose of luck. Not so long ago you would’ve had to invest a small fortune on rolls of film and developing costs in order to get that elusive meteor image, and even then there was no guarantee you’d get a quality shot. Now, with modern technology at our fingertips, it has never been easier to spend a night under the stars and go home with your own suite of awe-inspiring meteor images. Yes, there’s still a degree of luck involved with photographing meteors, but we’ll look at how you can maximize your chances so that luck plays a much smaller part.

Our guide on how to photograph meteors is part of a range of features on Space.com to help you get better at snapping the night sky. We also have tips on how to photograph the moon, and a guide on how to shoot the aurora borealis

Choosing a meteor shower

To understand the best times to photograph meteors, let’s first consider what a meteor is: a rocky space object, known as a meteoroid, entering Earth’s atmosphere at very high speed and ionizing the air around it, producing light as it burns up. These particles range in size from fragments the size of a grain of sand to some larger than a football. Most of this rocky matter is the debris left behind from comets and asteroids.

At regular times during the year, Earth passes through the dusty paths of comets orbiting the Sun. When this happens, the higher concentration of cosmic particles hitting the Earth’s atmosphere results in a meteor shower. Meteor showers are generally named after the constellation nearest to the apparent origin point of the meteors. Arguably, the best-known meteor shower is the Perseids, originating in the region of the constellation Perseus and peaking in mid-August. Other significant meteor showers are the Orionids, Leonids, Geminids, Taurids, Aquarids, Quadrantids and Lyrids.

In this 30-second exposure by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower on Aug. 12, 2016, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

(Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA on The Commons/Flickr)

There are some excellent resources available to assist you in pinpointing the dates and times of these meteor showers throughout the year. The Photopills smartphone app, for example, has detailed information specific to your location, which will help you to choose a date that coincides with high meteor activity. Another useful online resource is the American Meteor Society. Typically, the peak period of activity during a meteor shower (and therefore best for photography) is from midnight and into the early hours. 

Other factors to consider when choosing your target meteor shower are light pollution and the moon phases. Many smaller meteors will be washed out by the relative brightness of the moon and other artificial light sources, so it’s important to select a dark sky location well away from light pollution and a bright moon phase where possible. 

What do you need?

Now that we’ve decided when to shoot, let’s take a brief look at the equipment you’ll need:

Camera: A modern digital camera with a Manual mode. Full frame, APS-C and Micro Four Thirds type cameras are ideal.

Lens: Wide or super-wide angle lenses are best for meteor showers. Keep in mind that the shorter your focal length, the wider your field of view will be, thereby increasing your chances of capturing a meteor. Lenses in the range of 14mm to 35mm for full frame (or around 10mm to 50mm for APS-C) with a widest aperture of f/2.8 or below are perfect for the job. Shoot at the lowest f-stop available. If your aperture opens very wide, you can afford to stop down the aperture slightly, which will help to preserve sharpness and star shapes.

Camera with wide angle lens

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tripod: The sturdier, the better to avoid shake-free shooting.

Intervalometer: You will be taking multiple frames one after another for an extended period of time so you will need an intervalometer, either as a plug-in accessory or by using the internal intervalometer that some camera models support. They’re between $20-40 from most stores.

Lens/Dew Heater and portable Power Bank: There’s nothing worse than shooting continuously for several hours before realizing your lens fogged up a long time ago, rendering many of the images useless. It can get cold at night, even in the summer months, so it’s important to keep your lens dew-free for the duration of your photography session. A dew heater is a battery powered heated element that wraps around your lens to keep it toasty and ward off the dew. Remember to charge the power bank before you leave home! Again, these aren’t much more than about $20-30 in cost.

Spare battery: Continuous shooting will drain your battery, particularly in the cold, so make sure you have a back-up battery in case you run out of juice.

Warm clothes: Spending hours in the cold is no fun if you’re not prepared for the conditions. Layer up to keep warm and comfortable.

Where should I point my camera?

Camera focusing on night sky

(Image credit: Getty images)

Meteors can be seen anywhere in the sky. As we discussed earlier, meteor showers have a point in the sky from which they appear to originate – the "Radiant". Use the online tools and phone apps at your disposal to locate the position of the radiant for the time and date of the meteor shower you have chosen to shoot.

Although it’s tempting, try not to aim your camera directly towards the radiant, as the meteors closest to the radiant will appear small and unimpressive. Instead, position the radiant towards the edge of the frame, roughly at an angle of around 40 to 60 degrees from the radiant. If you aim your camera about 60 degrees up, your wide-angle lens should cover a large area of sky and also include some land for some added scale and interest.

Camera settings

The process of photographing meteors is very similar to that used for general night photography. We won’t cover the settings in great detail here, but you can find more information on recommended settings in our guide on astrophotography for beginners

Firstly, make sure you are shooting in Manual mode. If you plan to post-process your images later, make sure you are shooting in RAW file format. Large JPEG file format is fine if you don’t plan to process your shots.

December is usually marked by a series of meteor showers. Geminid meteors (like the one seen in this picture of Florida) light up the skies at the beginning of the month, while the Ursids - which peak tonight (Dec. 22) - put on a show just before Christmas.

(Image credit: Jean Clark )

Once you’ve framed your composition of the sky, use the Live View function of your camera to digitally zoom into a star or distant light source to manually set your focus. It’s a good idea to do this with your dew heater on, if you have one, so that the focus point is not accidentally shifted when it’s attached. You can also stick some tape on your lens to stop the focus ring moving. 

With your lens aperture at f/2.8 or lower, use the ‘500-rule’ to set your shutter speed. Start with an ISO of 3200 or 6400 and adjust from there (take a few test shots to find out what works best for your location). If you have Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) enabled on your camera, switch this off… you are guaranteed to miss the best meteors while your camera is creating a noise reduction frame!

You are now primed for action! Set your intervalometer to run for as long as you can, with 2 or 3 second intervals between exposures to maximize your chances of capturing a streaking meteor or fireball. Get comfortable, sit back and enjoy the celestial entertainment while your camera does all the hard work!

DSLR versus mirrorless for astrophotography

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Creative ideas for your meteor images

After your photography session you should have many images on your memory card, hopefully with several meteors and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a fireball or two. If you are post-processing your images, you could composite multiple meteors into a single image so that the meteors you captured all point back to the radiant, which you included in your composition. Alternatively, you could create a star trail using a stack of your images, or even a stunning time lapse of the night. 

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A coastline photographer, Stuart Cornell specializes in capturing images of the night sky. His work has been featured in several national newspapers.