Catch a Falling Star (With Your Camera)

meteor showers
UNSPECIFIED – SEPTEMBER 07: A bright meteor during Perseid meteor shower (Aug. 12) is captured in a star trail image of constellation Orion. (Photo by Babek Tafreshi/SSPL/Getty Images)

One of the hottest meteor showers ever will streak across the skies on August 11/12. What makes this so special is that astronomers expect an outburst of Perseid meteors! In non-astronomy terms, an outburst means 200 meteors per hour and that is double the norm.

Meteors will be visible in the evening of August 11th. They will be best seen after the moon sets at 12:30 AM plus or minus depending on your location. So if the outburst occurs before dawn, the moon won’t be in the way. If it should occur earlier, the viewing will be shortchanged but it’s a long night and well worth hanging out until pre-dawn because astronomers forecast that meteors will continue to streak across the sky until then. Also, note that the Perseid shower rises gradually to a peak, and then abruptly falls off. In a typical year, the Perseid meteors start to fly at mid-to-late evening from northerly latitudes. The biggest showers usually occur after midnight until predawn.

There are many dark sky locations in our National Parks to view and photograph this shower. At National Park Photographic Expeditions ( we will set up camp at the Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve. The Hole in the Wall and Mid Hills Campgrounds are also excellent spots. We’ve noted that on previous photographic expeditions, the Kelso Sand Dunes is an easy and great location to view the Milky Way with an unobstructed southern sky. However, to see the maximum number of meteors, we’ll be watching and photographing towards the northwest when the radiant point, in the constellation Perseus, is overhead. At that time the shower could be spectacular in the hours before dawn.

Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower

The main ingredients for successful meteor shower photography is persistence, patience, and take many, many images because this process is more like time-lapse work. Like lightning strikes, you will never know where or when a meteor is going to streak across the sky. Thus, take as many images as possible throughout the evening with a wide-angle lens on your camera. I recommend leaving the camera in the same position during the night which will allow you to process the resulting images for a short time-lapse clip in addition to the still images you can capture. This also allows you to stack these images in Photoshop for a star and meteor trails look.

Tips for great meteor shower images.

Use a good sturdy tripod.

I also recommend a ball head, which allows you to achieve compositional precision.

Focus to infinity.

This can be somewhat tricky in the dark, so pre-focus the lens when the sun is up or focus during the moonlight period. You can also focus on the moon or a bright star, or use your camera’s live-view function. Whatever you do, do not use Auto Focus because setting an accurate infinity focus is critical.

You will need a wired cable release.

Invest in the best for this tool.

Use the highest ISO possible relative to noise.

Set your camera to the widest aperture the lens will allow, and the highest ISO that generates the least amount of noise. I use F2.8, 16-35, L zoom, on my Canon 5D mark III with excellent results at ISO 2000 at 15-25 seconds. If you have an f/1.4 lens, that’s even better as it will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO and thus less noise.

Use the 500 rule to find the right exposure time.

Divide 500 by the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) Before Stars Start to “Trail”. For example, a 16 mm focal length divided by 500 = 31.25 seconds of exposure; 24 mm would be 20.8 seconds. This is a good starting point but bracketing times can be useful. When you have an exposure time that works, put the camera on continuous drive mode, and lock the button down on the cable release.

Make sure you have several fully charged batteries on hand.

You will be shooting many images with long exposure and that means a big drain on power resources. Several fully charged batteries will be useful.

Face northwest to northeast depending upon any possible light pollution on the horizon.

From experience, I have found that positioning the camera to the north and away from the Milky Way gives me the blackest skies at this time of year. Setting the camera slightly off center of the radiant point works best to capture longer meteor streaks. I have used the radiant point as a reference in the past and found that meteors were coming straight at the camera for shorter duration shots.

This is the time to use a fast 32 to 64 GB flash card.

It’s best if you can capture the entire night on one card with a fast write speed so that your camera can empty the cache and continue to take images without pausing.

Perseid meteor showerGet your composition established before dark.

Your meteor story will be far more compelling if you use a foreground composition consisting of any object that gives the viewer a sense of earth space depth. Items such as trees, rocks, and sand dunes will provide a tight Figure/Ground relationship. However, meteor images should be sky dominant, which is why I use a wide-angle lens. I can always crop for effect later.

Post-Production in Adobe Lightroom will take good images to great.

I’ll post some tips on how to do this in the next blog.

So get out there, have fun, and catch a falling star with your camera.

If you have photographed the Perseid Meteor Shower, we would love to see your results. Send us a message!

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