Photographing meteors and shooting stars has become a tradition among shutterbugs and fans of astronomy alike. If you'd like to try your hand at taking memorable meteor photos, check out the techniques NASA photographers and amateurs often use to capture the beauty of these astronomical wonders.
Preparation is Key When Photographing Meteors
Although most of the planning that goes into photographing meteors occurs close to the shower, there are some things you can do to prepare early, including:
Meteor showers don't come around very often. Study charts, calendars and online resources like EarthSky's meteor shower guides, or the American Meteor Society's forecasts to make sure you collect reliable data regarding when the next meteor shower will appear in your area.
Generally, film cameras take better meteor photos than digital models. However, any high-end analog camera will likely meet your needs, but make sure the one you choose has a locking cable release and a shutter that allows time exposures. If it's digital or nothing, select a good quality SLR (single-lens reflex) camera with which you can capture time exposures.
According to Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society, 1000 or 800 speed film produces good images of meteors, but other photographers feel high film speeds render overly-grainy photos. Try out speeds between 100 and 400 before moving on to higher speed films.
If you're lucky enough to have a selection of camera lenses at your disposal, consider yourself lucky. While you're basking in the luxury of choice, most amateur photographers must make do with whatever lens comes with their cameras. Ideally, a fisheye lens or a wide lens that functions a rapid speeds work best for photographing meteors, but if you only have a standard or zoom lens, don't let it deter you from snapping shots of shooting stars.
Tips for Photographing Meteors
Culled from the minds of professional space and night sky photographers, as well as amateur enthusiasts, the following tips will help you take slick-looking photographs during meteor showers:
Understanding how your camera will record the available light beforehand is critical in successfully photographing meteors. Pick a clear evening before the meteor shower to test your settings and take detailed notes for future referral. Every camera is different, but typically, it's best to choose low focal ratio (F stop) settings in order to keep the camera's aperture open wide enough to record faint streaks of light. Make the necessary adjustments for time exposures and set the camera's focus on infinity.
Exposure and Timing
Your test run will also provide invaluable information about the proper length of time needed for film exposure. The only way to figure out how long your timed exposures should be is by experimentation and careful testing. Surrounding light pollution can factor into the length of exposure, so keep an eye out for unwanted light sources while photographing meteors. In addition to Lunsford's views on film, he also has a thought or two about exposure length. Based on his own experiences, he recommends 10-minute exposures in very dark areas and five-minute exposures in brighter locations. Adjust these figures to suit your equipment and your environment.
To secure the best shooting spot, beat the rush and arrive at your destination early to start setting up your equipment. Remember that both astronomy buffs and other photographers are probably going to show up at the shower too, so it's crucial to get an early start. Choose a spot as far away from other light sources, such as city lights, porch lights, and traffic lights. Then, get your tripod stabilized, set-up your camera and wait for the show to begin.
The Final Frontier
Americans have a lasting love affair with the night sky, especially when foreign bodies enter it. Photographing meteors prolongs the sense of magic and mysticism we feel when the telltale streaks light up the sky. Why not document a bit of that magic by aiming your camera at the sky the next time meteors fly over you?