Meteor photography 101

Photographing meteors – like the Orionids, active right now – is loads of fun and with a bit of luck, you can catch a big, bright one! Here is how you do it.

Equipment:

  • A camera with the option of making long exposures. Any interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or mirrorless) will have the option, many compact cameras and some phone cameras also have the option.
  • A remote trigger for the camera (or timer).
  • A tripod.
  • A meteor shower. The stronger, the better.

How to do it – camera settings
The best time to photograph meteors is during maxima of major meteor showers, such as the Quadrantids, Perseids and Geminids. Moderately strong meteor showers, such as the Lyrids, Southern Delta Aquarids, Orionids, Taurids, Leonids and Urisds are fine too. When photographing meteors avoid using Auto and preset scene modes. You need to be in control of the camera. Set the mode to long exposure. There are several ways about it and they may vary depending on your camera brand. One of these is M – Manual. Some cameras may have B – Bulb mode. This mode allows you to use a remote trigger to do exposures of any length. The other mode that is useful is the shutter priority mode (Tv or S). With this mode you can select the exposure time for your photo. All interchangeable lens cameras have these modes, regardless of the brand – Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony or any other, you will be fine.


How to do it – lens choice
Virtually any wide field or standard lens will do, so will any mid-range zooms. Most entry and up to prosumer crop sensor (DX or APS-C) cameras come with a mid-range ‘kit’ zoom lens, which is usually between 16 and 18 mm at the wide end and f/2.8 to f/3.5. These are fine for meteors, just use sufficiently high ISO setting to capture meteors, 1600 or more will be good. How far up the ISO scale you want to go depends mostly on your tolerance for noise. 50 mm standard lenses are fine too, usually f/1.4 to f/1.8, they gather a lot of light, so they can capture fainter meteors than mid-range zooms. The down side of these lenses is the small field of view, particularly on crop sensor cameras. 50 mm will be OK, but do not go to longer focal lengths as the field of view becomes too small. The best lenses for meteors are the newest wide field lenses with maximum aperture f/1.4 to f/2.0, available from several brands (Samyang, Rokinon and, especially, new Sigma Art).

In the field, after you select the mode and prepare the camera (mounted on the tripod), make sure the camera is level. Look through the viewfinder and make sure the horizon is level. Then focus the lens. The easiest way to do it is to set it to manual focus, and focus it on a distant light or a star. Use live view (with maximum magnification) for this. Once you have focused, keep the lens in manual focus mode to avoid the camera refocusing. Set the aperture to fully open and the ISO and you are ready to go. Be ready to shoot *many* photos before catching the first good meteor, but the more persistent you are, the more likely you are to catch a great one!

This is what a typical meteor will look like. A streak of light, likely greenish. Unlike satellites, a meteor will have a relatively smooth light curve – brightening steadily, brightest in the second half of its trail, a more steep brightness drop-off at the end. Brighter meteors can be punctuated by irregular brightness flares. Photo: Marko Korošec / Weather-photos.net

Two bright Perseids streak down the southern sky. Photo: Marko Korošec / Weather-photos.net

Perseids shoot behind a windmill; composite. Photo: Marko Korošec / Weather-photos.net

Brilliant Lyrid fireball shoots down the Milky Way. Note the reflection in the sea. Photo: Marko Korošec / Weather-photos.net

BINGO! Try not to have a heart attack when you catch a brilliant fireball, this one from the Taurid meteor shower. This meteor was brighter than the full Moon and lit up the sky and landscape. Photo: Jure Atanackov.