On the evening of December 13th and early morning of December 14 the Geminid Meteor shower is set to peak.
It’s one thing to be able to see this stunning show with the naked eye, but how about capturing some of this astral activity for posterity? If you have a decent digital camera, that’s certainly within the realms of possibility – and here’s how you can do it.
Note: Most of these tips can be applied to any meteor shower.
Location, location, location
Before you start to set up, make sure that you’re able to see the stars clearly. The moon will be a thin crescent during the Lyrid shower, so shouldn’t provide any real interference – but light pollution from other sources may do.
If you live in a city you’re going to have a tough time seeing anything, let alone photographing it. So if possible, get to a sparsely-populated area where manmade lighting won’t affect your view too much.
There’s one thing you can’t do much about, and that’s the weather. If it’s overcast where you are, you’re probably not going to see a thing. Tragic, we know – so keep your fingers crossed for a crisply clear sky.
If you do go out, it’ll take about 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness. So wrap up warm and plan ahead.
Where to look in the sky?
The meteor shower is most likely to be visible in the direction of the constellation of Draco, the Dragon, in the northern sky, just after nightfall.
If you’re struggling to find Draco, a smartphone app like SkyView (Android, Apple) or Sky Map (Android, Apple) will make things much easier. These apps identify stars and other celestial bodies and locate them in the night sky via augmented reality, using your phone’s sensors and screen to point you in the right direction.
The photographic kit you’ll need
The key to photographing the night sky is stability – you’re going to be taking longer exposures than you’d normally be and shooting handheld isn’t going to cut it. So you’ll need a tripod – or at worst something stable to rest your camera on.
A cable release, which allows you to fire the camera’s shutter without actually touching the camera, is also highly recommended. Even pressing your camera’s shutter button will cause the body and lens to move to a degree that may result in a blurred exposure, so anything you can do to minimise contact is helpful. If you don’t have a cable release, you can use your camera’s self-timer to fire the shutter without contact, but as this will involve a delay, it’s not ideal for shooting meteors – they don’t hang around very long.
If you have a DSLR or compact system camera and a few lenses, use the widest and fastest lens you own. The wide angle will fit more of the sky in its field-of-view, meaning you’ve got more chance of capturing a shooting star. Keeping the aperture wide open will minimise exposure time.
And don’t forget to charge your battery (or ideally batteries) beforehand. You’ll be using slow shutter times and long exposures, which will drain power more quickly than regular shots.
Use long exposures: Because the night sky is so dark, you’ll need to take much longer exposures than you’re probably used to. In regular photography, the shutter will open for a fraction of a second – here, you’ll be keeping it open for several seconds. On a dark night, a long exposure lets the camera’s sensor take in enough light information to construct a visible image where stars, clouds and hopefully meteors will appear clearly in the photo.
ISO number: Your camera’s ISO sensitivity is also important here. The higher the ISO number, the greater the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light – but pushing it too high will result in your images being plagued by brightly-coloured digital noise that looks nasty and destroys detail.
Determining how long to keep the shutter open and how high to set the ISO is usually a matter of trial and error – it differs greatly depending on the camera and lens being used – so before you start shooting in earnest, take some test shots of the sky at different shutter speeds and ISO settings until you find a balance you like.
Autofocus: You’ll probably want to turn autofocus off too. Autofocus systems generally lose speed and accuracy in low light, and that delay could cost you a great photo. Switch your camera to manual focus if possible, and set the focus to infinity – this will keep all the stars in focus, allowing you to concentrate on hitting the shutter at the right time.
Composition: Also consider your photos’ composition. Situating a few objects in the foreground of your frame – trees or buildings, for instance – will give your photos a greater sense of place than if they only show a section of the sky.
Our final tip: keep shooting. The beauty of digital means that you can take as many photos as you like (storage providing), and with the long exposure times there’s every chance you’ll catch a few meteors if you spend an hour or two shooting. Happy hunting!