How to take photos of a meteor shower

I have been an amateur photographer for years and some of my favorite times to take pictures are at night.  You can get some mighty impressive night shots and a meteor shower is bound to provide you with a very rewarding evening.

Preparation is a must as once you get out in the middle of a rural open area far away from civilization, missing pieces of equipment or forgotten supplies can ruin you evening.  I recommend following these steps.

Geminid Meteor Shower by evosia

Geminid Meteor Shower by evosia

Travel Plan

Put together a travel plan for the location where you will be taking the pictures.  Even if you have access and permission to take pictures from top of a tall building, write down the exact location and the time you expect to be back.

Give copies of your plans to two people you trust and tell them they should start looking for you if you miss returning by six hours or so.  An injury that immobilizes you can be catastrophic if no one knows where you are.

Comfort (Survival) Supplies

Even if the weather is warm tale a couple of blankets, a large plastic painter’s drop cloth and several layers of clothing to keep you dry and warm.  An unexpected cold snap has ruined many a hiker’s trip; hypothermia can kill you.  Wool clothing and blankets are the best for keeping you warm.  A chair is also helpful to wait for the shooting stars and it also keeps you off of the damp ground.

Take plenty of water and drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated.  If you are expecting hot weather, also take a couple of drinks that can replace your lost electrolytes.

An ice chest is very helpful for keeping your drinks cold.  It can also be used to reduce swelling if you sprain your ankle.

Equipment

Hopefully you will not forget your camera, wide angle and zoom lenses.  Also pack plenty of fully-charged batteries for your camera and also spare batteries for any other equipment you may have (GPS, Phone, etc.).

Next, you want to have a good tripod to prevent shaky, blurred photos.  Bags filled with sand or lead shot to stabilize the tripod and make it a rock-solid platform for your pictures.  I prefer lead shot, as sand eventually will leak from the best sand bags and migrate to your lenses and cameras.

One or more short bungee cords will help hang your weight bag(s) from the apex of the tripod.  A shutter release cable or wireless remote control (even better) reduces any possible camera shake when you take a picture.

Have several memory cards and change them out often.  Yes, I used to take two memory cards and keep shooting until one was full and then change them out.  Now, I take five or six after losing a whole day’s shooting because the memory card decided to irreversibly fail.  If you use film take a lot of rolls of all the various speeds you think you will use.  Take twice as many rolls as you just calculated.

A small flashlight is a necessity.  Wrap red cellophane over the light; this will allow you to see and still retain your night vision.

A compass is very important in finding the direction to point your camera.  You will not see much activity if the meteor shower is visible in the Southwest sky and you are looking Northeast.

Location

Regardless of where you shoot, be respectful of other people’s property.  Ask permission to use private property if that is an ideal spot.  Get written permission to protect yourself from trespassing charges and make sure you leave the property as clean or cleaner than when you found it.

Get away from street lights as they can fog the pictures and affect the exposure.  Wide, open fields are great.  You may even decide to rent a camp site in a remote area and spend the night in comfort.

The roof of a tall building is a good spot, but use extreme caution not to get near the edge of a roof.  Tripping and falling off the roof will ruin your evening.  Also make sure you get permission to be there and let any security guards know you will be taking pictures.  You do not need a guard shining a high-powered flashlight while you are taking pictures with long exposure times.

Setup

Find a nice spot to sit your tripod.  Adjust the legs so the tripod platform is level.  Mount your shot bags to stabilize the tripod.  Many tripods have a hook at the apex (where the legs come together) for this purpose.

Position your chair(s) where you want them.  Arrange ice chests and other items where you can get to them easily.  Setting up in the daylight is much easier than in the dark!

Camera Positioning

Position your camera upward in the direction of where you expect to see the meteor shower.  Use your compass to set your bearings.

A camera angle between 30 to 45 degrees from horizontal will give you the best shots.  Check your view to make sure no trees, buildings or towers are intruding into the picture.  Check for these in the daylight.  You may not see trees in the dark, but they will show up with long exposures.  That said, interesting pictures can be had by including interesting trees and such.

Geminid Meteor above a Joshua Tree by evosia

Geminid Meteor above a Joshua Tree by evosia

If your camera has a night more, enable it.  This will limit the number of bright pixels of noise that show up in digital cameras in the dark.

Set the exposure time for  between 1 minute and 1-1/2 minutes,

Set your lens aperture to the largest setting possible – the smaller the number, the better.  Remember small number = large aperture.

As soon as it gets dark, start taking pictures in intervals of one to two minutes.  This is where digital cameras really shine.  Keep taking pictures and changing out memory cards.

Do not try to take what you think is the “perfect” meteor shot.  When you see it, it will disappear before your reflexes can trigger the shutter.  Don’t worry about the shots you missed.

Most of all have fun and stay safe!

Geminid Meteor Shower via Flickr by evosia

Geminid Meteor above a Joshua Tree via Flickr by evosia

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