It’s the time of the year stargazers anxiously await, readying themselves for a stretch of nightlong light shows in the sky. Yep, ’tis the season of the Perseid meteor shower, one of the most beloved (and arguably the best) annual meteor showers.
The peak of the big blitz of bright fireballs criss-crossing overhead arrives the night of Monday, August 12, but you’ll have a good chance at seeing quite a bit of action in the days leading up to and following the peak. And though the rate of meteors per hour won’t be as high as at the peak, the fact that a waxing gibbous moon will be in the sky the the night of the peak could impede seeing some of the fainter ones then. In other words, the weekend through early in the week is prime viewing time.
The optimal time to look up is between 2am and dawn (local time). If you’re planning to schlep out to a good viewing spot (away from light pollution) or attend a viewing party nearby, you may also be compelled to snap some photos. Of course, actually getting a good shot of a ball of fire racing across the sky is tougher than simply pointing and clicking, so to help you out, we’ve pulled together a few handy meteor shower DSLR or mirrorless camera photography tips, courtesy of NASA.
Get away from the lights
One of the more obvious tips here is to make sure you’re watching without the nuisance of light pollution. This may be tougher for big city-dwellers, but if you can, make your way to an area free from an abundance of interfering light sources so you can not only get a clearer view of the night sky with your naked eye, but a better chance at capturing a fleeting shooting star. Also, turn down the brightness on your camera’s LCD screen and your phone so your eyes can adequately adjust to the darkness. This light pollution map should help you find the best places to watch from near you.
Use a tripod
Even the steadiest-handed neurosurgeons aren’t capable of holding a camera still for the long exposure necessary to capture a meteor trail, so bring a tripod along if you have one. If you don’t, you can fashion a makeshift one by securing your camera with something solid so it’s in a fixed position.
Use your camera’s built-in timer
Though you’ll be able to reduce any movement by using a tripod during a long exposure shot, the mere act of pressing the shutter button is enough to end up with a blurry mess. So, use your camera’s built-in timer to take the photo hands-free. Or, even better, if you have a shutter release cable, use that to take photos without even touching the camera.
Determine the optimal exposure time
A long exposure gives you the opportunity to capture the beauty of shooting a meteor and its tail, but an exposure that’s too long could leave you with blurry stars (after all, the Earth is constantly moving). To prevent this, NASA suggests you employ what it calls the 500 rule to determine your optimal shutter exposure time. To figure it out, you divide 500 by the length in millimeters of your lens. So, for example, if you have a 20 millimeter lens, you’ll want to set a 25-second exposure (500 divided by 20).
Point your camera in the right direction
Although there’s no predicting where exactly the next meteor will cross the sky, you can set yourself up for a good chance of capturing one by pointing the camera in the direction of where they’re most likely to radiate from. In this case, they’ll appear to be coming from the constellation Perseus, hence the meteor shower’s name.
Use a wide angle lens, and manually focus
Using a wide angle lens means you’ll have coverage of more of what’s overhead, and thus a better chance at getting some successful meteor shots. You’ll want to manually focus the lens, though, since your camera will struggle to find anything to automatically focus on in the night sky. It may take a bit of trial and error and some test images to figure out the perfect focus area, but you’ll get there.