Meteor streaks over desert landscape.

A Perseid meteor over Joshua Tree National Park in 2015. Credit: National Park Service/Brad Sutton.

10 Things: How to Photograph a Meteor Shower

By Lyle Tavernier

Feature | August 6, 2018

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    Taking photographs of a meteor shower can be an exercise in patience as meteors streak across the sky quickly and unannounced, but with these tips – and some good fortune – you might be rewarded with a great photo.

    These tips are meant for a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but some point-and-shoot cameras with manual controls could be used as well.

    1. The Photo Op: Perseids Meteors

    The Perseids are dusty remnants of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

    What's up? The best meteor shower of the year!

    Earth passes through the comet’s invisible, multi-billion mile trail of tiny debris each year around August, creating a meteor shower of so-called “shooting stars” as the particles are vaporized in our atmosphere.

    Perseid meteors already are streaking across the sky. This year's shower peaks on a moonless summer night -from 4 pm on the 12th until 4 am on the 13th Eastern Daylight Time.

    Read more on the Perseids

    Meteor streak over a forest.
    In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky in Spruce Knob, West Virginia, during the 2016 Perseids meteor shower. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    2. Get away from city lights and find a place with dark skies.

    Too much light and it will be hard for your eyes to see fainter meteors, plus your image will get flooded with the glow of light. Turning down the brightness of the camera’s LCD screen will help keep your eyes adjusted to the dark. The peak of the 2018 Perseid meteor shower occurs just after the new moon, meaning a thin crescent will set long before the best viewing hours, leaving hopeful sky watchers with a moonlight-free sky!

    Meteor streak over Washington, DC.
    In this ten-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky above Washington, DC during the 2015 Perseids meteor shower, Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

    3. Use a tripod.

    Meteor photography requires long exposures, and even the steadiest of hands can’t hold a camera still enough for a clear shot. Heavier tripods help reduce shaking caused by wind and footsteps, but even a lightweight tripod will do. You can always place sandbags against the feet of the tripod to add weight and stability. If you don’t have a tripod, you might be able to prop your camera on or up against something around you, but be sure to secure your camera.

    Meteor with Milky Way in the background.
    In this 30 second exposure taken with a circular fish-eye lens, a meteor streaks across the sky during the 2016 Perseids meteor shower as a photographer wipes moisture from the camera lens Friday, August 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    4. Use a wide-angle lens.

    A wide-angle lens will capture more of the sky and give you a greater chance of capturing a meteor in your shot, while a telephoto lens captures a smaller area of the sky. The odds of a meteor streaking past that small patch are lower.

    Light trail on a path in Joshua Tree National Park.
    Long exposures are not just for meteors. In this shot taken at Joshua Tree National Park, a hiker's headlamp leaves a trail of light along a twilight path. Credit: National Park Service / Hannah Schwalbe

    5. Use a shutter release cable or the camera’s built-in timer.

    A tripod does a great job of reducing most of the shaking your camera experiences, but even the act of pressing the shutter button can blur your extended exposure. Using the self-timer gives you several seconds for any shaking from pressing the shutter button to stop before the shutter is released. A shutter release cable (without a self-timer) eliminates the need to touch the camera at all. And if your camera has wifi capabilities, you might be able to activate the shutter from a mobile device.

    Meteor over a forest with twilight on the horizon.
    In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseids meteor shower Friday, August 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    6. Manually focus your lens.

    At night, autofocus will struggle to find something on which to focus. Setting your focus to infinity will get you close, but chances are you’ll have to take some test images and do some fine tuning. With your camera on a tripod, take a test image lasting a few seconds, then use the camera’s screen to review the image. Zoom in to a star to see how sharp your focus is. If the stars look like fuzzy blobs, make tiny adjustments to the focus and take another test image.

    Perseids Radiant
    The Perseids appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, visible in the northern sky soon after sunset this time of year.

    Repeat until you are happy with the result.

    If your camera has a zoomable electronic viewfinder or live view option, you might be able to zoom to a star and focus without having to take a test image.

    7. Aim your camera.

    Even though we don’t know when or where a single meteor will appear, we do know the general area from which they’ll originate.

    Meteor showers get their name based on the point in the sky from which they appear to radiate. In the case of the Perseids, during their peak, they appear to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus in the northern sky.

    Meteor falling against dark, starry sky.
    In this 20-second exposure, a meteor lights up the sky over the top of a mountain ridge near Park City, Utah. Even though this image was captured during the annual Perseid meteor shower, this "shooting star" is probably not one of the Perseid meteors, which originate from material left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Instead, it's likely one of the many bits of rock and dust that randomly fall into the atmosphere on any given night. Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford

    8. Calculate your exposure time.

    As Earth rotates, the stars in the sky appear to move, and if your shutter is open long enough, you might capture some of that movement. If you want to avoid apparent star movement, you can follow the 500 Rule. Take 500 and divide it by the length in millimeters of your lens. The resulting number is the length of time in seconds that you can keep your shutter open before seeing star trails. For example, if you’re using a 20 mm lens, 25 seconds (500 divided by 20) is the longest you can set your exposure time before star trails start to show up in your images.

    Light trail made by hikers going up a mountain in the dark.
    In this 30 second exposure photo, hikers find their way to the top of Spruce Knob in West Virginia to view the annual Perseids meteor shower, Friday, August 12, 2016. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    9. Experiment!

    Once you know the maximum exposure time, you can set your shutter priority to that length and let the camera calculate other settings for your first image. Depending on how the image turns out, you can manually adjust aperture (set it to a lower number if the image is too dark) and ISO (set it to a higher number if the image is too dark) to improve your next images. Changing only one setting at a time will give you a better understanding of how those changes affect your image.

    Meteor falling to Earth as seen from the International Space Station.
    The crew of the International Space Station captured this Perseid meteor falling to Earth over China in 2011. Credit: NASA

    10. Enjoy the show.

    With your camera settings adjusted, capturing that perfect photo is just a matter of time and luck. The highest rate of meteors visible per hour is in the hours after midnight and before dawn. Set up your camera next to a lounge chair or a blanket to witness the wonder of a meteor shower for yourself – and, with any luck, you’ll take home some envy-inducing shots, too!