Friday, December 6, 2013

My Tips for Photographing Meteors

At present, there are a number of lesser meteor showers going on, plus the Geminids have started and will be peaking around December 12th through the 14th. There are  different information on ways to photograph meteors on the web. What I am planning to do in this blog is give you my methodology.

First thing you need to know is when the meteor showers are occurring and I use EarthSky News to give me up-to-date information. Next, is to use one of the weather services to confirm how the weather is going to be those nights. A few clouds are fine. Also you need to know the phase of the moon, when it rises and sets, because a bright moon will hide the smaller meteors. I use for my android phone Sundroid, which will tell you not only sunrise and sunset but moon rising moonset and give you a Google Earth location aware you are. Location should be the darkest place that you can get with minimal ambient light. You need to dress for the occasion so that you can stay comfortable and bring a chair so you can relax and watch the sky.

My basic equipment includes a digital SLR body, wide-angle lens in the range of 10-35 mm and with the f-stop between 1.8 and 4. It is best to shoot one-stop higher than the widest f-stop but no higher than F/4. Continuing the equipment list a sturdy tripod with a ball head, a cable release (if your camera has a built-in intervolometer) or a cable release/intervolometer, fully charged spare batteries, enough flashcards, and a headlight or flashlight with red covers to save your night vision.

One of the main items that you need to know is how to use your camera, where the controls, and how to change F-stop, shutter speed, and ISO. What I do, prior to going out is set up my camera and lens so it'll be already to use.

With the appropriate lens attached to the camera body, I choose an object at least 20 to 30 feet from where I am, and with autofocus on, get that object into focus. I then note on the lens with the infinity mark is, utilizing gaffer tape I take the lens so it can't turn and put the autofocus button on the camera and on the lens into manual. This way I know everything is in focus from one third in front of the distance where I focused the lens to infinity.

The ISO that you start with will depend on your camera body, newer camera bodies such as the Nikon D800 or the Canon 5D Mark III you can probably start off at an ISO 800 and after taking a test shot adjusted upwards from there. With older models you need to start with much higher ISO 2000 to 3600. Make sure high ISO noise reduction is off, you can remove the noise in post-processing.

Next is what shutter speed should you be using. The best way is to use the rule of 500, where you divide 500 by the focal length of the lens to get your shutter speed. There are tables on the web with this information also

Now after taken the test shots and if everything is fine then you need to set up the intervolometer so it'll take pictures at a specific interval. For instance if my shutter speed is 20 seconds I set the intervolometer to take pictures every 23 seconds, this gives enough time for the buffer to record the picture. I set the number of pictures to be taken to around 600 to 800.

Now where do you aim the camera? I like to aim the camera approximately 45° from the radiant point of the meteor shower, even though meteors can occur anywhere in the sky. I utilize Google sky map on my android phone or from EarthSky news to locate where the radiant point is. I also want to have something in the foreground to offset the sky.

One of the problems on cold winter nights or humid summer nights is condensation on the lens. I utilize one of the anti-fog cloths to clean my lens prior to leaving. Then I utilize hand warmers attached to the outside of the lens barrel. The one problem I have found would hand warmers without them being in a pocket they will cool down, so I am making some flannel wraps to put over the hand warmers to see if this will solve the problem (an idea from my son).

After you finish taken all your pictures and you go home and download them the fun is now beginning. Post-processing and review will take you some time. My workflow is after downloading by pictures into Lightroom, utilizing the right arrow I go through the pictures fast to see if I see a meteor. If I find one I stop and process that picture. As a stated in a previous blog ;I have recently read an article on using Clarity to imp[rove  Milky Way Images:   I created the plug-ins in Lightroom and Photoshops as the article suggested and utilized the plug-ins as a starting point, that I just the picture to where it seems right for to my eyes and then do a noise reduction on that picture.

Another method is to convert all the pictures in the series to a small JPEG and add them to a stacking program, I use StarStax, a free program,, which will give you star trails and the flight of the meteor across the star trails.

The third method, especially if you have found a meteor in one of the pictures is to adjust that picture in Lightroom then choose the rest of the pictures and synchronize them and export the pictures as JPEG's and use QuickTime player to make a video or utilize the slide show module of Lightroom to export the pictures as a video. This will give you a time lapse picture of the night.

Now I know this is a long blog but I hope it helps you get some fantastic pictures of the upcoming meteor showers.

Remember coming up is the Geminids meteor shower.The peak night of the 2013 Geminid meteor shower is expected to be from late evening  (Friday, December 13) until dawn(Saturday, December 14). The meteors will be flying, but will you see them in the bright light of the waxing gibbous moon? Because of the moon, my plans will be, weather permitting, to be at the Stone Barn, Dartmouth Massachusetts Friday morning from 3 AM to 6 AM and Saturday morning from 4 AM to 6 AM, hopefully to photograph the meteor shower. The reason for this is that the moon will have been set. The reason I use the Stone Barn because there is  less ambient light in that location, plus there are bathrooms and a kitchen to make hot drinks. If you would like to attend please send me an email  and I will send you directions if you do not know how to get there.