Get ready for the Perseid meteor shower this week

Yesterday I posted this on our workshop website  Please check us out for our upcoming San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park.

Meteor showers are created when the earth passes through dust particles left behind by a comet that crossed earths orbit, some times many hundreds of years ago. The comets as they travel around the sun warms up and leaves a trail of particles behind. As we orbit the sun every year the Earth will from time to time will pass through these dust trails and the small particles hit our atmosphere and burn up. Its this burning process that produces the fireballs or more commonly called shooting stars. The American Meteor Society has a list of the major meteor showers through out the year. The list gives you a lot of information on where to look to see the fireballs, also the name of the comet that left the particles behind for us to enjoy, and what days the peak of the Meteor shower will occur.

In august one of the best Meteor showers of the year peaks on the night of August 12 to 13, this year. Thanks to the comet Swift-Tuttle, you can watch Meteors any time from mid July to the end of August. This shower is called the Perseids Meteor shower named after the star constellation they appear to come from (this is know as the radiant) the radiant for the Perseids is the constellation Perseus, I have included a star chart showing where to look.

This is where you need to look when searching for the meteors. from sky and telescope

This is where you need to look when searching for the meteors. from sky and telescope

When to look in the night sky on August 12th to see the Perseid meteor shower. Photo from sky and telescope
When to look in the night sky on August 12th to see the Perseid meteor shower. Photo from sky and telescope

When watching meteor showers is don’t just stare at any one place in the sky keep your eyes moving slowly in the general direction of the shower and you will increase your chances of seeing a shooting star.

2015 – This should be a good year the sky will be dark with the new moon on August 14th. So moonlight will not hinder your vision. During an average year the Perseids will present about 60 fireballs an hour.

Why photograph a meteor shower? Its fun, You will learn some new photographic techniques, you will get out into nature. The most important reason is unlike our eyes the lens will see the whole sky, like I said earlier you need to not focus on one area in the sky, our eyes tend to have a rather narrow field of view and we need to keep our eyes moving to see the whole sky. Your camera on the other hand with a wider angle lens sees everything, and when the shutter is open it will record a shooting star anywhere in its sight.


Night photography means low light photography unless there is a full moon. For the best results you should have a newer digital camera one made in the last 5 years or so. These newer cameras offer better low light and ISO performance allowing you to get some good shots of the night sky. Lens choice should be a wide angle lens in the 16mm range is best but 24 mm will work, a lens with a wide aperture will help let in lots of light, depth of field in nighttime star photography is not a concern. Having a lens capable of gathering more light is more important. Your exposures will be long so a sturdy tripod is needed you can also get a small bean bag (sand bag) and use it to prop your camera up in the proper position. What is really needed is a way to keep the camera still during long exposures. A cable release is a nice option to have. One other item if you are going to be out shooting for a few hours is get a small chemical hand warmersfrom an outdoor store, this one will be gaff taped or secured to your lens to keep dew from forming on the front element and fogging all your exposures.

I have seen lots of articles talking about camera gear now lets take a minute to think about personal gear, it may be August but remember at night the air cools off rapidly so have a coat hat and even a light pair of gloves, bring a chair or a lounge type folding chair so you are not tipping your heed back for hours at a time, this will result in a stiff neck in the morning. So get warm, get comfortable and have a warm drink with you. and enjoy the night sky.

Settings to be used for night photography:

For most nights you will set your widest zoom, widest f-stop (f2.8 or f-4, if possible). When figuring out what the best exposure is if you have dark skies, skies with out city lights and with a wide angle lens you can set your shutter speed to 25 to 30 seconds and take a photo that will produce nice pinpoint stars. Remember the earth is rotating at 1000 MPH, and at the same time we are moving around the sun at about 65,700 MPH so even though the sky may not look like its moving it is and exposures over 30 seconds will start showing small star trails. In other words night photography is also capturing motion photography but at a cosmic pace.

There is a rule for making photographs at tight, there are rules for everything in photography. This is the rule of 500, very simply it goes like this divide 500 by the focal length of the lens you are using to get the number of seconds needed for a good exposure with sharp stars. so using a 16mm lens, take 500/16 and get 31.25 seconds you can round this down to 30 seconds, most cameras have a 30 second shuttered you can dial in. Your ISO setting depends on the low light capabilities of your camera in most cases the newer cameras can handle 100 with out producing any digital noise. My Nikon D610 will shoot at ISO 6400 and produce a very clean image.

Taking the exposures:

To increase your chance of photographing a meteor your goal is to take repeated 30 second exposures over a rather long period of time. If you have your shutter release cable set the chair up next to your camera and click off a new exposure every 30 seconds or so. If your camera has a built in Intervalometer, most newer cameras do (check your ever important user manual to see if yours does and how to set it), set it to do the work for you. This way if you get cold you can get into your car or house and let the camera take photos every 30 seconds for a few hours.

Where to aim your camera we know the meteors come from basically the same spot in the sky, the only problem here is this spot will move through the night. By aiming your camera 45 to 90 degrees from the radiant this will let you photograph some longer trails as the meteors pass through the atmosphere.

Well your night of shooting is done now what, well photoshop will be your best friend if you would like to stack images and have more then one shooting star in the photo. You can find many online tutorials on stacking techniques so do a quick search and watch a couple of videos, they all ahem few things in common, import into light room, export to photoshop in layers, select the layers above your first image and using a soft brush tool mask out the shooting stars. you can align your layers so it appears all the shooting stars are coming from the same direction if you like, I also like seeing random long streaks of light against the start background.

So on August 12th get warm , get out and try something new. Have fun.

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