Sometimes, capturing a shooting star on camera is simply a matter of luck. But, often, the stunning shots of stars streaking across the sky is the result of planning, schlepping gear to a cool location, and understanding how to use a camera in low light. The peak of the Perseid meteor shower in August is often one of the best times to capture a shooting star. With NASA estimating more than 100 meteors per hour for years with the perfect conditions, chances are pretty good you’ll be able to capture one on camera.
When will the Perseid meteor shower peak? The Perseid meteor shower 2020 is estimated to peak August 11-13, though skywatchers can still catch a few streaks a few days before and after. The peak days for this year’s shower happen between midnight and just before dawn on August 12 and 13, with NASA suggesting the pre-dawn hours as the best option. The moon, which will be between a quarter and half full, will affect visibility some, but viewers this year could see as many as 50 meteors per hour or more at the peak. The meteor shower is one of the more visible events and can typically be seen from anywhere in the northern hemisphere, provided you stay away from light pollution and you have an unobstructed view of the sky, which includes avoiding clouds, trees, or tall buildings.
The Perseids are actually visible several times throughout the year, though the shower typically offers the best view in August. Several different factors can influence how many of them that you can actually pick up with your naked eye — and your camera. To get the best view, you’ll need to plan ahead.
- What’s the weather? You have a few days to see the peak of the Perseids — look for the night that’s predicted to be cloud-free. Clouds will block the show, so a clear night is a must.
- How is the light pollution? Light pollution is any bright source of light: man-made or naturally occurring (the moon can be one of the most frustrating sources of light pollution to encounter). You’ll have a tough time spotting the Perseids in a city because of light pollution. Get away from all light sources — including your cell phone — to keep your night vision intact and your camera ready to pick up the bright stars. Light from the moon will have the same effect — you may see more meteors before moonrise, which is 12:24 a.m. on Aug. 11, 12:59 a.m. on the 12th, and 1:38 a.m. on the 13th.
- How far can you see? An unobstructed view will allow you to see more meteors. Scout out locations that are wide open, rather than standing in the middle of the forest.
- What’s in the foreground when looking north? Adding objects and scenery in the foreground adds interest to your shot. But, as you plan the logistics of where to shoot, keep in mind that you’ll want to point your camera north for the Perseids. Meteor showers are named after the constellation they are coming from. The Perseids come from the constellation Perseus. But, if you don’t know how to find Perseus in the sky, NASA says just face north, then look up.
Meteors fade out in seconds, which makes timing the shot tricky. Using a wide-angle lens will increase the odds of catching one in the shot, since you can include more of the sky in the photo. If you are feeling adventurous, a telephoto lens will make the meteors appear closer to the objects in the foreground, but actually capturing one is tricky with the compressed point of view zooms provide.
Once you have scoped out your spot and found your composition facing north, set up a tripod. A tripod is a must for shooting the long exposures required for capturing meteor showers. Don’t just assume that placing the camera on the tripod is good enough, though. For the sharpest shots, Adobe’s Head of Outreach and Collaboration Bryan O’Neil Hughes recommends standing to block the wind, ensuring the tripod plate is tight, and using a remote or self-timer. (If you have a Wi-Fi-enabled camera, you can use the companion app to remotely trigger a shot, though working with a smartphone can ruin your night vision.)
Photographing the stars isn’t a task for any kind of auto mode. Use manual mode, and don’t forget to turn your file type to RAW for more flexibility in editing those photos later. Set your aperture to the widest setting the lens allows to let in the most light, such as f/2.8 or f/4. Generally speaking, the wider your aperture, the better.
Setting the shutter speed is a balancing act between leaving the shutter open long enough to let in light and keeping the stars sharp as you actively fight the motion caused by the rotation of the earth. For stars and meteors, start with a shutter speed of 20 seconds with a wide-angle lens. The shutter speed shouldn’t be slower than whatever 500 divided by your lens length, in mm, is. So an 18mm lens could get away with almost 30 seconds, while a 50mm would allow for a 10-second shot.
Use your ISO to balance out the exposure, but avoid your camera’s highest ISOs or you’ll end up with lots of noise that will reduce sharpness and distract from your photo. In general, keep the ISO as low as you can while still getting a good exposure on the lightest areas of the image. Remember, for most modern digital cameras it’s easier to fix images that were too dark in post than it is to fix images with blown-out highlights.
One of the trickiest camera settings to nail is focus. Most cameras can’t autofocus on the stars. You’ll need to switch to manual focus, twist the focus ring to infinity, then slowly adjust from there until the stars are sharp. If your camera offers it, using Live View with focus peaking turned on, and tapping the zoom key as needed, will help.
There’s no good way to know exactly when to trigger the shot to get that perfectly placed meteor — by the time you spot it and press the shutter release, you’ll likely have missed it. But that’s why the Perseids are a such a good event to photograph, since the Perseid meteor shower may have as many as 50 visible in an hour if conditions are perfect.
Unless you have psychic abilities, try capturing several shots in a row, one immediately after the other, to increase your odds of catching a shooting star. Don’t forget to make sure your camera is pointed north and up, since this is the direction the Perseids start from.
Because you can’t predict when a meteor will hit, you’ll end up with lots of photos to go through and want to find the best ones. Hughes recommends checking the high-resolution preview option when importing into Lightroom and using zoom to narrow down to the best, sharpest shots.
Once you’ve found the best shots, use the crop tool to fine-tune the composition, if needed. Then, use the sliders to brighten the highlights and whites and darken the shadows and blacks to help the stars to stand out in the shot. Adjusting the color may also create better results, either to accurately portray the scene or to add a blue or purple tint to the sky.
Hughes recommends experimenting with a few more sliders — but only in moderation, as a little does a lot, but a lot wrecks the photo. Pulling the texture slider toward the negative just slightly can help soften noise in the night sky. Clarity will add a bit of pinch, while dehaze can also help create a clearer shot.
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