Perseïd meteor shower – Taking pictures of stars and falling stars

Once I started taking pictures of stars. It was a long time ago, when films with ISO400 was almost the maximum you could find. A tracker was something unaffordable so the only thing I could do was some startrails. Five minutes, perhaps ten, but not much longer or the negative was over exposed.

Picture 1 – Startrails on slide film. Originating from the eighties with no information available. Probably 50mm focal length, and ISO400 slide film. Back then, no meteor could be registered this way or it had to be a really bright one.

Let’s fast forward about three decades. Everything about photography has changes. The world has become digital and ISO400 is something that we take for granted. Camera’s capable of ISO values that reach up to 12800 and more with useable footage are reality. It opens a brand new world with possibilities we never dared to dream about thirty years ago. Now we can take our camera and take pictures of stars that are better that what the largest and most professional telescopes in the eighties produced. With nothing more than a simple dSLR or mirrorless camera.

Picture 2 – Possibilities with nothing more than a good digital camera and lens are amazing. Orion nebulosity can be photographed by anyone who has a bit of determination (135mm – ISO800 – f/5,6 – 55x 15sec with homemade manually operated barndoor mount)

The Orion Nebulosity Orion Nebula (M42) Flame Nebula (NGC2024) M78 Blue reflection nebula (running man) NGC1970 Horsehead nebula (B33) 55 images stacked – 14 minutes and 40 seconds each 15 sec exposure time  ISO 800 f/5,6 home made barndoor mount – manually operated

So there it is. A super sensitive camera with a fast lens, looking in the night sky and trying to capture stars and nebula. We can take pictures of the Milky Way that never were possible. But when it comes to falling stars we often fail to capture even the most bright meteor.

The remains of comet Swift-Tuttle

August is the month when the Earth passes through a trail of dust and debris from the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. It is known as the Perseïds because all meteors seem to originate from the constellation of Perseus. It is the most active meteor shower with approximately 85 falling stars per hour. It is perhaps the most popular celestial event every year. Of course many photographers will try to capture one or perhaps more meteors. Most of them seem to fail and return home with a lot of pictures without those bright fallings stars they saw. Often I was one of them.

Picture 3 – My first Perseïd meteors on sensor, back in 2007 (17mm – ISO3200 – f/4 – compilation of three different shots containing one meteor each)

Geminiden (GEM) meteor shower 2007. There are ten meteors visible in this compilation, that expands a timeperiod of one hour. I have stacked 6 images for the background, each a exposuretime of 20 seconds, and added the images with meteors afterwards

It took me some years to figure out why this happened. I was sure there were falling stars in the frame but they didn’t show up. And if they did, the light trails they left on film (or need I say sensor) were dim or almost invisible. Most of the times I ended up making yet another startrail of those pictures.

Don’t be afraid of noise levels: raise your ISO value

We see a falling star in a flash. They are swift, gone in a blink of an eye. Although they might be bright, the meteors are too fast to register on sensor. The time a pixel on that sensor is exposed to the light of the meteor is much too short for the pixel to gather enough light. It doesn’t matter how long our exposure time is, the light of the meteor is gone before that pixel has a good exposure. The only way to capture that meteor is to boost the sensitivity of that sensor. In other words, you have to raise the ISO to absurd values. I found out ISO1600 is the minimum. If possible ISO 6400 or more would be better.

Picture 4 – 100% crop from a larger frame containing a bright meteor. Shot in 2014 with ISO6400 and f/5,6 on a EOS 5D mark III. Noise levels are acceptable.

Persende meteor shower 2014,  “Meerbaansblaak  De Groote Peel”, The Netherlands

Out of the frame

Unless we use a circular fisheye on a full frame camera we aren’t capable of capturing the whole night sky. We see only a small part of the sky in our picture. This means we are can only capture the meteors that appear in our field of view. If 85 meteors per hour is the average, we can only capture approximatly 20 meteors at best with our wide angle lens. The rest is appearing outside our field of view. Needless to say a fraction of that amount of meteors will still be too dim to be registered on sensor. This sounds a bit disappointing. Multiple camera’s, aimed at different directions should increase the hit rate. But would a fish eye lens be even better?

Picture 5 – With 35mm you can only capture a small portion of the sky. Even with 85 meteors per hour you need a lot of luck to capture one.. Most frames will end up like this one: with lots of stars and no falling star whatsoever (35mm – ISO1600 – f/1,4 – 10sec)

Some meteorites from the meteor shower of comet 209P/LINEAR

Small, smaller, smallest

For a fish eye lens to be able to capture such a large portion of the sky, it has to shrink. When using a super wide angle or fish eye, everything you capture will appear very, very, very small in the photo. When photographing normal stars that doesn’t matter. Stars are mere points of light and they will stay points of light no matter what. But the length of the trails of meteors that sweep across the sky will also shrink. The result could be a short meteor trail in the picture although we remember a very long one.

Picture 6 – Perseïd fireball at the horizon. It was a large bright one, but with a fish eye it appears small in the frame (15mm fish eye – ISO1600 – f/2,8 – 30sec)

Perseïden 2013 meteor shower above the Adriatic see, Biorad/moru, (Kroatië) Stack of 7 different photos with 8 meteorites. 

So it isn’t always good to capture as much sky as possible, A super wide angle or fish eye means small meteor trails in a large sky. With longer focal distances (24mm up to 50mm) you will see a larger and longer meteor trail. But because you only capture a very small part of the sky, you need to have a lot of luck. Although a fish eye will produce a small meteor trail, I prefer to use this lens for this kind of photography. Nevertheless I always try to use a 35mm lens also, just for that one lucky falling star.

Through the years I found out it is very difficult to take good pictures of falling stars. But it is possible. You need a bit of luck, a camera with high ISO capabilities, lots of sequential photos, and a lot of patience. You could perhaps increase your luck when pointing the camera at a spot about 30° to 45° from the constellation Perseus, but as the meteors appear random it doesn’t have to mean anything. But when they appear at that spot, the trail could be a nice length.

Picture 7 – Three bright Perseïds in one frame (156mm fisheye – ISO1600 – f/2,8 – 15sec)

Perseïden meteor shower 2012 during maximum A compilation of 8 shots each containing one meteor

Moon, go away. And for humanity, please turn of the lights

The Benelux is a terrible place for night sky photographers. The amount of light pollution is among the largest in the world. Only a few spots seem to be dark enough for us to see the Milky Way without difficulty. And even those spots are suffering from some light pollution. But the Moon is another source of light that can make it impossible to even see the Perseïds, except perhaps the brightest ones. This year the Moon is about 70% lit and will brighten up the night sky like a bare light bulb. All those lights could limit the high ISO settings, but also obscure the more dim falling stars. I doubt we will reach up to 85 meteors per hour, but who knows.

Fortunately the Perseïds will be back next year, and the year after that. And there are more annual meteor showers. We can only hope it will be a cloudless night when the stars will start to fall out of the heavens again.

Regardless light pollution, Moon light or clouds, I will go out and try to capture the most impressive meteor shower again.

Picture 8 – Even a relatively dark place could suffer from light pollution. A few meteors are captured nevertheless, together with the Milky Way (15mm fisheye – ISO6400 – f/2,8 – 15sec)

Persende meteor shower ” De Stippelberg” The Netherlands. Stack of 2 photos with 3  falling stars.


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