How to Photograph the 2017 Geminid Meteor Shower using Night Sky Photography Techniques
Twice a year our planet passes through the dust trail left by the last passing of Halley’s Comet and I have a few tips here to help you photograph the meteor shower when it happens on Dec. 13th, 2017 this year.
As a comet’s orbit passes through space close to the sun it leaves a bit of a dust trail behind in its wake. This dust trail just stays floating around in space. This dust trial is sometimes affected by various gravitational pulls by passing large celestial bodies, like our planet. For decades after a comet’s has passed close to our planet that dust trial can collide with Earth at the same time each year. As the dust enters our atmosphere it burns off in the form of a bright, and sometimes not so bright, “shooting star”. When the planet passes through a large dust trial like the one left by Halley’s Comet, then a significant meteor shower can be the result. This becomes a night sky photography dream!
The Geminid Meteor Shower presents a great night sky photography opportunity for photographers willing to stay up to capture it. Here’s my advice on how to photograph a meteor shower using night sky photography techniques to help you get the most out of this rare photographic opportunity. The Weather Network also has the details about when and where this is going to happen.
Exposure. This is obviously very important in night sky photography. A good exposure starting point for nighttime photography is 4-8 seconds, f/4 at ISO 2500. With these settings you will capture an image with some detail. You should make local adjustments based on the test image you initially capture. The idea here is that you want to exposure the night sky properly so that outer space looks black. And, you want the stars to show up as dots and not oval spots or lines caused by the rotation of the Earth during a long exposure. At the above suggested exposure you’ll get a photograph that is pretty close to perfect. The wildcard variable is how much light pollution you have for man made sources like streetlights. You can tweak your camera settings based on the test exposures you capture. You also need a dark place for these exposure setting to work. This leads into the second tip.
Qualities of a Good Location
You’ll need to find a good location for night photography. A good location for night photography would be one that has little or no light pollution. Some good places to view the night sky in Alberta include Banff’s Lake Minnewanka, Pyramid and Patricia Lake north of the Jasper townsite, East central and Northeast Alberta, and Southeast of Calgary. Incidentally, Jasper has the honour of being designated as a dark sky preserve.
So, practicing night photography at one of these locations has the potential to produce some beautiful photographs. I suggest using Google Earth in satellite mode to find a good area. A good area has little settlement and has little or no nighttime lighting. Once you’ve identified possible locations you should check them out before the meteor shower to make nothing has changed since you last visited.
Steadying your tripod
Make sure you have a sturdy tripod to mount your camera onto. A tripod that has a hook on the bottom of the center post is useful to hang a camera bag from to steady it farther. You don’t need much weight to hang from the hook. About 10 to 20 lbs, 5-10 kg, should be good. Also, don’t cheap out on the tripod head that you put on your tripod. An entry level tripod head may not be steady enough to prevent all of the camera shake from the mirror slap and wind. The added weight to the tripod helps to steady the camera in a moderate to strong wind and the head helps to negate the vibration from mirror slap produced inside of your camera when you trip your shutter.
Minimizing Camera Shake During Long Exposures
Use a remote trigger system to open your shutter so the action of your finger pressing the shutter release button doesn’t produce camera shake. You have a few options here to minimize this problem. You can use a cable release to open and close your shutter. Or you can use a 2 second timer to open your shutter to take the picture if you don’t have a remote trigger. A wireless or wired remote trigger would be fine for this. However, a remote trigger with an intervalometer feature in it is best.
With a simple remote trigger you have to press the shutter whenever you want to take photograph. Then you just have to repeat that action each time you want to take a photograph. Using an intervalometer is better. With an intervalometer you set the device to trip the shutter at a predetermined set interval. Then, you don’t have to touch the camera after that. Setting the intervalometer to open the shutter every 9 seconds works with these exzposure settings. The set your exposure for 8 seconds. Then your shutter will be closed for only 1 second between exposures. You won’t miss much if you set your intervalometer up this way. This is the preferred tool for photographing meteor showers.
These Steps in Action
In my photograph of the meteor over Mount Fuji in Japan I was lucky enough to have the shutter open for the entire length of the meteor entry into our atmosphere. But really, I suppose I shouldn’t say that photograph was lucky. I did all of the steps I outline above and it paid off. Let me explain.
In 2012 I was planning a trip to Japan to visit family and do some preliminary location scouting for my Japan Photography Tour. A friend on facebook also reminded me that the Geminid meteor shower was going to happen while I was there. I had previously known about the Geminid Meteor shower but forgot that it was going to be at its peak in December while I was scouting for my future tour there. Knowing this I was able to move the dates of our visit to Mount Fiji to coincidence with the forecasted peak of the meteor shower.
I had pre-visualized a photograph that would speak powerfully about Japan and the meteor shower. I decided that capturing a dizzying array of meteors over Mount Fuji in a single image would be exactly what I wanted. But that didn’t work out exactly as I had planned.
I arrived at Mount Fuji 4 days before the peak of the event. Kazue and I started to do a reconnaissance all around the mountain right away leading up to the Geminids. We discovered that even though Mount Fuji is about 150km from Tokyo the light pollution from the city is still strong. It’s was too much for night sky photography Southeast of the mountain. We covered hundreds of kilometers scouting the area for our future Japan tour, and for the expected peak of the meteor shower. During my research I discovered that the bulk of the show was going to be low on the SE horizon. So, we had to find a location on the North or Western side of the mountain to capture what I was after.
The hard work paid off. We discovered only two locations around Fiji San where the light pollution was manageable. With a bit more pre-planning I picked a location on the Northwest side of the mountain. That put the North Star behind Fuji San so I could form an arch of light over the mountain. The photograph above is the result of all this planning. This is an example of how good preplanning and good night photography skills can produce a good photograph. I wish you all the best tonight capturing meteors and in all of your future night photography projects. You can find more photograph tips and suggestions by “liking” my facebook page too.