The Perseid meteor shower comes around every August, and this year they promise to be spectacular! In this quick tutorial, we’ll show you how to set up your camera to photograph the Perseid meteor shower. Follow these simple steps and we’re sure you’ll come away with images you can be proud of…
To photograph a meteor shower like the Perseids you’ll need a clear night and be in a really dark location. And because you’ll be working in pitch black, you won’t want to be blindly fiddling with your settings, so setting up your camera in advance will ensure you get are prepared.
How to set up your camera to shoot the Perseid meteor shower
Again, because you’ll be in total darkness, you’re going to have to use your camera’s manual mode. Don’t be afraid. It gives you control. Here’s how…
The first thing you need to think about is your exposure time. Unlike other night photography you may have shot, you don’t actually want to use super long exposures here. This is because the motion of the stars will be recorded as star trails, and when the Perseid meteors do appear, they’ll be faint streaks across your frame.
To avoid this you should set your camera’s ISO to a higher sensitivity, start at around ISO 3200 and see what kind of shutter speed this will give you.
You’ll want to set a shutter speed of about 5secs, and you’ll want your lens’s aperture at its widest available option – ideally f/2.8 or f/4.
You’ll need to focus your camera manually, too, as your AF system will continue to hunt the night sky for something to lock on to.
That said, even using manual focus in the pitch black is tough, so we suggest pre-setting the focus to infinity.
If you’re using a zoom lens, remember also to set the zoom to its most suitable setting – usually a wide-angle setting such as 18mm.
Then point your camera at a distant subject and carefully focus. Alternatively, use the lens’ focus scale to set the focus to infinity.
We like to use a small piece of tape on the lens to prevent the zoom from moving from this position.
Finally, as always, select to shoot in raw format or Raw + JPEG in your camera’s menu system. And while you’re there, it’s also a good idea to turn on your camera’s long exposure noise reduction mode. This will double the time it takes to capture each image but the results are usually better.
Adjusting your camera settings
There are a lot of challenges when shooting meteors and starscapes, but trying to focus in total darkness is probably top of the list.
Up above we told you how to pre-set your focus – and you shouldn’t have to change it – but if you decide you want to change the zoom setting – or that piece of tape has fallen off! – you’ll need to focus your lens on the far distance.
The best way to do this: turn on your camera’s Live View feature. When you see the night sky appear on your LCD screen, look for the brightest object you can see.
Next, zoom in on that object using the magnify button on the back of your camera and adjust the focus manually. We won’t lie: this can be difficult to do accurately and requires a lot of patience. But you can do it!
Once you’ve fine-tuned your focus it’s a good idea to take a test shot with the settings you dialled in before you got there. Is the exposure OK? Is it too noisy?
Remember, these settings we’ve suggested are just a starting point. You might find you want to tweak them slightly to better suit your tastes or creativity.
Generally what you want is an image that looks pretty dark with scarce foreground detail, but the stars will be bright and clear.
If you find your image is too bright, try a shorter shutter speed, such as 2secs. Conversely, if your photo is too dark you’ll need to adjust the ISO to a higher value. If you use a longer shutter speed you’ll get unwanted movement of the stars.
Best camera settings for meteors and starry skies
File format: Raw
Exposure mode: Manual
Shutter speed: 5 secs
Focus mode: Manual
Drive mode: Single shot
White balance: Auto
Final tip for photographing a meteor shower
You’ll find taking pictures of meteors easier if you give your eyes plenty of time to become accustomed to the darkness.
To do this, when you arrive at your location avoid looking at any bright lights, such as a flashlight or even activating the rear screen on your DSLR, for about 20 minutes.
For more tips read how to shoot astrophotography.