Whether it’s the moon, the stars or another mysterious space oddity, we continue to be captivated with the solar system and its many phenomena. This obsession has only increased with photographic capability enabling us to see more than ever before. For many photographers shooting skyward is both an exciting and challenging prospect. The upcoming Eta Aquarid meteor shower in May is one such moment.
When is the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower?
“This year, the Eta Aquarid should peak around May 5th in the early morning,” explains Mike Cruise, President of the Royal Astronomical Society. “It’s a remarkable shower that comes in early May every year, with a meteor visible every few minutes in the South Eastern direction of the sky.”
What is the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower?
“The Eta Aquarid meteor shower, like others, occurs when the earth passes through the remains of ancient comets, asteroids and the debris left behind”, explains Mike.
“The Earth travels up to 30km per second, and sometimes small grains of sand and dust crash into the Earth’s atmosphere at huge speeds. When vaporised, this dust emits the bright streaks of light we all know as meteors or shooting stars. It’s truly a fantastic phenomenon, and if you capture it, you’ll be photographing something from the very beginning of our solar system.”
Canon photographer and content creator, Fergus Kennedy, shares his five technical top tips on capturing the moment.
01 Timing is everything
“While meteor showers aren’t as rare as you might think, capturing one still requires plenty of preparation”, explains Fergus. “On the 5th, there should be little to no moon, preventing its brightness overpowering the stars and lighting up the foreground. Be sure to take a look at the position of the moon and stars, as these shape the composition of your image – it will also save you a lot of time waiting to capture the perfect shot.
“If you want to add another dimension to your image, you’ve got two options. Try capturing the moonlight on a landscape, or if you really want a challenge, include a human subject. If you go for the latter, I’d recommend using a radio wireless flash set-up such as a Speedlite 430E III-RT and ST-E3-RT transmitter – this will freeze any movement and doesn’t emit light to communicate, giving you a completely undisturbed image.”
02 Use Apps to help plan your best snaps
“There are so many great apps that provide details on the expected weather, level of cloud cover and humidity in the air. My favourite is PhotoPills, which can predict exactly where the moon and stars will be positioned. It also gives you information on the best exposure settings to use.
“Another useful app is Dark Sky which gives you very localised and accurate weather information. Shooting of this nature takes a lot of patience and doesn’t always go to plan – even when you’re well prepared. To increase your chances of a good shot, try working with the weather conditions by including clouds to add more depth to your shot using a lens such as the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8L II USM.”
03 Master your cameras settings
“Camera settings can singlehandedly determine your image output. To get great Milky Way shots during the shower, go for a full frame mirrorless such as the Canon EOS RP or a DSLR camera with a very wide-angle lens”, suggests Fergus.
“I find using a tighter lens, such as the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM is useful for capturing the details of the Milky Way – I generally opt for 35mm or wider. To maximise exposure and still capture the night sky, I recommend using a ‘fast’ lens, ideally one that opens up to f/2.8 or wider (if you have it) to let in the most light possible.”
“Manually focusing in the dark can be challenging. To focus on a bright star, try using Live View, zoom and exposure simulation – a shutter speed of around 30 seconds will also allow you capture even the dimmer stars. You can double check you’ve got everything in focus by zooming into the central point before you take your shot. This is made easier when you shoot on Canon’s mirrorless cameras, as you can view the image on both the viewfinder and screen. As the weather and lighting conditions change, an element of trial and error may be needed, so don’t be afraid to readjust your settings throughout the night.”
“When using long shutter speeds, make sure your camera is firmly fixed on a sturdy tripod (particularly if it’s windy). I’d recommend using a 2 second timer on the shutter release to avoid camera shake from pressing the button. Finally, you’ll want to use a high ISO, around ISO – 3200. While a bit of post-production work might be required to minimise grain, with these settings you’ll be able to capture the night sky in stunning detail.”
04 Add time-lapse to your repertoire
“Time-lapse video clips, sometimes called star-lapses, make a spectacular addition to an astro stills portfolio. These are simply a series of still photographs put together to show several hours compressed into a few seconds of video. As meteors are sporadic events, by continually capturing stills for an extended period, you’ll get a better chance of capturing several shooting stars. To perfect your time-lapse, place your camera on a sturdy tripod and take one or two photographs per minute, using an intervalometer.
“These are either built into the camera, like on the EOS RP where you can select interval timer mode, or you can purchase one as an accessory, such as the Canon TC-80N3. Advanced photographers could introduce camera movement into their time-lapses by using an automated time-lapse slider or electronically controlled pan and tilt tripod head. If you choose to shoot low down, a vari-angle screen will help to perfect your composition – combine this with an ultra-wide-angle lens, like the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM and you’ll capture the movements of the night sky seamlessly.”
05 Capture the beauty that surrounds you
“Pay attention to the orientation of the moon and the Milky Way when planning your shot and familiarise yourself with any landscape features you want to include, or exclude, during the day. Where possible, avoid roads or other sources of light pollution”, explains Fergus. “Unless the air is dry, you may also have problems with condensation on the camera lens. Strapping a chemical handwarmer under the lens should alleviate this”, says Fergus. “Finally, don’t forget to stay warm! Sitting outside for three or four hours can be a challenge in itself if it’s a chilly night.”
For additional insight on shooting astro, travel and portraiture photography with the Canon EOS RP, please visit Canon’s website.