Oh, give it a shot

It’s been a while since I’ve made the attempt myself, but the moon conditions at least are almost ideal now. Over the next few nights we’ll be near-peak for two different meteor showers: the Delta Aquarids and the Alpha Capricornids. All too often, the moon is too bright for good viewing, throwing excessive light across the sky (especially in humid climes like here,) but we’re in a waning crescent phase right now, meaning the moon won’t even rise until the early hours of the morning, and then it’ll only be a thin slice.

It’s not hard to set your camera for these, but different techniques yield different results. I’ll provide a few pointers (even though what I’ve caught so far has been abysmal.)

1) Pick the darkest region you can find, of course, as far from light pollution as possible. There is a ‘radiant’ for each storm where the meteors tend to originate, but in my experience it’s always been a loose tendency, and meteors might be found in any direction. If you have darker skies away from the radiant, you may have better luck aiming that way.

2) ISO no higher than 800, but 400 or less will keep the digital noise down.

3) Full manual settings, aperture between f5.6 and f11, B[ulb] for the shutter. Camera on firm tripod of course, as low as you can reasonably get it just for stability, especially if it’s breezy or windy. A remote release helps keep you from disturbing the camera when opening and closing the shutter. Moderate focal length, from 35-80mm, will give you a broader section of sky, increasing your chances of capturing one, while hopefully not reducing it so much in the frame that it’s barely discernible. Manual focus too, locked carefully onto a bright light source as far away as possible, like a radio tower beacon or something – they’re easier to make out in the viewfinder than stars, though usually at the same effective distance.

4) Relatively short exposure times, because the Earth is turning and this will render star trails for longer exposures. How short? Well, there’s no good guide, because a lot of it depends both on your focal length and how close to the equatorial plane you’re aiming – that’s where the most apparent motion takes place. The longer your focal length, the more noticeable star motion will be. Aimed near the poles (like north or south,) you can get away with exposures perhaps as high as a minute, but near the path that the sun and moon take across the sky, ten seconds is probably maximum. Don’t get me wrong, star trails are cool, but they can also muddy up the frame enough that lesser meteors become almost invisible.

5) Find a comfortable position near the camera that allows you a good view skyward; this generally means at least leaning back a bit, but lying almost horizontal tends to be the most comfortable. And dress for inactivity, i.e., a little warmer than you might have thought.

6) Just keep firing off frames. You’re going to discard a lot. But the less time you spend with the shutter closed, the more chances you have of capturing a meteor.

7) If you’re lucky enough to capture a brilliant fireball, make sure you don’t re-aim the camera for at least a few frames afterward, and go for some much longer exposures for following frames. Some fireballs actually leave an infinitesimally faint trace of their passage in the sky for minutes afterward, and subsequent frames may reveal it, and possibly even its movement across the sky.

I hope this helps. Have at it, and if you capture anything, drop me a line, or make a comment here. Good luck!