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How to photograph tonight's possible meteor storm

A bright meteor.
A bright meteor.

Tonight, Earth will pass through a stream of debris shed by the short-period comet 209/P LINEAR, which will produce a meteor shower that will radiate from the obscure constellation of Camelopardalis, which is located near the North Celestial Pole. For observers living in the Continental United States (and Alaska), the show will be well-positioned for its 2-4am peak on Friday morning. To make matters better, the Moon will be a non-factor, too.

So, how does one photograph meteors, anyway?

1. Use a SLR/mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Either kind of camera (whether digital or film) is a must for astrophotography because of its ability to both produce low-noise image (a function of their large pixel size/film usage) and ability to take long exposures (until the battery runs out if you desire). Point and shoot cameras, while they can be good in the day, are severely limited for night-time shooting.

2. A remote, preferably a programmable one. Unless you want to stand outside using the camera's self-timer all night long, a programmable remote is a must. With such a device, you can program the number of desired exposures, interval between shots, and time of exposure, hit the button, then walk away and let the camera shoot all night long (or until the batteries die). If you are lucky, your camera may have such a function built-in, negating the need for an external remote.

3. For a lens, the standard 18-55ish kit lens (digital) or 28-80ish (35mm/full frame digital) will work fine, but an ultrawide starting in the 8-12 (digital) or 16-20 (film/FF) range is even better. Obviously, the more sky that can fit in the frame, the greater the chance of catching a meteor. Focus the lens manually on a distant object first, then disable the autofocus.

4. Tripod. A tripod is a must for astrophotography. Anything will work, no need to be fancy here.

5. Prevent star trailing. Star trailing is the big barrier to how long of an exposure you can take. The stars move relative to the camera (actually, the Earth rotates and the stars stay still, but that's beside the point) and will start to trail as they move through the sky if the camera's shutter is left open too long. Simply go out and take a few practice shots (that's why digital is so great!) to see how long you can go without the stars starting to streak. The wider your lens, the longer you can go.

6. Settings. First of all, shoot RAW,it just rules. Second, once you know your exposure length before star trailing sets in, play with aperture and ISO. Although it may seem contrary to logic, don't be afraid to overexpose by 1-2 f-stops! In astrophotography, photons captured is paramount! Even when overexposed, the stars and meteors will appear white while the sky will be still be much darker. This will allow you to “stretch” the image (brighten the lights, darken the darks) to bring out the meteors, which may only illuminate the sky for a few seconds of, say, a 30 second shot. High ISOs can be your friend!

See also: history's biggest meteor storm

More helpful items:

1. Tracking telescope mount. If you own a telescope mount that can track the stars through the sky, you're in luck! Just attach the camera to the mount, get the mount going, and start shooting. With such a setup, there will be no need to go out from time to time and re-center the camera on Camelopardalis, which will eventually drift out of the image due to Earth's rotation.

2. AC adapter. Having an AC to DC converter will eliminate the need for batteries, and worries over their dying during the shoot. If you don't have an adapter, make sure your batteries are charged prior to the shoot!

3. Big memory cards. Shooting RAW files all night will be taking up a lot of memory, so, hopefully you have either a giant memory card or a few smaller ones.

4. Camera-wrap. This varies from night-to night, but dew formation is always a possibility. Unless you have a weather-resistant camera, a wet camera may turn into a dead camera. To protect your toy, cover it as much as possible with something to shield it from moisture, leaving only the optic of the lens open if at all possible.

5. Caffeine. Hey, since your camera is going to be sitting outside all night, why not stay up, too? After all, some estimates predict a meteor storm, so why risk missing a big show?

Want to see the meteors? The best time to view is anytime as they will radiate from the North circumpolar sky. To improve odds of seeing meteors, travel out of light-polluted Cleveland and to the suburbs or, even better, the country if you can. In the suburbs, just going from the front to back yard can make a dramatic difference, too.

As for the Cleveland forecast, things are looking really good. For an even more up-to date, hour-by-hour weather forecast, check out the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock to see what the night will bring as the big event draws closer. Live somewhere else?Find a Clear Sky Clock near you for hourly cloud forecasts.

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Why not check out my other columns?
National Space News Examiner
National Photography Examiner
Cleveland Astronomy Examiner

Want even more? Check out my personal websites:
The Nightly Sky
Bodzash Photography & Astronomy

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