It's been a busy couple of months for astro-photographers and star-gazers. First we had the solar eclipse back in March, and now tonight we're gearing up for the peak wave of the week-long Lyrid meteor shower, expected to dazzle across the night sky visibly above Britain.
The April Lyrids, as the shower is also known, sees dust particles falling from the long-period Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, named after Professor A.E Thatcher who first spotted it back in 1861. Most clearly visible from Northern Europe, it's among the strongest of annual meteor showers from a comet, making it a perfect opportunity to flex your sky-snapping muscles. Between five and 20 meteors (aka, shooting stars) an hour are produced, with as many as 90 an hour been recorded before.
But it's not just a matter of pulling out your iPhone and pointing it up to the stars -- to get the results you want, you'll need some decent gear and an understanding of low-light photography. This guide should give you a good idea of how best to approach shooting this spectacular event.
Where and When to Point Your Camera
An obvious one to start with. According to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, you should be all set up and ready to go at midnight. The radiant sits at about 34° above the eastern horizon, and setting your shooter to look at about 90 degrees from the radiant in any direction will allow you to catch the meteors at their brightest. Light pollution from big cities can reduce visibility, as can cloud cover, so try to head somewhere where the skies are clear and local man-made lighting is as low as possible.
Camera Settings and Equipment
You may be dosed to the high-heavens on diazepam, but if you want decent low-light shots without streaks, you're going to want to head out with a tripod and shutter release remote. This'll ensure that your shots are clear and without camera-shake blur -- particularly important as you're going to be fiddling with shutter speeds.
A wide-angle lens is advised, as the random nature of the shower means it's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the most dazzling elements will appear. Make sure you've a 21mm f/2.8 in your kitbag before heading out. ISO settings are more of a personal decision, or dictated by your camera. Using a really high ISO setting will let you eliminate trails when using shorter exposure times, though dialling to a lower setting will keep the detail in your shots, free of grain. It's all down to your lens speed really -- the faster, the better, letting you drop that ISO setting lower without too much issue. As for aperture, just go a stop up from the widest your lens will allow for, which will let in just enough ambient light to pull of a long shutter speed shot.
Arguably the most important thing to consider when shooting a meteor shower is your camera's shutter speed. The balancing act requires a setting slow enough to snap the sparkly streaks, but not so slow that regular stars start streaking as the Earth rotates. And that's not an exaggeration! It doesn't take long for it make an undesired effect, especially if you're going for some creative time-lapse / multiple exposure shots. Maybe you want the stars to look a little more dynamic with trails of their own, but if you want to isolate the shooting stars from the regular ol' stars, then you'll need to nail this.
The team at Steve's Digicams offer the following tip for figuring out what will work best:
The simplified formula for a 35mm camera is 600 / focal length = maximum exposure time. So if you're using a 21mm lens, that would be 600/21 = 28.5, which means that any exposures of more than 28.5 seconds will start showing the stars as streaks. But unless you're watching a really impressive meteor storm (or you're very lucky), you probably won't capture many meteors during those 28 seconds.
These tips should get you on your way to taking some impressive shots, but as ever, experimentation is the key. When in doubt, YouTube can be a great resource for hearing how other photographers got results that you're keen to replicate. You'll find a couple of useful guides from the SLR Lounge and Thomas Heaton below.
Image Credit: Wikimedia