Shooting the Leonid Meteors

I’ve received a few messages about shooting the Leonid Meteor shower and what my settings are and how I will do it. So I decided to put together this post. No moon light is essential for grabbing snaps of the stars/Milky Way/meteors but this year we have an almost full moon to contend with. 😦

What is the Leonid Meteor Shower anyway?
Yearly, about mid November ( This year, Nov 16 to the 18th is peak viewing time) we get a visit from the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Earth crosses into the debris path of the comet and this dust and debris slams into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and lights up the nighttime sky with the Leonid meteors. The Leonids will reach its peak on Nov 16th, 17th and 18th. However, its very active days before and after the 17th. This year we have a 75 to 95% moon depending on what day you view the sky and is not a good year to capture meteors. While shooting meteors with no moon is optimal, its still possible to grab some shots of the brighter ones. On Nov 15th the moon sets about 4am (ish) and will set later on the 16th, 17th and 18th. So during the peak (17th) the moon will be higher in the sky. By 2 AM on Nov 15th, the Moon should be in the western sky. So after 2am your chances will increase when looking East and North toward the constellation Leo where the meteors radiate from. Leo rises at about midnight in the mountain timezone.

Location/Where to shoot?
Get out of the city and away from lights! Head out somewhere East and a bit North of any noisy city light. You don’t want any light noise in your frame as you will be shooting to the East and the North. For more info on finding a dark place to shoot, browse to:
The meteors originate from the radiant of the Constellation Leo and travel through the Eastern sky – Sometimes North and sometimes South. But you shouldn’t point your camera directly Northeast however. Orient your camera in portrait mode, face directly high North and position the North East sky on the right edge of your frame (view finder). Why? The meteors come from the radiant but don’t appear until they hit the earths atmosphere in the Northern sky and directly above.
Note that you will see meteors everywhere: To the North, directly above, to the south, directly east, etc. But the bulk of the meteors SHOULD appear in the high North and North East sky. But don’t take my word for it. Get out, look around and decide for yourself. I’ll be using two cameras to grab up a little more sky and increase my chances of grabbing some useable photos.

Essential Equipment
If you want to photograph the Meteor shower you will need the following:
A camera (DSLR) capable of high ISO capabilities – The best choice will be a full frame DSLR like a Canon 1D/5DMKIII/MKII/6D, a Nikon D4/D3s/D700/D600/D800/D4, etc, and other brands of full frame cameras. Full frame sensor cameras are the best choice for capturing the shower because of their stellar high ISO performance. But the show would be easily captured as well with a crop sensor (APS-C size) like that of a Nikon D3100/3200/D5100/D5200/D7000/D7100/D90/D300(S), etc, or a Canon T2/T3/T4/T5/40D/50D/60D/7D, etc. As far as other cameras such as point n shoots or mirrorless are concerned, if they have the option to shoot in manual and set the exposure, aperture, and ISO, they should be able to grab something useable. But to be honest, I’m not sure as I don’t own one.
A fast wide angle lens – Because of the dark sky, a fast (f/2.8 or faster) aperture lens would be preferable. The wider the view, the better because you will want to have the radiant (where the meteors come from) in the right part of the lens (view finder) as well as the high northern part of the sky. I’ll be using a 14mm lens. A wide zoom lens is fine too and with most of those the fastest aperture is f/3.5. You will also want to set your auto focus to OFF and then manually set the lens to the infinity focus setting. I use electrical tape to secure my focus ring so it doesn’t move if I accidentally touch it during the night.
A tripod – A good sturdy tripod is essential as you don’t want the camera moving during a long exposure. You will end up with nothing useful if you try shooting handheld.
A wired or wireless remote – Some photographers prefer to use a wired intervalometer/remote. This device allows you program and setup an automated continuous cycle of 30 second exposures. This is really handy if you don’t want to stand by your camera for hours hitting the shutter button over and over every 30 seconds. Some of the newer Nikons and Canons (and others) have built in intervalometers. Most DSLR’s have the option to use a IR (wireless) Remote and you might be able to pick one up at a local camera retailer for $20 dollars. However, if you don’t have any of the above, its really not that much work to setup a chair by your camera and just hit the shutter button every 30 seconds. 😉 To lighten my load when I’m out shooting the Milky Way, I dont carry a remote of any type. I just hit the shutter. If the tripod is sturdy, its fine.
Large Capacity Memory Card – You might end up shooting for a couple of hours or more. So you will want a large SD Card or CF card to store hundreds of photos. I shoot in RAW mode, so I use 64 gigabytes of memory.
Battery – Don’t forget to charge your batteries and maybe bring an extra because you might be shooting for hours. You can always pick up extras for most cameras at a local camera retailer.

How to shoot and settings
These are my settings and what I’ll be using. I cant speak to how your particular brand of camera settings are completed with regard to the below.
1. Get your cam on the tripod and lock it to your view (Northern sky, etc). Once you set your view, leave your camera and tripod in place. A lot of pro photographers stack their captures (10-15 at a time) and rotate each photo in Photoshop to match the stars as they move. If you see a photo with 12, 15 or more meteors, this is a stack and not a single shot. You just wont see 12 or more meteors in 30 seconds. David Kingham has an EXCELLENT video on how to stack photos:
2. Set your camera to manual (M) mode.
3. Because we have a bit of a moon this year, set a 20 second exposure time (Shutter speed). If you shoot any longer than 30 seconds you will start to end up with star trails and this will cloud and hide any meteor.
4. Set your lens to its fastest aperture – Mine is f/2.8.
5. If using a zoom lens, set it to its widest point. 18mm, etc.
6. Set the lens to manual focus and then focus to the infinity mark.
7. Set your ISO to what you want to shoot at. Depending on the Moon and the time of night, I’ll be shooting at anywhere between ISO 400 and 1000 (at 10 to 30 seconds). I’ll take a few test shots at 20 seconds/ISO200 and look at the exposure to see if its light enough. If a bit dark, I’ll elect to extend my exposure to 30 seconds. If still a bit dark at that point, I’ll up my ISO to 400, 640, etc until the exposure looks good. If still dark, I’ll go up to ISO2000, etc.
8. TURN OFF long exposure noise reduction (NR) in your camera. Why? If you have this turned on after a 30 second exposure, the camera will take an additional 30 seconds to apply the NR after EACH shot and you might miss a meteor. You can apply NR in post process.

About ISO
Every camera is different and you will need to experiment. Again, I suggest you experiment, take a few photos and look at the result on your cameras LCD screen. Too Dark? Increase the ISO. Too light or over exposed? Lower the ISO or lower the shutter time to 20 seconds, 15 seconds, etc. If your fastest aperture is F/3.5 or F/4, etc., you will have to compensate with a higher ISO setting or keep the shutter open longer. For the really bright comets ISO 200 or 400 will work just fine. For the barely visible comets ISO2000 or higher will be needed. Because there is moonlight this year, I’ll be using the lower ISO’s – 400, etc. Take Away: Start with 30 seconds at ISO400 and go from there.

Finally. If you don’t have a camera or want to go through all of the above – just grab some chairs, your loved ones and go just sit and stare at the sky. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and we’ll have a clear sky to look at. Have fun. 😀

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