Astrophotography: Capturing Meteors & Stars In The Night Sky

The summer months are here, and with them comes a perfect opportunity for astrophotographers - both the hardcore professionals and the aspiring experimenters - to photograph the night sky in all of its glory. The opportunities for night photography are endless, and we've all seen the amazing timelapses of the Milky Way, but there are a few tips to get beginners headed in the right direction. Meteor showers are amazing astronomical events to photograph, and summer is just the right time for that.

The first tip, even if it's a slight bit obvious, is to get away from the city lights and head out into the wilderness. Being as far from the artificial lights of civilization will give you a sky less polluted with stray lights. Altitude will be your friend, as well: finding a mountain range will result in less atmospheric distortion and generally much clearer air for you to shoot in.

It's also best to choose a cool night for your photography. Heat causes distortion in the air, as anyone's seen while looking down a long asphalt desert road in the middle of the day. Waiting a few hours after sundown can be a huge help, as most of the heat of the day clears from the atmosphere.

Also worth noting is that the moon can cause terrible headaches for photographers, filling the sky with unwanted light. So choose a time when there is as little moon as possible, because otherwise you'll be fighting a giant spotlight in the sky which will crowd out all of the stars, meteors, or any other phenomena you choose to photograph.

The months of July and August are a prime time for meteor showers. Not only does the Perseid meteor shower occur in August, but there are numerous smaller showers throughout the months as well. The summer weather in the Northern Hemisphere typically means that you'll have great night temperatures and, hopefully, less rain and clouds to spoil the view.

For those situated up top, here are some of the times to photograph meteor showers:

  • The Perseids - An intense meteor shower which comes from a particle cloud trailing the Swift-Tuttle comet. The radiant (the area in the sky from which they come) is the constellation Perseus, thus the name. These meteors are visible beginning in mid-July, with the peak activity happening from August 9th to 14th, where there can be 60 or more meteors each hour. The highest rate of activity is seen in the morning hours (after midnight and before dawn).

  • The Southern Delta Aquariids - A strong meteor shower visible from mid July to Mid August with a peak at the end of July, usually around July 28th or 29th. This shower is most visible in the Southern Hemisphere, coming from the constellation Aquarius, but is seen in the north as well. There is a peak rate of 18 per hours, and is best seen in the early pre-dawn hours as well. The Northern Delta Aquariids are seen later in August, but are a weaker show.

  • The Draconids - Getting their name from the point they seem to appear from, the constellation Draco, these meteors occur from October 6th through 10th, but have sometimes given exceptionally frequent rates. They are best view right after sunset. Some years, thousands per hour have fallen in some of the most dramatic meteor storms in memory.

When you're photographing meteors, simply try to find the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate, and focus in that area.

Regardless of the subject of your night sky photography, there are a few ways that filters can help improve the quality of your image.

First, have a sturdy tripod to ensure no movement of the camera during long exposures.

Second, you want to use a lens hood (like this modular hood) whenever possible, to reduce stray light entering the lens from unwanted directions.

uv haze filter

Third, use filters to remove stray light and increase contrast. Specialized light pollution filters are available for Cokin's filter holder system that allow you to reduce unwanted glow if you have city lights or other light pollution in the distance. Using filters like Cokin's UV Haze filter will allow you to improve your image quality by increasing contrast and saturation.