How to Catch a Falling Star
Uti Deva sent the following description of photographing the Perseid Meteor shower:
I was having a disturbing dream about wildfires involving some friends of mine in a fictitious steep canyon country setting where we were trying to avoid being trapped by the flames and woke up around 3:30am this morning. It seemed like a good time to get up and go outside to look for the Perseids meteor shower while it was still in it’s pre-dawn peak, so I made my chai and set up my camera on a tripod to try my hand at capturing a few falling stars. Outside the air was cool enough for a fleece vest and perfectly still. Except for those sounds out in the woods creeping me out after a neighbor had just warned me after dinner last evening that there have been mountain lion sightings, missing sheep across the river and a couple of MIA dogs just up my road.So juggling tea mug, flashlight and camera I managed to set up my tripod not too far from the cabin where the sky was open and start making 20 second exposures. It took a few minutes for my eyes to get sensitive to the dark.
The thing about photographing meteors is that you can’t just press the button when you see them or you’ll miss the streakers altogether; you have to shoot blind and play the odds that one will show during a long time exposure. Even with my widest angle lens it always seemed like the little buggers were streaking somewhere else in the sky that was not in my frame. That made me realize that photographing meteors is a lot like playing a slot machine—you just keep dropping in coins, pulling the lever and the odds are sooner or later you’ll either run out of coins or hit a jackpot. Same thing with photographing meteors, just keep making exposures and start with an empty memory card and a fully charged battery—either you’ll run out of memory or power or the sun will rise and the stars will disappear.
Although I’m a seasoned photographer, I’m new to photographing night skies, so there was a little learning curve on how to calculate exposures for me. The first thing for someone shooting with an adjustable camera is the length of the exposure is calculated by a “Rule of 500”, which means you divide 500 by the focal length (angle of view) of your lens to get the maximum exposure time you can shoot the stars without them streaking from the earth’s orbit movement—so you get billions of pin points instead of streaks. For my 21mm wide-angle lens it was calculated thus: 500÷21=23 seconds, rounded off to 20 seconds because my camera has a shutter speed setting of 20 seconds so I don’t have to count off seconds for each exposure. After that, it was a matter of adjusting the camera’s ISO speed until I got a test shot that looked good on the camera’s screen with the lens f/stop wide open. Focus was easy; it’s infinity for a manual focus lens.
Having checked a few test shots to adjust the composition of the tree shadows I began to methodically make exposures in between sips of hot tea and rolling my neck to take the crick out of it from looking up for long periods. I was thinking my comfy reclining outdoor lounge chair might be nice for meteor gazing, but I didn’t go get it out of the shed. On the 39th. exposure I caught a fair sized meteor just above the tree line with a multi-colored tail, gave a shout and a fist-pump, but I kept on shooting as the night sky gave way to the pre-dawn light and the faintest stars began to disappear as the sky changed from black to deep blue. By then I had forgotten about the mountain lion my inner little boy was sure was stalking me in the beginning of the project. As a bonus I also captured a few satellites and one airplane passing by, which show up as long white lines across the image. After downloading my images to my computer where I could see the images enlarged, I noticed lots of faint meteors I hadn’t seen with my eye; the sensor in my camera is much more sensitive to low light and color than my eyes.
It’s hard for me to look at my photographs with all these stars visible and not remember Johnny Carson mimicking (and misquoting) Carl Sagan from his famous TV series “Cosmos” by saying “Billions and billions of stars…” Here’s what Sagan said about that misquote in 1997:
“I never said it. Honest. Oh, I said there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars. It’s hard to talk about the Cosmos without using big numbers. I said ‘billion’ many times on the Cosmos television series, which was seen by a great many people. But I never said ‘billions and billions.’ For one thing, it’s imprecise. How many billions are ‘billions and billions’? A few billion? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? ‘Billions and billions’ is pretty vague… For a while, out of childish pique, I wouldn’t utter the phrase, even when asked to. But I’ve gotten over that. So, for the record, here it goes: ‘Billions and billions.’ ”
Whatever, there’s a lot of stars and other things out there in the universe and every now and then some tiny pieces of stardust fall to earth and put on a light show for us.