Eta Aquarid meteor shower 2019: When, where and how to photograph the Eta Aquarids

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The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will reach its peak on the 5 and 6 May 2019. Although technically the most prolific meteor shower of the year is the Geminids in December, when it's possible to see up to 120 shooting stars per hour, Aquarids are worth trying out – especially as night time temperatures should be more favorable for most astrophotographers. 

Of course, with the right astrophotography tips it's possible to photograph shooting stars on any night of the year. But meteor showers incredibly high activity – and lots of opportunity for stunning night sky photography. So what is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower? And why does it happen? 

The meteors appear to originate from Eta Aquarii, a bright in the constellation Aquarius. "For people in mid-northern latitudes, the radiant won't be very high in the sky, so if that's where you're located, you'll need a dark-sky site with a relatively clear southern horizon to make the most of the meteors", says Space.com.

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower, Babcock Wildlife Refuge, Florida

(Image: © Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images)

What is a shooting star? Essentially, it's just dust. Earth’s orbit of the Sun often takes it through stacks of debris left in the solar system by comets and asteroids. Mostly it's just dust particles – no bigger than grains of sand – that Earth's atmosphere slams into. As it does, these particles energise briefly and become disintegrating meteors. If you're standing on the night side of Earth in complete darkness, you'll see a shooting star. The pile of particles that cause the Eta Aquarids come originally from Halley's Comet, but their respective paths separated a long time ago

The trouble is, a shooting star only typically lasts a split-second – though occasionally as long as a second – as it streaks across the night sky. That doesn't give you enough time to react to it, so your camera's shutter needs to be already open, ready, and waiting for the light from a shooting star to hit its image sensor.

What's so special about the Eta Aquarids?

Although not as well known as the Perseids and Geminids, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower can rain down at between 30-60 meteors per hour. If the moon is out of the way, it can be a stunning experience - and this year the new moon will coincide with the peak of the display, promising great conditions for astrophotographers.

Read more: How to photograph the International Space Station

Although the Eta Aquarids meteor shower officially take place between 19 April and 28 May, the peak nights, when activity is expected to be at its highest, occurs between 5-6 May 2019. 

When and where to see the Eta Aquariids in 2019

Plan on camping. Clear skies allowing, your camera needs to be pointing at the night sky between midnight and in the early hours of 5 May in Europe and the early hours of 6 May in North America.

This great online resource can show you the best times for your location – and show you which direction to look in.

If poor weather is predicted for the peak nights, get your priorities straight; it’s better to go for a clear sky and slightly fewer meteors a few days before or after the predicted peak than to plan a trip to a dark sky site on the big night if bad weather is predicted. 

Picking a site with little light pollution is important because you’re going to be opening the shutter for at least 25 seconds, so a lot of light is going to get in. This interactive world light pollution map and the Dark Site Finder are both very useful for scouting a good location away from the bright lights of urban areas. However, if you can't travel outside a city, you can still try to photograph shooting stars. Find somewhere where no streetlights are going to interfere with your composition, and get your camera into the shadow of a building. 

Photographing a meteor shower: tools required

You'll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera to capture meteors

You'll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera to capture meteors

Our best astrophotography tools buying guide has you covered for all the gear you'll need to photograph meteor showers. However, here's a quick overview for the key kit you'll need...

DSLR

You can use any DSLR or mirrorless camera as long as it has a manual mode, and you can shoot long exposure images for at least 30 seconds. However, a camera with a full-frame sensor is the best option because it will capture more light and feature less image noise when used at high ISOs.  

Wide-angle lens

Since you want to capture as much of the night sky as possible to maximise your chance of capturing shooting stars, a wide-angle lens is best. Somewhere between a focal length of 28mm and 10mm is ideal. Most astrphotographers use wide-angle primes, so that they have a fast maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster.

Tripod

Keeping your camera steady is an absolute must for this long exposure project, so you'll need the best tripod you can get. If it's windy, don't use the tripod's extension arm. Check that the horizon is level before taking a shot.

Other gear

A shutter release cable that can be locked, or an intervalometer or remote control, will be helpful for taking repeated long exposures without having to manually depress the shutter button every 25 seconds. 

Even summer nights can get cold after midnight, especially if you're stationary while your camera does its work, so also take a coat and a fold-up chair. 

Where to point the camera: composition

Taking long exposures is the easiest way to capture a shooting star. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Taking long exposures is the easiest way to capture a shooting star. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Although it's tempting to point your camera at the radiant, meteors can just as easily appear anywhere in the sky. 

By pointing at the radiant you'll likely miss as many meteors as you'll catch, so it's better to get something interesting in the foreground – perhaps an old barn, a tree, or a sculpture – in your composition to add interest. That way you'll have a beautiful astro-landscape photo that, hopefully, will feature a shooting star or two. 

Besides, the Milky Way will be visible in the eastern sky during May, if you're in a dark sky site, that is. You might rate that as a tempting backdrop for a shooting star.

Taking the shot

With your lens's focus set to infinity, and its aperture to around f/2.8 (or as open as possible), choose ISO 800 or ISO 1600 (or even higher if you're in a really dark sky site) and fix the shutter speed to 25sec. Take the shot, and if you're not happy with result as a stand-alone image, make adjustments and re-take.

Once you're happy, here comes the fun bit; take the same shot 50-200 times in Raw over the course of an hour, or a couple of hours. Just be careful not to switch-on any lights, or nudge your tripod during the shooting period; keep dark and stand well back. 

Either way, you'll end up with hundred of shots of the night sky, some of which will hopefully have shooting stars within. If that's all you're after, you can extract the images that do feature a shooting star (or perhaps even two), and ditch the rest. However, if you use the free software StarStaX, you can drag-and-drop all 200 photos into it to create a star-trail image … featuring shooting stars, of course. It's also possible to this on Adobe Photoshop. 

Read more: How to capture star trails

The Perseids is the year's most reliable meteor shower. Image: Jamie Carter

The Perseids is the year's most reliable meteor shower. Image: Jamie Carter

When is the next meteor shower?

There are other nights during the year where you are just as likely to see some shooting stars… 

Another meteor shower which was created by Halley's Comet is the Orionids, which peak on 21-22 October 2019. The most prolific of the year, the Geminids, which peaks on 14-15 December 2019. Alternatively put photographing the Perseids in your diary – which  will peak on 12-13 August this year.

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Astrophotography: How-to guides, tips and videos on getting your best shots