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How to photograph a meteor shower: don't miss the Perseids this week

Perseid Meteor shower shot in Mongolia 2016. 14-28mm lens with exposure of 25 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 5000 (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak on the 12 and 13 August 2020. 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, the most reliable is the Perseids meteor shower each August. 

The moon will be in its last phase, so the 2020 Perseids may not be quite as spectacular in some years – but should be better than last year. But you can maximize your chance of getting pictures by aiming to shoot before the moon rises (but after dark) – so at around midnight on the 12 or 13 August. 

But it also may pay to wait until after the peak of the display – as on the 17 August there will be a moonless night, and the remaining meteors will show up much more clearly. 

Of course, you also need a cloudless night – so paying attention to the weather forecast will help you plan the best evenings.

With the right astrophotography tools it's possible to photograph shooting stars on any night of the year. But meteor showers like the Perseids bring incredibly high activity – and lots of opportunity for stunning night sky photography. So what is the Perseid meteor shower? And why does it happen? 

Well, it's called 'the Perseids' because the meteors seem to originate from the constellation of Perseus. The Perseids occur when the nights are reliably warm and the skies are more likely to be clear. 

Perseid meteor shot in Portugal. 16-35mm zoom with exposure of 80 secomds at f/11, ISO 31. (Image credit: 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 Perseids come from Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed through the solar system in 1992 on its 133-year orbit of the Sun.

Read more: How and when to photograph the moon

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 Perseids?

The Perseids can turn into a festival of fireballs. Image: CC0 Creative Commons

An annual highlight of the astrophotography calendar, the Perseids meteor shower can rain down well over 50 meteors per hour, sometimes as many as 200. If the moon is out of the way, it can be a stunning experience. Called the Tears of St. Lawrence by Catholics because of its timing near a saint’s day, its meteors can often leave a bright trail behind them.

Read more: How to photograph the International Space Station

Although the Perseids meteor shower officially take place between 17 July and 24 August, the peak nights, when activity is expected to be at its highest, occurs between 11-13 August 2020. The exact dates change every year.

When and where to see the Perseids in 2020

August is when the Perseids will peak. Credit: ESO/C. Malin

Plan on camping out. Clear skies allowing, your camera needs to be pointing at the night sky at around midnight between 12 August and 17 August; the moon would have not risen then, so that if the skies are clear you have the best chance of seeing (and photographing) this astronomical event. 

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 the Perseids: 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 the Perseids this year. 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. The best lenses for astrophotography have  an effective focal length of 28mm and 10mm.

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: the radiant

The Milky Way will be in the night sky during the Perseids meteor shower. Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

The Perseids meteor shower is named after the constellation of Perseus because that's the location in the night sky that its shooting stars appear to originate from (though it's not the source of them). Astronomers call it the radiant point, and can be seen in the night sky just below the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. 

How important is this to point your camera at? That depends on your composition. Since the shooting stars will appear to come from here, pointing at Perseus can get you an impression of movement. However, you're then restricted to meteors that occur near that radiant point.

Where to point the camera: composition

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

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 south-eastern sky during August, 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. 

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

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

When is the next meteor shower?

The Geminids in December is another chance to catch a bright meteor. Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

The Geminids in December is another chance to catch a bright meteor. Credit: CC0 Creative Commons

Although the Perseids is the most reliable, and most easily photographed meteor shower of the year because it occurs during summer in the northern hemisphere, there are other nights during the year where you are just as likely to see some shooting stars. 

Another one is the Orionids, which will peak on 20-21 October 20, during the first quarter of the moon. Next up will be the Leonids, which will be in view most of the nights of 16-17 November coinciding with the new moon. 

The Geminids this year will peak on the night on 13-14 December 2020 - and the good news is that this will happen during a new moon, which should mean maximum visibility and a night-long window of opportunity.  

Another usually good one is the Eta Aquarids, caused by the leftovers of Halley's Comet, which will peak during the night of 5-6 May 2021 - but unfortunately the moon will be relatively bright.

Read more:
The beginner's guide to photographing the night sky
Astrophotography tips, tricks and techniques
The best telescopes for astrophotography
The best camera for astrophotography: tools and lenses to shoot night skies
• The best star tracker camera mounts