The Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak on 11 and 12 August in 2021 and it’s set to be the most spectacular for years. 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 – and easily the best in 2021 in the northern hemisphere – is the Perseids meteor shower each August.
2021 promises to be a standout year for the Perseids because the moon will be just 13% lit and will sink in the southwest soon after dark, leaving the sky inky black for the rest of the night.
Although a bright moon won’t be a factor this year, as it was in 2020, it’s still advisable to shoot around or after midnight – so early on 12 August – to get the most ‘shooting stars’ in the darkest skies. The American Meteor Society advises that 50-75 meteors should be visible from rural locations.
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 appear to originate from the constellation of Perseus – it’s ‘radiant point’.. The Perseids occur when the nights are reliably warm and the skies are more likely to be clear in much of the northern hemisphere.
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 energize 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-years long orbit of the Sun.
Read more: How and when to photograph the moon
The trouble is, a shooting star typically only 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. That means long exposures of up to 30 seconds or beyond.
What's so special about the Perseids?
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, which is why astrophotographers are making plans for the 2021 event. Called the ‘Tears of St. Lawrence’ by Catholics because of its timing near a saint’s day, shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower are fairly swift, striking Earth’s atmosphere at 37 miles/60 kilometres per second. They often have persistent ‘trains’ behind them that make them ideal to capture in long exposure photographs.
Although the Perseids meteor shower officially takes place between 17 July and 24 August, the peak, when activity is expected to be at its highest, will occur between 11 and 12 August 2021. The exact dates change every year.
When and where to see the Perseids in 2021
Plan on camping out. Clear skies allowing, the moon’s phases mean that you should point your camera to the night sky in the few nights either side of the 11 and 12 August. So if there are clear skies on 10 August, go for it – don’t presume the skies will be clear on the peak night. 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.
Although the darkest skies are between midnight and dawn, the radiant of the Perseids – the constellation of Perseus – is ‘up’ right after dark in the northern hemisphere, so you can start looking for shooting stars right away. Or, while you wait for the night skies to darken, you could try to capture a beautiful crescent moon just above the southwestern horizon before it leaves the sky.
Photographing the Perseids: tools required
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...
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
Either way, you'll end up with hundreds of shots of the night sky, some of which will hopefully have shooting stars within them. If that's all you're after, you can extract the images that do feature a shooting star 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 do this on Adobe Photoshop.
Read more: How to capture star trails
When is the next meteor shower?
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.
October’s Orionids – which are caused by Halley’s Comet – are often impressive, but are best ignored in 2021 because they clash with a full moon. So too the Leonids in November, while even December’s powerful Geminids and Ursids meteor showers will be virtually impossible to view in a moonless sky.
In fact, the only other chance of easily capturing shooting stars in 2021 comes right at the year’s end when, between 27 December 2021 and 10 January 2022 the underrated Quadrantids meteor shower will strike, peaking on 2-3 January 2022 under a new moon.
However, for photographers that prefer warm evenings and a higher chance of clear skies, August’s Perseids meteor shower in 2021 is as unmissable as it gets.
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