Those in Dayton with an interest in photography could very well be presented with an opportunity to expand their image making skills next week. The evening of August 12th will see nature’s fireworks – the annual return of the Perseid Meteor Shower. This cosmic display of flashing fire and rock through the Earth’s upper atmosphere is the biggest meteor shower of the year.
Many amateur photographers tend to limit their cameras to the more common subjects that we see around us everyday – nature, landscapes, wildlife, flowers, friends and family. However, with just the simple addition of a sturdy tripod and making use of the time exposure settings of most of today’s point and shoot digital cameras, photographers can capture on digital sensor a “falling star,” and with the Perseids just one photograph could easily contain several flashing trails of meteorites.
Photographing meteor showers is often the first step into the realm of “astrophotography” – the photography of night sky objects ranging from the Moon, the planets, nebula, star clusters and distant galaxies. But with photographing meteorites the difference is in the gear required. Most of the other subjects requiring the attaching of a digital camera body to a telescope through the use of mounting adapters, and then the tracking mechanism on the telescope (also known as a motor drive) has to be carefully aligned so that it tracks exactly with the rotation of the Earth. Deep sky subjects often require exposures of an hour or more, oftentimes multiple exposures that are later “merged” or combined together.
Meteorites speeding through the sky need just a basic camera body – either 35mm SLR or fixed-lens, point and shoot – and either a normal or wide angle lens, usually anything from 28 to 55mm, or a zoom in the range. The camera will need to offer the photographer the ability to manually select both shutter speed and aperture, which is usually the “M” setting. Attempting astrophotography in any type of “auto” exposure mode will not work, primarily due to the fact that the source of light that the camera meter is attempting to adjust to is simply too small or dim.
Any type of time exposure that is longer than 1/30th of a second will require the camera to be set-up on a tripod. Hand-holding the camera simply will not work and result in lots of little, indistinguishable blurry lights in darkness. A cable release from the camera’s shutter button is also a good idea so that all possible hand contact with the camera, during the exposure, is avoided. Also be careful to set your tripod on a sturdy surface, such as pavement or hard ground. Many people make the mistake of setting their tripod for night exposures on a porch deck or walkway. Even the smallest step from you or anyone else nearby will shake the camera during the exposure.
Aperture settings should be as wide as possible, such as 2.8 or 3.5, so as to allow as much light in as possible. It’s also a good idea to turn the auto-focus feature off and pre-focus on a distant tree or house on the horizon. If the focus is still on more nearby objects the stars and meteors will once again be blurry.
The longest shutter speed setting should be used for meteors, which on most cameras is 30 seconds. Here again you will want to be in a setting that is FAR away from house, street and city lights.
For the Perseids on August 12 the best time of night will be midnight and after. That’s when most of the meteor activity takes place. Rather than fumble in the dark with camera and tripod, try setting your gear up before sundown. Direct your camera and lens toward the northeast horizon, which after midnight will be the “epicenter” of the Perseid meteor activity. When the time comes just starting taking your exposures, one after the other, 30 seconds for each. The odds will be excellent that you will capture a streaking light of one or more meteorites.
With exposures that are 20 seconds or more the stars will begin to “trail,” meaning they look like little, curved lines dotting the sky versus pinpoints of perfect starlight. That’s okay, because when a meteor comes through it will be in a completely different direction than the lines of the stars, thus making a nice and noticeable difference between star and “falling star.”
Another tip is to try to include a telling (but not too intrusive) foreground element within the frame of the picture, such as a tree or treeline. A certain amount of depth and interest will be added to the final photograph that contains the meteor. However, it’s important to be aware of any possible man-made light that could be falling on the tree or trees. With just the faintest, far away street light the trees will “glow” within the time exposure and make your nighttime exposure tend to look unnatural as well as distract the viewer’s eye away from the primary subject.
Although the chances are good that photographers can photograph one or two of the brighter meteors of the Perseid shower within the limits of Dayton and surrounding suburbs, the best thing to do is drive as far out into a rural location as possible. The further away from intrusive light pollution the better, and will often double or triple the number of meteorites seen and photographed.
Closer to Dayton is John Bryan State Park, in Greene County. The Miami Valley Astronomical Society maintains an observatory in this location because it’s just far away from urban lights to allow for good night sky conditions.
Another option is to take the opportunity of this rare celestial event for a short trip to Hocking Hills State Park in Southeastern Ohio, just a two hour drive east of Dayton. The night sky in this part of the state is some of the darkest to be found within easy travel distance from the Montgomery County area.
Hocking Hills is so popular with amateur astronomers and astrophotographers that both Getaway Cabins and The Inn at Cedar Falls, which both offer superb overnight accommodations, include separate sections on their web sites for stargazers. There is nothing like the thrill of seeing the night sky with all the glory of the Milky Way when standing on the hilltop behind The Inn at Cedar Falls. The Perseids will surely look their best from that particular vantage point.
This year viewers and photographers will have the added benefit of a Moon that is not full on the evening of the Perseid Meteor Shower. The only other thing to do is to hope for clear weather, but even if the conditions aren’t good on the evening the 12th, there will still be sections of the meteor event visible a couple of nights prior and after.
Late summer has arrived with the grand show of the Perseids. With just a tripod and a some time exposures amateur photographers in the Dayton area will be able to capture with camera this amazing show.
For more information, please see http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/31jul_perseids2009.htm