How to Photograph the Geminid Meteor Shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity. 

The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal! 

The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night. 

A Good Year for Geminids

While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:

• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.

• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years. 

The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower looking east to the radiant point. This is a stack of 40 images, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 40 frames with meteors out of 357 taken over 3.25 hours. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky. I rotated and moved each image in relation to the base image and around Polaris at upper left, in order to place each meteor at approximately the correct position in relation to the background stars, to preserve the effect of the meteors streaking from the radiant near Castor at centre.

What Settings to Use?

To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:

  • A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
  • A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
  • Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins. 
  • Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Use an intervalometer to control the shutter speed, with the camera on Bulb. Set the interval to one second to minimize the time the shutter is closed.

Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:

  • A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
  • A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
  • A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible. 
  • Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
  • A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
This sky chart looking east for December 13, 2020 shows the position of the radiant and the constellation of Gemini at about 7 p.m. local time. Orion is just rising in the east.

When to Shoot?

The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.

For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14. 

For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.

So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold! 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. It is one frame from a 700-frame sequence for stacking and time-lapses. The ground is a mean stack of 8 frames to smooth noise. Exposures were 30 seconds at ISO 6400 with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII.

Where to Go?

To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north. 

While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town. 

From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up. 

The Geminid meteor shower of December 13, 2017 in a view framing the winter Milky Way from Auriga (at top) to Puppis (at bottom) with Gemini itself, the radiant of the shower at left, and Orion at right. The view is looking southeast. This is a composite stack of one base image with the brightest meteor, then 20 other images layered in each with a meteor. The camera was not tracking the sky, so I rotated and moved each of the layered-in frames so that their stars mroe or less aligned with the base layer. The images for this composite were taken over 107 minutes, with 22 images containing meteors picked from 196 images in total over that time. Each exposure was 30 seconds with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400.

Where to Aim?

You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west. 

But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are. 

The Star Adventurer star tracker, on its optional equatorial wedge to aid precise polar alignment of its motorized rotation axis.

Using a Tracker

Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite. 

A tracked composite showing the 2017 Geminid meteors streaking from the radiant point in Gemini at upper left. This is a stack of 43 exposures, each 1-minute with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.5 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 6400, set fast to pick up the fainter meteors. These were 43 exposures with meteors (some with 2 or 3 per frame) out of 455 taken over 5 hours. The background sky comes from just one of the exposures. All the other frames are masked to show just the meteor.

However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary. 

If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower, from the peak night of December 13, with the radiant in Gemini, at top, high overhead. So meteors appear to be raining down to the horizon. This was certainly the visual impression. This is a stack of 24 images, some with 2 or 3 meteors per frame, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 24 frames with meteors out of 171 taken over 94 minutes. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky.

Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera

The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses. 

The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant. 

To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.

Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog. 

But I cover the process in multi-step tutorials in my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook, linked to above. 

The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials. 

A trio of Geminid meteors over the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, with Orion and the winter stars setting. I shot this at the end of the night of December 13/14, 2017 with the rising waxing crescent Moon providing some ground illumination. This is a stack of one image for the ground and two fainter meteors, and another image with the bright meteor. The camera was on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker so the stars are not trailed, though the ground will be slightly blurred. All were 30-second exposures at f/2.8 with the 24mm Canon lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 5000.

Keeping Warm

Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.

Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon. 

Good luck and happy meteor hunting!

— Alan, December 2, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

 

Arc of the Low Summer Moon


Arc of the Summer MoonThe summer Full Moon arcs low across the southern sky, mimicking the path of the winter Sun.

This is a project I had in mind for the last month, and hoped to capture at the July Full Moon. A clear, dry, and cooperative night provide the chance.

The still images are composites of 40 images of the Moon traveling across the sky from dusk to dawn, taken at 10-minute intervals. They are layered onto a blend of background images of the 10 p.m. dusk sky (left), 2 a.m. middle-of-the-night sky (middle), and 5 a.m dawn sky (right).

As a bonus, the 10 p.m. sky shows some dark crepuscular rays in the twilight, while at 2 a.m. the Moon was in light cloud and surrounded by iridescent colours. By 5 a.m. denser clouds were moving in to obscure the Moon.

Arc of the Summer Moon

I shot the still image composite (above) and time-lapse movie (below) to illustrate the low arc of a summer Full Moon. In summer (June or July) the Full Moon sits at a similar place near the ecliptic as does the Sun in winter near the December solstice.

From the northern hemisphere the low position of the winter Sun gives us the short, cold days of winter. In summer, the similar low position of the Full Moon simply gives us a low Full Moon! But it is one that can be impressive and photogenic.

The time-lapse movie uses all 400 frames of the moving Moon superimposed onto the same background sky images, but now dissolving from one to the other.

 

The movie is 4K in resolution, though can be viewed at a smaller resolution to speed up playback if needed.


For the technically minded:

The Moon disks in the time-lapse and still composite come from a series of short 1/15-second exposures, short enough to record just the disks of the bright Moon set against a dark, underexposed sky.

I took these shots every minute, for 400 in total. They are blended into the bright background sky images using a Lighten blend mode, both in Photoshop for the still image, and in Final Cut for the movie.

The background sky images are longer exposures to record the sky colours, and stars (in the case of the 2 a.m. image). They are blended with gradient masks for the still image, but dissolved from one to the other in the time-lapse movie.

I shot the frames with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D, with the camera not moved during the 7-hour shoot.

— Alan, July 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Rising of the “Strawberry” Moon


The Rising Strawberry Moon of June 9, 2017 (Composite)

The Full Moon of June rose into a twilight sky over a prairie pond. 

On June 9, the clouds cleared to present an ideal sky for capturing the rising of the so-called “Strawberry Moon,” the popular name for the Full Moon of June.

The lead image is a composite of 15 frames, taken at roughly 2.5-minute intervals and stacked in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.

The image below is a single frame.

The Rising Strawberry Moon of June 9, 2017
The rising Full Moon of June, dubbed the “Strawberry Moon” in the media, as seen rising over a prairie pond in southern Alberta, on June 9, 2017. This is a single exposure stack, from a time-lapse sequence of 1100 frames, with images taken at two second intervals. Shot with the Canon 6D and 200mm lens.
I set up beside a small local prairie pond, to shoot the moonrise over the water. Ducks enjoyed the view and a muskrat swam by at one point.

I shot over 1100 frames, at two-second intervals to create a time-lapse of the rising Moon, as it brightened and turned from yellow-orange (not quite strawberry pink) to a bright white.

Here’s the time-lapse vignette.

Click on HD for the best view.

While the Harvest Moon gets lots of PR, as this sequence shows any Full Moon can provide a fine sight, and look yellow, due to absorption of the blue wavelengths by the atmosphere as the Moon rises, or as it sets.

However, the timing can vary from Full Moon to Full Moon. This one was ideal, with it rising right at sunset. If the Moon comes up too late, the sky might have already darkened, producing too great a difference in brightness between the Moon and background sky to be photogenic.

But what of these Moon names? How authentic are they? 

Who called this the Strawberry Moon? Native Americans? No. Or at best only one or two nations. 

Check the site at Western Washington University at http://www.wwu.edu/depts/skywise/indianmoons.html and you’ll see there were an enormous number of names in use, assuming even this listing is authentic. 

The names like “Strawberry Moon” that are popularized in the media today come from the American Farmers Almanac, and everyone – science writers and bloggers – ends up copying and pasting the same wrong, or at best misleading, information from the Almanac. 

Search for “Strawberry Moon” or “Moon names” and you’ll find the same explanation repeated verbatim and unquestioned by many writers. Alas, the Almanac is not an authoritative source – after all, they were the source of a misleading definition of Blue Moon decades ago. 

Yes, people around the world may have long had names for months and moons, but they were not necessarily the ones that make the rounds of news sites and blogs today. Most are a modern media concoction. A few years ago, pre-internet, no one knew about nor used these names. 
— Alan, June 10, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Lunar Eclipse, to True Scale


This is a multiple-exposure composite of the total lunar eclipse of Sunday, September 27, 2015, as shot from Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. From this location the Moon rose in the east at lower left already in partial eclipse. As it rose it moved into Earth’s shadow and became more red and the sky darkened from twilight to night, bringing out the stars. Then, as the Moon continued to rise higher it emerged from the shadow, at upper right, and returned to being a brilliant Moon again, here overexposed and now illuminating the landscape with moonlight. The disks of the Moon become overexposed here as the sky darkened because I was setting exposures to show the sky and landscape well, not just the Moon itself. That’s because I shot the frames used to assemble this multiple-exposure still image primarily for use as a time-lapse movie where I wanted the entire scene well exposed in each frame. Indeed, for this still image composite of the eclipse from beginning to end, I selected just 40 frames taken at 5-minute intervals, out of 530 I shot in total, taken at 15- to 30-second intervals for the full time-lapse sequence. All were taken with a fixed camera, a Canon 6D, with a 35mm lens, to nicely frame the entire path of the Moon, from moonrise at left, until it left the frame at top right, as the partial eclipse was ending. The ground comes from a blend of 3 frames taken at the beginning, middle and end of the sequence, so is partly lit by twilight, moonlight and starlight. Lights at lower left are from the Park’s campground. The sky comes from a blend of 2 exposures: one from the middle of the eclipse when the sky was darkest and one from the end of the eclipse when the sky was now deep blue. The stars come from the mid-eclipse frame, a 30-second exposure. PLEASE NOTE: The size of the Moon and its path across the sky are accurate here, because all the images for this composite were taken with the same lens using a camera that did not m

My multiple-exposure composite shows the complete September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to true scale, with the Moon accurately depicted in size and position in the sky.

From my location at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada, the Moon rose in the east at lower left already in partial eclipse.

As it rose it moved into Earth’s shadow and became more red, while the sky darkened from twilight to night, bringing out the stars.

Then, as the Moon continued to rise higher it emerged from Earth’s shadow, at upper right, and returned to a brilliant Full Moon again, here overexposed and now illuminating the landscape with moonlight.


TECHNICAL

The disks of the Moon become overexposed in my composite as the sky darkened because I was setting exposures to show the sky and landscape well, not just the Moon itself. That’s because I shot these frames – and many more! – primarily for use as a time-lapse movie where I wanted the entire scene well exposed in each frame.

Indeed, for this still-image composite of the eclipse from beginning to end, I used just 40 frames taken at 5-minute intervals, selected from 530 I shot, taken at 15- to 30-second intervals for the full time-lapse sequence.

All were taken with a fixed camera, a Canon 6D, with a 35mm lens, to nicely frame the entire path of the Moon, from moonrise at lower left, until it exited the frame at top right, as the partial eclipse was ending.

In the interest of full disclosure, the ground comes from a blend of three frames taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the sequence, and so is partly lit by twilight and moonlight, to reveal the ground detail better than in the single starlit frame from mid-eclipse. Lights at lower left are from the Park’s campground.

The background sky comes from a blend of two exposures: one from the middle of the eclipse when the sky was darkest, and one from the end of the eclipse when the sky was now lit deep blue. The stars come from the mid-eclipse frame, a 30-second exposure.


MY RANT FOR REALITY

So, yes, this is certainly a composite assembled in Photoshop – a contrast to the old days of film where one might attempt such an image just by exposing the same piece of film multiple times, usually with little success.

However … the difference between this image and most you’ve seen on the web of this and other eclipses, is that the size of the Moon and its path across the sky are accurate, because all the images for this composite were taken with the same lens using a camera that did not move during the 3-hour eclipse.

This is how big the Moon actually appeared in the sky in relation to the ground and how it moved across the sky during the eclipse, in what is essentially a straight line, not a giant curving arc as in many viral eclipse images.

And, sorry if the size of the Moon seems disappointingly small, but it is small! This is what a lunar eclipse really looks like to correct scale.

By comparison, many lunar eclipse composites you’ve seen are made of giant moons shot with a telephoto lens that the photographer then pasted into a wide-angle sky scene, often badly, and pasted in locations on the frame that usually bear no resemblance to where the Moon actually was in the sky, but are just placed where the photographer thought would look the nicest.

You would never, ever do that for any other form of landscape photography, at least not without having your reputation tarnished. But with the Moon it seems anything is permitted, even amongst professional landscape photographers.

No, you cannot just place a Moon anywhere you like in your image, eclipse or no eclipse, then pass it off as a real image. Fantasy art perhaps. Fine. But not a photograph of nature.

Sorry for the rant, but I prefer accuracy over fantasy in such lunar eclipse scenes, which means NOT having monster-sized red Moons looming out of proportion and in the wrong place over a landscape. Use Photoshop to inform, not deceive.

– Alan, October 4, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com