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The annual Perseid meteor shower will be at its best tonight, and this year it may pack some extra oomph. Experts are predicting that 2016’s shower will be unusually prolific, with twice as many Perseids as usual visible in the predawn hours of August 12.
Occasional Perseid meteors can be seen from mid July until late August, but the shower is due to reach its peak the night of August 11-12. Conditions should be best in the early morning hours, with the constellation Perseus from which the meteors will appear to radiate high in the sky, and the Moon, which sets around 1 a.m., out of the way.
According to NASA, up to 200 meteors per hour may be visible in the hours before dawn from a dark-sky location. “Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of Aug. 11-12,” says Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office in Huntsville, Alabama.
Each year around this time, the Earth crosses the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle, setting the stage for the Perseids, summer’s finest meteor shower. Although the comet was last seen in 1992 and it isn’t due back until 2126, particles ejected during Swift-Tuttle’s passages through the inner solar system lie in its orbit, and meet a fiery death in our atmosphere whenever Earth encounters them. This year’s prediction of an unusually rich shower is due to the fact that Earth is expected to pass through several debris streams left in the wake of the comet’s previous passages.
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Viewing and Photographing the Perseids
All you need to view a meteor shower is your eyes, although a good lawn chair is also helpful—as are, of course, clear skies. (A telescope, with its narrow field of view, would only be an impediment.) It’s easy enough to photograph the Perseids: All you need is a camera that gives you some control over exposure length and a tripod. You don’t need a fancy camera, and you’ll want to avoid using a telephoto lens at any rate.
1. View at the Proper Time. The constellation Perseus rises in the northeast around 10 p.m., but is not high in the sky until after midnight. Although a few bright “earthgrazing” meteors traveling from horizon to horizon may be visible earlier, the hours between midnight and dawn are best for viewing Perseids.
2. Choose Your Location Wisely. Getting the best view of the Perseids (or any other meteor shower) may take some planning. The best location is one with dark skies far away from a city and its attendant sky glow that has become known as light pollution. Even if you are in a city, though, you may still be able to get a decent view of the shower, and photograph it as well. You will want to choose a location that is away from, or shielded from, nearby light sources, whether it’s a park, a backyard, or a rooftop.
You will want a clear view of at least the northern and eastern parts of the sky. Although Perseid meteors can appear in other parts of the sky, if you trace their paths backward to their source, they seem to radiate from a point in the sky near the head of Perseus, the constellation named for the hero of Greek myth. If there are foreground objects (trees or mountains, say), that’s fine as long as they don’t cut off too much of your field of view.
In fact, just as having objects in the foreground and distance can enhance the composition of a terrestrial photograph, the same is true with astrophotos, where a tree, a barn, or a mesa in the foreground will help ground the viewer and provide a pleasing contrast to the celestial spectacle above it.
3. Mount Your Camera on a Tripod. Particularly as you will be shooting relatively long exposures, you will want to keep your camera as steady as possible, so a tripod is essential. Photographing meteors is like shooting lightning: If you hold the camera by hand, and wait to press the shutter until you see a meteor zip across the sky, you will probably come up empty, and your results certainly blurred. To cure the blur, you’ll want to mount the camera on a tripod and focus manually on a bright star. (If your point-and-shoot camera doesn’t support manual focus, look for an infinity setting, denoted by a mountain icon.) As for catching a meteor in flight, see our next tips.
4. Use Long Exposures. To increase your chance of catching one or more meteors in any image, you will want to use exposure times of between 5 and 30 (or more) seconds. Perseid meteors are known for being bright and fast, and to catch one you will want the exposure to already be in progress when the meteor appears. If you are in a dark, rural location, you will be able to shoot longer exposures (and at higher ISO settings) than in an urban location, where sky glow can quickly cause your images’ backgrounds to become overly bright. You can find out by trial and error what the optimal exposure time is for your location; once you take a shot, look at the image in playback and shorten the exposure or lower the ISO if the sky is too bright. When you’ve found your optimal settings, you can set the camera to take multiple shots, if the camera supports it.
5. Avoid Telephoto Lenses. Just as you don’t need binoculars or a telescope to view a meteor shower, you’ll want to avoid using telephoto lenses, which offer high magnification but a relatively small field of view, when photographing one. A lens with a normal field of view will show a larger area of sky, replete with constellations, and with one you will be more likely to catch meteors, which often travel across a large swath of sky. You can try shooting with a wide-field lens if you have one.
Looking for tricks to make your other photos better? Check out our stories 10 Quick Tips to Fix Your Bad Photos and 10 Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.
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