The annual Perseid meteor shower is set to peak this weekend, driving stargazers away from city lights to watch and capture arguably the most popular celestial event of the year.
Each year Earth plows through a stream of debris from 109P/Swift-Tuttle, a comet that orbits the sun once every 133 years. As the debris enters our atmosphere, it burns up creating meteors, “shooting stars” and sometimes fireballs. As NASA explains fireballs are generally larger explosions of light and colour that may linger longer than an average meteor streak.
It takes about three weeks for Earth to plow through the debris field, allowing for some meteors to be visible as early as July 17 to Aug. 24, according to NASA. The rate of visible meteors increases as it nears the peak of the event before slowly trailing off.
This year’s show peaks on the moonless night of Aug. 12 from 4 p.m. EDT until 4 a.m. the following morning. During this year’s peak, stargazers can expect to see 60 to 70 meteors per hour.
The Perseids are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate, in this case Perseus, which is visible in the northern sky shortly after sunset in August. NASA notes that you don’t have to be looking directly at the constellation to see the shooting stars; some meteors will be visible directly overheard.
If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of the celestial event, and perhaps photograph it, here are some viewing tips.
Get away from city lights
It goes without saying, if you want to see the stars, you are going to have to get away from light pollution from major city centres and head to a dark spot.
Bring a tripod
Typically when photographing the night sky, it requires longer exposures to the likes of at least 15 seconds to 40 or more depending on your camera, and the effect you’re going for. So, that means you’ll need to mount the camera on a tripod to prevent shaky hands from blurring and running your image. Heavier tripods tend to work better, as they tend to stand up to slight wind gusts or even ground movement caused by the vibrations of walking nearby. If you are using a lighter tripod, you can use sandbags or personal belongings placed at the feet of the tripod to hold it steady.
It’s best to choose the widest angle lens you have in your kit as it allows for you to capture more of the night’s sky, creating a better chance of recording a shooting star. The lower the lens’ aperture the better to let in as much light in as possible; use something like f2.8 or f1.8.
Remote shutter release or self-timer
It’s a good idea to use the camera’s self-timer or a remote shutter release to trigger the start of the exposure so you don’t run the risk of moving your camera when pressing the button. Even when mounted on a tripod, the slightest camera shake can affect the sharpness and quality of the image.
Exposure setting can be tricky. As Earth rotates, the stars also appear to move and the longer the exposure, the more likely the chance you will capture the movement. To find a starting point, the best thing to do is figure out the longest exposure time before capturing star trails. You can do that by using the 600 or 500 Rule. On a full-frame camera, take 500 and divide by the length of the lens. The final number will be the maximum length of time in seconds before your camera will begin to record star trails.
For example: Shooting with a 24mm lens would be 500 divided by 24, giving you the base of 21 seconds.
As for aperture and ISO, it’s best shoot at the maximum f-stop (smallest number) your lens allows in order to capture the most amount. And as for the ISO, typically anywhere from 1600 to 3200 is recommended.
Finally, be sure to check the weather before heading out with all your gear. If the weather is cooperating during the peak of the meteor shower, you still have some time to capture shooting stars until Aug. 24.