Shooting Shooting Stars
You know what’s frustrating to me as a photographer? Taking pictures of shooting stars. Not only do they require you to stay up late, have plenty of patience, have a clear night, choose a location without light pollution, have the proper photography equipment, and possibly to sit outside in the freezing cold (like I had to), but they also depend upon a huge amount of luck. You have to be pointed at the right place at the right time, shutter open, and camera settings adjusted properly.
Another problem, and this pertains to photographing interesting events in general, is that you don’t fully experience the event due to your preoccupation with capturing it. On more than one occasion during the Geminids meteor shower last week while my children gasped at a sudden streak of light, I was busy fiddling with camera settings. I was able to see a couple of meteors with my own eyes which makes me very happy, though I admit that I regretted not being able to capture them.
I know that most readers of this blog will already know this, but for the kids out there who might be confused about what a shooting star really is, I suggest They Might Be Giants’ “What Is a Shooting Star?” for a cute musical explanation. Wikipedia can also help clarify the difference in terminology between meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites.
Now, on to my photography project. I wanted to photograph the Geminids meteor shower on December 13th and 14th. December 14th was cloudy and rainy, so I was only able to shoot the 13th…and guess what? I didn’t capture one meteor! Argh! I did, however, do something that I’ve never done before; taking pictures of stars. I was amazed at how many pin-pricks of light that you can capture with your camera but can’t see with the naked eye. I know Carl says there are billions and billions of ’em, but seeing all those tiny dots in my photos was pretty mind-blowing for me.
When I first started taking pictures that night, I had my shutter speed at 30 seconds, my ISO at 200, manual focus to infinity, and my aperture set to f/2.8. Leaving my shutter open for 30 seconds actually didn’t work for what I desired out of the photos. I wanted little balls of light, but instead I caught 1/8 of a degree of the rotation of the Earth, which turned my stars into bars. The star streaks can be cool, but next time I’m going to use the “BULB” speed setting, which means you can actually have the shutter open for as long as you like: it begins when you press the shutter release and it ends when you press the shutter release a second time. This produces nice long streaks that will create a cool effect and really show you the movement of the earth. The neat thing about that, if you are shooting a meteor shower, the meteors will be shooting across the path of the stars.
Not getting the results I wanted, I kept my manual focus on infinity and aperture set at f/2.8, but changed the ISO to 1600 and varied the shutter speed from 6 to 8 seconds. I liked these results a lot better.
I may not have gotten the meteor shots I wanted, but I had my first photography session with the stars. I also got to stargaze with Rob and my girls, marveling at the wonders of the vast universe, punctuated by the occasional excitement of the bright streaks drawn by meteors painting their own obituaries in fire across the night sky.