5 things we learned shooting the Perseid Meteor Shower

A few nights ago we went out looking to get some cool shots of the Perseid Meteor Shower. We drove from Vancouver to Porteau Cove where we were treated to clear skies, an incredible blanket of stars and some amazing fireballs flying by. We weren’t sure if we’d caught any actual meteors or not but it was a gorgeous night and great to get out of the city and breathe in some cool ocean air.

Here’s a quick timelapse to show you just how varied and fast the meteors were. This short video took about 1.5 hours to film.


Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 35L f1.2 lens

Leanne decided to use her series of images to create a photo showing star trails or the rotation of the earth over the course of time. The resulting image is actually a stack of 200 images.

porteau_150813Shot with a Canon 7D Mark II and a Canon 10-22 f3.5-4.5 lens

It wasn’t what either of us would have called a perfect shoot, but it was a welcome break from the computer screens and we learned a lot about how to shoot at night.

First lesson learned:

Get out of the city, way out if you can. Seriously. You’ll find plenty of sites online discussing how to remove light pollution from your shot in post but why not use that time to drive yourself somewhere away from that same light pollution (aka the city) instead? Case in point: the night before we were tired and couldn’t be bothered driving out of town to escape the light so we drove around Vancouver until 2am looking for a nice dark spot to set up shop. We ended up at Trout Lake, which was dark enough to trip over stuff on our way to to our ideal spot, therefore dark enough we thought for some good shots. After our eyes had adjusted we could see the stars (kinda) but not really any meteors, but we had faith that our cameras would be able to see what we could not.

Here are some test shots showing the difference in star visibility between Trout Lake (left) and Porteau Cove (right):
compare

So even though it may look dark out there when you are working with slow shutter speeds (we were shooting between 15 and 30 seconds) light pollution is not going to be your friend, so yes, get away from the city if at all possible.

Second lesson learned:

Stability is your friend. Anyone who has done any video, timelapse or long exposures knows this and that a solid tripod is a must. Again a basic google search will tell you to weigh your tripod down with a bag or rocks or whatever (a plastic bag with 2 oranges and a pineapple in it worked just fine for me on one shoot.) Also with the smaller tripods try not to use the bottom legs–it just feels more stable. Makes sense right? But the best tripod in the world is of no use to you if you are shooting on a nice bouncy wooden pier with 20 other people walking back and forth behind you. Even if there are no other people around, the very fact that you might move around while your camera is on a long exposure may be enough to ruin the shot. (Confession: Leanne is very still while shooting, it’s me who is wandering around yawning and stretching and checking out what’s going on over on the other side of the nice bouncy wooden pier)

Lesson number three:

Focus, focus, focus! Ok we already knew to switch to manual focus and, yes, setting the range manually to infinity is your best shot for stars (actually infinity less a bit may be better). Take some test shots, zoom in, confirm that the object you want is in focus or adjust accordingly, right? This is so much easier done in the comfort of your home where you can actually see what the hell you are doing, as opposed to in the dark using the back of the camera for reference. And for those who want supreme precision (Leanne) you can bring it up on the computer to confirm that the shot is indeed in perfect focus. Not to say it can’t be done in the dark, it’s just easier setting your camera up before you head out, that’s all.

The devil is in the details
The devil is in the details

 

On to number four:

In this information driven society, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the most simple of truths and one such truth is this: chairs are designed for looking forward, not up. Over 2 nights we probably were testing, shooting and just plain star gazing for a good 5 or 6 hours. My neck is still stiff. Did we read about this on the internet before going out? Yes we did. Did we take stupid lawn chairs anyway? Yes we did–both nights.

The Guilty Parties
The Guilty Parties

Don’t take a lawn chair. Bring one of those zero gravity jobbies, or a blanket.
And dress warmly, even in summer.

And finally, lesson number five:

Composition can make or break an image, but sometimes you have to break from the pack. When we arrived at Porteau Cove there were at least 8 groups of people taking pictures and they were all facing the same way: out over the water to where the mountains were. It is “the” Porteau Cove shot and it is beautiful. Problem was, according to my friend Google, the best view was supposed to be from the North East, the other way, because that’s where the meteors were coming from. As it turns out there were meteors flying around everywhere so it really didn’t matter where you pointed your camera. Traditionally one is supposed to include a landscape reference in your nightscape to give it depth or context (ie: the Porteau Cove beauty shot) but with all the cars coming and going and people waving flashlights around there was a fair amount of light pollution especially with Leanne’s lovely wide 10-22mm lens. So, what the hell, we each chose a nice star cluster and shot up.

night-stilla

So, there you go. Like I said it wasn’t the perfect shoot, but it was fun and a great reminder of why we love to do what we do. The Perseid Meteor Shower is over but don’t despair, the Draconid Meteor Shower is coming our way in early October, so get ready and get out there to catch the show! (Don’t forget your woollies)