Help me photograph some meteors!
July 26, 2007 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Ideas for photographing the Perseid meteor shower next month? Bonus points for a good place to watch in South Louisiana.

I have a Nikon D40 I've only had a few months. I've never done any night sky photography so I plan to practice in the next couple of weeks, because it's the best shower of the year and the peak is on the night of the new moon, which is awesome, and I'd really like to try for a good shot or two. I have a few blog posts and how-tos bookmarked but you people are usually smarter than anything I can google.

So. Set the focus to infinity? Manually focus on a star at the center of the frame? Should I go for reeeally long exposures and deal with star trails or just a whole lot of 10-30 second ones (I have a remote)? All the way open? Would a lens hood minimize glare from the sky or noise from the long exposures? Suggested filters? Specific Nikon/D40 advice? Am I in over my head?

Bonus: I'm in Baton Rouge, but I spend just about every weekend in New Orleans and/or Lafayette, so there should be some good old fashioned Middle-Of-Nowhere in between, right? Any specific ideas for really dark, reasonably safe places in the southern half of the state?

Many thanks.
posted by ultraultraboomerang to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Get to the middle of nowhere. I'd start with 10 second shots and move your way up, but I wouldn't do anything longer than 10 min. or so, since if the shot turns out to be crap, or noisy, then you've hosed half an hour. It also puts you in a position to get some great meteor tails but not have to worry about star trails. Not sure about the lens hood. Focus to infinity. F stop pretty damn wide.

You might be in over your head, but so what?
posted by craven_morhead at 2:22 PM on July 26, 2007

Dark skies help.

Set the focus to infinity, and then back off a little bit. Make sure it's still far within your focus field for that aperture setting.

Take some test shots before you start. You need a dry run to see what looks good.
posted by cmiller at 2:22 PM on July 26, 2007

Scrap the D40. Drop $50 on an older Olympus OM series, or a Pentax K1000 off of Craigslist. I say this only because noise is such a factor with digital sensors and long exposures. A cheap camera, a cable release, and a roll or two of Fuji Sensia (400 ASA slide film, rec'd for astrophotography because it fights well against reciprocity failure) are dirt cheap, and will give you excellent results.

I'd use a 28mm or 35mm lens, but I like wide shots. I have found somewhere online a chart of focal length vs. the time it takes to get star trails - google will help here. Obviously, it's longer with wider lenses. Start with shorter exposures, and then increase the length to get awesome star trails. Make sure you get cool foregrounds - the combo of a cool foreground and star trails make for awesome shots. Take a flash, and try a couple of shots where you're off on the distance of the shot - just pop the flash once, and continue the exposure.

You might find this helpful.

(I own a D70, I love it. I just happen to think film is better for astrophotography. Not trying to be snarky@!)
posted by god hates math at 2:46 PM on July 26, 2007

Seconding the awesome simplicity of a Pentax K1000.

I started doing astrophotography with my Pentax years back. Every year we head to the Black Rock (Burning Man Zone for those not in the know) at the Perseids, have our own wee party and take some great pix (well sometimes - this year is supposed to be a new moon so thats cool).

I'm at work now so I cant spend a lot of time surfing, but a decent search should allow you to find a recipe for a homemade sidereal tracker. With a standard tripod, a couple of cut 2x4's and 1/4 inch screws (maybe 1/8") your camera becomes an incredible long exposure device for way cool skyshots.
posted by elendil71 at 2:58 PM on July 26, 2007

Huh, I did do my shots on a K body. Real pretty. I wasn't sure how bad the digitals were with noise.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:05 PM on July 26, 2007

Response by poster: Yay! Already helpful. Thanks muchly. And yeah, I know, I should be using film - the problem there is the standard "but with digital I can take eleventy billion shots for zero dollars!" I worry I'll screw it up completely, and with digital at least you know that right away and without spending money on processing. I'm only dealing with 6MP, which cuts the noise down a bit from the 10MP models (right?) and I'll try just a whole bunch of 10-30 sec exposures.

But holy crap, a sidereal tracker! Nerdgasm. I will be googling. My next askmefi question will be "How do I find friends cool enough to come to the middle of nowhere with me and my homemade sidereal tracker to watch rocks fall out of the sky?"

Thanks again, great links, just what I was looking for, and keep em coming!
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 3:13 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do also be aware that on DSLRs, doing extended exposures sucks the battery like nobody's business. My D50 has a "long exposure noise reduction" feature (that can be toggled on and off), but I think that takes as long to process as the exposure length was, so be careful with those 10-minute exposures. I'm not sure if the D40 has this feature, although I'd be surprised if it didn't.
posted by neckro23 at 5:58 PM on July 26, 2007

If you're locked into D40, go for it - Not having a film body, or experience with slide film, or anything like that shouldn't keep you from taking pictures. I'm not saying that you can't take good pictures with the digital body -

For example, it's easy to find star trails taken with the D70.

I'd recommend a few things, though -

1. Get the remote. I just got one, and it's shaping up to be some of the best $18 I've spent in a while - true bulb setting. Push it once to open the shutter, push it again to close the shutter. I think it does exposures up to 30 minutes.

2. Do you still have that eyecap that goes on the back of the viewfinder? If not, take some gaffer's tape, or electrical tape, or spend the (outrageous) $5 to get one.

3. As for batteries, you've got a few options. Personally, I'd say you should do one of two things. Either take that adapter that allows you to use regular AAs in the camera, or get one of those small inverters, plug it into your car lighter, and run the thing off of A/C the whole night. I don't think that'd draw enough power to kill your car battery, but you know - watch out.

4. Pass on the in-camera noise reduction. It's tempting, but I can't imagine that it's any better than the noise reduction you can get in Photoshop CS3, or any of the super-good noise-reduction plugins you can get. Additionally, you can take a series of identical (except for the stars) pictures and use average layering and some tricky masking to lower the noise level. Mostly, though, I think that the in-camera reduction is a time-waster and battery eater. Both are bad.

5. Watch out for condensation - I'm thinking it'll be worse for you in the hot, sweaty south than for us Yankees up north. Try and keep the equipment the same temperature as the outside air, and it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Now you've got me all hot and bothered about this - I think I'm going to go a little nuts on August 12th...
posted by god hates math at 6:36 PM on July 26, 2007

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