Geminid Meteor Shower over Monument Basin
Ten years ago, I spent five days exploring the White Rim four-wheel-drive road in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. One of the most spectacular locations I discovered was along the deeply scalloped rim of Monument Basin overlooking a fantasy-land of brick-red sandstone spires. As the December 13-14, 2018, Geminid meteor shower approached, I decided to return to the location that had captivated me long ago and shoot the meteors raining down over the basin.
I had photographed meteor showers before, most successfully over Snowmass Mountain in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Longs Peak and Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Titan in the Fisher Towers, and Turret Arch in Arches National Park. I had also failed to make a satisfying image of the Geminids a year earlier, when the only cloudy night in a week coincided with the peak of the meteor shower. Each shoot had deepened my understanding of the best way to capture the largest possible number of bright meteors. Even the brightest meteor lasts only a second or two. Capturing that brief flash of light requires light-gathering power, which comes from using lenses that offer large apertures. It’s not just the f/number that matters; it’s the diameter of the aperture when wide open that counts. Light-gathering power is not the only lens criteria that’s important, however. Meteor showers have radiants, a point in the sky where they appear to originate, but they can appear anywhere, which means that the ideal lens also has a wide angle of view. Unfortunately, that usually means the aperture has a smaller diameter. The lens that offers the best compromise between these competing qualities – large maximum aperture and wide angle of view – is a 24mm f/1.4.
I own one 24mm f/1.4. To further increase my odds of capturing lots of meteors, I rented a second 24mm f/1.4 and drove to Canyonlands National Park. After spending the night at Dead Horse Point, I drove four and a half hours along the White Rim road, then hiked along the rim to my shooting location to confirm that the composition I envisioned from studying maps and my earlier images would indeed work. A bitter wind was blowing and snow squalls were raking the land, but the composition looked good, and I was hopeful the weather would clear in time to shoot the peak night of the Geminids 24 hours hence.
The wind died and the skies cleared overnight. After spending the day scouting other possible locations along the White Rim and concluding that my first choice was still the best, I returned to my favorite spot in late afternoon and set up a Canon 5D Mark III and 5D Mark IV, each with a 24mm f/1.4 lens, side-by-side on two tripods. I pointed the lenses so the fields of view just barely overlapped, with the radiant point in the overlapping area of the two frames. Around 8:30 p.m. I began shooting back-to-back 20-second exposures with both cameras. Around 11 p.m., when the radiant reached the right position in relationship to the land, I used my 5D Mark IV to shoot the background sky image using a 35mm f/1.4 lens and a Really Right Stuff multi-row panorama kit. I also shot the background land image with the same setup, then resumed shooting meteors. All the while, my 5D Mark III had been clicking away. While the cameras worked, I lay on my back, watching the meteors zip across the sky at a rate of at least one per minute. I finally turned off the cameras at astronomical dawn, 5:53 a.m. All told, I shot 2,700 frames that I hoped would contain meteors.
The next night was cloudy. In a remarkable bit of luck, the Geminids had peaked on the only clear night of my trip. When I returned home I spent several days sifting through the mass of images, eventually identifying 86 bright meteors. After assembling and merging the background sky and background land images, I dropped in each meteor and arranged them so they all appeared to originate at the Geminid radiant, near the star Castor. Although I certainly didn’t capture all these meteors in a single 20-second exposure, I did see all of them fall during one marvelous night. I hope this image evokes for you my feeling of wonder.
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