Perseid Meteor Shower over Snowmass Mountain
Standing under a dark sky and watching a meteor shower is a breathtaking experience. Creating a compelling photograph of that experience, however, is difficult. Even the most active meteor showers, the Perseids and Geminids, produce only 50 to 100 meteors per hour, or just one or two per minute. Those numbers refer to meteors visible anywhere in the sky. Even an ultra-wide 16mm lens on a full-frame camera can only see roughly one-fifth of the sky. The longest exposure you can use with a 16mm lens before the stars begin to make obvious streaks is about 30 seconds. Put all those figures together, and it’s clear you’re unlikely to capture more than one meteor in a single exposure—if you even capture one.
So how do you make a photograph that captures the feeling of watching an active meteor shower? The first task is to locate the radiant, the point in the sky where all the meteors appear to originate. For the Perseid meteor shower shown here, the radiant is in the constellation Perseus, which was high in the northeast sky after midnight during the peak of the shower. I wanted to capture the meteor shower over some dramatic peaks, so I hiked to Snowfield Lake, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, where I hoped to photograph Snowmass Mountain and Hagerman Peak reflected in calm water. When the skies cleared at midnight on August 13, 2015, I composed the shot, locked down the tripod, and didn’t move the camera for the rest of the night. I then shot 30-second exposures back-to-back for five hours.
Once I returned home, I spent a day combing through my images and located the 39 frames that contained bright meteors. I loaded all the meteor-containing frames as layers into a single Photoshop file, chose one layer to be the base layer for the starry background, then loaded one additional image shot with a two-minute exposure so it would show detail in the land. The radiant moved significantly between midnight and 5:00 a.m. as it followed a circular path counter-clockwise around the north star, so I rotated each meteor-containing layer until the stars matched up with the stars in the starry background layer. I then masked out everything but the meteor itself from each meteor-containing layer. I certainly didn’t see all these meteors fly simultaneously, but I did see them fly one-by-one as I stood on the shore of Snowfield Lake, awed by the beauty of the night sky on a moonless night in a place that seemed light-years away from the nearest city.
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