Shooting Star Trails, Meteors and Satellites

Shooting Star Trails, Meteors and Satellites

Written 14 years ago by Mark Evans

Ever looked up to the heavens on a cold, clear, dark night and just taken a moment to gaze in awe, and ponder at how insignificant we are in the entire scheme of things? Or even just peered up at the stars for an hour or so and been amazed at the sea of stars, satellites and meteors we have whizzing and gliding around up there? Well, I have, and it was in these moments I decided to try and capture a slice of that world.

Star Photos

The Star Eta Carinae shot with a barn door mount

A star field shot with a barn door mount, ISO 400, 55mm, f/1.8, 2min

I’ve had interest in astronomy for a long while, peering through binoculars on those cold winter nights really left me in awe of just what can be seen on clear night. But getting a picture of this panorama above isn’t quite as easy as you’d think. For starters, the earth is constantly rotating, so you cant just open the shutter for 2 minutes and grab a photo of what you see; you would end up with star trails. Enter the Barn Door Mount or Barn Door Tracker. I made one of these and produced some pretty nice results. Basically its two boards joined with a hinge, with a threaded bolt at one end, and your camera mounted on top. You turn the bolt, so that the boards gradually split apart, tracking the motion of the stars while your camera is sat on top (set to bulb mode with the shutter open). I used my Pentax A1, mainly because it was completely mechanical – long exposures can be a drain on batteries, so make sure you’ve got some spare ones if your camera is electronic. The settings I used were: 400 ISO film, 55mm lens set at f/1.8(try stopping down 1 stop from wide open to increase sharpness at the edges), camera set to bulb, and exposure was around 2mins. If you want to build a barn door mount then just Google it, there’s plenty of sites with detailed instructions on building these. The equipment I used was: Barn door mount on a tripod, my Pentax and essential is a shutter release cable, so you can lock you shutter open for a few minutes. I also found it quite handy to have a torch to see what settings you’re on between exposures.

Star Trails and Meteors

Orions Belt, ISO 400, 135mm, f/3.5, 10min

Orions Belt, ISO 400, 135mm, f/3.5, 10min

Shooting star trails is the easiest way of getting into star photography (or Astrophotography). All you need is your camera on a tripod, your lens set to wide open (to get maximum light) and a shutter release cable to lock your shutter open from anything as short as 10 seconds to as long as a few hours. With a telephoto lens you can achieve some nice results with shorter exposure times, but a wide angle lens will need much longer, even hours, to get similar results, depending on how wide your lens is. The best way is to experiment and write down what settings you used, so you can improve on what you took last time.

Getting Meteor pictures is not an exact science and is essentially the same as photographing star trails. Since you probably wont know where a meteor is likely to fly by, all you can do is increase your chances of having one fly through your field of view by using a wide angle lens. And of course, leave the shutter open for as long as you can.

Shooting Satellites

The sun glints off Iridium satellite 33, 55mm, f/1.8, 1min10s

The sun glints off Iridium satellite 33, 55mm, f/1.8, 1min10s

Shooting satellites can be quite fun (and quite geeky). Since satellites are man-made, their paths can be predicted, hence making it easier for you and I to see and photograph them. Some very smart people have taken it on themselves to make software that predicts the courses of these satellites, making your job a lot less hit-and-miss. I have found that a compass is usually needed, because the software will usually tell you what direction it will be coming from in degrees, and at what elevation from the horizon, so it also helps to be able to estimate angles too! Some of the nicer photos I have taken are of the Iridium satellites, the sun tends to glint off their vast solar arrays, making them ‘flare’ in brightness; pretty cool to see, and satisfying to photograph. A good website to get predictions from is Heavens Above , they have the main visible satellites and is a great place to start looking.

Having lived in England for a while now, I have come to realise that any clear night is like gold in this place, and have been pretty disappointed at how many times I’ve actually seen the night sky without being obscured by clouds. However, city light pollution tends to be a big problem as well, so it pays to go for a drive into the country to make the most of those clear nights! Have fun and happy shooting.

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Meteor Showers  14 years ago

Shooting Star Trails and Meteors is a good article. Thanks for the post.

C.D.A.  13 years ago

Wonderful pictures ! But shooting satellites… that’s fantastic (and I’ve never thought about that before :D).

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