Updated: May 21, 2022
If you read the title and went "huh! what is all that about?", I want to make one thing very clear - It is not what you are thinking about! Nope, not a baby shower and definitely not a bath shower!!! I just confirmed for an event that I have been wanting to explore!!! This specific event that I am excited about was to capture a meteor shower somewhere in the heart of Texas. This is a once a year event and is sort of a tradition in this group and would be my first time. You can never ever say no to tradition, right!
However, now I am faced with a dilemma. I have never captured a meteor, let alone a meteor shower before. Heck, I am just getting started on the stars and moon. Do I really want to do this? Is it too soon? And then, miraculously (more like orchestrated, but who's keeping track) an opportunity presented itself - I got to buy some new toys to play with! Not really sure that I needed any more accessories, but if I can manage to squeeze a few extra pounds into my camera bag than on me, why not?! So, what you see in this blog is my experience of getting ready to capture my first meteor shower. If you would rather cut the drama and get the facts, click on the links I have in the references section and you will be done. BUT, if your middle name, like mine, is "drama", then "All Aboard"!!!
What is a meteor shower?
Believe it or not, I have never seen one!!! I generally know that meteors are those flying things you see once in a while in the sky. We also like to call them shooting stars. The image below was taken while experimenting with capturing the Milky Way (an adventure for another day). Hmmm, but wait, is that really a meteor in the picture or was that streak a plane or a satellite? We have way too many man-made things floating around in our sky! Is that a Meteor? Well, unfortunately it is not a shooting star, but possibly a man-made satellite...:(
Here is a quick primer on Meteors...
Meteor showers are what we could call celestial events. For this story, suffice to say that meteors are astronomical objects and meteor showers are celestial events that happen at specific times over the year! Taking pictures of meteor showers can be exciting - just imagine many shooting stars or fireballs blazing across the sky at around the same time!
The awesome thing about capturing meteor showers is that it does not require any special equipment like telescopes and such. They can be seen by the naked eye. Oh darn, there goes the cool toys theory!
But what is cool to the naked eye is so difficult to capture, especially if you want to transfer that feeling of meteor movement into a still picture. It DOES require some planning and practice, especially if we want to capture these showers with an interesting foreground. So, how can we bring that feeling of action into a still image with an interesting foreground? The short answer is in understanding "radiants".
The radiant is the point in the sky from which meteors appear to originate for an observer on Earth. Meteors actually enter the atmosphere in parallel tracks; the radiant is just a perspective effect. When I looked deeper into this topic, I quickly realized that I might need a PhD in Astronomy to understand how they are calculated! But the good news is that, for our purposes, we would need a good software that can do all that. In my case, it is Photo Pills. If you want to learn more about the astronomy side of these concepts, you can refer to the references section, but that is all theory and no drama...
The meteor shower I am looking at is called the Geminids. They have their radiant close to the star Castor in the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. Meteor showers are pretty predictable and there are tools out there that can predict when the peak of many such events occur throughout the year. You can refer to one such calendar can be found...yep, you guessed it...in the References section! But, if you are slowly getting hooked to Photo Pills, like I am as I write this blog, you can find a calendar there as well!
When and Where can we see a meteor shower?
Interestingly, meteor showers happen throughout the year. You can do a quick search in that thing called internet to find all the places where we can see these showers. These meteors can be captured as "normal" meteor pictures or with a long tail (star trails). Some of the meteors get so bright that they have been nicknamed "fireballs". This specific shower display is in the cold mid-December and is called Geminids. You can read more about them here. These showers are dependable (it mostly happens around this time) and is observable (visible to the naked eye).
If you want to see a cool video of such a fireball show that happened in Japan, click on this BBC news article - "Fireball" dazzles in the sky in Japan. There are many more such events captured throughout the world. Let us just say that fireballs is not we are expecting at this event. But, maybe one day...let us just put into into our bucket list, shall we!!! Coming back to our meteor shower event...
The group organizers have carefully looked through many places and have traditionally landed at St.Olaf's Church at Cranfills Gap, Texas. You can see the church below. It is in a location with lots and lots of wide open space and is perfectly suited for night photography. If you do plan to go there, make sure to be respectful of the church and the cemetery next to it. We do not want a live episode of The Walking Dead!
Now that we know WHAT we want to capture and WHERE we want to capture, the only thing left is WHEN - Dec 11, 2020. I am curious about this date as this is not when Geminids peak. The peak of Geminids is on Dec 13, 2020. Hmmm...depending on how it goes on the 11th, maybe we will be back on the 13th. Maybe there will be a surprise party or the sky might not be clear on that day or the location might not be open. There is only one way to find out - Ask the event coordinators!!! And the answer I got was, "Dude! Dec 14 is a workday, some of us have got to go to work!!!". That was scientific enough for me to leave it alone.
So, after all that, what would you say are the main ingredients for an awesome (or good or not-so-bad) first meteor shower experience? Here is what Rob has to say...
No moon or a waxing crescent moon that will set before midnight.
Dark skies far from urban light domes.
Very few clouds.
High altitude, low humidity, transparent skies to see smaller meteors in much greater numbers.
Observing after local midnight when your side of the earth will face into the approaching meteors.
The shower radiant (center) is high in the sky. Some showers are best in the tropics, northern, or southern hemisphere.
Luck, the stream of meteors isn’t uniform and the peak is hard to predict.
It is important to note the above points. Most of them come into play during my first shower!!! Okay, now we have the why, what, where and when figured out. The next step in this adventure is HOW are we going to do it. If you are sitting in the edge of your chair wondering exactly that, then I say do not worry, my friend, just read on...
The first step in getting ready is to take a complete inventory of your goody bag and make a complete list of equipment you DO NOT have and might need to capture a meteor shower. It is okay to sneak in some accessories that you think you need, but do not. It is also okay to get accessories that absolutely do not need for the event. Remember, this event is all a big smoke and mirrors for adding a few extra pounds!!!
Having said all that, this is what I have in my bag.
Things you need for the things you do...on a cold Texas night!!!
Camera: Canon EOS 5D MIII (Full Frame). Though, I did use this event as an excuse to get Canon R6 as well, wink, wink.
Lens: Rokinon 14mm f2.8 manual lens. It is about as wide as I can go fast.
Lens Hood: This is a must for two reasons - to minimize light pollution considering how wide the lens is as well as to reduce lens fog that happens in cold nights where the lens is exposed for a long long time. Luckily, the Rokinon comes in with pre-built lens hood. But, I did get couple of lens warmers to try out.
Tripod: We will be working with low light and so a good tripod is an absolute must, like a camera or a lens or a battery!!!
Star Tracker: Now this is a perfect toy to have, especially if you are planning for long lonely nights under the stars. I did convince my family that a star tracker is an absolute must (not necessarily) and so went in for the iOptron Star Tracker Pro.
Intervalometer: Wireless remote or Intervalometer comes in handy for long exposures. Intervalometer can be programmed to take multiple shots of the same exposure at regular intervals.
Software: You know, hardware is good, but software can push you to the limits!!! Now, I have a long list, most of which do not work with each other!!! Ah!!! the pleasure of software engineering!!! Photo Pills (Planner), Astropheric (Weather), Night Sky (Visual aid), Sky Guide (visual aid, because I do not trust the first one), Lightroom (organization), Photoshop (Stacking & Blending for composites), Compass...
Other Goodies: And then there is the rest...there is always more that you can buy...if you had not caught the drift yet. Extra batteries for camera and intervalometer, additional memory cards etc. A red headlamp would be a good add so that we can see and work with equipment. Because it is going to be cold, additional stuff like hand warmers to use on the lens, jackets, thermals etc.
So, after a few thousand dollars in debt, and a whole bunch of hardware and software, all pumped up, not having a clue of what to do next, I started reading blog posts from others (yes, yes, they are all there in the references section). Apparently, the next step is to master the settings and control the light. Yay!!! Don't we all love more physics and geometry!!!
Focus Sharpness at Infinity: First things first - Make sure you find Infinity!!! Yep, good luck with that. Mathematicians have been looking for it for centuries...In our case, we have a pretty decent hack to approximate. But this is an important steps. Turn your camera to LiveView, turn the lens to manual focus, and rotate the focus ring until you are close to the infinity mark on your lens. Boost the ISO to a high value, open the aperture to the max, and frame a bright star in the display on the back of your camera. Zoom in 10x on the image on the display, and adjust focus until stars are sharp. See, easy peezy lemon squeezy, right?!!
Length of Exposure: There are so many rules and formulas and at the end of it, what I found was do whatever works best for you. You can take out all this confusion by simply buying a Star Tracker. I am planning to go with using 30 second exposures to start with, but bought the star tracker anyways, because my family do not understand the words that are coming out of my mouth - either that or they would pay for me to just shut up!!!
Lens Settings: Manual focus mode, focus set to infinity, 14mm, f2.8.
Cool!!! Now, I am ready to go capture an awesome meteor shower, right? WRONG!!! For the rest of mind bender exercise, I found that reading more and more blog posts and other people's experiences, got me back to where I started - Having no clue on what to do next!!! So here is a not so simple flow chart of what I think I need to do, based on assumptions I need to make...oh! what a brain teaser!!!
Okay!!!This is not bad..I can live with this. Though there were so many reasons to go back to sleep, I thin I can get through this... Now that I have some theory, maybe I need some practice...seems like a good idea <cue disturbing background music>!!! Now all I need to do is to practice.
Practice, Practice, Practice...
We all got to start somewhere, right?! All batteries charged up, memory wiped clean and reset, equipment loaded...and off we go for our first practice test.
Practice Test - Take 1: Dec 2, 2020...Ten days before the action...
Naive as we all are, during the first time around, Shreya and I decided to go to our friendly neighborhood park. It was a cool evening and at around 9PM, I was not expecting to see a lot of folks. Once we got to the park and even before we got out, we realized two things - Teens are mostly werewolves or vampires, because they seem to love prowling in the dark, and the park sky had so much light pollution, we could not see stars anyways. So off we went to another park which had more open filled and lesser surrounding bright lights. Well, the second park was a little better. We set up the tripod and the star tracker and looked to align to Polaris (aka North Star). Whipping out the phone compass, we find the North and find a bright star and assumed it to be Polaris. We start to align to that star and look to "Polar Align" the star tracker. You should look up "Polar Align" and you will see what I mean...Between trying to find a star through the scope and adjusting the lens for the eye sight, we had no clue what we are looking for.
After about 30 minutes, we decided to pack and call it a night. But before we left, by sheer dumb luck (or wanting to fell that we achieved something), we decided to check and test out the "Focus at Infinity" sharpness of the lens! After multiple trial and errors we did find the sharp focus of the lens, so all was not lost for the evening. But it was definitely back to the math and physics on how to "Polar Align" the tracker.
Practice Test - Take 2: Dec 5, 2020...Seven days before the action...
After a few more days of theory, I was ready for the next practice test. While the first one was looking to be a complete washout, we did salvage some and built a bit of confidence. It was clear that we could use a little darker sky, meaning we had to go farther away from the city. My daughter decided to accompany me this time to Cooper Lake State Park, Sulphur Springs, TX. It was a couple of hours drive, but pretty close to big cities and small towns. As we got closer to the park, we could see the surroundings change from bright lights to big ranches and dark skies. This was so exciting!!! Since, we had not paid to enter the park, we decided to stay just outside the park, right next to the visitor center.
"Until one leaves the city bustle and embraces nature, one does not realize the hold the city has on you!!!". I just made that quote up, pretty cool, isn't it?! Now we are just outside the park, the night is dark and the sky is clear with a million stars that we can see with the naked eye. We were just about to leave the car and get out to setup the tripod and star tracker, when Ashwini quips "Is that a coyote howling?!" Now, imagine us city dwellers, sitting in in the dark, hearing howling at 8PM in the evening - If this was a movie - the scene playing out in our heads is - "its 2AM in the morning, pitch black and cannot see a thing, and vampires and werewolves howling from all directions calling to each other, because they are hungry and have not eaten for days".
Never mind the light of the visitor center and the open space that we could see when our eyes get adjusted!!! Fear is a very powerful feeling and it makes all reason disappear. No wonder, it is a very powerful tool, politicians and dictators have been using for ages to bend the will of many. Anyways, with every howl, as Ashwini notes that coyotes are near, I imagine "werewolves" surrounding us. Two steps forward to setup the tripod, one howl and back into the car. after about 15 minutes, even being inside the car did not feel safe, so we decided to leave!!!
That was a wash and it reinforced different things to both of us. For my daughter, it reinforced not to go camping, ever and to me the fear reinforced the need to conquer it, especially if I am going to want to capture some beautiful night sky. I was mad and angry at myself , but still afraid to venture back. Unless, the brave one in our family, Shreya, comes with me the next day!!!
Practice Test - Take 3: Dec 6, 2020...Six days before the action...
Shreya had a brilliant idea. How about we leave early and go around the park when there is light. Once we see what the landscape looks like, the night might not feel so scary? What a brilliant idea!!! We trek back to the lake, but this time in the afternoon and pay for the day use. It is a cold Texas winter day and there are not many people around. We find this boat ramp area that has lot of cement and light and park right smack in the middle of the ramp. Despite the lights, we are able to see the stars. It is around the same time as yesterday, 8PM and we setup the tripod and star tracker and the lessons learnt on how to use the polar scope. We just have to find Polaris. Just one small issue - Shreya's phone compass and mine were telling the same story in different angles!!! What was North to me was more like West for her. How could that be? It was starting to play out like a funny scene from Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus!
We are running out of time to practice, so we decide to use one of the brighter stars in the sky as reference and practice alignment. After a few failed starts, we were able to align to this bright star, called "You are Polaris now" and then start capturing images. Two goals to accomplish - 1: Are the stars in focus even with long exposures? and 2: Does the start tracker move in alignment? We were able to capture images and when the howling started and possums (or werewolves) started to run around in the bushes, we decided to call it a night. Data has been collected, everything else can be done in the comfort of our home!!!
Overall, the starts were pretty sharp and in focus even in exposures as long as 2 and half minutes and the tracker moved in alignment with the stars. If not anything else, this test achieved two things. It got Shreya and me excited about hanging out together for more than 5 minutes and it built up my confidence that I can handle this on the day of the group event!!!
Dec 11, 2020...Zero days before the action...
Wait a second!!! This is NOT a drill. This is the day of the big event! Shreya had had it, my kids had had it, so it was me alone driving to meetup with the group at Cranfills Gap, TX. From interstate highways, to city freeways, to county roads, to farm to market roads to unpaved paths, I finally get to the location. I can so totally see why the group organizers are in love with this place. It is a dark, well maintained and wide open field with an awesome foreground subject, aka St.Olaf's Church. There are about 30 people all with tripods and cameras and telescopes and suddenly fear gives way to excitement. There is comfort in knowing that help is just one yell away. It was awesome to see men, women, fathers and mothers with their kids all wanting to see the wonder of the night - A meteor shower and to capture the night forever.
One thing I was not prepared for was that with so many enthusiasts, comes chaos. Can you imagine the number of headlamps, flashlights, car lights coming in and out through the night, people walking up and down in a frenzy to setup their equipment and compose, but stepping all over others who were already there, laser pointers to help teach other on where the starts and constellations were. I will have to say that close to half of my pictures had to be discarded because of this. But, that is okay. It is a very small price to pay for the comfort and knowledge of the group.
We are all there to learn and grow as a team and just like any team, we all have to be patient with each other and the experts help the beginners and THAT was all out there in its full glory. What an awesome group to exercise such patience and tolerance to the rest. Once the initial excitement settled down, and we had a long night ahead of us, it was awesome to see people reaching out, introducing themselves and connecting names with faces, etc. The night was long and what started as a cool evening started to turn cold and lenses were getting fogged due to dew and slowly people called in a night.
Jorge was an angel and guiding light sent to help me that night. He was patient, helped me setup, finally figure out where Polaris was and the constellations. He made sure to check my settings and guide in over/under exposures and orient me for the first time to Astrophotography basics. It takes more than genuine interest in this area to help others. Once I got going, off he went to help another and then another. I knew at that moment, this is an awesome group of very diverse people and backgrounds coming together to marvel at the night sky and wonder "What's beyond?"
We did see a few faint meteors in the sky throughout the night. After capturing close to 300 images of the night sky, I decided to call it a night at around 2AM. It will be interesting to see if there were any interesting captures of the night. Astrophotography is not for the faint of the heart!!! Under extreme low light conditions, trying to capture the marvel of nature is a very risky business. Of the 300 captures, there were about 3 of them that had a meteor strap in them. And of that, only one was bright enough to save. Can you find the meteor in this shot?
Overall, it was exciting, exhilarating and inspiring to wander and wonder about the space and time beyond. It was awesome to meet a group of like minded, diverse and polite people who did not hesitate to help each other. But there was one math question that kept nagging me. If on this day, with about a peak of 10 meteors per hour, I was able to catch one, how many can I see or capture in two days when the actual peak is estimating close to 120 meteors per hour and with a new moon conditions. There was one catch, a cold freeze front, with heavy clouds and 100% chance of rain in our area was the weather forecast!!!
During post processing, look at what I found by accident. This was in Photoshop and Photoshop is a whole another topic for venting along with Math, Physics and Astronomy...Nevertheless, star trails are fascinating for me and together we shall overcome the layering, blending and generally overdoing in Photoshop!!!
And then there was one more...
Dec 13, 2020...Plus Two days after the action...
Did I mention that night sky was not for the faint of heart? Did I mention about the cloudy skies and close freeze moving in? Did I mention that I had reserved Cooper Lake State Park camping site as a backup for this day? Did I mention that the during the peak (around 2AM) there would be close to 120 meteors per hour? Did I mention that most would be visible on this night as it was a new moon night? Did I mention that the temperature at around 2AM and for most oof the night will be hovering around 25 degrees?
Did I mention that neither Shreya nor I had seen a meteor, let alone a shower before? And, while meteor showers are a regular occurrence, the combination of new moon, dark skies is pretty rare. I was not about to give up and give in on this opportunity. I was not too happy with the part that lady luck played in the previous night and I wanted more. I wanted more for me, but more importantly, I wanted more for Shreya.
With a bit of analysis and planning, I was able to find a spot in Texas, southwest of us, that just might have clear skies for a brief period of time. More specifically, between Midnight and 4AM in the morning. This new location, Lake Brownwood State Park, had a camping site available and is about 2 and half hours from us. Not too far, but weather is a fickle friend and there is no telling on how this will all turn out!!!
Convincing Shreya took some time, but once she got excited about the fact of seeing a meteor shower, we were on a roll. Shreya took care of things that I would never think of, like jackets, snacks, hand warmers, blankets, chairs, while I was busy recharging my bag. Armed with more knowledge and confidence, knowing that the park itself was safe, we decided to make the leap of faith. For the most part while driving to the place, it was cloudy and rainy and doubts started to creep in. We reasoned it out, that the worst thing would be a drive of 5 hours with nothing to show for it. But we were fine with long drives and loud music, so we kept going.
We were about 30 minutes away from the campsite, in dark county road, when we saw a giant flash and streak of light in the sky. For a second, we were expecting thunder to accompany it, but there was only silence. In that fleeting second, we had witnessed our first meteor of our lives. The excitement and thrill in our voices were unmistakable. It was gratifying to see that kind of emotion in Shreya - the wonder, the wide open eye and a big smile. We will never forget that first meteor. I will never forget the expression on Shreya's face!!!
And then it started to rain. Not actual rain, but of meteors. The sky had cleared and we were there at the campsite. We had counted 17 meteors before we even pulled into our campsite. As I rush to setup my equipment, I had to keep reminding myself that it was only midnight and the peak does not even occur until 2AM. I had lot of time, if I can remain calm and collected. Yeah! Good luck with that!!! But once the equipment was setup, Polaris tracked and aligned and the timer set to capture the sky in quick succession, it was time to bring out the popcorn (or hot chocolate in our case).
We took turns getting out and checking the open sky and retreating to our car to warm ourselves up and for the next couple of hours, we were immersed in one of the best shows of nature we had come to experience. We lost count at about 52 meteors, some bright, some faint, some quick, some lasting longer, but all with a sense of randomness and chaos that only insane minds can understand.
What you see captured is a very tiny portion of the night sky, over a two hour period, pulled together to form a composite image with us looking in awe and wonder of how small a role we play in this universe!!! If we can be in awe of what is considered to be debris of the universe, can you imagine what more the universe holds for us, if we are brave enough to look beyond our selves!!!
I leave you all with this quote:
“Tonight I feel like a shooting star, but I hope my shine will last much longer.” - Bernard Jan
Until next time...Cheers!!!