How Did They Do That: Meteor Showers

Harrison Jacobs

"Snowy Range Perseids"

Fine-art nighttime and nature photographer David Kingham has always spent a lot of time under the night sky. Once camera technology was able to capture the beauty that he experienced every night growing up in the mountains of Colorado, he was hooked. Two years ago, he left his job in the architectural field and pursued his dream, running nighttime photography workshops and selling fine-art prints of nighttime and nature phenomenon such as meteor showers and star fields. We spoke with Kingham to find out how he makes his beautiful nighttime images of meteor showers.

Before Kingham explains how he captured his “Snowy Range Perseids” image, he offers a word of warning. “Gear is very important, because the newer cameras are the only ones capable of capturing this level of detail in such low light.” In addition to a newer camera body, fast wide angle lenses are essential, says Kingham.

For “Snowy Range Perseids,” Kingham drove to a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains known as Snowy Range in Wyoming. He thought the location would provide the perfect composition for capturing the Perseids Meteor shower, an annual meteor shower that occurs between mid-July and mid-August each year.

Once he found the location that he wanted to shoot at and framed his composition, he fixed his camera at ISO 3200, and set the aperture to wide-open at f2.8. “By [that time] I knew exactly what my exposure needed to be, says Kingham. “It took a couple years to get to that point, learning by trial and error.”

With his camera ready to go, Kingham used an intervalometer to take continuous 30 second exposures for the entire night, which provided its own challenges, namely battery life.  “I had to change my battery every two hours to ensure I could keep shooting,” explains Kingham.

After his night of shooting, Kingham took all the exposures and began looking for select images. While shooting a meteor shower is all about precision and technique, many of the final pictures can be hit or miss. In the end, he pulled 22 images of meteors from the hundreds of images that were taken throughout the night.

Now that he had his selects, it was time for Kingham to create the final image. To do so, he took a base exposure of the night sky and pulled it into Photoshop. He then brought each of his select images of meteors into Photoshop one by one and used layer masks to remove everything in the image except for the meteor. Even though Kingham’s composition stayed the same throughout the night, the night sky moves. If Kingham left anything but the meteor on each layer, there would blur and star trails.

Once all the meteors were isolated on different layers and placed on the base image, Kingham began rotating each meteor so that it appeared to come from the same radiant, or the point in the sky from which meteors appear to originate. “The radiant moves through the night so I had to correct that to make the meteors all show that they are coming from the same radiant, otherwise they’d look like they were coming from all over the place,” says Kingham.

With all that corrected, Kingham had one final touch to add. He took an image of the same scene taken during twilight in the morning and layered it over the foreground so that the mountain range would be brightened up. The final image is a composite of 24 images: 22 meteor shots, a base exposure of the night sky, and an exposure of the scene in morning to brighten the landscape. Check out a few of the source images below:

The base exposure

One of Kingham's 22 select images of meteors

And the final:

And one more of Kingham’s meteor shots for good measure. This one is of the Geminids’ Meteor shower:



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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