North America

Perseids Road Trip: Catching Some of Nature’s Greatest Fireworks

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How many shooting stars can you see here? There is more than one.

One of the best opportunities of the year to see shooting stars is during the annual Perseid meteor shower that is expected to put on a phenomenal show over the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada. This meteor show is always one of the best of the year each August as the remains of Comet Swift-Tuttle flow through Earth’s atmosphere.

One of the trickiest and most technical skills in photography is shooting the heavens and stars. As a landscape photographer, it’s a skill I have been working on for a couple of years to refine in the dark skies of northern Michigan and southern Canada.

Astrophotography is difficult because it requires the confluence of several things happening in harmony. The most obvious is clear weather, but one factor that is often overlooked is light pollution. Unfortunately, the overwhelming glow of light pollution prevents about 80 percent of people in North America from seeing the Milky Way in the night sky. Thankfully there are a few places left where you can go and still gaze in awe at nature’s fireworks. In Michigan we have six dark-sky preserves that restrict artificial light pollution.

I ventured up to Port Crescent State Park in Huron County located in the lower peninsula of Michigan. Overlooking Lake Huron, the dark sky park provided one of the best landscapes last night in North America to see the show. In all the years I have gone to watch meteor showers, this was one of the best nights I have ever seen. Using a star and satellite tracking app on my phone, the evening was so clear that a Russian satellite I was tracking overhead blinked light from the sun so bright it almost looked like a plane but it was moving at a much faster velocity. The Milky Way looked milky and almost all of the constellations visible in the northern hemisphere were crystal clear. During the best minutes of view, I saw perhaps 3 shooting stars per minute. Other times there were lulls of maybe a few minutes with no sightings.

If you want to learn how to shoot the stars and Milky Way, here are some tips. First, you need a good camera with a high ISO, large aperture and slow shutter speeds. Second, you require a steady tripod. I was shooting exposures at 15 and 30 seconds and you must be able to able to have no movement at these settings (these shutter speeds will detect even the movement of a human heartbeat). My go-to setting for aperture was mostly at F-3.5. Some of the new Canons and Nikons have insanely high ISOs, and while I did shoot a few photos from 125000 to 256000, I shot a lot at a modest 3200 all night. Third, you need a wire trigger or smart phone digital app. Lastly, you should set the white balance to either tungsten or fluorescent.

Go out and enjoy the show!

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