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Perseid Meteors and Olympus Live Composite

Perseid Meteors and Olympus Live Composite

The Perseid Meteor Shower happens every year from mid-July as the Earth passes through the debris trail of the Swift-Tuttle comet. This year the meteor shower was visible between August 7-12 with peak viewing on the night of August 11. We decided to head up Burnaby Mountain to check it out. So did half of Vancouver and it was really crowded when we arrived at about 12:30am. Luckily many people were already packing up to leave and within 45 mins it had emptied out considerably.

It was bit cloudy for perfect meteor viewing so instead of trying to capture meteors I decided to try out the live composite function on my Olympus O-MD E-M5II and capture star trails. Live Composite is very very cool. Essentially in this mode the camera takes a series of photos and stacks them in camera to create one image. With each successive shot, only new light is added to the original image which prevents overexposure in the brightest part of the picture. You can see the image developing on the LCD screen as it happens which means you can stop the process when the image reaches a point that you are happy with it.

The image below took about 15 minutes to make and is a stack of about 80 or so images.

Stacked images to create star trails
Stacked images to create star trails – Olympus O-MD E-M5II

The orange glow on the left and right are clouds. The totems were lit by the headlights of cars as they circled around to leave the mountain. Ordinarily, any kind of random uncontrolled light is not desirable in this kind of image but in this case, I was happy with the side light painting the totems as it gave them colour and texture and gave the image depth. This was my second attempt at this shot. My first effort is below and is an example of what can go wrong.

Shot ruined by flashlight
Shot ruined by flashlight

Remember I said each shot added new light to the image? When the man in red stood in my shot and waved his flashlight around his light was added to the photo. It was dark and he was just trying to find his way back to his car, but it was a little frustrating as the shot was already over 10 minutes into creation. A really cool feature of the Olympus Live Composite mode is that I could see this as soon as it happened, abandon the shot and start over. For my second try, I recomposed a little higher to avoid people wandering through and kept my fingers on the cable release just in case. The result was a shot I am pretty happy with.

The following night we went to Porteau Cove to try again. While we did see a few meteors I decided to have another go with Live Composite. This time, I did not compose with a foreground element in the image, opting instead for the horizon line. Porteau Cove is extremely dark and has really good star visibility which resulted in a much denser set of trails. This shot is about 150 images stacked together and took about 25 minutes to create. Look closely and you can see a couple of meteors as they streak in a different direction to the star trails.

Star Trails over the horizon at Porteau Cove
Star Trails over the horizon at Porteau Cove

Due to the extreme darkness, it was impossible to use autofocus so I manually set the focus to infinity. I shot all of these images on the Olympus O-MD E-M5II with the Olympus 17mm 1.8 lens. This lens has focus markers which make it easier to set to a certain focus distance.  If you have a lens without distance markers or without a hard stop at infinity you could find infinity focus during the daytime and add a piece of tape or use a permanent marker to mark the exact spot on the barrel of your lens.

Stacking photos for star trails can be done manually in Photoshop or by using software such as StarStax, but what I absolutely love about the Olympus Live Composite mode is, well, it’s live. It saves time, does a great job and also creates an ORF, an Olympus raw file, which means you can edit for colour, contrast etc afterwards. This feature is nothing short of awesome and is just one of many reasons I love my micro four thirds camera.

To use Live Composite mode for star trails you will need a stable tripod. I’d also recommend a cable release so you don’t nudge the camera when starting or stopping the shot. You’ll need a wide angle lens with a wide aperture of at least 2.8. The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm 1.8 is awesome but I would also like to try out the 12mm f2 or a fisheye. I set my exposure for each shot to 10 seconds which kept the stars sharp, but this will vary depending on how dark it is and what you are trying to achieve. Try a few single exposures first to get your settings. Then, get creative and watch your image as it appears!