Stonehenge under a meteor shower

August 13, 2010

‘Stonehenge, where the demons dwell, where the banshees live and they do live well, Stonehenge’.

Those words were immortalized by the greatest rock band to ever stalk the earth, Spinal Tap. This neolithic and bronze age monument is located near Amesbury in the English county of Wiltshire and I am frequently called upon via some magnetic force to make the short journey down there from my home to cover either a Stonehenge summer or winter solstice, a snow covered Stonehenge or even a Perseid meteor showered Stonehenge.

Before leaving for Salisbury Plain, I quickly googled as much information as I could about how to shoot a meteor shower from some of these fancy astronomer/photographer blogs. You would think after almost twenty years in the business I would know how to shoot a meteor shower, but there is always someone else out there who has just that one nugget of information gold that could make all the difference… and indeed all these blogs said one thing. DSLR shooters… unbelievably high ISO + short 30 second burst exposures = award winning meteor images. Right, that’s that sorted then. After all, how hard can it be?

Arriving at ten pm, English Heritage had graciously allowed me to go onto the actual site to shoot the show. With just three security guards for company, I set up the tripod and camera and waited for the cloud cover to clear. The blanket of cloud that happened to be just sitting over the top of the stones and nowhere else eventually cleared and the show began. I couldn’t concern myself with anything happening outside my framing, as the object was to place Stonehenge within the context of the shower. So instead of trying to work out where everything looked like it might be happening, I just picked my favorite angle on the stones and stayed there.

I hoped the meteors would come to me or else I would be spending all night chasing them around an ancient burial site in pitch darkness. With the help of three torches illuminating the stones so that I could actually focus on them, meteors kept exploding everywhere with the exception of my viewfinder. Nothing new there then. So, remembering the online advice I had gleaned, I set the camera to 200 ISO, with a six minute exposure at 2.8 on a 24mm lens. Once the cable release timer was pushed, it was all out of my hands.

Meteors began to flash into my frame, but weren’t registering on the sensor as they were too quick or not bright enough. And they were all different shapes, sizes and intensity so what was needed was the long burn meteors that left a smoke trail. Long burn was really about a nano second in real time. Once all these factors came together, I then had to contend with the security guards (who were only doing their job) flashing their torches around the stones as they patrolled. A torch being turned on at 5 min 14 seconds into a 6 min exposure ruined the image, so I would start again. This went on all night. Finally at 3 am having got the guards to keep their torches off for a final twenty minute exposure, I headed back to the car.

What you see below is how I got lucky. There is no science to it. The blogs had got it all wrong. All I did was try and give myself the best chance of getting something….anything. Even just being there watching it was breathtaking in itself. I would have been happy with just a starry Stonehenge minus a meteor but I just got lucky. There are actually two meteors in this image, one of them is not as prominent as the other though.

All I need now is a lightning bolt above Stonehenge and my collection is complete.

A meteor streaks past stars in the night sky over Stonehenge in Salisbury Plain, southern England August 12, 2010. The Perseid meteor shower is sparked every August when the Earth passes through a stream of space debris left by comet Swift-Tuttle. Picture taken using a long exposure.  REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

(Click on the image above to see a high resolution file)

2 comments

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awesome …

Posted by melisheath | Report as abusive

Spectacular photos! and well done, technically.
Taking these type of photos is similar with, taking photos of fireworks, but with longer exposures.
Fireworks photos can easily be done with low iso, around f/8 and 20 – 30+ sec. exposures. (depending how bright it gets)
Thanks for sharing.

Posted by nunobkk | Report as abusive