Beer, bear and meteor shower. Capturing the Geminid in the Emmental Switzerland.
Introduction to the Geminid meteor shower
The Geminid meteor shower is a recurring phenomenon taking place in early December every year. It is a very reliable meteor shower and together with the Perseids in August one of the brighter ones. At peak hours, you can see up to 50 shooting stars per hour. Interestingly enough some of those meteors appear for several seconds and in various colors, depending on their material composition. According to earthsky.org, the higher the constellation of Gemini (the Twins) is, the more shooting stars you are likely to see. Therefore, the best time to photograph them is at 2 am, when Gemini is at the radiant point. The peak night of the Geminid was between the 14th and 15th December, yet the forecast looked better a few days earlier with clear skies.
Field Diary Geminid meteor showers
19:00 At home
I felt the urgent need to sleep outdoors again and what better opportunity than clear skies during peak time of the Geminids. On this evening, I had a meeting with the sports club. I was joking light-heartedly about finding the bear who’s currently roaming through Switzerland. Astonishingly, enough my friends believed my sarcastic remarks. So, I put things right and introduced them to the true plan. Yet, they still declared me crazy for sleeping outdoors at -6° Celsius.
The plan was to head into the Emmental, Switzerland, which offers many great panoramas of the Swiss Alps, and bivouac there while taking timelapses. Moreover, this is a pretty dark region in Swiss terms and the clouds were expected to dissipate there overnight. Checking the pretty accurate weather forecast on search.ch, I decided to give it a go tonight.
To my surprise, there was about 10 cm snow, which I actually did not anticipate. But what really caught my eye was the amazingly clear skies. Luckily, the hiking path to the outlook was well trodden and easy to find. Nonetheless, the trail was slippery and careful steps eventually lead me to this stunning scenery.
Quickly, I set up the first camera to take a few shots to get a sense of how the surrounding looks in camera, because it was pitch dark on my arrival. After making up my mind composition wise, I started a first timelapse with the A5100 and the Sony 10-18mm f4. However, while trying to remove the hood with the bayonet fastener to get to the focus ring, it was jammed, and I broke of the piece where the hood is attached to. This did not facilitate nailing focus with the focus ring being only barely exposed. Nevertheless, I managed to get some decent shots and started the timelapse. I did not feel my fingers anymore for the first time.
Meanwhile, I used the Sony A6500 with the Sigma 16mm f1.4 to take some vertical shots of the surrounding. This is the drawback of the 24mm full frame equivalent lens – it is slightly too narrow to shoot wide-angle night skies. Standing still in the snow for a while, I literally felt the temperature of my feet plummet. Hence, I stood on the bench, sat on the lean, opened a beer, and gazed at the wonderful night sky. I was able to spot the big dipper, Polaris, as well as Castor and Pollux from the constellation of the Gemini. It was not long, until I saw the first meteors lighting up. Taking another sip of the beer, I realized it has been partly frozen already.
23:52 The Cold
As soon as I felt my feet and hands again, I prepared the second timelapse with the Sony A6500 and the Sigma 16mm f1.4. I added a drone battery as powerbank. Furthermore, I got two handwarmers that I (counterintuitively) did not use for my hands, but to warm the lens and the battery to prevent them from freezing.
I decided to do 900 images à 20 second exposures, ISO 3200, and f1.4. In this way, the images were slightly overexposed, but the histogram showed an even distribution, with the highlights being slightly clipped on the right side. Yet, this is no big deal, because the histogram is showing the information for the jpeg format. Subsequently, when working with raw file you have some more leeway in the highlights and the shadows. Yet, you will have less noise when reducing the brightness, than pumping up the shadows. This is called ETTR (Expose to the right).
01:44 Time to rest
Having finally set up both cameras, I immediately began preparing the bivouac. The cold of my feet became serious and my feet weren’t very well either. I unpacked the Outdoor Research Aurora bivouac sac, inflated the Thermarest Neoair Xlite and added 2 sleeping bags (SeatoSummit Spark II, Exped Winterlite). Moreover, I took all batteries and the water bottle to prevent them from freezing. After an obligatory walk to the loo and few gymnastic moves to have warm, I unclothed 2 layers from the top and 1 from the legs, added warm socks and went to bed at 1:44 am.
The two sleeping bags worked a treat and my feet shortly warmed up, but hurt due to icy feet. I definitely need either electric feet warmers or down booties from Exped. While my feet began to warm, my face started to cool down. The wind has gained strength and my face was exposed to the relentless cold. Putting the buff over my nose helped in the first place, but as soon as the breath condensed, it was soaked up by the bandana. Slowly freezing to ice, the cold bandana woke me up again.
6:30 Good morning
After 4 hours of interrupted sleep, I glimpsed out of my bivy and saw the majestic panorama of the Swiss Alps in blue hour light. Immediately, I was awake and peeled out of my sleeping bags. Whereas the battery of the Sony a5100 had died hours before, the A6500 was still powered on, yet the 900 exposures timelapse had finished. Furthermore, both cameras were covered in ice.
Freeing the cameras from ice as far as possible, I set up another shot to capture the first light rays of the sunrise. Until the sun rose, I ate a banana which had turned black due to the cold and took some footage for an Instagram story. The scenery was fairytale like and I would have liked to fly the drone for a revealing shot of the low hanging fog and the sunrise. However, an error of the controller of the drone prevented me from flying. I should have taken the controller in the bivy as I did the batteries.*
Technical Aspects for Photographing the Geminid meteor shower
For photographers, the Geminid offers the opportunity to capture stunning nightscapes with several colorful shooting stars. However, the right place, time and equipment. Whereas the place and time is pointed out in the introduction, I’d like to focus on some essentials when photographing the Geminid meteor shower.
Most shooting stars appear in the constellation of Gemini when it’s at his highest point. Hence, an ultra-wide lens would allow to capture more meteors than I did with the 24mm full frame equivalent pointing at the horizon as foreground. Furthermore, the wider the lens, the longer you can expose without star trails. Subsequently, there’s a bigger chance of capturing a meteor trail in one shot.
Apart from the focal length, the second thing to take into consideration is the aperture. The lower the f-stop the brighter it is. So, look for the brightest and widest lens for this kind of astrophotography.
Additionally, a camera capable of shooting at high ISO rates with the least noise is preferable. In order to shoot throughout the night, you most likely need a sort of power source. Hence, a powerful external battery helps to extend the time dramatically.
Adapting your eyes to lowlight environments takes 40 min and is set back within seconds. Therefore, you should make sure to dim the camera lights and only use red light on your torch or headlamp. I use the Petzl Active headlamp, which comes with an included battery that uses micro USB to charge. At the same time, it can be used with 3 AAA batteries. I love it.
In order to prevent freezing of your camera and battery pack, I recommend the Coowoo lens warmers. They are more convenient than handwarmers in socks and run on USB power. Furthermore, they prevent also fogging in humid conditions in Summer
Summary Geminid meteor shower in the Emmental, Switzerland
The Geminid meteor shower in the Emmental, Switzerland were spectacular and a success. Although, not every image I had in mind worked out as I planned, I still captured a few amazing shooting stars. This was overshadowed by the breakdown of the Sony 10-18mm lens and the error message of the drone, which prevented me from flying, but such hard conditions take its toll. I believe that the final image of such a night does justice to the hardships endured and make up for it. Needless to say, I will be out there again next year.
Do you have any questions? What were your experiences photographing the Geminid meteor shower?
* I tried the Mavic Pro drone at home again and everything worked fine. It seems the cold had affected the recognition of the control sticks.