This is What You Get When You Stack Photos of a Meteor Shower

Capturing a single shooting star can make for a brilliant photograph, but what does it look like if you composite multiple meteors into a single image? Fort Collins, Colorado-based nature photographer David Kingham decided to find out recently during the ongoing Perseid meteor shower. The amazing photo seen above is what resulted.

Here’s his description of how the image was created:

Last night I went out to Snowy Range in Wyoming in search of dark skies for the Perseid meteor shower. I wanted something special for the foreground and I knew the Snowies faced in the perfect direction to get this shot. I started shooting at 10pm and didn’t stop until 5 am, I had to change my battery every 2 hours which made for a long night. The moon rose around 1am to light up the mountain range.

This is a composite of 23 images, 22 for the meteors/stars and 1 taken at sunrise for the foreground which was lightly blended in. I also corrected the orientation of the meteors to account for the rotation of the earth (this took forever!)

The fact that the stars move in the night sky makes the compositing a bit tricky. To combine the images in Photoshop, he took a base photo and overlaid each shot he had that contained a meteor. For each layer, he lowered the opacity to 50%, matched up the stars with the base layer by rotating around Polaris, and then erased everything in the layer except the shooting star.

He says that the benefit of this technique is that the elements can be exposed in a way that maximizes quality. The base shot containing the stars can be shot at low ISO and longer exposure times, while the meteors can be shot using high ISO (maximizing the intensity of the meteor without having to worry about the rest of the sky being too noisy).


Image credit: Snowy Range Perseids Meteor Shower by David Kingham

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    I saw this image a couple of days ago and am now disappointed to know that it was so heavily manipulated.

  • Tanja Schulte

    it´s a great picture.
    but one problem i have with such images is the amount of editing.
    don´t get me wrong ist visual stunning, it´s great.
    but the landscape photograph lover in me prefers landcapes that are not so much edited. this is more a collage then a photo.. not?.
    it´s the same when i look at print magazines.
    stunning images but you can tell there is so much editing going on.
    makes me wonder how the original image looks.
    im not sure what to think about it…. we have come a long way from ansel adams.

  • Robby Cornish

    very nice!

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    So you would rather see just one of the images showing just one of the meteors? instead of all of the images in one place showing all of the meteors that he photographed? sounds a bit boring to me. If all you want is Ansel Adams – then buy his books and don’t go on the internet =)

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    this is hardly heavy manipulation (very, very basic image stacking) – god forbid you ever see HDR images – you’d freak out.

  • Tanja Schulte

    well i want photographs that are REAL photographs not edited images… yes. first and foremost im a photography fan not…. an image editing fan.
    you could produce such an image with a few stock photos and photoshop.

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    you do know that photographs have been edited ever since photography began, right? for example – American civil war photographs of generals on battlefields were very often composite images of them riding horses they never rode with backgrounds that they never visited, wearing clothes they might not have been wearing at the time their face was photographed. Editing is as old as photography. If the images above had been shot on 35mm you could use the very same old editing techniques to get a photo very much like the one with all of the meteors in one picture. If you’re so much of a photography fan maybe you should learn some history of photography and photographic processes first? Photoshop, Lightroom etc are just modern equivalents of darkrooms. Manipulating images isn’t to be frowned upon like you’re somehow better than someone who edits their images.

  • Info_Man

    This is seriously awesome. As a fellow star stackers understand the work envolved and applaud you on an excellent piece of art!

    Well Done!


  • Tanja Schulte

    well yes i know… and i know a lot about photography history my little adam.

    that the manipulation was not done digitally in the past does not change anything on my opinion. i don´t know how you came to that impression. if someone has manipulated an images that much in the darkroom i would say the same about it.

    and i don´t think im better… i never wrote that!
    i wrote what i like.. if you don´t get it… it´s your problem.
    so don´t put words in my mouth.
    breath … and get some fresh air….

  •!/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    ha! that’s a reply from someone who has nothing to say. Your opinions are obvious when you spend so much time complaining about people who edit their images.

  • Stefan Heymanns

    Just to be clear, this image is nothing like an “image [produced] with a few stock photos and photoshop”. This is a combination of REAL photographs and shows what somebody might have seen IF humans perceived time differently.

    It makes me wonder what you consider “real” photographs anyway. Human’s can’t perceive a scene at 1/1000 of a second, so is a photo shot at that shutter speed “real”? What about a long exposure? Is a 5 second exposure “real”? What about 30 seconds? What about multiple exposures of the same frame (in camera)? Because that is essentially what this image is: Several short(er) exposures on the same frame, just in Photoshop, rather than in camera.

  • Tanja Schulte

    what are you some spoiled 12 year old kid?
    try to behave like an adult in a conversation, respect opinions…. or sh*t *p.

    end of discussion for me your really not worth my time.

  • Tanja Schulte

    that is why i wrote “you could(!) produce”.
    and some do it…. my comments are not especially to THIS images.
    it´s about image manipulation in landscape photograpyh in general.
    i thought i made that pretty clear?
    it´s about cloning out trees, adding trees, removing streets, making mountains higher, adding snow to mountains, replacing a sky etc. etc. pp.
    im not talking about long exposures, dodging and burning, neutral density filters.

  • Michael Zhang

    Hey guys. Feel free to debate your opinions, but once comments are directed at other commenters, we will remove them. Please keep the conversation limited to the topic, and no insulting other people please :)

  • Tanja Schulte

    well IMO subtle HDR landscape images (yes they are rare but they exist) are better then images where the content is heavily manipulated.
    with subtle i do not mean the “nuke all sliders”, “ken rockwell +50 saturation” images.

  • Heidi

    I’m usually not a fan of photos like this, but I grew up about 10 miles from this location, so it’s awesome to see some of Wyoming’s (and my childhood home’s) scenery get attention!

  • Tim

    I really respect the amount of thought that has gone into this photograph, and the result really reflects it. For me the best photos are a combination of vision and execution and this ticks all the boxes. AMAZING!

    P.S – i’d be interested to know what it looked like with all the stars rotating around Polaris! (probably a bit crazy/cluttered but still….).

  • Jake

    The difference is that HDR tries to capture how scenes actually look and not how the camera, with its limited exposure capabilities, sees them. This picture depicts an image of the meteor shower that isn’t actually as it would have appeared. That’s what peoples’ issue with it is. I mean, why don’t we throw in a photo of a bear gazing at the sky that the photographer took half an hour earlier and 60 feet away?

  • Guillaume

    The picture in itself is really great (maybe a bit “artificial” or “unreal” to be cause I’m very used to take night pictures.. but still it looks great). It almost fits with the ambiance that could be seen or felt by a meteor shower observer. In that it is really great.
    But, and there is always a but ;) “and then erased everything in the layer except the shooting star” really seems like painting your own shooting stars on a night landscape..
    Maybe this picture is not a “picture” anymore, but a “painting”? Who knows the border?
    But still, the result looks awesome :)
    Hey btw I found Charly! There is one shooting star that is not one.. check the tiny one on the bottom left… it doesn’t have the same radiant.. iridium flare ;)

  • David Kingham

    Thank you all! I’m not going to get into the debate of manipulation, take a look at my other images which are not manipulated, I don’t change skies or anything crazy like that. Stefan hit the nail on the head, this is very much like taking a long exposure image that humans cannot perceive, all the images are real and captured from the exact same spot, I stand behind what I’ve created here.

    One not on the description; I did not use a lower iso for the base shot, another commenter on flickr thought this but they were mistaken, all shots were at iso 3200.

    Tim, I’m working on a stacked version of the full 7 hours of star trails right now! Hope to post it up today

  • Daniel Lowe

    Congrats, David. I do night-sky timelapse, and people wonder all the time “is this real?” when the only “trickery” is a long exposure photograph. What you have done is very similar to HDR photography. I’ve done “startrails” photos myself but never had the opportunity to photograph a meteor shower before last week. From your photograph, I’ve learned the “proper” way to create a composite meteor image (layer, rotate to polaris, mask, merge) as well as the added nuance of the well-lit foreground. Your photo is the one that will look best as a photographic print!

  • Andrea Boyle

    Wow, great shot! I’d love to try something like this one of these days… Nice foreground selection, too.

  • Zsolt Sky

    Hi! I agree with you mostly though I know nothing about the history of photography. My problem with this picture is the sky. It does not look anything you see when looking up the sky in reality. You never see so many stars with equal brightness as on this picture. I can not even recognize any constellation.
    I like the idea to show the relative positions of meteors on one picture with a nice background. I also appreciate the amount of work in it due to rotation of the Earth but I would still like to recognize that the shiny dots are actually stars as we normally see them.

  • J Michael Wilhelm

    Folks, I have read most all of your posts on this image…now get real…do you really think you can walk out in the night and see this image,I don’t think so. But carefully look at it…do you like it in the first 5 seconds? I did,regardless of how it was made,not taken. Most people have no problem with painters making up images on canvas,b ut seem to have a problem here,not becasue of the image itself, but the description of how it was made…come-on people…get real.
    I am a photographer with over 40 years of experience and have spent thousands of hours in a wet darkroom to all hours of the night. I now wished I had gone digital 10 years earlier than I did…I would have gotten more sleep.
    I am a “Maker of Images” and that means exactly as I have written it. I make images..I don’t take pictures,I don’t take photographs…I Make Images. I do whatever I need to make the image I saw in the field become the image I had in my mind.
    David’s image here shows his skills for making the image he had in his mind.
    Well done David.