A Lucky Picture-Perfect Snap of a Fireball Zipping Across the Night Sky


Walkthroughs of photographs that aren’t easily reproducible (or are impossible to reproduce) might not be very useful to many, but it’s still interesting to learn how rare shots come about. An example would be the photograph above, captured by photographer Bryan Hanna last week. Hanna was aiming to capture a long-exposure nighttime photograph of a landscape in the foreground and the night sky in the background, but he accidentally snagged something even better: a fireball zipping across the sky in just the right area in the frame!

Here’s Hanna’s story of how the photo came to be:

I and another photographer (Brendan O Neill) went to The Great Pollet Arch in Donegal up the very north of Ireland last Wednesday night. We planned to get a shot of the sea arch with the Milky Way in the background, but it turned out we weren’t there at the right time for that.

The tide was out so we had to scramble over very slippy rocks to get out far enough to get a good shot of the sea arch. When we got into place, we both realised that we weren’t in a safe spot, the sea pounded in front of us and we were afraid the tide would come in behind us and cut us off from the only way up from the rocks.

We knew that we wanted to get a shot and get out of there as fast as possible. We both set up our camera gear, set our camera setting and started taking a few exposures. The other photographer lit up the sea arch with a LED torch as we both took long exposures.

During one of our last shots as we were waiting for an image to expose, something that looked like a shooting star crossed the sky. It continued to grow much brighter with what looked like a red trail coming out the back of it. We had seen a fireball!

We quickly checked to see if we had captured it and scrabbled back up the rocks to get back to safety. Looking back at the metadata of my images we were only taking pictures for 7 minutes, we were extremely lucky to capture such a sight.

In terms of technical details, the photograph was captured using a Canon 5D Mark II, a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 at 16mm f/2.8, ISO 1600, and an exposure time of 30 seconds.

You can check out a higher-resolution version of the photograph here.

Image credits: Photograph by Bryan Hanna and used with permission

  • Peter Neill

    Wonderful, grew up about 90 miles from there and paid a couple of visits over the years, never seen it shot at beautifully as this!

  • Technician

    Congrats for rare moment!

  • Alan Dove

    Awesome shot and story. While events like this fireball are unpredictable, you can increase the odds by shooting during a meteor shower. Those come around at predictable intervals each year. A quick search of “meteor showers” will put you on the right track. The next one is the Lyrids, coming up in April.

  • Jason Wright

    30 Second? Wow, I always get star trails at that long. I really envy shots like this.
    Such a great image, capturing the beauty of both the Earth and the Sky as well as a rare event!
    I do not have the words to say how amazing that is. I love it.

  • Mark N

    Likely due to using a longer focal length than 16mm? Or maybe the earth just spins faster in your area of the world ;-)

  • Bryan Hanna

    Thanks Jason. You need to select your shutter speed based on your focal length for star photography. Theres a rule called the 500 rule (based of the 600 rule) that you can use to get your shutter speed. If you divide 500 by the focal length of your lens you get the maximum shutter time you can use without getting star trails. So in my case I was using 16mm so 500/16= 31.25 seconds. Don’t forget to multiply your focal length by your crop factor before dividing if your using a cropped sensor camera.

  • Jay Mazarini

    I was just shooting stars and waiting for my 20 minute exposure to finish, just looking around and saw that some kind of fireball just go past my framing… But in the other hand still pleased how the pictures turned out at -18°C.

  • Jason Wright

    Thanks for that, I had been using a 24mm Sigma F2.8, that’s not bad but I have a 1.6 crop factor. Just got a 50mm F1.8 to try. That rule gives me 13 seconds on the 24mm (Almost exactly what I was using at the time) and only 6.25 seconds on the 50mm. My next questions is if the change from F2.8 to F1.8 will get me more light than I lose by going from 13 seconds to 6 seconds?

  • Bryan Hanna

    The 50mm @ F1.8 would give you a bit more light but at a 35mm equivalent of 80mm you won’t get much of the sky into the frame. Also you have to think about focusing, wide angle lenses focus to infinity in a very short distance so you can have you subject and sky in focus at the same time. With 80mm eq you will have to go very far back to get both in focus. Test both of them out they might be useful in different situations depending on your subject.
    Good Luck!