Did You Capture a Meteor? Or Something Else?

You’ve captured a streak of light in an image; is it a meteor? If you were shooting during a well-known and active meteor shower, there is a good chance you did photograph a meteor! There are a lot of objects that fly through the night sky, though. If you’re not familiar with what you are looking for, it can be tricky to differentiate a meteor from something else in the sky, like a satellite or airplane.

This August, I ran a four hour time-lapse to capture the Milky Way moving across the sky and to try to catch the Perseids Meteors raining down around the galactic core. The radiant was behind my Nikon z8 that was pointing to the south. I use Sky Safari to find the radiant of a meteor shower. In this time-lapse there are many flashes and streaks going through the sky. Most of those are not meteors.

Let’s identify some of the objects that were flying through the 1014 image sequence.


Meteors are bright and brief flashes of light, usually have a tail, and often have colour to them. The colour depends on the types of metal within the meteor and how fast it is going when it starts to burn up. The Perseids show a lot of pink and green and sometimes orange and white. The Geminids are usually blue and green. If you overexpose the meteor in your image, it can turn out mostly white. Humans don’t see colour well at night, so it’s likely that everything will look like a bright streak of white to your eyes.

Perseid Meteors rain down around the Milky Way over Spray Lakes in Kananaskis Alberta Canada

A blend of all the brightest meteors from the time-lapse overlayed on a stacked image of the Milky Way when it lined up with the lake. One of my favourite Milky Way shots of the year.


There are a lot of satellites flying through our night sky. When you see them at night with your eyes, they are a small dot (or big dot if it’s the international space station) moving across the sky. In a long exposure, they show up as a streak of light. Satellites will reflect sunlight, even at night. The frame below was shot during twilight, and there are 12 satellite streaks in the image (some are very faint and required zooming in further than I did for the post). They are mostly uniform in shape.

Satellites streaking through the night sky in Kananaskis with the Milky Way Zoom in of satellites flying in front of the Milky Way core

If a streak travels through a series of images in your time-lapse, it’s also a satellite. They can have tails in your long exposures due to their movement and when they start or stop reflecting sunlight.

Satellite with uniform shaped streak flying towards the milky way core Satellite with fading tail streak flying towards the milky way core


The biggest clue you have caught an airplane is a series of red and sometimes green streak or dots. There can also be a solid line of white light. They can appear slower moving than satellites and definitely much slower than a meteor. You can see the red blinking light with your eyes sometimes depending on distance and angle.

Airplane flying at night towards the Milky Way core

I hope this helps you identify what you are seeing or capturing in the night sky! If you’d like to learn more about night photography with me, please check out my group workshops or book a private session!