Photographing Comet NEOWISE

It’s been a tough spring. I’ve been taking the coronavirus and associated stay-at-home orders very seriously. When I have managed to get out of my apartment, it’s been to places very close to home. And as parks and open spaces finally open up a bit more, I find myself hesitant to hit the trails. I simply don’t trust that others will follow the rules.

As for summer, it’s usually too hot to hike during the day, in my opinion. I tend to favor shorter hikes in the early morning or close to sunset, or make plans for night photography. So when news of Comet NEOWISE started to spread, I used it as the perfect motivator to get out there.

At first, researchers were unsure that the comet would survive its slingshot around our sun. It seemed likely that it would break apart. But it survived, and by the time I created these images, Comet NEOWISE was already headed away from Earth, not to return for something like 6,800 years.

I had to select a location carefully. With the pandemic in full swing, I wanted to avoid a long drive. That automatically reduced the number of “dark enough” areas within range. Of those, I tried to pick one where I felt reasonably sure I could stay away from other people. After I read up on the local rules and regulations related to the pandemic, I turned my attention to the composition of my image.

I used Stellarium to check the best day and time to capture the comet. This required a little extra finagling since it wasn’t already in the object catalog. It didn’t take long to get up and running, and soon I had selected a day where the comet would be rising from the horizon just after sunset. As I scrubbed backward and forward in time, I noticed another object flying quickly across the screen. I zoomed in. It was the ISS! That settled it. I would try to make an image of the comet and the trail left by the space station.

comet neowise above california countryside

When I reached my location, I had just enough time to frame up a shot before sunset. For night shots, I usually rely on my 16mm f/2.0 Rokinon prime lens. Actually, it’s like… the only lens I own that’s really well suited to taking pictures of the night sky. In this case, I was worried 16mm would be too wide and the comet would look quite small in the frame. Instead, I started with the 35mm “plastic fantastic.” As a prime lens with an f/2.4 aperture, it was my next best option. I didn’t know the characteristics of this lens wide open at night, so I thought it best to stop down just slightly to f/2.8.

My only gripe with the resulting image is that I would have liked to have the comet a little closer to the landscape. When it was in that position, it just wasn’t dark enough to see it. One thing I love, though, is that the image shows the transition from day to night, featuring both sunset color and stars above.

Thanks to Stellarium, I knew exactly how long I had to wait for the ISS to appear. I switched to my 20-40mm lens and reframed to a slightly wider landscape view. Once it was dark enough, I started taking images. I would “stack” these later to reduce noise and improve color. With this lens, I stopped down to f/3.5 for a sharper result, and to moderate some of the light pollution coming from the north.

Originally, the plan was to capture about 30 seconds of the ISS streaking just above the comet, creating a short arc. As the time drew near, though, I figured there was no harm in just continuing to take pictures. The only drawback to this last minute decision is that I didn’t really take the time to figure out the settings to make the ISS draw a nice, complete arc from one end of the frame to the other. Instead, I just stuck with my settings, which is why there are gaps in that arc. The gaps represent the time it took for the camera to save the picture and for me to manually hit the cable release again. One much larger gap resulted from the time it took me to change the settings from 10sec to 30sec exposure.

What I like about the final composite is that the story of what I was doing is reflected right there in the image. I’m honestly not sure it would be a better image with a continuous arc. Higher quality, or a better showcase of technical skill, perhaps.

The truth is, I am a little rusty because of the pandemic. And that’s okay! The image contains not one momentous occasion, but two: the visible transit of Comet NEOWISE, and the subtler influence of the pandemic. It feels nice to have captured such a specific moment in history.

With the work done, I saw it was plenty dark enough – and the comet plenty bright enough – to just sit there and enjoy it with the naked eye. Even though I’m acutely aware of the challenges still to come in 2020, for just a few moments I felt truly at peace.