Catching a Comet

The comet Neowise has captured the imaginations of many photographers around the world hoping to capture this beautiful moment that won’t be available again for another 6400 years! C/2020 F3, as it’s officially called is named after the Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space telescope that first noticed it earlier this year. Having already lapped the sun it will be at its closest tomorrow (22nd July 2020) at a mere 64 million miles!

Photographer setting up their shot

With many people being inspired to make there first foray into astrophotography I thought it might be useful to provide a few tips to avoid disappointment and make the most of the magic!

planning with PhotoPills
Spend some time planning before it gets dark!

1) Make a plan

Try and make your life as easy as possible by seeking the information you need in advance. Check multiple weather forecasts for cloud cover particularly in areas that have localised micro-climates. Think about your composition and have a practise before dark. Moving around at night is obviously far trickier so getting in position and set up ahead of time will save some headaches. In addition to previous knowledge, and old school maps I like to use the PhotoPills planning tool to predict where things will show up. That hasn’t got Neowise as a feature but Stellarium does so you can get a good idea of where it will appear before it does. When the stars do appear, find the Plough (Big Dipper, Ursa Major) which looks like a frying pan. If you imagine a pancake falling out of the pan you’ll find Neowise in its fall line on the way to the horizon.

Tracking Neowise with Stellalium
Live tracking Neowise with Stellalium

2) Settings

Full manual is required for this one! Your exact settings will depend on your camera and lens combination but here are some things to think about. Remember the joy of digital is you can make as many mistakes as you like so feel free to experiment and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Ideally, you will have a fast lens, anything greater than f4 will be a struggle. If you have it f2.8, 1.8, 1.4 etc will suck in loads more light and allow you to have a shorter shutter time leading to a sharper image. PhotoPills also has a cool feature called Spot Stars that calculates your optimum shutter speed taking into account your lens length and maximum aperture. There are two main ways of working it out, the classic 500 rule where you divide 500 by the focal length i.e. a 200mm lens would be 500/200 = 2.5 seconds. This method is a bit outdated for modern cameras and you can get more accuracy using the NPF Rule also on the app. This takes the megapixels of your camera into account as well. This all assumes that you want the stars to be sharp but if you want to do star trails then longer will be better. With those faster shutter speeds, I would start with an ISO of 3200 and shift up and down until you’re happy.

Calculating shutter speeds with PhotoPills
Use an app to save having to make complex calculations

3) Composition

Capturing the comet is great but what will really bring it to life is having some sort of connection with the landscape/people. Generally wide and superwide lenses are favoured for night skies but comets appear very small so you might want to consider a longer lens. For Neowise a 200mm f2.8 would be perfect but you will, of course, need to be that much further away from the foreground interest to fit it all in. You may want to do some light painting to bring out the foreground.

Finding foreground interest for composition

4) Processing

There are many approaches to this but I quite like to up the texture and whites to bring out the stars. Applying a bit more vibrance to the stars can bring out the subtle colour changes too. The other main consideration is noise. With a modern camera you can really push the ISO without worrying too much but if you don’t have a fast lens you may have to ramp the ISO up to the point that the image looks grainy. Just be careful with the denoising as stars can look a lot like artefacts to the software.

Neowise up close
Shot at 200mm on crop

What are your experiences? We would love to hear your top tips and see your shots. Wishing you happy comet chasing adventures!

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