Comet NEOWISE is one of the brightest comets to visit earth for some time and can be seen right now in skies throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Here are some of the best tips for photographing it successfully.
No one was aware that Comet NEOWISE even existed until March 27th, 2020, but now we're being treated to a fantastic view of the comet (aka C/2020 F3 NEOWISE). It's visible at night when the sky is dark enough to show the comet's bright tail and makes for a special treat for astrophotographers. Hurry to shoot it, because it's due to disappear towards the end of July 2020 and won't be back for thousands of years.
Now, I love technical detail and am a self-confessed science nerd, but I want to make photographing Comet NEOWISE as simple as possible, because it's a special and unique moment, punctuating what is widely considered as a pretty bleak moment in history. So, I won't be using any complicated mathematics or physics calculations. Instead, I'm going to simply point you in the right direction and let you go shoot. So, here goes, eight simple steps to photographing Comet NEOWISE.
Track the Comet
In the UK, the comet is visible for the next couple of weeks and can be seen with the naked eye rising in the northeast at around 2:30 am. But it's not just visible from the UK. Easily track where the comet is for your location by using star-tracking and night sky apps. Some night sky apps don't have Comet NEOWISE loaded, but I found that Stellarium (my favorite night sky app) did.What's great about Stellarium is that you can either use the webpage right in your browser, download the desktop application, or use the smartphone app, even on the iPad. Enter your location and use the clock to fast-forward, rewind, or jump to specific dates and times to see when NEOWISE will be visible. You can toggle all kinds of other settings, but one that may be particularly helpful is the landscape tool, which places the horizon and ground to give a better visual clue as to where to look.
Check the Weather
Sounds obvious, but checking the weather before heading out is crucial to a good photograph of the comet. If it's too cloudy, it'll obscure the comet and you won't get anything. In the UK, I like to use the MetOffice app on my smartphone. I also have a look at radar data to see where fronts are moving and track any clouds that may be incoming or developing over the course of the night.
Find an Interesting Location
It doesn't have to be Stonehenge or anywhere particularly fantastic if you don't live near any great vistas. Just find something that means a lot to you. It could be the park where you met your partner, an old family home, or even an area that you like to hike. Take into account that the comet may not reach that high into the sky if you're in a hilly area and you may want to take a step back from tall buildings.
Before I dive into settings, I'll just say that if you find your foreground falls out of focus while shooting comet NEOWISE, then you'll want to focus stack. It's super easy; just focus upon the land, take a shot, then focus on the sky, and take another shot. Make sure you don't move the camera between focusing and ensure that your settings remain the same. Then, you can stack them together in software later using something like Helicon Focus.
Choose the Right Lens
You don't need a fancy telescope to snap NEOWISE, but you may want to reach for a telephoto lens. Somewhere in the 100-400mm range will do. I shot on a Nikon D750 with an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II zoomed in to 200mm. I think I'd have liked more of a zoom range option, so the 400mm will definitely help if you're able to frame a foreground against the comet while zoomed in that far. Don't forget the crop factor on APS-C sensors, which should give you some extra reach.
Set Up Your Gear
When you're in the desired spot and looking in the right direction, set up your tripod and camera. If you're shooting on a DSLR or any camera with an optical viewfinder, slide the viewfinder cover over to avoid extraneous light from entering the camera and spoiling the exposure. Mirrorless cameras generally don't have this issue because they have electronic viewfinders (well, most of them).
Focus on a Star
Focusing is hard in low light, so the best way to ensure sharp shots is to engage live view on the rear screen and zoom in on a bright star or far-off street light. Disengage autofocus and manually adjust the focus ring until you have a sharp pinpoint of light. Now, either lock the focus with AF-L lock or make sure you don't knock the ring while photographing. You may also want to use an external shutter release remote, turn on exposure delay mode, or use a self-timer mode to avoid camera vibration during the exposure.
Set Your Exposure
In manual mode, we'll need three things: a wide aperture; long shutter speed; and high ISO. This maximizes brightness when shooting in the dark. On my Nikon, I dialed in the widest aperture I could at f/2.8, set a shutter speed of 1.3 sec, and ISO 400. The ISO isn't particularly high for my shots, because they were taken as the sun was beginning to rise, which meant the sky was already lighter. But you may find you have to go up to ISO 1,000 or 2,000 depending on how dark the sky is and the maximum aperture value of your lens.
Tweak Your Composition
Finally, take a look at your scene to check that you're happy with everything. Look for distracting elements like overhead wires and bright street lights. But also look out for special features such as valley fog or landmarks. Horizontal and vertical orientation are both fines for shooting comet NEOWISE, so experiment with both before moving on. That way, you can have a screensaver for your laptop and your smartphone if you're a nerd like me.
Other Things to Consider
In the UK last night. the temperature dropped from 24 °C (75.2 °F) down to 6 °C (42.8 °F), so it's important to stay warm while shooting. Getting cold and grumpy is easy when shooting astrophotography, because low temperatures, wind, and standing still for hours on end while tired all combine to make things more difficult. I wore thermals under a normal top and bottoms, woolly socks, and wrapped myself in a windproof overcoat despite shooting in the middle of summer. Can you tell I live in the British Isles?
You may also want to pack a lens hood, especially if there are bright lights around or you end up shooting sunrise as well. Flare from lights across the front element is particularly noticeable in night sky photos because everything else is so dark and exposure times are so long.