How to Photograph Comet NEOWISE in 8 Steps

How to Photograph Comet NEOWISE in 8 Steps

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.

Stellarium is available to use on their site or via several downloadable apps. It's compatible with macOS, Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS (and works on iPad, too).

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.

A weather app like the MetOffice app will help you track cloud cover.

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.

Clear views offer the best opportunity to capture comet NEOWISE, but flat landscapes often leave lots of space between comet and land. If you're lucky, you can also capture nacreous clouds — high-level clouds that are seen here as faint, wispy, light blue lines (not the pink, lower-level clouds)

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.

A fast telephoto lens will help to maximize light input through the lens and get close enough to comet NEOWISE for a detailed capture.

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).

A viewfinder cap helps block light from entering optical viewfinders. Some cameras have them built into the camera itself.

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.

Manually focus on a street light or bright star using the lens' focus ring.

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.

A wide aperture, long exposure, and high ISO help to keep the image well exposed during astrophotographs

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.

Look for interesting foreground elements and avoid distractions that detract from the shot.

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.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

Log in or register to post comments

Nice article Jason!

Another thing to consider is the tail is now 20+ degrees long. A 135 f/2 on full frame provides a 10 x 15 degree FoV and 85mm a 16x24 degree FoV. I’ve seen some nice compositions (sky tracked to expose the dim tail) at 50mm. Or stack a lot of shorter subs without tracking

Thanks Robert. Good point about the length of the tail, yes I've got some cracking shots on a 50mm, one of them's up on my instagram

Good article!

"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." What about lens dew? Didn't you have a problem with that?

For people who don't have electric dew heaters, I recommend using one of those chemical hand warmers in a wool sock and wrap it around the end of the lens :)

Thanks Rayann. Good point about the dew issue - some astrophotographers do use the electric heaters for the lens but I've had no issues this summer.

That is a great photograph. Thank you for your tips.

I'm in Florida and, though I'm still in the northern hemisphere, I fear the comet will probably be pretty low on the horizon. I read that for us it should show up in the NW sky after sunset now. I am trying to verify that because I would hate to go out in summer dusk and get eaten by bugs and not see the comet.

hey Chris I am in St. Augustine FL and have been chasing the comet for the past week. It was problematic before dawn because of the low altitude. And of course the clouds this time of year. But it should be much better to photograph by Thursday / Friday this week. It will be 12 degrees high on Friday, that is twice as high than the 5-6 degrees Ive had to deal with this past week!

Robert, as my grandma would say, "You sir, are a gentleman and a scholar!"
Thanks from Pembroke Pines FL

Its not great, but at least I got it!
f4.5, 28mm, ISO2000, 15sec.
A bit noisy, but I was dying from the bug bites, so I called it a night when clouds blocked the comet. I will try with a lower ISO if there is a next time...

Nice one, Chris. Don't worry about ISO - that's actually lower than I've been shooting (3000-6400 mostly). Short exposure times of 3 to 6 seconds will give sharper stars, too. If you don't like the noise just whack it in Lightroom and increased the Luminance slider and Details slider until there's less noise, but you don't remove any stars.

Thanks Jason, will try a re-edit in Lightroom!

This is awesome, thank you for taking the time! Ill be trying this out this evening from Georgia

From Michigan on 7/14/2020

Looks ace, great work!

OK That's inspiring!

Also from Michigan. I let the shutter lag a bit long on this one. There were numerous shooting stars on the morning of the 13th, and I was trying to get one in the shot with Neowise. 14mm/Canon 5DMklll

Jupiter make a great source as a focusing point as it is bright for evening/night. Night morning I'd choose Venus as it is the brightest in the night sky (other than the Moon).

Out last night and found the comet (northwest sky as advertised) with binoculars -- a tiny smudge, as if someone had made a faint chalk line on a slate. It certainly didn't look as in the photographs. VERY difficult to find in the camera. I used both a 50mm and 85mm wide open on an APS-C body with settings similar to that suggested by the author, and the results were not impressive to say the least. Suggestions for clarifying and sharpening?

Focus using Jupiter and the highest magnification your camera allows to find your Infinity.

I'll try that. Jupiter was certainly out as was Saturn, both in the SSE.

Of course, tonight calls for rain...

Hi Steve, how odd, I've had great success on both 50mm and even 24mm (see my insta). Yep focusing is important - if you nail that everything else should follow. Up ISO or shutter speed length appropriately depending on the light pollution/lack of, in your area.

Hey Steve, I got a few successful shots last night on my APSC, and you're right, its really hard to find it in the viewfinder! I started with a wide shot, 18mm and ISO 4000 and just took a shot in the general direction of the comet. Once I saw I had it in frame, I adjusted my tripod head accordingly and focused in again. I was able to get a few clean shots but I still ended up using ISO 2000 and a 15 second exposure.

Great article and guide to success!

I managed to find a spot in the river by me the other night where it fit perfectly between the trees. I got this with a Sigma 35 @f/1.4
The bonus was that this gave me a chance to break out my waders and boots and walk into the sketchy river.

I brought a 70-200 along, but some clouds decided to show up on the horizon a few minutes after this shot and cover the thing up.

Ace composition, nice work Jason!

my go at capturing the comet last night

YES! Two tails, nice!

Awesome! Gear and settings?

Sony A7R II, Mounted on a motorised equatorial telescope mount.

ISO 800
Exposure 60 seconds

14x stacked in Astro Pixel Processor, processing in Photoshop

Nice, i was wondering if APP could stack it since I don’t believe it has a comet mode. I know PI and DSS has comet stacking. Did you just run it like a regular DSO? I have a bunch of tracked shots I need to stack.

Great image, nice work!

So far manual alignment and stacking with PS isn’t working too well for the comet.

I haven't had any issues.. I just did a normal DSO regular stack without really touching any of the settings what so far. Maybe you can get better results by tweaking some settings. But I'm not aware of a comet stacking setting in APP. (I'm still learning the whole astro stuff)..

I might fire up a windows PC and try the same stack using DSS with comet stacking, didn't even know it had options like it. to see if it comes out any different

On my first quick test Ive gotten some amazing results using DSS comet stacking then switching to APP for gradient / LP reduction. I'll probably write a how to article if I get the process nicely refined. Will work on stacking again tomorrow.

Used my D4 with a 300mm at f2.8 and 100 ISO. By the time it was bright enough to find it, I was shooting from 8 to 30s. In the longer exposures, the stars and comet body are oblong - looks like maybe capturing planetary rotation. In any event, this was the best I could muster. 300mm f2.8 at 100 ISO. Suggestions?

You'd struggle getting long exposures at high focal length because of the rotation of the earth yea. More than a handful of seconds, and you're get the star streaks.

Reducing the focal length might help, going for a wider view, it's more forgiving when it comes to star movement.

But if you want to keep the higher focal length, There are specific motorised mounts designed for astrophotography to counteract the rotation of the earth and apparent movement of the stars.
"Skywatcher Star Adventure mini", "iOptron Skyguider", "Omegon Minitrack" to name a few. But, they tend to come with a bit of a learning curve with polar alignment and such.

Another option is looking into "Stacking". Something quite common in Astro Photography.
Using software like "Deepskystacker" or "Astro Pixel Processor" you can stack exposures together.
So, to say it as basic as I can.. if you're limited to getting 5 second exposures maximum before getting the star trails. You can take 12 of those shots, and stack them together in such software to get a total exposure of 60 seconds. It's not a full replacement of a longer exposed single image, but it's a start to get more data into your raw file. And you might be able to pull out more detail that way.
But again, this comes with a bit of a learning curve.

Nice work, Tre, great colours. But yes, longer exposures will capture planetary rotation and blur the stars. If you want sharper stars keep your shutter speed at about 3-6 seconds (depending on your focal length) and boost your ISO to 2000, 3000 or even 6400. The noise can be taken out in post-production editing softwares such as Lightroom.

I noticed the comet above a nearby town from my front doorstep so grabbed a tripod, placed it on my doorstep, mounted my camera and fired off a burst of 8 shots of 1.3 seconds each. Then went back inside to watch some TV. This is the result.