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 screenshot

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.

MetOffice weather app screenshot

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.

Comet NEOWISE landscape composition example

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.

Telephoto lens for astrophotography

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).

Viewfinder cap on optical viewfinder

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.

Manual focus using lens

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.

Camera settings for comet astrophotography

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.

Comet NEOWISE photography by Jason Parnell-Brookes

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.

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38 Comments

Robert Huerbsch's picture

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

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

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

Rayann Elzein's picture

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 :)

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

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.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

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

Chris Fowler's picture

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.

Robert Huerbsch's picture

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!

Chris Fowler's picture

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

Chris Fowler's picture

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...

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

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.

Chris Fowler's picture

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

Suzy Ekstrom's picture

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

Tudor ApMadoc's picture

From Michigan on 7/14/2020

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Looks ace, great work!

Chris Fowler's picture

OK That's inspiring!

Steven Hooks's picture

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

Micha elsimo's picture

Nice photograph. Thank you for sharing valuable information with us. Your enthusiasm is definitely inspiring. Thanks again!

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dean wilson's picture

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).

Steve White's picture

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?

dean wilson's picture

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

Steve White's picture

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

Of course, tonight calls for rain...

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

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.

Chris Fowler's picture

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.

Hector Reyes's picture

Great article and guide to success!

Jason Hughes's picture

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.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Ace composition, nice work Jason!

Steven de Vet's picture

my go at capturing the comet last night

Tre Hendricks's picture

Awesome! Gear and settings?

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