What I Learned Shooting the Neowise Comet

What I Learned Shooting the Neowise Comet

I strive to capture moments in time with my photography, and one thing I like is once in a lifetime or very rare moments. The Neowise comet (aka C/2020 F3 NEOWISE) is one of those moments that won't happen again for about another 6,800 years.

I preface this by saying I have not done very much astrophotography. I've dabbled in it from time to time, but I was never impressed by what I captured (except for shooting the eclipse in 2017). This failure was mostly due to not having the right gear such as a large aperture lens.

When I saw that the Neowise comet was going to be viewable at a reasonable hour of the night and early morning, I set out to see if I could capture it. I want to share with you what I learned.

1. You Might Fail at First

I set out on July 9th to see if I could capture Neowise over my local lighthouse on Lake Michigan. Dragging myself out of bed at 3 am, I quickly grabbed my coffee and set out for the lake. I had planned where I wanted to be with Photopills, but I also knew I had limited composition options due to my location on a pier.

Upon reaching the pier, I saw a small amount of haze low on the horizon, but not enough to call it quits. I figured that even if I couldn't see the comet, the sunrise might be beautiful. I underestimated the comet's visibility, and with my not-so-stellar eyesight, I didn't see it. However, I did do a 15-second exposure of the lighthouse. I then shot some lightning off in the distance, the sunrise, and some baby ducklings. It was a great morning.

After I got home and imported the images into Lightroom, I discovered that I had indeed captured the comet by accident. After seeing this, it was game on. I was sure that I could get a much better photo the next time. The exposure was a bit long for astrophotography in this case.

My accidental capture. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 15 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600 @ 100mm

2. Keep Trying

After a couple of nights of cloudy weather, I set out on July 12th to capture the comet after sunset. Low clouds were a bit of a hindrance, but I did get some good shots before the clouds moved in and completely shut down the shoot before I could get a photo with my lighthouse. I considered it a success because I found the comet in the sky (on purpose this time), and I was able to photograph it for about 45 minutes. I was also able to see what length of exposures worked, and how well the images looked at various ISOs.

First intentional success! Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 4 sec, f/5.6, ISO 3200 @ 400mm

3. Aperture is King

July 13th was the night everything worked out perfectly. I not only managed to get the shot I had envisioned, but it was just simply enjoyable. Everything went smoothly.I was delighted that I managed to capture several very nice images. This is where I learned the third thing - aperture is king when it comes to astrophotography. I was shooting with my Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L II USM. I absolutely love this lens, but I soon learned that a faster lens, such as an f/2.8 or faster, would have been a better choice. Time to invest in some faster glass!

What I envisioned when I first set out to capture the comet. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 5 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800 @ 135mm

The image most people seemed to like on social media. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 8 sec, f/5.6, ISO 6400 @ 176mm

While shooting, we did have a short period after sunset that a little fog came along the water, but it added a little character to some of the photos but quickly dissipated. This should have been a clue for me.

4. Have a Backup Plan

After several more nights of cloudy and rainy weather, I set out again to refine my technique. I knew the comet would be a little higher, and I had plans for that, but I had forgotten about the fog.

Just as the sun set, the fog moved in:

I haven't fully decided if I like this shot. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 6 sec, f/5.6, ISO 3200 @ 100mm

For the next couple of hours, the fog dissipated a little, but then came back. I should have had a backup plan for the fog. There were a couple of nearby locations that I could have gone to, but I didn't think of it at the time. From now on, I'm going to be more conscious of alternate locations if the weather or other factors don't cooperate. Don't get tunnel vision and stay with your first plan if it's falling apart.

I did shoot some experimental photos that I didn't think would turn out, but they weren't too bad. It doesn't hurt to give things a try and to find out what your camera is capable of producing. I found what maximum ISO I thought was acceptable for my camera, as well as the length of exposure for preventing star trails and movement of the comet.

A lens with a larger aperture would have helped, as the friend I was shooting with was much more successful this night. There are a few more nights when the comet will be visible, so I'll refine my skills and try again.

This is the shot where I was really wishing I had a faster lens, low level fog made things difficult. Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400, 8 sec, f/5.6. ISO 3200 @ 100mm


Overall, I was happy with quite a few of the photos I took. I learned a lot of things about shooting at night and about anticipating weather conditions. Even though the area was clear, the cold water around the lake made for its own little climate zone. On social media, the images with the comet more prominent in the frame seemed to be the most popular, even though there were other photos that had better color and sharpness, such as the blue hour shots.

Mike Dixon's picture

Mike Dixon is a Muskegon Michigan based landscape and nature photographer who's passionate about anything photography or tech related.

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Here's my attempt from last night, will attempt more today and the next few days.
I'm afraid I don't have a nice foreground to work with, so just the comet will do

One thing you might want to look into is something that happens a lot in AstroPhotography, called "Stacking". With deep space objects like nebula's needing hours of data and exposures. It is obviously hard to expose for that length of time in one go. So, instead, you take shorter exposures and stack them all together using specific software (Deepskystacker / Astro Pixel Processor)
Allowing you to get in more data and detail in the fainter parts

That is just spectacular! How many images did you have to stack to get such a clean shot and full tail?

Thanks! this was 14 images at 60second exposure

Thanks for sharing your experiences and pictures. I learned 3 things last night shooting astro for the first time for the comet:
1. Patience. I went at sunset, waited for almost 2 hrs before clouds cleared and I was finally able to spot the comet, which looks like a wisp of a cloud to the naked eye.
2. Preserve your night vision. I was looking at star trackers on my phone, then staring through my EVF forever trying to see the darned thing. It was only as I was about to give up and had taken a break from camera and screens that my eyes adjusted enough to see it. Instead, use a wide focal distance, high iso, and long exposure to "sample" the most likely section of the sky. When you have the comet in frame, adjust from there.
3. Don't forget the bug spray! Trust me, I live in South Florida, I think I gave my pound of flesh to the horseflies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums. I lost count of how many times I was bitten...

I had an idea to try something last night, and I managed to capture the ISS transit over the comet.

Hmmm, I wonder if that was the ISS I got over my shot (top left) and not a plane? Damn that is a nice one, mine isn't even close. (Eastern Canada, 11:00pm AST)

probably a satellite, maybe the ISS. you might be able to figure out which one it is using some sort of star tracking software.

A satellite is a constant light, as in your frame.
Airplanes are usually intermittent lights/streaks in red and green. As the lights on the wings and tail flash.

You can see an airplane trail in the bottom of my shot here

Thanks Steven, that's what I thought, I think the ISS is supposed to be passing over us this week so that might have been it, it's definitely not the staggered light of a plane. Off to investigate now, lol...and bravo on that shot!

Upon doing some research, this is quite possibly the ISS, it was in the NNW sky at approx 11:06 for 6 minutes, and this is right around when I took this picture.

I would say 99% sure it is. I shot mine at 10:53 in Michigan. There are going to be more chances to get it at a reasonable hour this week, some to the NW so getting it with the comet is going to be possible.

I also shot from Michigan - on Drummond Island in the U.P. I used a Sony A7III, 24-240 FE 3.5-6.3. Going to try other f1.8 lenses tonight, if it's not cloudy.

I had a few goes with NEOWISE but I was limited in location and I live in the UK so it’s tough to get a cloud free night.

I love them all! It was tough here, some of the earlier/better nights were clouded out also.

Thank you so much 😊 Yes, it’s so much to coordinate!

I like that one with the reflection on the water, but they were all good images of the comet!

Oh thank you so much 😊