With clouds rolling in and a touch and go forecast, I went and took a photograph of Comet Neowise.
C/2020 F3 NEOWISE is a bright comet that is currently located due north in the northern hemisphere. It was discovered on March 27th 2020 by the space telescope NEOWISE and towards July – particularly mid July it was visible just before sunrise. About 2-3am. If you wanted to see this target, or take a photo of it, you had to be an early riser (or just don’t go bed – like me).
C/2020 F3 Comet Neowise
To begin with, this comet is a big and beautiful naked eye comet. Particularly in July. To my knowledge it was the first comet that could be seen with no visual aids (binoculars, telescopes etc) at all. All you needed was your eyes since 1997 and Hale-Bopp. Even in Bortle 6 skies I could see it, through LED street lighting as well. It’s a large extended object that was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking to look at – as well as absolutely bizarre.
It was bizarre because of its orientation and its tail. As you can see (or might’ve seen). The nucleus of the comet (that’s the bright part) is pointing to the ground. The large tail (ion tail) is pointing towards the zenith. This makes it look like it’s storming its way down to the ground. And yet it actually goes in the opposite direction and follows generally the conventional rotation of the sky.
So Neowise’s tail, as mentioned, points towards the zenith. This could make it strange to look at as usually we would use that tail to tell us which way Neowise was headed. This doesn’t quite work with comets. C/2020 F3’s tail points that way due to its orientation and proximity to the sun.
The sun’s heat impacts the comet in space. This solar wind strips material off the comet – which is just like a large icy snowball in space – and that causes the tail to form. It’s amusing that we have gotten all excited about a great big ice ball in space. But some people have posited that it could’ve been comets that bought water to Earth. So that’s pretty cool.
So if you’re wondering why it’s called C/2020 F3 Neowise, allow me to explain.
The designation is down to when it was discovered, naming convention and what the type of comet it is.
- C/ indicates that this comet is a non-periodic comet. This is a fancy way of saying that we’ve never seen it before. For example Halley’s Comet is a periodic comet and such is designed 1P.
- 2020 is the year the comet was discovered.
- F3 indicates that it was the third comet discovered in the second half of March. Every month is given two letters for the first and second half of the month. January is A & B, February is C & D and so on.
- NEOWISE is the name. Often comets are named after what discovered it or what calculated its orbit. In this case it was discovered by the space telescope Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.
Taking A Photo Of Comet Neowise
The date was Saturday 11th July. Well, more accurately it was the morning of Sunday 12th July really when I sallied forth to capture this spectacular cosmic adventurer that was gracing our skies, putting on a rather gorgeous display.
I had seen the comet on Saturday’s morning at about 2am. At the end of my street, due North-East and low. I was taking my partner to the airport. However after spotting the comet I had already got all the information I needed to know in order to capture it.
Oh, and I text my friend and asked if he wanted to come along. He said yes.
Saturday evening I sat down and attempted to make a plan to get a nice photo of Neowise. I didn’t want to take an image from within town. Also, my garden didn’t have a low enough view of the north for me to capture it. So what I did was load up Google Maps and I used the satellite view (how appropriate) with the elevation filter.
I needed the elevation view on in order to know where was high ground, or if there was a low horizon due north. Either would’ve worked really. A high hill or a low horizon. I also needed to be able to see if there were any treelines that could potentially obstruct my view of Comet Neowise.
In the end I eventually settled on a lake about 15 minutes north of me. Just far enough out of my town’s light dome. Also with the town’s bright lights to my back, it also meant I’d have more contrast due north to help pick Neowise out from the sky.
I also invited my friend along. It was going to be my first time going out remote and alone, and quite frankly that unsettled me.
With my imaging site locked in I needed to settle on what equipment I was going to use to capture comet Neowise. I dabbled with the thought of using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, but ultimately decided a star tracker was not needed (though I kind of wish I did use it – more on that later).
In the end I used my DSLR, a lens and a tripod. That’s it.
The DSLR I used was a stock Canon 80D. That meant I hadn’t modified it like my Canon 600D which I use for deep sky astrophotography. The Canon 80D is a APS-C Crop Body DSLR that has a nice 24 megapixel sensor with good noise control.
With this I teamed it with a pretty affordable and un-remarkable 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. It’s image stabilized but since I was using a tripod this was totally redundant. It’s basically the kit lens that comes with most crop body cameras. Totally unremarkable!
The tripod was a nice sturdy one from Neewer. A good solid tripod is mission critical when taking any long exposures. This tripod can hold 8kg and is even suitable for putting my SkyGuider Pro on. So it was absolutely fine.
Other equipment I took:
- Spare SD Memory Cards
- Flash (for light painting)
- Red torches
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Prime Lens
- The modded Canon 600D (as a backup camera for vlogging).
A note about safety. Even though it was like 2am by the time we arrived. I opted to ask my friend to come along for company and safety, I also fully charged my mobile phone. Can’t be too careful now.
Using A Star Tracker
As mentioned earlier, I opted to not use my iOptron Skyguider Pro to capture Comet Neowise. This was because I opted to use short exposures – about 13”. They were under the Rule of 500 that is used when deciding exposure lengths on a static tripod. I wasn’t getting star trails at 13”. I knew I was shooting at 18mm and I also knew what my longest exposure length could’ve been (about 17 seconds).
Because I was shooting widefield nightscape astrophotography. I chose to just use a standard tripod as I wanted a nice foreground also. In hindsight I should’ve took the star tracker. This is because I would’ve been able to take multiple shots of Neowise, tracked correctly for stacking purposes. I could’ve then took a standard tripod shot of the foreground and composited the image together.
As it stands, if I wanted to stack this photo now (I have about 20 good images) then I need to do it manually by hand – which is a pain.
It’s a nice to have thought, but I don’t regret my decision at all.
Taking The Photo Of Comet Neowise
We arrived at the lake. Having used the satellite imagery we knew there was a nice low flat shoreline we were able to set up near. When arriving at the site and getting to where we had found, there was also a fantastic pennisula of trees to use as a midground element.
Taking time in the planning stage is what helped me pull this off. Since I knew what I wanted and had scoped the location out, I knew I could get no less than 4 layers to this photo: foreground, midground, background & sky.
The moral here is that it pays to take some time and plan the shoot. There are some things you don’t get more than one chance with. A comet like this is one of them. Especially as the clear sky forecast looked very bad from Sunday onwards!
After setting up on the bank and beginning to take my pictures of Comet Neowise, I took several sample shots. I used this to dial my exposure in. Needing to balance a nice shutter speed that is long enough to not get star trailing (I often like to go a stop or so below the Rule of 500 just to be safe) and an ISO that doesn’t add too much noise.
Aperture I naively left at f/3.5 (wide open) which is never recommended with astrophotography unless you have a really good lens that doesn’t suffer coma. As such the final photo has coma in the corners. Had I stopped the lens down a bit, this would’ve been corrected and I could’ve just used 15” and/or a slightly higher ISO to image the comet. Again, I wish I had considered this on the night. But I don’t regret it nor let it detract from the shot.
In the end I settled on 13” shutter, f/3.5, 18mm and ISO 500. I used the camera’s inbuilt level to make sure the camera was level to the horizon, and also its built in intervalometer to control the exposures. Though I had bought my own remote shutter with me that would’ve also done the job.
I also manually selected Daylight white balance. We were walking around with head torches on which sometimes was detected by the camera, which then changed its white balance.
Though really because of this, the camera shifted the sky towards purple, which inspired me in the editing stage later. As Bob Ross would say: “A happy little accident”.
We were out shooting for about an hour and a half, until the sun began to rise and the clouds finally had finished their offensive on the sky and had took over. With it getting bright and nothing more to be seen we decided to head home.
I took two different main compositions of Neowise with the landscape. When we got there I set up and snapped initial photos as mentioned, but then quickly settled down to the first set. Here I had planned to use the grass as a foreground element, the lake as the midground, the trees as the background and the sky. I placed the trees towards the right third to give the comet ‘breathing space’ in the frame. It also helped balance the compositon. Once I had taken some of these as “safety shots” I decided it was time to try another approach.
It was actually during a moment when me and my friend Luke were just looking at the comet and the landscape. “I swear I can see it in the lake” he announced. We then got busy training our eyes on the lake and sure enough – we could see the comet’s reflection!
Using laser pointers to draw out where the tree reflection was, and where Neowise was in relation to that we were able to pinpoint Neowise’s position in the lake. It was from there we began moving the camera and attempting to get THE composition.
The final image I settled with has a direct 50/50 split of earth and sky. I placed Neowise in the upper third of the image. Those familiar with photography may have heard of the Rule of Thirds which basically says a picture looks nicer when the focal point lands on a third of the image.
I’m inclined to agree.
This is, without a doubt, the most thought I’ve ever placed into any photograph I’ve taken! Terrestial or astro.
With the Comet Neowise images copied from the SD card, onto my laptop’s hard drive AND onto my external backup drive (yes, three copies. Taking no risks!) I ended up culling through and grading my images. In the end I shot two different compositions and a few interim images.
As mentioned earlier the camera’s white balance changing due to our head torches and forcing it to put a more purple tone over the image actually influenced my final editing decision.
I purposefully tinted the sky purple, and added some warmth to the image to make the orange in the clouds pop out. I found this combination to be extremely pleasing to me rather than the original blueish tones.
From there, it was a case of adding some more vibrance and contrast to the sky and clouds, cleaning up the noise a bit, and then masking the midground in order to make it brighther also.
Oh, and don’t forget to make sure the horizon is level! That’s critical in landscape photography.
In the end I opted to use a single image with no compositing. I was surprised just how much detail I was able to get in the image. Testament to my 80D that’s for sure.
In the end, whilst there are things I would’ve liked to had done differently, like using a star tracker or stopping the aperture down, I was absolutely blown away by that night. It had so much going for it. I had my mate there, we had a nice Moon, there was a parade of planets (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn made an appearance), quiet and serene scenery, an ISS flyover, we even could see the Milky Way overhead.
This was a special night. By far my best night doing astrophotography so far. It was so memorable, and for such a special rare occassion like a naked eye comet such as Neowise. It’s a night I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
I well and truly wish you seen it. I also wish that you were there that night.
It’s nights and experiences like this, that I live for. There’s a vlog for the night as well on my YouTube channel too.
I hope you enjoy the image. As always clear skies, keep looking up and keep them cameras clicking.