How to Photograph Comet Neowise Before It Disappears for More Than 6,000 Years
You can absolutely do it.
Comet NEOWISE, the brightest naked-eye comet in more than a decade, has been the star of the night sky in recent weeks. Right now, you can see Comet NEOWISE in the evening not too long after sunset. It's streaking through space, heading back out of our solar system.
If you've been inspired by the sight of this comet or the many photos of Comet NEOWISE all over social media, you might be interested in snapping a shot or two yourself. Unfortunately, pulling out your phone and clicking away isn't going to do the trick. However, it's not hard to get a good shot of the comet if you know what to do. Photographer Oliver Wright, who hosts northern lights photography tours in northern Sweden for Lights Over Lapland, offered tips for anyone interested in getting that once-in-a-lifetime shot of Comet NEOWISE. (He was also my guide when I was near Abisko, Sweden photographing the northern lights.)
Pick a good spot
"The first thing you want to think about is where you want to be and at what time," Wright says. "I think it's nice to have something interesting in the foreground." That could be buildings, a tree, a mountain, or whatever you find interesting. Though, if you know you want to have, say, a specific tower in the shot, be sure you're thinking about the location because the comet is in the northwestern sky. The tower would need to be to the northwest of your position to get both the comet and the tower in your shot.
You'll also want to be sure it's dark enough when you start to shoot. Shooting from a heavily lit area in a city is going to make things difficult.
What you need to photograph a comet
It's relatively straightforward to take a picture of the comet. However, you do need a camera that allows you to adjust the settings. "You'll also need a tripod because you're going to need to use a longer shutter speed," says Wright. Though, if you don't have a tripod, you may be able to get away with carefully positioning the camera on something sturdy like the roof of a car, but it's not as reliable as a tripod. Wright says you're probably not going to get anything but a blur if you try to hold the camera steady in your hands.
Get the focus right
"You're going to need to focus on something very far away," says Wright. You'll be trying to get your camera to its infinity focus point. "You want the camera on manual focus," he adds. "Then if the camera has any fancy stabilization lens, you're going to want to turn that off."
Wright suggests digitally zooming in on a bright light that is far away while using the screen on the back of the camera. Then adjust the focus "until it gets really small." After that, don't touch the focus. You want it to stay on that infinity point.
Adjust your settings
"You have to use a high ISO," Wright says. "Basically, you want to use the highest ISO you can on your camera before the image gets too grainy." That will vary depending on what kind of camera you're using, but you want it as high as possible without making the image look bad.
Then you need to adjust to the widest aperture your camera allows to let in the most light possible. That number will vary by camera, but it will start with an f and look something like f/2.8.
Have you seen Comet NEOWISE in the early morning sky? Jeff Zylland captured this spectacular image yesterday morning at 4:30 am— Bryce Canyon NP (@BryceCanyonNPS) July 13, 2020
Not a morning person? This week brings the best evening opportunities, about 80 minutes after sunset, low in the NW sky.
📷Jeff Zylland via Facebook pic.twitter.com/5OdeWPOff8
Now you're taking pictures
You can start taking pictures with a little trial and error. "The shutter speed will be determined by those two variables [ISO and aperture] and how dark it is," Wright says. You're probably going to have a 10-15 second exposure based on how you've set up your camera.
But you're going to start taking pictures and adjusting the shutter speed based on what you see with each picture. "Your best bet is to make a guess on the shutter speed," Wright says. "Then look. Is it too dark or too bright?" If it's too dark, use a longer exposure. If it's getting washed out, use a shorter shutter speed.
Other tips for photographing Comet NEOWISE
"Normally when you're going out and photographing stars or aurora or nighttime astrophotography, you're using a really wide-angle lens," Wright notes. Despite the similarities to shooting other astronomical objects, you don't want to be shooting as wide as possible here. You don't want an expansive landscape with a tiny dot of a comet buried in there. You want to zoom in a little so the comet is taking up a larger portion of the picture.
Wright also notes that it's helpful to have a remote release for the camera, but it's not necessary. Pressing the shutter button with your finger could shake the camera a bit, but you're probably going to be fine.
And that's all there is to it. It looks like quite a bit all written out, but it's pretty easy to get going. And once you're camera is set up, you can just keep snapping away over and over until you get a shot that's worthy of bragging about to your friends.