How to Photograph the NEOWISE Comet - July 2020

C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is the brightest comet to grace the Northern Hemisphere since the Hale/Bopp comet in 1996-1997. After seeing dozes of stunning images from the photography community, I knew I wanted to see the comet with my own eyes. On the night of July 16-17 I had a chance to get out and photograph the NEOWISE comet in Oregon and Washington. I really enjoy landscape astrophotography and capturing this new and unexpected comet was definitely a memorable experience. Successfully capturing the comet took a bit of planning and I'm sharing some of the tools I used in this article. These images are my interpretations of the comet and do not represent exactly how it looks to the naked eye. I'm an artist, not a professional astronomer! Let me know if you have any questions about any of the information presented here. If you discover new information about the comet, please leave a comment below. I'm always happy to learn something new about the night sky.

Interstellar

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The C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) comet slowly drifting through a sky full of stars above Mt Adams and a small stream/lake in the Cascade mountains of Washington. In mid July, 2020, I had the opportunity to spend an entire night chasing the NEOWISE Comet and I am very happy to have had the chance to see it in person. The comet was discovered in March 2020 and will likely be visible in the Northern Hemisphere until early August 2020. The comet has 2 distinctive tails which are visible in the image. The ion tail points towards 11 o'clock and the dust tail points towards 1 o'clock.

Natural history of the NEOWISE Comet

  • Discovered: March 27, 2020 by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE)
  • Size of comet nucleus: approximately 3 miles (5km) wide
  • Comet composition: dust, rock and ice that was left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. After passing close to the sun earlier in July, the comet now has an ion tail (blue) and a dust tail (white/tan/magenta), which are both visible in photographs
  • Orbit: 6800 years. Extremely long elliptical orbit (if you don't see it now, you will never have another chance!)
  • Closest point to the sun: July 3 (27 million miles from the sun)
  • Closest point to earth: July 22-23 (64 million miles from earth)
  • Comet speed: approximately 44 miles per second (~144,000 mph)
  • Stellar magnitude (brightness) for NEOWISE: 1 to 2. The smaller the number on the stellar magnitude scale, the brighter the object is in the sky. For comparison the planet Venus is magnitude -3 to -4, full moon is -12 and the sun is -27.

How do I find NEOWISE in the sky?

  • Try to find a dark area with a good view of the northern sky that is far away from the light pollution created by cities. The Darksitefinder website is a great resource.
  • Approximately 60-90 minutes after the sun sets, the comet becomes visible in the Northwest sky (below the Big Dipper). Currently it's about 10 degrees above the horizon (extend your arm and make a fist and the top of the fist is about 10 degrees above the horizon). Each night it is moving farther to the west and higher in the sky.
  • In the morning, the comet is visible until approximately 60 minutes before the sunrise
  • The farther north you are located, the higher the comet will be in the sky. The comet is now visible in Canada, all of the US (now including Hawaii) and northern/central Mexico. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, you are out of luck.
  • You can see the comet with the naked eye (looks like a fuzzy star with a tail), but it's best to view it through binoculars, telescope or telephoto camera lenses.
  • As of July 18, the comet is visible for the entire night. It follows a "U" shaped pattern as it moves across the northern sky. The comet is lowest in the sky when it's almost due north.
  • Apps I used to plan my photographs of NEOWISE
Stellarium-NEOWISE-COMET

Screenshot of the C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) Comet in the Stellarium+ app

How long will the NEOWISE Comet be visible in the sky?

  • Mid to late July is the best time to see the comet in the Northern Hemisphere. The new moon is on July 20 and the best viewing conditions (darkest skies) will be around this date.
  • The last week of July is likely going to be the last chance to see the comet with the naked eye, but it should still be visible with binoculars and telescopes into early August.
  • As of July 25, the comet is starting to dim as it moves further away from earth. The moon is also getting brighter each night which makes the comet more difficult to spot.

Gear I Used to Photograph NEOWISE

  • Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8
  • Nikon Z7, Nikkor Z 24mm f/1.8
  • Tripod/ball head
  • Cable release
  • Equipment I wish I had (astro tracker)
  • Don't worry if you don't have the same equipment. Any modern dSLR/mirrorless camera and lens can capture this comet. The night modes on the newest Apple iPhones and Google Pixels can capture the comet as well!
The Drifter

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The C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) comet slowly drifting through a sky full of stars above Mt Adams in the Cascade mountains of Washington. This is the first comet that I've ever had the opportunity to see and I feel fortunate to have been able to make it out to photograph it. The comet was discovered in March 2020 and will likely be visible in the Northern Hemisphere until early August 2020. The comet has 2 distinctive tails which are visible in the image. The ion tail (blue) points to the left and the dust tail (orange/tan/magenta) points upward.

Camera Settings

  • With wide angle lenses (24mm) - 10-15 seconds, f/1.8-2.2, ISO 3200-12800
  • With telephoto lenses (70-200mm), 4-6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200-12800 (as the focal length gets longer, shorter shutter speeds must be used to keep the stars as pinpoints of light)

Software used to process the images

Cosmic Solitude

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The C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) comet slowly drifting through a sky full of stars above Mt Adams and a small stream/lake in the Cascade mountains of Washington. In mid July, 2020, I had the opportunity to spend an entire night chasing the NEOWISE Comet and I am very happy to have had the chance to see it in person. The comet was discovered in March 2020 and will likely be visible in the Northern Hemisphere until early August 2020. The comet has 2 distinctive tails which are visible in the image. The ion tail points towards 11 o'clock and the dust tail points towards 1 o'clock.

References:

  1. NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/h...
  2. Earth Observatory: https://earthobservatory.nasa....
  3. EarthSky.org: https://earthsky.org/space/nor...
  4. Earthsky.org: https://earthsky.org/astronomy...
  5. Space.com: https://www.space.com/comet-ne...

Updated July 25, 2020

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