Chasing NEOWISE : Tips To Lessen Your Chances of Waiting 6,800 Years
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
It's crunchtime. There are only a few, precious days left until C/2020 F3 NEOWISE completely disappears from our view. The good news is it will reappear sometime in the future. The sad news is… that future is 6,800 years away, or sometime around 8820, which sounds more like a Nokia phone model than a period in our earth's existence. Who knows if human civilization is still around by that time? And that is reason enough for you not to give up in chasing NEOWISE. The challenge is not over yet. There’s still time for a clutch capture.
By now there are tons of useful articles all over the internet that will help you in understanding what and how to shoot NEOWISE. Just in case you still need the basic lowdown, here’s an easy-to-grasp article. Meanwhile, this Facebook primer is also very helpful as it’s catered to the Philippine setting. I strongly recommend that you (first) read those two links to better inform yourself.
Done? Now let’s cut to the chase.
I’m no expert at comet photography and NEOWISE is the first that I'm able to photograph. Still, I’d like to offer seven practical tips on how to improve your chances of spotting and eventually shooting Comet NEOWISE. These tips are a combination of what I’ve learned from online resources and my actual shooting experience, and, like the aforementioned Facebook primer, are especially suited to photography enthusiasts in the Philippines.
SAVE YOUR SLEEP FOR THE SUNSET. During the first two weeks of July, NEOWISE could be seen just before sunrise. At our current point in time – it’s a week to go till August - I’m telling you this : don’t bother setting your alarm to get up for sunrise to hunt the comet. Save your sleep and reserve your energy for shooting after sunset. I’m not diminishing your chances here; it’s the complete opposite. Why? Starting around July 17, NEOWISE has been rising above the horizon AFTER sunrise. What does that imply? It means that yes, technically, the comet looms out there, but its brightness is overpowered by that of the sun, therefore it will be near impossible to see it with the naked eye, much less shoot it. So complete your rest because you have to be sharp in the early evening. That’s the time that the comet’s brightness will stand out in the sky… just enough for you to see it. Focus on the northwest sky as you try to nail your photo memento after sunset.
P-L-E-A-S-E USE A STARGAZING APP. Help yourself by downloading and using an astronomy (or stargazing) app. There are many good options on App Store or Playstore. The ones I use are Stellarium and Star Walk. You could search for NEOWISE (you have to pay for the premium bundle on Star Walk, I think) and the app will point you where to look in the sky using your smartphone’s accelerometer and gyroscope as guide. That will give you a pretty good idea where to set your sights to find the comet. To help you with the precise position (because most of the stars look the same from afar), look for constellations or stars that are near NEOWISE and then locate those stars in the actual nightsky, then look for the comet itself. If the clouds don’t mess up the view, you'll see what you're looking for.
GO DARK. Get away from bright lights as far as you can. Or switch off outdoor lights in your yard. This will help your eyes in locating the target, and also help your camera in capturing the photo. Light pollution is astrophotography’s worst enemy. Next to bad weather and - in our case - thick cloud cover, of course. Go to somewhere dark with a good view of the northwest sky and make sure your phone has ample charge – it will be your very useful companion.
STAY SHARP. Temper your expectations : NEOWISE is not as big as you might think it is. It’s a dot in the nightsky, much like a star, but with a faint tail (and from my experience, a glowing green nucleus or head). Even a passing aircraft looks bigger and brighter. You won't see the comet without conscious effort. That said, you have to be sharp in locating and spotting the comet. If your eyesight is still okay, then good for you. Otherwise, don’t forget your bifocals. A binocular or telescope will also come in handy… although they’re not that handy (pun!). As for your camera, in the case of most lenses, focusing to infinity should do the trick, but just to be sure, use the zoom function on live view, then try finetuning the focus on a star until it’s sharp. Turn off autofocus afterward.
PRAY AND PACK A LOT OF PATIENCE. Comet NEOWISE is up there for the taking. In between us and the celestial object is the atmosphere : the sometimes unpredictable weather and the occassionally exasperating clouds. We all want to see and have a picture of this once-in-a-lifetime wonder but there are things in life that are beyond our control. So again, temper your excitement. You most likely would have to wait an hour or two for clouds to clear… if it gives you that chance at all. While you wait, why not partner hope with prayer? If it doesn’t pan out, try again the next day. Then the next. And the next. Until you finally see success. Or the closure of the comet’s goodbye. Ultimately, you can’t fault yourself if you really tried.
WORK WITH WHAT YOU HAVE. Take into account what photography gear you have at your disposal in planning your shot. If you’re going to shoot with a mid or wide-angle lens, you might want to include an interesting foreground in the composition, to give a sense of scale or identity of the location. If you’re shooting with a telephoto, you could feature more of the comet’s graceful appearance and its surrounding atmosphere, or use a touch of imposed perspective . There’s no time to complain and the comet will not wait for you to possess better equipment. Take what you have and shoot the best you could with it. That's a lot more productive than wishing “sana all”.
CHECK YOUR SETTINGS. While waiting for the sky to clear, it’s prudent to test your camera settings and have a baseline for the moment when the comet is visible to be photographed. The settings will depend on your camera (mainly how it handles high ISO noise) and the lens you’re using (maximum aperture and the actual aperture you’d like to use). For my photo that you see on this blog, I used a Canon EOS R coupled with an EF 400mm f/5.6 L lens. My shot settings were : f/5.6 (because that’s the max opening of my lens but I would have wanted f/2.8 or f/4 if I was using a different one), 5 seconds shutter speed and ISO 8000. It was an hour after sunset and twilight was almost gone so I had to compensate for the exposure. Image quality of the EOS R at ISO 8000 was still fairly clean. 5 seconds were just enough to expose NEOWISE (no problem with camera shake since it was mounted on a tripod). I tried another exposure at 20 seconds and although the comet’s tail was a lot more pronounced (and more beautiful), the comet’s head had blurred and become elongated. It's up to you which form you'd like in your photos. You won’t have much time to tinker with settings as you might miss the moment of clarity, so it’s better to experiment early and determine which settings you'd go to battle with.
You might feel like losing hope with each passing night that the comet remains elusive but it ain't over till the space experts say it is. You still have a chance! If you really want something, sometimes the universe conspires to help you achieve it.
Hopefully, these tips helped. Do me a favor and let me know if you eventually capture your own NEOWISE photo. For the meantime, I'm cheering for you! Wishing you the best of luck!