How to Set up Your Camera to Photograph Comet Neowise

Astrophotography
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The newly discovered comet Neowise is one of the hottest topics right now. Not just between hobby astronomers, also for photographers and the general public. The comet was discovered back on March 27th, 2020, and got its name by the NASA mission who discovered it – NEOWISE. NEOWISE stands for Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

The comet is best viewed with binoculars, telescopes, or a telephoto lens on your camera. Once it gets really dark, you can also make out the comet with your own eyes in the sky. I recommend a lens with 100mm or more on a full-frame camera body.

But where is the comet? Especially during the blue hour, it’s hard to see the comet in the sky, as there is still to much light from the sun. However, your camera can already pick it up when you take a picture. You can also see it with binoculars and telescopes if you know exactly where to look.

To find Neowise in the night sky, you don’t need fancy equipment, like star-trackers. All you need is basically your phone and I recommend mounting your viewing device on a sturdy tripod. The below steps work for both telescopes and camera setups to capture Neowise.

Location

First of all, you have to find a spot where you want to watch the comet. You need an unobstructed view of the horizon in the NW. Preferably outside the city for less light pollution. This really depends on where you live. So you might have to do some research. If you want to try a place, where you haven’t been there before. It’s worth staking out the place during the day time, so you know what to expect.

Time

The best time to few Neowise now is during the evening hours, just after sunset. As sunset depends also on your location, you might want to look it up as well. You can ask Siri or Google Assistant or just visit TimeAndDate.com. Of course, there are apps for it as well, and one I use, which gives you a bunch of other tools for photography is PlanIt.

Planit: Photo Planner
Planit: Photo Planner
Developer: PlanIt Photo Inc.
Price: Free+

Weather

To watch the comet, you want clear skies. Therefore check your weather forecast and other resources to determine the cloud coverage. I took my first photos of the comet in Seattle, and as you know, the PNW is known for heavy overcast. It took me a few days until finally, a day came, with no clouds in the sky.

Prerequisites

Let’s assume you want to set up your camera to view and photograph the comet. Below a few things you should do, before heading to the spot.

  • Get your gear ready and packed. Pack everything you need. Bring a camp chair, snacks, and drinks if you want to spend more time out at night. 
  • Dress accordingly. Dress in layers, so you can layer up if it gets colder at night. You want to stay comfortable.
  • Charge your camera batteries and have them ready.
  • Depending on your location, have your car ready and filled up.
  • Prepare your smartphone, for easy location of the comet. More about it below

Setting up your Smartphone

I have an Android device and will guide you through the steps I took to locate the comet. There are similar apps also available for iOS. Some of them are for free others need to be purchased.

Astronomy App

I used Sky Safari on my Android, which is available for free for Android and for a small fee for iOS. 

‎SkySafari
‎SkySafari
Price: $2.99+

Open the app and play around with the functions of the app, to get familiar with it. Use the search options to search for Neowise. Make sure you select C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). The app might ask you to grant permissions, make sure you do so, as it needs access to your GPS to locate you and give you the correct information.

You can also use web apps, like Stellarium Web. All you need is to open the website in your phone’s browser. Be aware you need an active internet connection at your spotting location. Stellarium is a free open-source planetarium app for all major computer operating systems. If you want to add Neowise to your Stellarium installation, read this guide.

Stellarium is also available for iOS and Android, but I haven’t tested them.

Digital Compass and Level

Another important app is a digital compass and level. All modern smartphones have inclination sensors that can be utilized as well as a digital compass.

On my Android device, I used GPS Status & Toolbox. The same app is also available for iOS but for a small fee. There are other apps out there, doing the exact same thing. If you don’t want to pay, you can search for free apps as well. You might have to install two apps to get the same functionality of a digital compass and level. iOS comes with a built-in compass and level. If you want to use this app, get familiar with how to access and read the app.

GPS Status & Toolbox
GPS Status & Toolbox
Developer: EclipSim
Price: Free+
‎GPS Status & Toolbox
‎GPS Status & Toolbox
Developer: MobiWIA Kft.
Price: $2.99

Calibrate your Compass

Once you have a compass app installed. Make sure you know how to use it and how to calibrate your compass. You should do a dry-run at home, so it will be easier for you out in the field.

Open GPS Status and Toolbox on your phone and access the menu. There you will find the option on how to calibrate your compass.  On Android devices, you have to rotate your phone 2 times around each of its three axis. That’s it. The calibration on iOS is slightly different. Just google it on how to calibrate your compass or check the menu if you use the GPS Status & Toolbox.

Set up in the Field

Once at your spotting location. Set up your tripod at a good spot with a good view towards NW. The easiest way to point your camera towards the comet is by mounting it on the tripod and just approximately face it towards NW before fine-tunning. A perfect setup would include a Pan and Tilt Tripod Head or even better a Three-way heads for precise movement of your camera just along one axis at a time. However, all I had was my good-old ball head and with a little bit of practice, you will do just fine with it as well. 

At this point, we assume you have set up your tripod firm on the ground and your camera is mounted on the tripod while pointing towards the NW sky.

By the way, the same guide below on aligning the camera can also be used for telescopes.

Compass Check

Pull out your phone and re-calibrate your compass. Most likely you won’t have to do it, but it’s done quickly and can really help. Step a few steps away from your camera and try to be away from any metal objects around you. Hold your phone flat with the upper end of the screen facing towards the horizon. Open GPS Status & Toolbox.

Look at the top left corner of the screen and you will see a three-digit number if you point your phone towards the NW. Remember this number. Don’t worry it will fluctuate slightly. Now move towards your camera and place it on top of your lens. How much did the number change and in which direction? This will be your offset for future aligning. It could be also that the number doesn’t change much at all. Depends on the materials used in your camera. Remember the compass in your phone is just an aid to falling your camera. It won’t be perfect alignment, like with a star tracker device.

Locating Neowise

Information about Neowise

Now it’s time to get a location of Neowise in the sky. I will use Sky Safari in my example, but you can use any app, which gives you the location of the comet. As every app will show the same location if working correctly. 

Once you opened Sky Safari, search for Neowise. Make sure you select C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). After tapping on it, you will get to see the Object Info of Neowise. Look for the Celestial Coordinates. Here you need two information: 

  • Azimuth (the direction/heading in which you have to look)
  • Altitude (height of the comet above the horizon)

Both of these numbers are indicated in degrees. Remember both of these numbers and switch back to GPS Status & Toolbox.

Aligning the camera with the comet

Place your phone on top of your lens and try to get it as parallel as possible with the lens itself. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just get it as close as possible.

Depending on your tripod head. You can now move a single axis or need to move both axis if you have a ball head, towards the remembered coordinates. 

Azimuth will be your heading. Turn the camera to the left or right until the number in the top left corner of the GPS Status app coincides with the number you remembered. Don’t forget to apply your offset, if any.

Altitude is the pitch of your camera. You find this number directly under the compass and it’s labeled as Pitch/Roll (°). Make sure the number reads U and then the number of degrees it showed in Sky Safari. Roll means if your camera is tilted to the left or right. 0° would be perfect here. But this doesn’t just depend on the tilting of your camera, it also depends, how accurately you placed your phone on top of the lens. If the number is  1-2 degrees off, I wouldn’t even bother re-adjusting. Especially with a ball head, as you most likely move all three axis.

Taking the Picture

  • Set your focus to Manual and focus on Infinity (∞). It’s kinda hard if you don’t see anything in the sky to determine if you are in focus. Take some test pictures and see how the stars look. If you can see stars make sure they look “sharp”.
  • Open your aperture as much as you can. Meaning the lowest number for your f/stop. This number depends on your lens on how wide you can open it. An f/stop of 2.8 would be great.
  • If you have a zoom lens, set it to around 100mm. This gives you a wider field of view and will tell you if you have to re-arrange your lens to get the comet in a better spot on your camera.
  • Start with an ISO of 1000 and then adjust accordingly. The lower the ISO the less noise you will get.
  • To avoid shaking, use mirror lockup (only for DSLR users)and timer. I am using the built-in 2-second timer of my Canon camera.
  • To avoid star trails use the 500-Rule (see below)

After following my rules above, I was able to hit the comet with my first picture taken (see image below). The comet was not perfectly centered in the image, but that’s due to the tolerance of the built-in compass and interferences with the metal and EM-field of my camera. However, the pitch was spot on. I hit the comet with my first try, thanks to my alignment procedure. When I took this photo, the comet itself was not visible yet for the eye, as it was still too bright outside. 

I used the same technique on other days trying to capture the comet. The pitch was always spot on, only the bearing was most of the time slightly off. This gives you a base from where you can readjust your composition.

Additional Tip: You can fix your phone with a rubber band on your lens, so it doesn’t fall off and get damaged. Thanks to my Otterbox, its slip-resistant and stayed on my lens just fine without any support.

First try of capturing the comet after aligning my camera.

500-Rule to avoid Star Trails

The 500 rule gives you an approximate number of how long you can leave your shutter open without creating star trails. To get your shutter speed, divide 500 by your focal length. This gives you the number of seconds for your shutter speed. If possible, try to stay below this number, the more the better. If you are using a camera with a crop sensor, don’t forget to add this into the equation. Usually, the smaller Canon cameras have a crop factor of 1.6. Let’s assume you have your lens set to 100 mm, this would give you the following equation.

500/(100×1.6) = 3.125

In this case, your shutter speed shouldn’t be longer than 3 seconds to avoid star trails. This rule is only important if you try to avoid star trails. If you don’t care about them, or actually want them, you don’t have to worry about this.

My Experience

This was my first time taking photos of a celestial object smaller than the moon in the night sky. I have photographed the moon plenty of times. 

Overall, I am very happy with my results during my first trial of capturing a comet zipping by our planet. One of my favorite shots of this evening was more of a lucky accident. It’s the image you can see below. As there was not a lot of light in the foreground, it was basically just dark, but luckily someone in the parking lot stepped on the brake and the brake lights of the parked car illuminated the foreground while I was taking the picture.

C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

I used the above-mentioned techniques multiple times and it always helped me to align my camera onto the comet, while nearby photographers were still searching for the comet, I was already able to get images of it, before the sky was pitch black. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any good locations with interesting foreground elements and due to my work schedule, I am not able to drive far away from the city.

Gallery

Any questions or issues capturing the comet? Put them in the comments below.

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