Comet Photography

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If you’re excited about these comets – and I’m guessing you are, or you wouldn’t be here! – then you probably won’t be content to just look at other people’s pictures of them when they’re gone, you’ll want to take some photographs of them yourself to enjoy in years to come. But how? Isn’t “astrophotography” hard? Don’t you need huge lenses? And complicated, mega-expensive cameras?

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No, no, and no.

If these comets are bright enough to be easily visible to the naked eye, which we think/hope they will be, then taking their celestial portraits will actually be pretty easy. In fact, you’ve probably got all the gear you’ll need to do that already! 🙂

Taking images of these comets will require a few essentials.

1) a camera (well, duh…!)

2) something to hold it steady

3) somewhere with a clear, unobstructed view of the comet(s)

4) patience.

5) time exposures

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

CAMERA:

If the comets are bright enough to be easily visible to the naked eye, then the camera you have already will probably do you. I say that assuming your camera isn’t a Box Brownie or one of those disposable film cameras that you can buy from the chemist, and am also assuming – perhaps unfairly – that your camera is a digital one (if you’re still using a film camera don’t worry, you can still take photos of the comets, and most of this post will still be relevent to you).

Oversimplifying it horrendously, I know, there are two types of digital cameras basically – compact cameras (which are fitted with just one lens, that may or may not zoom in and out), and digital SLRS (the more expensive, heavy ones which let you use different lenses).  As long as your compact camera is slightly more advanced than a simple “point and shoot” one, i.e. it has different settings for things like landscapes, portraits and sport, and has a flash that can be turned off, you will be able to photograph the comets with it, if they get nice and bright. If you have a “DSLR” then you will be able to take pictures of the comets regardless of whether they attain naked eye visibility or not, because you’ll be able to take exposures long enough to capture enough light to get a picture.

So, assuming you have a “decent” camera, what else do you need?

 

SOMETHING TO HOLD IT STEADY

…which is, preferably, a good, sturdy tripod, but that’s not absolutely essential, as you’ll read. Why do you need something to hold your camera steady? Because unless the comet in question is blazingly bright in the sky, you simply won’t be able to hold your camera steady enough in your hands to get good pictures of it. Any unsteadiness, any camera shake at all will result in a blurry, pretty rubbish picture. No, you’re going to ned something.

Thankfully, most cameras now have a threaded hole in their bottom which allow you to put them onto camera tripods, which are brilliant for astrophotography because you absolutely MUST keep the camera steady while photographing the sky, or you’ll just end up with a load of squiggly lines and splodges of colour. If your camera has a thread for a tripod, that’s brilliant, you’re halfway there! If your camera doesn’t have a hole for a tripod screw, then you can always try cobbling together something with tape or whatever to fix your camera to a tripod, or get a kind of “clamp” from your local camera shop which will hold your camera steady and screw onto a tripod, but…

What? You don’t have a tripod? Well, my advice would be to go and get one, as soon as possible, you’re really going to need one when ISON appears, trust me! But if you can’t right now, for whatever reason, then what you can do is use a bean bag to keep your camera steady. You place the bean bag on a wall, or the top of your car, or a fenxce, or whatever, then put your camera on it and push it down until it’s held securely in the bag. There. That’ll do. It’s all about avoiding camera shake you see, and a camera on a bean bag is a lot steadier than a hamd held camera. In fact, it’s very, very unlikely that handheld cameras will get very good pictures of the comets.

Ok… camera… being held steady… next?

 

CLEAR VIEW OF THE COMET

This might seem like common sense, but think about it. Are you sure, and I mean sure, that you’ll be able to see these comets from where you live? From your garden? Are you sure that that tree over there won’t be in the way? Are you positive that your neighbour’s garage won’t be in the way..?

You need to do some research. Use the charts on this blog to assess the comets’ visibility from where you live. Chances are that although you might eb able to see them, you won’t be able to see them WELL for a number of reasons. That means finding a more suitable viewing – and photographing – location. Maybe your local park will do, because it offers a view of more of the sky? Or maybe the school playing field up the road will do? Perhaps. But places like these suffer a lot from light pollution, so photos you take there will probably suffer from orange glare and flares, which could ruin them. I’d definitely recommend scouting out a few locations out of town, away from the streetlights, advertising lights and security lights. Maybe a farm gateway, or a layby, or a quiet country road people hardly use? Find somewhere like that, with a a clear view of the sunset sky for PANSTARRS, and a clear view all around for ISON, and you’re laughing.

 

PATIENCE

Oh yes, you’re going to need a lot of that my friend. If you’re “into” astronomy already you’ll know all about the frustrations of trying to photograph a Big Event. The weather will do its best to thwart your efforts. Your own, previously-trusted equipment will turn on you by getting lost or breaking or just playing up. Other people will distract you. Oh, the universe will find a million and one ways to have you tearing your hair out whenever you try to take pictures of these comets, trust me. Better accept that now!

 

TIME EXPOSURES

…and finally we come to the heart of the matter. Because if you want to take a picture of either of these comets, unless they become brilliant objects in the night sky you’re not going to be able to capture them by just pointing your camera at them and taking their photo like you were taking a photo of your cat, or girlfriend or boyfriend, or of your girlfriend or boyfriend holding a cat. You’re going to have to take… deep breath… time exposures!!!!

ISON MOON SCREAM

Now don’t be scared, it’s really not a big deal, it’s nothing to worry about. All you will have to do is set up your camera so it can take exposures of a few seconds, and most modern compacts let you do that, you just have to read the manual to find out how, if you don’t know already. And if you own and use a DSLR then you know all about time exposures already – right?

But WHY do you need time exposures to take pictures of these comets?

Because, even if they look WOW!! to us, staring at them from our gardens, street corners and parks, as photographic subjects they’ll actually be quite faint, so taking a time exposure will allow you to build up their faint light and capture their image.

BUT… you can’t take too long a time exposure, or your images will be blurry! Why? Because the night sky – or rather things in it – move, very very slowly, but if you take too long a time exposure your images of the comet will be blurred and useless.

WHAT?!?!

Let me show you what I mean. Imagine you’re outside tonight, with your camera. It’s set on AUTO, which is usually good enough for you to take good pictures day to day. If you just lift it up to the sky,and take a pic, this is what you’ll get…

1

Nothing. Just a big, black nothing. That’s because your camera didn’t collect enough light to build up an image. The stars are too faint to photograph like that, you need to use a time exposure.

Luckily your camera will let you do that. You’ll need to go into a Menu or Setting or something, but it will. Ok… options… how long should you use? If you use an exposure of just a couple of seconds, you get this…

2

Which doesn’t show much more really! A few stars, a bit of a glow on the horizon, but that’s it. Let’s try a longer exposure – say, ten seconds. Now, obviously you’re not going to be able to hold your camera steady for that long, so you’ll need to put it on that tripod, or on your bean bag. Then you’ll get this…

3

Ah, now that‘s more promising! Now you can see more stars, a lot more actually. Yes, that’s more promising! But still not quite good enough. If you go up to 20 seconds (this is all assuming you’re using either a wide angle or a standard lens, by the way, not a big zoom lens) then this is what you get…

4

BINGO! Lots of stars, lots of detail! Perfect! By the way, if you were taking a pic like that from somewhere with light pollution, somewhere like your back garden, then this muddy orange brown murky monstrosity is what you’d get…

lp

Yuck!!!

Ah, I know what you’re thinking – if I used an even longer exposure, it would look even better! MORE STARS!!! Ok, let’s try that. Let’s take an exposure of, say, a minute! Just imagine how much light THAT will collect!! Here goes…

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WHAT THE..????!?!?!? What the hell happened there?!?!? The camera’s broken!!!

No. Nothing’s broken, your photo is fine. What’s happened is perfectly natural, it happens to everyone, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. What you’ve done is capture, on your photo, the rotation of the Earth…! (and light pollution, see? That orange sky crap builds up considerably during a long time exposure, even if it’s not obvious to your eyes…)

You see, stars rise and set because the Earth is spinning in space. That’s why the Sun rises and sets too. Objects in the sky like stars, planets, the Moon, the Sun, appear to arc across it, from east to west, as time passes, because the Earth beneath our feet is turning. Your photo has captured that turning. In the minute or so your camera was open, the stars moved a little across the sky, so they look like streaks instead of dots. And the longer an exposure you use, the longer the streaks, until the streaks become arcs and become great curved lines around the Pole Star, like this…

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So, obviously, if you take a photo of the comet for as long as that, it will look streaked and blurry too. That’s why – unless your camera is on a special mount, or a telescope, which allows it to follow and track the stars as they moce across the sky – you’ll have to restrict yourself to taking photos of 20 seconds exposure or less. But believe me, if the comets are as bright as we’re hoping, that will be more than enough to reward you with some beautiful images that you’ll treasure forever.

 

A NOTE ABOUT ISO/ASA SETTING:

Bit more technical this, so read it carefully, ok? Your camera has a range of different ISO or ASA settings, what we used to call “film speed” in Ye Olde Days. Basically, a setting of 200 is “slower” than a setting of “400”, which means that during any given time exposure, the higher the ISO number you use the more light you will collect in that time, which means “you’ll record more stars and things in the sky” if you’re trying to take comet photos. So, what “film speed” should you use for these comets? Well, you might be tempted to use a really high setting, like 800 or 1600, but they will give you very ‘nosiy’ pictures, with a lot of blotchiness and grain, so personally I will be taking most of my images using an ISO setting of 400.

 

TAKING YOUR COMET PHOTOS…

So, let’s walk through this. How exactly  do you take good photos of Comet PANSTARRS in March and Comet ISON in November/December?

You find somewhere dark, somewhere unspoiled by light pollution, and set up your camera, on a tripod, there. You don’t want a flat, featureless horiozon tho; some trees or landscape features will add depth and beauty to your images ( pictures of just a comet in the sky above a flat horizon are very, very boring, really. Add some trees and hey, much better!). Before it gets dark, and before the comet appears properly, set your camera up: place it firmly on the tripod, with an 200 or 400 ISO setting, turn off the flash,  and set it for a time exposure of less than 2o seconds (if sky is bright try 5 seconds, if sky is dark go up to 20). Then set the camera shutter on a time delay, so that when you press the shutter it doesn’t actually take the photo for a few seconds. (Why? Because the pressure of your big fat thumb or finger stabbing down on the shutter button will make your camera wobble, that’s why, and your pictures will be blurred. If you use the time delay there’s much, much less wobbling. )

When everything’s right, take your first photo… and take a look. It almost certainly won’t be what you were expecting, or hoping for. It’ll be too dark, or too blurry, or both, or worse…! It will probably look something like this…

com poss 5 sec

But with a bit of tweaking… changing the ISO settings and exposure times in various different combinations… IF the comet you’re photographing is a decent brightness, you could eventually get something like this…

com poss 15 sec

It might take you a while to get there, and it might be the 30th, 40th or 50th photo you take, but it doesn’t matter! Remember, you’re not using film, you’re not spending any money, you can take as many pictures as you want! You might take a hundred pictures, or more, and end up with only one that’s any good, but that’s okay, because you’ll have a picture OF A COMET THAT YOU TOOK YOURSELF!!!! 🙂

But don’t just take photos of the comet. Have a bit of fun with it, and take photographs personal to you. Include your home in the foreground, perhaps, or photograph it from somewhere special to you. Even better, put yourself and/or your family in the photo with it! It’s easy: just set up the camera with a long time delay then run around the front, get into the field of view, look at the camera, and when the photo is taken you’ll be in it! (This is the only time you’ll want to use a flash, to light yourself up during the exposure, otherwise you’ll just be a dark silhouette. ) If you do that you’ll get a picture like this…

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…but SMILE! Don’t look miserable like that lot! Comet ISON might be a true Once In A Lifetime event, so make the most of it, and of your chance to take great photos of it.

And if you do take any good ones, send them to me and I’ll be happy to put them up on this blog.

Good luck!


20 Responses to “Comet Photography”

  1. Excellent and amusing “take” on sky photography. I’m looking forward to both comets this year.

  2. Thank you for an informative & entertaining post…we are off to chase PanSTARR tonight!

  3. Thanks! Great report. I actually saw Pannstars tonight for the first time and caught a nice blurry picture of it. Who cares…I saw a comet and it was awesome!

  4. Thank you for your clear and concise efforts. I bookmarked your article for future reference and sent copies to my siblings. I’m still trying to capture the comet with my Nikon D5100…with a 55/300mm lens. With more effort, and your advice…I’ll find success.

  5. If I want to take a photo of it in daylight I understand it will be very close to the sun. I am guessing I need a special filter for that. Any suggestions? I expect to use a 300 mm Nikon telephoto lens equivalent to 450mm optical

  6. Super instructive…I have been panning my bins for PanStarrs but all I get is grey alto stratus.!! ….but it is great fun trying.
    Cliveyboy

  7. What a great post on taking pictures of comets. One problem with comet photography is that they tend to occur at sunsets when the lighting conditions are changing all the time. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself changing your settings around all the time. This ability to control camera settings is why a DSLR is ideal for comets.

  8. Great tutorial, just what I was looking for! I guess experimentation will be the best way to find out, but any advice on trying to photograph comets with a distant city skyline (lights) in the shot? Shorter end of the scale of a timed exposure in order to minimize that murky orange/brown effect? Different ISO (than 400) or special lenses/filters?

  9. Excellent writeup…………..

  10. since I should not use a zoom lens, do I have to photoshop so it appears larger in the image? I always see images that people have taken and the comet appears prominently. Without a zoom lens won’t it just appear as a small dot too, like a star? Thanks for your info it was helpful and entertaining.

  11. You say have the camera in manual mode but give no hint of aperture setting. I guess a low f number is needed to allow max light in.

    • I hadn’t spotted that, thanks! Added a new paragraph on aperture. Thanks very much for the heads up, appreciate it.

  12. Very informative and spot on! I photograph lots of lightning and the technique to photograph lightning is not far from what you have explained… I’ve actually learned a couple of things here… However, I am curious at what f-stop setting is optimal… P.s. I’ve been trying to photograph ISON but the recent a.m. clouds have said otherwise… If ISON survives I will try later on… Thanks again!

  13. i have never seen a comet before , but it seems that they are very radical.

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