Complete Guide to Photographing Comet ISON

Mid Dec ISON morning

So, you want to photograph Comet ISON later this year? Of COURSE you do! Why wouldn’t you? You won’t be content to just look at other people’s pictures of ISON when it’s gone; you’ll want to take some photographs of it yourself to enjoy in years to come. But how? Isn’t “astrophotography” incredibly hard? Don’t you need huge lenses, and complicated, mega-expensive cameras, to take decent photographs of stars and planets and comets and stuff “up there”? Something like this..?



But you ARE going to need…

1) a camera (well, duh…!)

2) something to hold it steady

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

4) patience.

5) to know how to take time exposures

This guide is going walk you gently and calmly through all that. Consider it your very own – free – beginner’s course in comet photography. By the time you’ve finished reading you’ll be ready to take your very own photographs of Comet ISON, whatever it does later this year.


Right. Let’s start at the very beginning (as annoying as she was, Mary Poppins was right, it really is a very good place to start…) What type of camera do you need to photograph Comet ISON?

Here are the two types of camera people generally use today, both are mine…


Note: as my fellow comet watcher and astrophotographer Daniel Fisher reminded me, there’s a third type of popular camera – the so-called “Bridge camera”. Because these cameras have many of the features and functions of a DSLR, I hope that people reading this who own bridge cameras will follow the advice re DSLR cameras. I’m sure that if they do they’ll get some photos of ISON too! 🙂

Ok. On the left is a “compact” digital camera, you know, the type you throw into your bag or drop into a pocket if you’re going out to a party, or to the beach, or just for a walk on a sunny day. It’s absolutely fine for everyday use. They’re very easy to use – with an Auto setting that makes them good for “point and shoot” photos of sunsets, dogs chasing balls, and your mates looking worse for wear in the pub, that kind of thing. They can zoom in, a bit, and take perfectly fine pics for everyday social use and for posting on your Facebook page. But they’re pretty useless for night sky and comet photography tho, I’m afraid.

For that you really need one of the cameras shown on the right. That’s a Digital SLR, or “DSLR” for short, and it’s what you probably think of as a ‘serious’ camera, the sort of camera serious photographers – with their beards, padded bags and furrowed brows – sling around their necks and cradle lovingly in their hands like holy relics as they take arty pictures of sunsets, wheat fields blowing in the breeze and moody black and white photos of sand ripples on the beach…

If you’re only used to using a simple compact camera, just looking at a button- and dial-covered DSLR, with its big screen and all its numbers and ports to plug leads into, can be quite daunting. Obviously you need a degree in computing to operate them! And they cost an absolute fortune too, don’t they? Well, that’s actually not true. They can be very easy to use, very instinctive and intuitive once you’ve spent a bit of time just getting used to them (which is true of any camera, let’s be honest), and as for the cost you can pick up cheap second hand ones for very reasonable prices.

And the bottom line, the inescapable truth is that they are the camera you will need for astrophotography – taking photos of the night sky – and are the camera you’ll need to take good photographs, not just “Is that it? That blur?” photographs,  of Comet ISON later this year. One of those cameras will, I promise you, with a little bit of work on your part, get you some cracking photos of Comet ISON.

Why are they so useful? After all, they just take pictures, like compacts, don’t they? Well, yes, but for one thing they can collect a LOT of light, and as photography is all about collecting, and manipulating, light, that’s a Good Thing. Also, you have a LOT of control over the way they collect that light.

But most importantly, with a DSLR you can a) change the length of the exposure, you can change the amount of light going through the lens, and b) you can use different lenses for your photos, swapping between wide angle and zoom lenses as the conditions and your subject dictate…

I have a really good zoom lens for my DSLR, and when it’s fitted to the camera body it really looks a bit of a beast…!


Brilliant eh? Lenses like that are good because they allow you to take photographs “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” to show more of the comet and its tails, or more of the surrounding landscape.


Lenses like that make an already-heavy camera even heavier. So, try taking a photo of the comet in this way…


…and you’re going to get NOTHING, everything will be blurred. No, to take good photos of Comet ISON (or anything, really, with a camera fitted with a long lens) you need to support the camera in some way. You can try just resting it on a cushion, or on a bunched-up coat or jacket, and that will make it steadier than it would be just held in your hands, but really there’s only one way to keep a camera steady while taking photos of Comet ISON. You need one of these


A tripod. If you don’t already have one, seriously, go and get one as soon as you can. They are, to use the cliche, worth their weight in gold. Put a tripod beneath your DSLR and it will, I promise you, let you take photographs of Comet ISON.

Now, tripods come in different sizes, and heights, and makes and models, so which should you buy? And how much should you spend? Well, get the best you can afford, and in this case “best” means sturdiest and steadiest. You can buy cheap, rickety ones for under £20 or so, but you’re much better off spending a little more for one with stronger legs and a steadier camera mount at the top. If you’re on a budget, spend some time trawling around your local charity shops; sometimes they will have tripods in, you might get lucky!

TIP: If you find a second hand tripod in a charity shop, and if it’s not obviously broken, grab it quickly (they’re always in great demand) and take a closer look in a quiet corner. Give it a good checking over. Check the leg clips are all working, and that the legs themselves extend. But above all check that there’s a plate with a screw thread sticking out of it at the top of the tripod, because this is what you’re going to screw your camera on to…


Many tripods I’ve found in charity shops have that all important screw plate missing, which is probably why they’re in a charity shop in the first place – the previous owner lost or broke it, rendering the tripod about as much use as a hog roast at a vegetarian wedding buffet. If that piece is missing, put the tripod back where you found it on display and walk away. You can always try to find a replacement for the missing part by asking in your local camera shops, you might get lucky, but I’d STRONGLY suggest you don’t risk that, it can be a real hassle and it’s just easier starting off with a complete tripod.

But if you can’t afford a tripod right now, for whatever reason, then what you can do is use a bean bag (cheaply bought from toy shops) or one of those microwaveable wheat-filled “heat bags” (cheaply bought from discount shops) to keep your camera steady. You place the bean bag/whatever on a wall, or the top of your car, or a fence, or whatever is handy and flat, then put your camera on it and push and wriggle  it down into the bag until it’s held securely on and by it. 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 hand held camera. In fact, it’s very, very unlikely that handheld cameras will get very good pictures of Comet ISON.

So, that’s the basic gear: camera, and tripod. What about those fancy lenses? What difference do those really make?

Again, this is something very, very simple. DSLR lenses come in lots of different sizes. There are short stubby ones, long thin ones, long fat ones, a bewildering variety of lenses is available. But essentially they all do the same job – drink in light and record an image. What do the different lenses do then?

The clue is in the numbers. Every lens has some numbers on its front, or its side, or somewhere.The main one you need to be aware of, as a beginning comet photographer, is the focal length of the lens, and that’s the number with two “m”s after it, like this…


In my bag I have a 50mm lens (above), a 28mm-55mm zoom lens, and a 75mm-300mm zoom lens…


What’s the difference?

Well, the 50mm lens is what we call a “standard” lens. It has a fairly wide field of view which can’t be changed. The field of view is fixed. I use mine for taking general night sky photos. The 28-55mm lens can be twiddled to change the field of view. Set at 28mm the lens will record a WIDE field of view – you’ll get more of the landscape on your photo. Basically, any lens that has – or can be set to – a focal length of less than 35mm can be said to be a “wide angle lens”. ( Set at 55mm my lens is going to give the same field of view, roughly, as my standard 50mm lens. ) I use this lens when I want to capture a LOT of sky – maybe a large, long section of the Milky Way.

Then there’s the 75mm-300mm lens, my beast. I use that one to zoom in on things – a face in a crowd, a building in the distance, or the Moon or something in the night sky. Set at 300mm this lens will let me take photographs showing the Moon as a proper disc, with features clearly visible on it. This is a zoom lens that lets me bring faraway things closer, and such a lens is invaluable in astrophotrography.

What does all this lens talk mean for Comet ISON? Well, it the comet lives up to its initial expectations, and develops into a large, bright naked eye comet, with a bright head and a long tail, the best photographs of it will be taken with wide angle lenses because it will stretch across so much of the sky only a wide angle lens will fit it all in a photo! But if it turns into just a moderate object, reasonably bright with a half-decent tail, a standard lens will get good pictures of it, glowing amongst the stars. However, if ISON dramatically under-performs it will be small and faint in the sky, and we’ll need to zoom in on it to take photos of it. That’s going to mean using a zoom lens.

If all that’s a little confusing, here, this might help: I photographed Kendal Castle using each of my lenses, at different, typical settings, so you can see the differences between them and their fields of view. If you imagine the castle on the horizon there is the comet, you’ll get an idea of how each lens might be used to photograph ISON…

diff lenses fov

I hope that’s clear. If not, email me with whatever’s worrying/confusing you and I’ll try to help.

Ok… camera, tripod, lenses… what about, you know, actually taking the pictures?! What’s the most important thing you’re going to need? Well, this might surprise you…


This might seem like common sense, but think about it. Are you sure, and I mean sure, that you’ll be able to see Comet ISON from where you live? From your garden? Are you sure that that tree over there won’t be in the way? Are you absolutely positive that your neighbour’s garage security light won’t be blinding you whe you’re trying to look at ISON as dawn approaches?

If answering any of those questions made you raise a “Hmmm… now you mention it…” concerned eyebrow, you need to do some research. Comet ISON is going to be low, in the east, in a brightening sky, from the time it begins to emerge from behind the Sun (around late September?) to its crazy slingshot around the Sun on Nov 28th, so you’ll need a clear view of the eastern sky to have any real chance of seeing it, let alone taking its photograph! Use the charts on this blog to assess the comet’s visibility from where you live. Chances are that although you might be able to see it, you won’t be able to see it WELL for a number of reasons. That means finding a more suitable viewing – and photographing – location.

What do I mean by “more suitable”? Well, flat and low is good. A site high up, with a low horizon, without any trees or buildings or landscape features sticking up into the sky is ideal. If you live on the coast, looking out to sea and see the Sun rising over the ocean every morning you’re in the perfect place. But if you don’t, well, maybe your local park will offer you a good viewing location – if it’s a wide open space and not a tree-bordered city centre park –  if it offers a view of more of the sky than your garden offers? Or maybe the school playing field up the road will do? Perhaps…

Just be aware that places like these can suffer a lot from light pollution, so photos you take from there will probably suffer from orange glare and flares, which could ruin them.

Either way, I’d definitely recommend scouting out a few locations out of town NOW, rather than waiting until later in the year, so you’re prepared. You want somewhere away from the streetlights, advertising lights and security lights, with a good low uncluttered eastern horizon. Maybe there’s a farm gateway just up the road from where you live, or a secluded layby, or a seldom used country road? Find somewhere like that, with a clear view of the sunrise sky for ISON, and you’re laughing.

Then it’s a matter of actually taking a picture! Let’s look at how you do that, step by step…


…which is a fancy term for “choose the size of the hole in your lens which lets the light into the camera”. You can allow more or less light into your camera by changing the aperture – or “f number” – of the lens you’re using. You do this by manually turning a ring in the centre of the lens, or by selecting a number on your camera screen by turning a dial . For astrophotography, where you’re taking images of very faint things, you need a big hole/aperture to let as much light into your camera s you can possibly get, which means setting your lens to the SMALLEST/LOWEST aperture number. (I know, that sounds a bit daft, back to front really, but welcome to astronomy, we do that a lot! ) So, look carefully at the numbers on that dial… and select the smallest one. A 50mm lens will have a widest aperture of something like f1.8 or f2, going down to f6 or something like that, and a 200mm lens will start at f5 and go down to maybe f12 or lower.  This pic will show you what I mean…


See the dial with the numbers between 1.8 and 22? Those are the apertures the lens can be set at. Set the “fastest” / lowest f number on whatever lens you’re using to the smallest f number, in order to get the brightest pictures possible.


One very important tip. Use the Time Delay/Self Timer on your camera when you’re taking your comet pictures. Why? Well, if you just start taking your picture by pressing your finger down on the button, even carefully, that will set the camera shaking, and will blur your photo. You might be thinking “Rubbish! I’ve got a really steady hand!” but trust me, it won’t be steady enough. If you use the Time Delay/Self Timer you avoid all that shaking and juddering, and when the shutter eventually trips it will be a lot less shaky and juddery, which will give you much shaper pictures.


…and finally we come to the beating, thumping heart of the matter. Because if you want to take a picture of Comet ISON, unless it becomes a brilliant object in the night sky you’re not going to be able to capture it by just pointing your camera at them and taking its 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!!!!

But WHY do you need time exposures to take pictures of Comet ISON?

Because, even if it looks WOW!! to us, staring at it from our gardens, street corners and parks, as a photographic subject ISON will actually be quite faint, so taking a time exposure will allow you to build up its faint light and capture its image.

If you’ve seen photographs of comets in books and magazines you might think they look stunning in the sky, with blazing bright heads, long, glowing tails, so bright they dominate the sky. Actually, comets are usually nothing like that. They’re faint and fuzzy to look at, not sharp or crisp-edged things at all. Comets – good comets – are like long clouds in the sky. And that means you need to photopgraph them for several or tens of seconds, rather than the fraction of a second photographs of your sleeping cat or your family eating Christmas dinner need to take.

BUT… you can’t take too long a time exposure, or your images will be blurry! Why? Because although the night sky – or rather things in it – move only very very slowly, they DO move, so if you take too long a time exposure of the sky it will just show blurs. This is true for ISON too.


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…


Oh. 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. Your camera manual will tell you EXACTLY how to set the camera’s length of exposure, but as that process differs from model to model I can’t go into too much detail here, you’ll need to – shudder – READ THE MANUAL!

Ok… options… how long should you use? If you use an exposure of just half a dozen  seconds, you get this…


Ah, now that‘s more promising! Now you can see some stars. 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…

Orion Jupiter Oct 2012 sm2

BINGO! Look at THAT! 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…



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 imaginary exposure of, say, a minute! Just imagine how much light THAT will collect!! Here goes…


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 at first, 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 appear to rise, cross the sky  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…


So, obviously, if you take a photo of ISON 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 move across the sky, and we’re not going to cover those in this article – you’ll have to restrict yourself to taking photos of 20 seconds exposure or less. But believe me, if ISON is as bright as we’re hoping, that will be more than enough to reward you with some beautiful images that you’ll treasure forever.

Back to the actual length of time exposure you should use. Now don’t panic, it’s actually very simple to work this out: wrong exposure time will give you a rubbish picture, it’s as simple as that. So what is the CORRECT exposure time for photographing ISON? Well, that depends on a lot of things, such as the time you’re taking your pictures, how bright the sky is, what size lens you’re using, lots of things, but mostly how bright the comet is at the time you’re taking the photos.

But however bright (or faint!) it is, if your exposure time is too short you’ll just get a dark, featureless (and comet-less!) sky. An exposure time too long will give you an image so bright that the comet will be lost and washed-out against the bright sky. The trick is just to try different exposure times, lots of them, and eventually you’ll find the right one for the circumstances. When you “hit” the correct exposure you’ll know, because you’ll be able to see the comet on your picture!

Your exposure time will also depend on your ISO or ASA setting (what we used to call “Film speed”) too. Play about with that, switching between, say, 400ASA and 1600ASA, using different exposures.


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, or even all the way up to 6400 ASA, 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, 800 if I’m feeling especially bold and adventurous…

Suggestion… I think you’d find it REALLY useful to go to, browse its Comet Galleries to look back at photographs people took of the last two bright naked eye comets, Lovejoy and McNaught, and see what settings and equipment they used. When you see a photo you like, one that makes you think “I want to take one like THAT!” check out the camera they used, the size of the lens, the exposure time, things like that. That’ll help you plan your own photographs…

Ok… the big moment has arrived…


So, deep breath. Let’s walk through this. How exactly  do you take good photos of Comet ISON later this year, in November/December?

First, 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 horizon 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!).

Next, before it gets dark, and before the comet appears properly, set your camera up correctly: place your camera firmly on its tripod, set to a 200 or 400 ISO setting, turn off the flash,  and set it for a time exposure of less than 20 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? Remember, 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, put your finger on the button –

***** STOP!! UPDATE!!! *****

I’m indebted to reader “A. Boe” who sent me a comment about this subject, which I’ll just paste in to save time, as they put it so well…

Great article and blog! I’m really having fun reading it.

However you didn’t mention focus at all. An important part of a good picture. At night the auto-focus is pretty much useless, so it must be done manually.

On a DSLR with live-view it’s easy. Set the lens to manual focus and point it at a bright star. Zoom in on the star in live-view and adjust the focus ring on the lens so the star looks small and crisp.

On older DSLRs witout live-view, one must go the trial and error route. Again set the lens to manual focus and point it at a bright star, turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then back the other way a tiny amount (a couple of minutes if the focus ring was on a clock).

Take a test photo several seconds long so the stars are visible. Zoom in all the way on the star in the photo. If it looks big and bloated, re-do the focusing and take another test photo. Repeat until it looks acceptable.

I recently upgraded from a non live-view DSLR to one with live-view, and it saves me a LOT of headache and frustration. Focus is important :)

Absolutely, and I should have mentioned that, thanks! To be blunt, focussing on the night sky with a DSLR is an absolute grade A royal Pain In The ****. I have a DSLR with live view, and it helps, a lot, compared to Ye Olde Days, but still I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken what I thought – after looking at the screen – were BRILLIANT photos, only to look at them at home on my laptop later and discovered that the stars were white blobs rather than crisp pinpricks. It drives me up the wall. And in the end it really does come down to trial and error. Take a pic… check it… fine-tune focus… take another pic… check it… fine-tune the focus… until you get something crisp and sharp. But keep at it, and you’ll eventually get good focus. The thing is, you’ll find your camera won’t STAY in focus, because as you take your next few pics you’ll be moving the camera, checking the screen, and the lens itself just won’t stay still, and will lose ficus, so you’ll have to go through it all again, probably several times during your photography session. The key thing is to REMEMBER you’ll need to keep checking the focus, and not to just carry on after your first really in-focus pic. Do that and you’re asking for trouble.

Ok, having focussed, it’s FINALLY time to take your first photo…press the button… wince as you hear the mirror flip up and the shutter trip… stay well clear of the tripod while the camera is taking the time exposure (kick or nudge a leg and you’ll ruin the photo, it will be all blurry, just useless) and after the shutter trips again, ending the exposure, take a look at the screen…

Your first photo 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

That is what a comet looks like on an under-exposed photo. Not enough light has got into the camera, through the lens, to make a good image. But with a bit of tweaking… changing the ISO settings and exposure times in various different combinations… IF ISON is a decent brightness, you could eventually get something like this…

com poss 15 sec

It might take you a while to get there, you might have to tweak your camera settings several times, and it might be the 30th, 40th or 50th photo you take when you finally look at it and think “Yes, that’s nice!”, 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!!!!

After you take each photo, look at it on the preview screen on the back of your camera, and adjust what you’re doing accordingly. And then, eventually, after all the faffing about with different lenses, exposure times and film speeds, you’ll finally take a picture that makes you break out into a big grin because it’ll be there! On the screen! The comet will be on your photo! Well done!

But as Han Solo said, “Don’t get cocky, kid!” With one good photo in your camera you’re just getting started. Having found that elusive, magical correct combination of correct lens/exposure time/film speed, take lots of photos at that setting, but be aware that the sky will be getting darker over time and you will need to change the exposure time accordingly.

Having taken a few photos you’re happy with – move! Don’t just stand in the same place taking the same photo again and again and again, move about, pick up your tripod and relocate to somewhere nearby with nice photogenic tree to put in the picture, or a dramatic building, or a hillside. Vary your compositions. Have fun with it!

TIP: When the comet’s head has set you’ll think, understandably, “That’s it, I’m done, time to go home…”, but keep photographing! You might manage to get some pictures of the tail poking up from behind the horizon, which can look really pretty. And many experts are now predicting ISON is going to grow  a very respectable tail, so if it does, be sure to get some photos of its tail jabbing up into the sky like a WW2 searchlight…

But don’t just take photos of the comet with some sky behind it and some buildings or landscape beneath it. 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, point it at ISON, 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…


…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. Put yourself in it, and some of your friends too. That’s what I did with Comet PANSTARRS on a night when members of my astronomical society gathered to observe and photograph it…

Apr 2 EAS L4b

..ok, that’s it.

Actually, er, no, it isn’t. Because having taken your pictures you will probably want, and need, to do some processing work on them using a graphics or photo package, Photoshop or something like that. They’ll let you bring out subtle details in the comet tail by boosting the brightness and changing the contrast. Or you might just want to crop your image to remove any distracting foreground. Or you might want to remove an image’s light pollution orange cast by boosting its blue hues, that’s a great idea for comet photographs. Look, I’ll show you what I mean…

before after j

See? The yucky orange/red colour has gone, replaced by a much more natural looking blue-grey colour. Even if you don’t have Photoshop or a fancy image processing package, there are websites you can go to which let you do that kind of processing on images for free, and they’re very, very easy to use.

Ok… so, having done all that, what kind of results can you expect? Well, here are a couple of my best photographs of Comet PANSTARRS which glided through our sky back in March and April. I took these with the camera shown above, the lenses shown above, and with the techniques I’ve described through this article. So if you do the same, with the same type of equipment, you’ll be able to take some lovely photos of ISON at the end of the year – even better, if ISON puts on the show we all hope it will…

Apr 2 a

Apr 5 2013 L4 M31

PANSTARRS and Kendal Castle 1

One last thing. Although this article describes how to take photos of ISON with modestly complicated and expensive equipment, I don’t want to discourage ANYONE from trying to take photographs of ISON with **whatever camera they have**, be that a compact, a bridge, or even their phone camera. While I honestly think that before Nov 29th, when ISON rounds the Sun, it will only be able to be photographed with DSLRs using time exposures, as I describe here, after that all bets are off. When ISON whips around the Sun we have no idea what it will do or what it will look like. It might break into a dozen bits, leaving a trail of mini-comets in the sky. It might just pfffft out altogether, leaving us all waiting and wondering. It might emerge from the solar glare looking like PANSTARRS. Might, might, might…

But there’s also a chance it MIGHT become a lovely bright object before dawn, possibly with a long, straight tail and very obvious to the naked eye.

Best case scenario? Until around December 10th or 12th ISON dominates the bright, pre-dawn eastern sky, looking like a long, fat vapour trail against the brightening orange sky. If that’s what actually happens, well, just snap away with any and every camera you’ve got. It’s definitely worth it! If you don’t try to take a photo, you’ll definitely get nothing! If that happens – and fingers crossed it does! – then ANY camera should be able to record an image of it of some sort, even a compact or bridge camera. If ISON becomes a bright naked eye comet, I don’t want anyone reading this to think that you shouldn’t at least try to take photos of it with whatever you have handy. You won’t necessarily need the time exposures, zoom lenses or DSLRs I describe here. The camera you use for everyday things could get you a photo of ISON to treasure.

Right, that’s it, I’m done! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this guide, and found it useful. If you’ve read this through properly you’ll now either a) know exactly how to photograph ISON with your existing camera equipment, or b) have a big shopping list! I know nothing seems to be happening now, but trust me, the comet will be in the sky before we know it, so get out there on any clear night and start practising the tips and techniques explained in this article so you’ll be ready when ISON is in our sky, however bright or faint it looks. And let me know how you get on photographing it, ok?

Good luck!


39 Responses to “Complete Guide to Photographing Comet ISON”

  1. Even though I consider myself to be a fairly experienced photographer, I’ve get to really get into astrophotography (despite doing a degree with the OU that involves planetary science). This article has really given me confidence to go out on the next clear night, drive some distance away from London and start playing…. hopefully I might be getting better by the time ISON arrives. Thanks 🙂

  2. Love the heck out of your examples here!

  3. wow thanks

    A compact Canon can do nice photos at 400 ASA on 15sec exposure using night sky long exposure menu; beautiful shot I got of Lovejoy; also caught McNaught on live Sony handicam video (an option for bright comets)!; an SLR would be nice, also a Earth rotation tracking system- could make a fixed angle of wood for latitude angle, and a disk or disk-section, centre aimed at (here) south celestial pole, plus long lever/or worm gear to create a basic compensation for Earth’s rotation? Would be a challenge to build this…. (even got great moon pictures with a 50mm Celestron on 30x, 50x. a few on 90x, with e.g. tricking camera by using flash to take quick exposure, as otherwise Earth rotation too great)(homemade telescope-camera adaptor for eyepiece projection)

  4. […] for Ison The jury is out on Ison's potential, but……ng-comet-ison/ […]

  5. […] […]

  6. Super blog. Prior to reading, the only two things I knew about cameras and photography were how to spell the words. Very precise and lucid.


  7. I have used my telescope & an iPhone (I have an iPhone holder for a telescope) for capturing the moon.
    Great photos. Wondering if possible for ison?
    I’m gonna try.
    Thanx for the info. I may try video to see.

    • It might be worth trying that when ISON is at its closest and brightest, but not yet. You need exposures of many seconds to capture ISON at the moment.

  8. you’re just so fun to read…thank you was really helpful!!!
    but i have a question is it possible to observe ison with just naked eye?!!

    • Thanks! No, we can’t see ISON with the naked eye yet, we can’t even see it in binoculars yet. It’s only visible in a telescope. But give it a couple of weeks and I think it might just be a naked eye object, certainly a binocular one. Thanks for reading!

  9. Thanks for the great info! It’s the first useful stuff I encountered during my web search about observing and photographing this comet.
    Now I’m looking forward to play around with my camera (Canon D1100 + 75-300mm) the coming weeks and to prepare for (hopefully) a great event in the sky.

  10. Very good Read! I enjoyed your write up. I’ll be out with my Canon 5D mkii attempting to capture this one over both holidays on a rural mountain top.

    Great point to continue shooting after you think it’s over. I caught PanStarrs in the city on a long exposure after i couldn’t see it anymore. Keep shooting! Photoshop can really enhance a weaker comet.

  11. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Sun kicked into overdrive after ISON rounded it? After all were at the peak of the Sun’s eleven year cycle but its activity has been weak this time around. Maybe we’ll get lucky. I feel lucky to be alive at this time in the universe’s history and to be able to share it all with others. Happy comet hunting. Cosmos Carl. 🙂

  12. extremely well written and helpful. thank you for your time and effort. will post pics if they are of decent quality

  13. thanks for reading

  14. I’ve got all the needed equip (a canon DSLR, tripod, knowledge on the settings), but haven’t had much luck with other night sky pictures – do I need to worry about manual vs auto-focus? I can never see the stars though the viewfinder well enough to focus…

    • Don’t use autofocus, your camera really won;t thank you for that! DSLRs hate stars. You need to go to manual focus then point your camera at a bright star then use Live View (if you have it) to focus the star on the screen, then take your pics. A pain, I know, and you’ll need to refocus every few shots because of slippage, but it’ll be worth it. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Great article and blog! I’m really having fun reading it.

    However you didn’t mention focus at all. An important part of a good picture. At night the auto-focus is pretty much useless, so it must be done manually.

    On a DSLR with live-view it’s easy. Set the lens to manual focus and point it at a bright star. Zoom in on the star in live-view and adjust the focus ring on the lens so the star looks small and crisp.

    On older DSLRs witout live-view, one must go the trial and error route. Again set the lens to manual focus and point it at a bright star, turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then back the other way a tiny amount (a couple of minutes if the focus ring was on a clock).

    Take a test photo several seconds long so the stars are visible. Zoom in all the way on the star in the photo. If it looks big and bloated, re-do the focusing and take another test photo. Repeat until it looks acceptable.

    I recently upgraded from a non live-view DSLR to one with live-view, and it saves me a LOT of headache and frustration. Focus is important 🙂

    • You make some VERY good points there, and I’ll update my photo section to include focussing, great idea. It’s the absolute bane of my life at the moment, and even using LiveView it’s a pain in the neck. I’m just back from an early morning observing/photographing session and got some good pics but for every sharp one there are half a dozen blobby ones. It drives me nuts!! Thanks for the input, appreciate it.

  16. Photo of the comet I took on the weekend:-
    C/2012 S1 ISON November 10th 2013 05:40

  17. Super info, helped a lot. Didn’t see anything about f/stop settings. Should it be wide open ( 2.8 ) or just try different settings?

    • Good point, Don. Yes, you want to open your lens up as much as possible, get as much light into your camera as you can, then take a few with it stopped down too, just to get a wide range of shots.

  18. This is a really fantastic blog post with lots of tipps and humour, thank you so much! You described so well the effects that the rotating earth has on long exposure times. Although I made the experience that in wide angle shots the effect is not so immense – up to 50-60 seconds are possible without “stars as stripes”.
    I can’t wait to see ISON myself and take pics!!
    By the way, you wrote “even a compact or bridge camera” – some of the nowadays bridge cameras are so good that they can compete rather well with a DSLR – and let’s not forget the new system cameras!

    • Thanks Christina, appreciate you reading my blog and taking the time to comment too! Hopefully ISON will be so bright that *any* camera will take a picture of it of some sort 🙂

  19. Great article and guide. Many years ago I attached my SLR to my telescope and dared to take pictures with exposures lasting from 20 min up to 2 hours, so I know of the hassle involved in getting the ‘shakes’ out of the camera. One thing that I did which helped immensely; get a black sheet of paper (like construction paper). Frame your shot, and then hold the paper in front of the lens (not touching but a few inches away; it’s best to have a partner help you with this). Press the shutter button to start the exposure; after about 3 seconds the ‘camera shimmy’ dies out. Then move the black paper out of the way. For a 20 sec exposure as discussed above, make it a 23 sec exposure and you’ll net out with a 20 sec exposure with no shakes.

    • Yes, great idea, and I actually use that trick myself so I have no idea why I didn’t mention it in the article! Idiot!! haha! Thanks, will put it in.

  20. Why don’t you use the delayed action shutter?

  21. I didn’t see it but the “500 rule” is helpful. Take the focal length of your lens and divide it into 500. That is the number of seconds you can set your exposure to before you get blurred stars. As an example a 50mm lens would be 500/50=10 seconds. if you go wider say 10.5mm you have 500/10.5=47.62 seconds. Hope it helps.

  22. Thanx, very handy blogpost with some usefull tips. Hope to make a nice photo of ISON in the Netherlands! Unfortunately very cloudy these days …

  23. Thanks for a really down to Earth, so to speak, guide to photographing the comet which honestly sums up the frustrations and joys of trying to capture the night sky! As Alexander has touched on in his comment, you also need to check the weather forecast. Cloud can ruin the best of plans. Having said that, it’s always worth taking a gamble – even if the weather seems stacked against you. Clouds can part when you least expect.

  24. Wonderful information on night phtography. Why not add a remote
    shudder device to your camera? I have a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS
    which is a 50X optical zoom. Night photography will be a new adventure for me. I am also throwing a bean bag into my car as
    an additional quick grab item for camera steadyness.

    I could not afford to buy a DLSR on the mere off chance that ISON would come through with a good show. So, over the Thanksgiving weekend, I went to a dark sky area armed with nothing but my little Canon Powershot A2200 and a mini-tripod.

    The result was VICTORY! Using a time delay shutter, the highest ISO, and an 8 second exposure, I got some beautiful shots of Pleides, sharply recording many, many stars that were not visible to the naked eye. I also shot some telephoto views that proved quite beautiful in spite of the small lens. This camera allows time exposures of up to 15 seconds, so on the next foray, I hope to get even better results, especially using the ISO and f-stop advice from this blog. Next training target is Orion’s sword! If ISON comes back, I AM READY. But even if not, I have some beautiful sky photos I never would have expected to be possible using a bare compact camera.

    • Excellent David, well done 🙂 A compact camera with that many features will get you good pics, sounds like you’re going to get some great pics in futire. Try for Lovejoy, I’m sure you’ll bag it 🙂

  26. Man! dslrs are expensive! I don’t have that kind of money!

  27. […] and texts. For those of you with DSLR cameras and a tripod, the old Waiting for ISON blog has a fantastic, detailed guide for novices on imaging that is a […]

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