Chasing Comet Neowise

What a sky show we have had this July with Comet Neowise! The comet was discovered on March 27, 2020 by the asteroid hunter Neowise. Neowise is part of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. WISE is an infrared space telescope that is mapping the sky looking for objects such as bright galaxies, cold starts, asteroids and comets. The telescope was launched in 2009 and was only able to map the sky two times before running out of coolant. It was then repurposed to search for near earth objects (NEO).

The comet is viewable with binoculars and is located below the Big Dipper in the northwest. Neowise started out to the right of the Dipper just above the horizon. Each night it is a little higher in the sky and moves to the left. It will be closest to the earth on July 22-23 and will be visible through the end of July. The comet will get dimmer as it moves farther from the sun. It was the closest to the sun on July 3rd.

I chased the elusive goal of nicely composed comet pictures for three nights. I was successful on the third night. My comet adventures are a good example of forgetting what you know in the excitement of the moment.

The first night I photographed the comet from a gravel turnout off Nisqually Rd SW. I think that ultimately this was the best night for taking pictures; the comet was the brightest. Unfortunately, I was unprepared. I did set up my camera ahead of time. I set the ISO to 800, aperture to f/2.8, the shutter speed to 4 seconds, and the timer to 2 seconds. I cleaned my Canon 70 – 200 mm f/2.8 lens. I did not notice that the tape I use to mark infinity on the lens barrel had fallen off. I thought about bringing my Canon 28 – 135 mm f/3.5 and my Tokina 12-24 mm f/4. The operative word here is thought. I forgot my flashlight and binoculars. Fortunately my photo buddy had both of those items. I also did not focus at infinity before it got too dark.  I got so excited when I saw the comet that I went about blithely taking snapshots. I did check my first few shots, but did not magnify the image to check the focus.  I did think about composition and lamented the fact that my lens was not wide enough to capture some foreground to anchor the images. It is not surprising that my images were slightly out of focus.

Night two we went to Pioneer Orchard Park in Steilacoom. It was a beautiful evening and I did not forget anything. I re-marked infinity on the barrels of all three lenses. I checked my focus before it got dark. I was much more successful that night. Focus was much better. I decided to continue to shoot with the 70-200 because it is my fastest lens. This meant that once again I had no anchoring foreground. I could have changed lenses, but I did not. I also did not adjust my settings. The image below is from the second night. Once of things I like about using a telephoto lens was that the comet is bigger in the image.

Night three we went to Percival Landing in Olympia. Another beautiful evening. This time I left the 70-200 at home and was determined to use both the 28-135 and the 12-24. I set up by the Motherhood statue. I started with the 28-135.  I was able to capture the comet with foreground but I wanted more foreground so I switched to the 12-24. The Tokina has an maximum aperture of f/4 so I increased the ISO to 1250 and increased to shutter speed to 6 seconds. 6 seconds turned the stars into blobs and the comet to a smear so I went back to 4 seconds. I also tried the ISO at 800 and 1600 and the shutter speed at 2.5 seconds. I was pleased with my results. The image below is from Percival Landing.

What I learned from my Neowise experience is that I need to slow down and remember what I know. I also developed a big case of mirrorless camera envy. My fellow comet adventurers had a much easier time focusing in low light due to the electronic viewfinder and focus peaking. I think my future contains a mirrorless camera.

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