Photographing the NEOWISE Comet in Los Angeles
Jason Daniel Shaw
Despite the vast amounts of light pollution in Los Angeles, it is possible to photograph the NEOWISE comet as it passes over southern California this year. For optimal viewing, you may want to drive out of the city and into a bit darker of a place. This comet only comes around once every 6,766 years so make sure to catch it while you can. We did just that this past weekend and I thought I would share some thoughts on my experience trying to capture it in an image.
We made the drive out to MoorPark, about an hour north of where we live, to a winding road through the mountains. There is a hairpin turn in the road with an overlook. It is a spot that I have always wanted to photograph, even without the comet. Being too busy and maybe a bit too lazy, I had’t checked it off my list yet. However, with the comet visible and needing a bit more darker of a place, it was an easy choice for a location. I had done a bit of research and found out that the comet would be in the northwest sky, just below the big dipper constellation. The best time to view it was between 9:00PM and 11:00PM with the peak being around 9:30PM (side note: the time and location does change each night and depends on your latitude so do some research). When we arrived, there was already a bunch of other vehicles so I knew that we wouldn’t be the only ones out looking for the comet.
I had a goal of getting three shots – one relatively closeup of the comet, one with a bit of landscape and the comet and finally, one with the comet and the light trails on the hairpin turn. I used the Canon 6D mk ii with the 70-200mm f/2.8L is ii to capture it. While it is not the longest lens, it is the longest lens that I own. It is shot wide open at f/2.8, a 1.6-second exposure and 4000 ISO. The lower the f-number, the wider the aperture which means the more light it lets in. However, it also means that it gives you a shallower depth of field. The reason that I chose f/2.8 is that I only needed to capture focus at infinity and needed to allow as much light in as possible. I used the rule of 500 for calculating the exposure. Because the Earth is rotating, the stars will distort and no longer be dots in your photos if you leave your shutter open too long. This can be nice if you want to make star trail photos, however, if you want a nice sharp star, you must use the rule. The rule says that if you divide 500 by your focal length, you will get the longest exposure that you can have, in seconds, while retaining a sharp star. Since I shot that photo with a 200mm lens, I needed to divide 500 by 200.
500 / 200mm = 2.5 seconds
To have a safety margin and make sure that the stars were sharp, I went with a 1.6-second exposure. The 6D mk ii does well in low light at higher ISO so I went with 4000 to get the exposure that I needed. The next shot was with the mountains and the comet. It was shot on the Canon 24-105mm f/4L at 24mm, f/5.0, 13-second exposure, 1600 ISO.
500 / 24mm = 20.8 seconds
Again, using the rule of 500, I am able to extend my exposure to 20 seconds but I chose to stay under the max and go with 13 seconds. With the f/5.0 aperture, that brought my ISO to 1600. The final shot, seen below, is a composite of about 6-8 images. I used the sky, comet and mountains shot from above with several images of the hairpin turn to make sure that I had captured the cars in the entirety of the visible road. After editing the photos in Lightroom, I used masking in Photoshop to bring pieces of each image together to create the final image. While I do like the final image for the foreground element, I think that it distracts the viewer and overpowers the comet. Overall, it was fun to get out and finally shoot a spot that I had been wanting to shoot for a long time and see a, truly, once in a lifetime event.