How to Photograph Comets Like ISON Without Specialized Equipment or Telescopes

There’s a lot of buzz about Comet ISON, from comet of the century to complete flop. As David Levy says, “Comets are like cats, they have a tail and they do precisely what they want.”

ISON might become a fantastic naked-eye sight or not be visible at all. We can only hope for the first. Here are some tips on how to photograph comets that will help you get the best photos of ISON without specialized equipment or telescopes.

comet photography

What Can Happen to Comet ISON
These are some of the scenarios that might happen with the comet:

  • It could become a great comet, visible to the naked eye with a spectacular tail.
  • It could become visible to the naked eye but small.
  • It may be almost invisible to the naked eye but a good show for photographs or binoculars.
  • It could disintegrate before, during or after perihelion and just disappear.
  • It could fragment and be visible as a string of comets.
  • It could fragment and still develop a headless tail visible to the naked eye.

comet photography

When and Where to look
ISON is a morning comet; therefore, the best time to observe it is before sunrise looking to the east. From November 15 to November 26, the comet might become visible to the naked eye. As it reaches perihelion (when it’s closest to the sun), it might become visible during the daytime (see below) because comets get brighter as they approach the sun. After perihelion, if the comet is still alive, it will probably be visible to the naked eye again, so the first few days of December may also provide excellent photo opportunities.

how to photography a comet

How to Photograph ISON at Dawn
Comets move really fast. In long exposures, the comet might have a trail even if the stars around it don’t. For comet photography at dawn, the following tips are useful:

  • Use short exposures from 1 second to 20 seconds.
  • Use a very high ISO 1600 to 6400 if your camera allows.
  • Change focal lengths – comets can look very nice in very different contexts.
  • Shoot from rural skies or better – city lights will likely wash out the comet.
  • Find a place with a clear east horizon and no nearby towns to the east to avoid light pollution.
  • Don’t shoot only one day; comets change dramatically day to day.
  • Even if the comet is invisible to the naked eye, it can look really beautiful in photos. Aim to the comet position with a wide angle lens, find the comet, and then change focal lengths for different framings.
  • If you shoot a time-lapse, you can show how the comet moves relative to the background stars. One hour should be enough.

how to take pictures of comets

I’d recommend to start with a 17/18mm lens aiming to the east. Try to find the comet in the photo with a 20-30 second exposure and then, once the comet is located, increase focal length and experiment with different settings.

Owning a tracking device like the Ioptron Skytracker, Vixen Polarie or Astrotrac will allow you to shoot slightly longer exposures without star-trails, but remember that the comet can still show a trace as it moves really fast relative to the stars in the background.

Daytime Photographs
On November 28th, during perihelion, the comet will reach its maximum brightness, but it will also be too close to the sun. If you shield the sun with a roof, building or part of a house, you might be able to spot the comet during the daytime very close to the sun before sunset. Don’t use your hands to shield and don’t look near the sun using binoculars, telescopes or your camera. Use a fixed object to block the sun and live-view to frame and take photographs. This kind of photography is really dangerous to your eyes so be very careful!

I hope ISON provides a good show and is an excellent opportunity for fantastic photos because there’s nothing better than a great comet!

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