Chasing NEOWISE comet

Nikon Z7 Tamron 70-200 @70mm 8s f.5 iso10000
Nikon Z7 Tamron 70-200 @70mm 8s f2.8 iso10000 DFS

                  "It is not in the stars to hold our destiny...but in ourselves." -William Shakespeare

With all the attention the comet NEOWISE was getting lately, I was starting to get down-right envious.  The shots I have seen were amazing!   But as it turned out the comet wasn't as easy to view as it seemed on the internet.  And so I began the chase. Early on I thought that it could best be viewed from atop of a local building that I had access to. I got up hours before dawn and shlepped my gear up the six stories. Ready at 4:30 am to catch a glimpse. Except I had no idea where it was. Which way should I point my camera? How long of a shutter speed? Was it there and I just couldn't find it?  I decided to pack it in and go home for more research. I tried the next morning at a local park. I had clear skies, why couldn't I see it?  Alright enough of this sleep deprivation.... I guess it was giving me brain damage.  Back to the drawing table. After a few days more of research, I realized that it was starting to become visible in the early evening. Now that would make it easier wouldn't it? At least that's what I thought. We had been waiting for the monsoons to show up here in Arizona for nearly two years. Last year was great for stargazing, but the lack of monsoon moisture was pretty devastating, and resulted in catastrophic fires a few miles from home. Some of my favorite places, and trails were destroyed. This year was gearing up to be different. So the expectation of moisture was welcomed. Except it wasn't good for comet watching.  I now had clouds to contend with.   My next foray, after watching the weather and viewing times, was to climb high above the trees on a northern facing volcanic crater not far from home. The weather looked like it would be clearing, so I made the climb. I waited for what turned out as a couple of hours, but didn't see anything. I stayed and took long exposure images regardless. 

{Click on the images to view larger}

Sunset over Kendrick Park

I had a really good view of Kendrick Park and some distant cinder cones, so the long exposures of the cars driving on Hwy 180 was interesting enough.  The clouds were building to the west, and soon I knew my window would be closing. I had an app on my phone called Night Sky. It is pretty cool, as you can hold your phone to the sky and it will tell you in real time where each constellation, planet, star, satellite, and comet was as you pan around.  It was helpful to know where to point the camera, but not so much when the clouds are blocking the sky. Then it happened... a window opened. I think. I had to check my LCD and zoom in. 

Z7 Nikkor 24-70 @14mm 25s f4.5 iso3200

There it was plain as d.... or night... or at least I saw it in the viewfinder. Then it was gone. Within minutes it began raining. Okay, at least I know now it wasn't just a hoax. It was real. You just needed a long exposure and a long lens to see it. The next day, I got the idea to keep driving all the way to the Grand Canyon. The plan was to spend a couple of nights there.  I spent some time during the day exploring different vantage points where I could get a view of the canyon, and some interesting trees for a foreground. Of course the sky and the comet were to be invited too.  The first night started off beautifully.  Sunset was gorgeous. 

Vishnu Sunset
Z7 Nikkor 14-30 @19mm 1/10s f14 iso160

Then the clouds rolled in.  And the sky never again showed up to the party. Then it rained.  I almost stayed to shoot some lightning, and made a half-hearted attempt, but I was tired and wet. It rained all the way to camp, and into the next morning. And afternoon. I made some cool atmospheric images and had nice time, though.  The clouds began to part a bit by dinner time, so I thought I'd make my way back to the same spot and try again.  I decided to set up the camera at one particular composition. Using my app I knew I'd get the comet, when it showed up.  Then I waited. And the clouds rolled in.  I wasn't going to be deterred. I knew the clouds would part at some time, and I was going to be there to release the shutter. It started to get pretty dark, so I thought I should start some light painting.   Then it got really dark.  I kept releasing the shutter. Then it got really cloudy and dark. So I packed it up.   At camp, I checked my LCD again. I discovered I got about four shots with the comet.  

Z7 Nikkor 24-70 @24mm Various SS f4 iso5000 DFS

I made the image you see back at home. It's a time blend with three different exposures. One for the foreground light painting, one for the canyon, and the last with the comet peeking through the clouds. I then blended the three together in Photoshop.   I still wasn't satisfied.  I yet had to see it clearly for any given length of time, and with my own eyes.  I had been keeping my eye on the weather and saw that some clearing of the clouds would happen south of town. I knew of a spot in the National Forest that would be quiet, dark and away from any city lights.  I set up camp, made dinner, and waited. I set up a time lapse, only to find out the battery died right as the comet became visible.   Then there it was.

Z7 Tamron 70-200 @135mm 6s f2.8 iso10000 DFS

The skies were dark, the clouds were out of the way and I could see it with my naked eye, and only slightly better with binoculars. I shot it with wide angles, and with zooms. The image above was the best out of the bunch.
I shot it at 6 seconds to keep the stars from trailing, and had the camera apply a dark frame subtraction (high iso noise reduction) which takes another frame the same length to remove as much noise as possible in camera. Then I laid on my sleeping bag and watched it until it set. Marvelous. Now I was hooked. I had to find some more compositions.   I looked at the weather again, and made the trek out to some Ancient Anasazi Puebloan ruins just north of town.   The scenario played out well, with some light painting and time blending some cloud hide and seek with favorable results. 

Wukoki Pueblo NEOWISE
Z7 Tamron 70-200 @70mm 20s @2.8 iso12800 DFS

Here we have Wukoki Pueblo ruin. Plus, eariler, I went to a different ruins for sunset and was treated to one of the most gorgeous scenes in recent memory, and an image I had dreamed of for some time.  Lomaki Pueblo Ruins with the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

Lomaki Pueblo Sunset
Z7 Nikkor 24-70 f4 @36mm 1/3s f9 iso100

The next best thing to chasing comets is finding rainbows!  I got the idea to venture out to this barn at a local prairie.  I've spent the last decade scouring and exploring the countryside, kind of storing these locations in my mind. I've photographed them before, but you never know when a good time is to come back and make some really compelling images. I think it's a lot of luck and a little bit of planning. I never know exactly what conditions will be when I arrive. And frankly it doesn't really matter. There is always something to photograph, and will always be an experience. Even if I don't take a single shot. It is always better than being at home staring at a screen. And the worst day in the field is still better than the best day at my (old) job. 

Prairie Barn Rainbow
Z7 Nikkor 14-30 f4 @22mm 1/40s f9 iso320

The comet was due to depart very soon. Already the moon was making it harder to see, as it was rising in the early evening coinciding with the comets schedule. I knew this might be the last day to see it, and I wanted to very much catch it over this barn. I pretty much camped out at the side of the road the entire evening waiting for it to get dark. Fortunately I brought a couple of beers, and my little dog Lilly. We bantered a bit in the evening glow. I knew around 8:30 or so it would be time to set up. I had already picked out my location, and was set up ready to go.  The moon came up at about a quarter full, nicely illuminating the clouds.  I had a powerful headlamp and began light painting the barn and taking images. After about a half an hour, the clouds began to part, and the comet was visible. I recomposed a couple of times and was pleased to get a half dozen shots I was happy with.  It was time to wrap it up about 10 pm and head back to camp. Here is the last image, of the end of the day, the last day of the comet. Holy Cow!

NEOWISE Prairie Barn
Z7 Nikkor 24-70 f4 @50mm 25s f4 iso5000 DFS


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