On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226.
As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see.
Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky.
But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years!
Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear.
Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses
Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4.
The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work.
Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context.
For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well.
NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites).
The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night.
As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud.
For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21.
On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects.
However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use.
A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds.
To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800.
TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos.
Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses
However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site.
Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use.
Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds.
You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise.
TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing.
The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope
Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year.
But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars.
While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.
You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.
TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view!
But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same.
However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21!
TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it.
TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others.
TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus!
Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.
Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it.
FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.
Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy!
The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn!
And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!
In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view!
If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry.
Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene.
The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity.
The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal!
The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night.
A Good Year for Geminids
While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:
• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.
• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years.
The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here.
What Settings to Use?
To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:
A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins.
Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:
A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible.
Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
When to Shoot?
The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.
For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14.
For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.
So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold!
Where to Go?
To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north.
While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town.
From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up.
Where to Aim?
You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west.
But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are.
Using a Tracker
Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite.
However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary.
If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky.
Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera
The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses.
The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant.
To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.
Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog.
The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials.
Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.
Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon.
A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot.
My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark.
So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.
How Long Will the Comet be Visible?
The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.
But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night.
As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown.
But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July.
When is the Best Time to Shoot?
The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night.
Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn.
But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks.
Where Do I Look?
In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun.
What Exposures Do I Use?
There is no single best setting. It depends on …
— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).
— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.
— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.
However, here are guidelines:
— ISO 400 to 1600
— Aperture f/2 to f/4
— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds
Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.
As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.
As a rule you want to …
— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.
— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image.
— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens.
So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot.
— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left.
When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination.
If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site.
And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.
Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late!
What Lens Do I Use?
Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well.
Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.
A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots.
Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.
Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show.
Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?
Yes. Whatever you have, try it.
However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually.
In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes.
It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars.
But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot.
What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?
Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure.
What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).
On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.
On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it).
Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards.
Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.
All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod.
What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot?
Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:
— First, where the comet will be in the sky,
— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location.
— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!
Planning Where the Comet Will Be
Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions.
The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.orgBe sure to allow it to access your location.
Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest).
With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction.
Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.
I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.
Planning for the Weather
All is for nought if the sky is cloudy.
For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies.
Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot.
But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.
On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.
Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in.
My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas.
2. Exposure Blending
If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually.
For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus.
To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images.
Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows).
But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them.
4. Tracking the Sky
If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller).
But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing.
The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well.
Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.
But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.