How to Photograph the Lunar Eclipse


On the night of November 18/19 eclipse fans across North America can enjoy the sight of the Moon turning deep red. Here’s how to capture the scene.

Seeing and shooting this eclipse will demand staying up late or getting up very early. That’s the price to pay for an eclipse everyone on the continent can see.

Also, this is not a total eclipse of the Moon. But it’s the next best thing, a 97% partial eclipse – almost total! So the main attraction — a red Moon — will still be front and centre.

CLICK ON AN IMAGE to bring it up full screen for closer inspection.

NOT QUITE TOTAL

At mid-eclipse 97% of the disk of the Full Moon will be within Earth’s dark umbral shadow, and should appear a bright red colour to the eye and even more so to the camera. A sliver of the southern edge of the Moon will remain outside the umbra and will appear bright white, like a southern polar cap on the Moon. 

While some references will say the eclipse begins at 1:01 am EST, that’s when the Moon first enters the outer lighter penumbral shadow. Nothing unusual can be seen at that point, as the darkening of the Moon’s disk by the penumbra is so slight, you won’t notice any difference over the normally bright Full Moon. 

The extent of the umbra and penumbra at the October 2004 total lunar eclipse.

It isn’t until the Moon begins to enter the umbra that you can see a dark bite being taken out of the edge of the Moon. 

WHAT TO SEE

At mid-eclipse the Full Moon will look deep red or perhaps bright orange — the colours can vary from eclipse to eclipse, depending on the clarity of the Earth’s atmosphere through which the sunlight is passing to light the Moon. The red is the colour of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around the Earth during the eclipse.

The total lunar eclipse of August 2007. At the November 18 eclipse the bottom edge of the Moon, as it did here, will be bright, but brighter than it appears here.

The unique aspect of this eclipse is that for the 15 to 30 minutes around mid-eclipse we might see some unusual colour gradations at the edge of the umbral shadow, from sunlight passing through Earth’s upper atmosphere and ozone layer. This can tint the shadow edge blue or even green. 

Eclipse chart courtesy Fred Espenak / EclipseWise.com

WHERE CAN THE ECLIPSE BE SEEN?

The last lunar eclipse six months ago on the morning of May 26, 2021 (see my blog here) was visible during its total phase only from western North America, and then only just. However, this eclipse can be seen from coast to coast. 

Only from the very easternmost points in North America does the Moon set with the eclipse in progress, but during the inconsequential penumbral phase. All of the umbral phase is visible from the Eastern Seaboard, though the last stages will be in progress with the Moon low in the west in the pre-dawn hours. But that positioning can make for photogenic sight. 

The start, middle and end times of the umbral eclipse for Eastern and Pacific time zones. The background image is a simulation of the path of the November 18/19, 2021 eclipse when the Moon travels through the southern part of the umbra.

WHEN IS THE ECLIPSE?

The show really begins when the Moon begins to enter the umbra at 2:18 am EST (1:18 am CST, 12:18 am MST, 11:18 pm PST). 

But note, these times are for the night of November 18/19. If you go out on the evening of November 19 expecting to see the eclipse, you’ll be sadly disappointed as you will have missed it. It’s the night before! 

The eclipse effectively ends at 5:47 am EST (4:47 am CST, 3:47 am MST, 2:47 am PST) when the Moon leaves the umbra. That makes the eclipse 3 1/2 hours long, though the most photogenic part will be for the 15 to 30 minutes centred on mid-eclipse at 4:03 am EST (3:03 am CST, 2:03 am MST, 1:03 am PST). 

The sky at mid-eclipse from my home on Alberta, Canada (51° N)

WHERE WILL THE MOON BE?

The post-midnight timing places the Moon at mid-eclipse high in the south to southwest for most of North America, just west (right) of the winter Milky Way and below the distinctive Pleiades star cluster. 

The view from the West Coast.

The high altitude of the Moon (some 60º to 70º above the horizon) puts it well above haze and murk low in the sky, but makes it a challenge to capture in a frame that includes the landscape below for an eclipse nightscape. 

ASTRONOMY 101: The high altitude of the Moon is a function of both the eclipse timing in the middle of the night and its place on the ecliptic. The Full Moon is always 180° away from the Sun. So it sits where the Sun was six months earlier, in this case back in May, when the high Sun was bringing us warmer and longer days. Winter lunar eclipses are always high; summer lunar eclipses are always low, the opposite of what the Sun does. 

The view from the East Coast.

From eastern North America the Moon appears lower in the west at mid-eclipse, making it easier to frame above a landscape. For example from Boston the Moon is 30º up, lending itself to nightscape scenes. 

However, the sky will still be dark. To make use of the darkness to capture scenes which include the Milky Way, I suggest making the effort to travel away from urban light pollution to a dark sky site. That applies to all locations. Yes, that means a very long night!

PHOTO OPTIONS 1 — CAMERA ON A FIXED TRIPOD

With just a camera on a tripod, if you are on the East Coast (I show Boston here) it will be possible to frame the eclipsed Moon above a landscape with a 24mm lens (assuming a full frame camera; a cropped frame camera will require a 16mm lens). 

Framing the scene from the East Coast.

What exposure will be best will depend on the level of local light pollution at your site. But from a dark site, 30 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 should work well. But without tracking, you will see some star trailing at 30 seconds. Also try shorter exposures at a higher ISO. 

There’s lots of time, so take lots of shots. Include some short shots of just the Moon to blend in later, as the exposures best for picking up the Milky Way will still overexpose the Moon, even when it is darkest at mid-eclipse. 

Framing the scene from the West.

From western North America, including the landscape below will require wide lenses and a vertical format, with the Moon appearing quite small. But from a photogenic site, it might be worth the effort. 

Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with 15mm lens at f/3.2 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 for 1 minute single exposure, toward the end of totality.
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with Canon 5D MKII and 24mm lens at f2.8 for stack of 4 x 2 minutes at ISO 800. Taken during totality..

However, as my images above from the December 2010 eclipse show, if there’s any haze, the Moon could turn into a reddish blob. 

You might be tempted to shoot with a long telephoto lens, but unless the camera is on a tracker, as below, the result will likely be a blurry mess. The sky moves enough during the long (over 1 second) exposures needed to pick up the reddened portion of the Moon that the image will smear when shot with long focal lengths. The solution is to use a sky tracker.

PHOTO OPTIONS 2 — CAMERA ON A TRACKER

Placing the camera on a motorized tracker that has been polar aligned to follow the motion of the stars opens up many more possibilities. 

Camera on a Star Adventurer tracker showing the field of a 24mm lens.

From a dark site, make use of the Moon’s position near the Milky Way to frame it and Orion and his fellow winter constellations. A 24mm lens will do the job nicely, in exposures up to 2 to 4 minutes long. But take short ones for just the Moon to layer in later. 

Showing the field of a 50mm lens.

A 50mm lens (again assuming a full frame camera) frames the Moon with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus. 

Showing the field of an 85mm lens,

Switching to an 85mm lens frames the clusters more tightly and makes the Moon’s disk a little larger. For me, this is the best shot to go for at this eclipse, as it tells the story of the eclipse and its unique position near the two star clusters. 

Showing the field of 200mm and 250mm lenses.

But going with a longer lens allows framing the red eclipsed Moon below the blue Pleiades cluster, a fine colour contrast. A 200mm lens will do the job nicely (or a 135mm on a cropped frame camera). 

Or, as I show here, the popular William Optics RedCat with its 250mm focal length will also work well. But such a lens must be on a polar-aligned tracker to get sharp shots. Use the Sidereal rate drive speed to ensure the sharpest stars over the 1 to 4 minutes needed to record lots of stars. 

Typical settings for tracker images, with an image of the January 2019 eclipse.

Take lots of exposures over a range of settings — long to bring out the deep sky detail and shorter to preserve detail in the reddened lunar disk. These can be layered and blended later in Photoshop, or in the layer-based image editing program of your choice, such as Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 3 — THROUGH A TELESCOPE

While I think the tracked wide-field options are some of the best for this eclipse, many photographers will want frame-filling close-ups of the red Moon. While a telescope will do the job, unless it has motors to track the sky, your options are limited.

Phone on a simple Dobsonian reflector.

A phone clamped to the eyepiece of a telescope can capture the shrinking bright part of the eclipsed Moon as the Moon enters more deeply into the umbra. Exposures for the bright part of the Moon are short enough a motor drive on the telescope is not essential. 

But if you haven’t shot the Moon with this gear before, eclipse night is not the time to learn. Practice on the Moon before the eclipse. 

DSLR on a beginner refractor telescope showing the adapter.

For shooting with a DSLR camera through a telescope you’ll need a special camera adapter nosepiece and T-ring for your camera. Again, if you don’t have the gear and the experience doing this, I would suggest not making the attempt at two in the morning on eclipse night! 

DSLR on a beginner reflector with an often necessary Barlow lens.

For example, owners of typical beginner reflectors are often surprised to find their cameras won’t even reach focus on their telescope. Many are simply not designed for photography. Adding a Barlow lens is required for the camera to reach focus, though without a drive, exposures will be limited to short (under 1/15s) shots of the bright part of the Moon.

An exposure composite of short and long exposures.

The challenge with this and all lunar eclipses is that the Moon presents a huge range of brightness. Short snapshots can capture the bright part of the Moon not in the umbra, but the dark umbral-shaded portion requires much longer exposures, usually over one second. 

Your eye can see the whole scene (as depicted above) but the camera cannot, not in one exposure. This example is a “high dynamic range” blend of several exposures. 

A series of the September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to demonstrate an exposure sequence from partial to total phase.

Plus as the eclipse progresses, longer and longer exposures are needed to capture the sequence as the Moon is engulfed by more of the umbra. 

After mid-eclipse, the exposures must get progressively shorter again in reverse order. So attempting to capture an entire sequence requires a lot of exposure adjustments. 

TIP: Bracket a lot! Take lots of frames at each burst of images shot every minute, or however often you wish to capture the progress of the eclipse for a final set. Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses provide lots of time to take lots of images. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 4 — THROUGH A TRACKING TELESCOPE

If you want close-ups of the eclipsed red Moon, you will need to use a mount equipped with a tracking motor, such as an equatorial mount shown here. But for use with telephoto lenses and short telescopes, a polar-aligned sky tracker, as above, will work. 

A small apo refractor on an equatorial mount with typical settings for mid-eclipse.

Exposures can now be several seconds long, and at a lower ISO speed for less noise, allowing the Moon to be captured in sharp detail and with great colour. Long exposures will even pick up stars near the Moon. 

However, when shooting close-ups, use the Lunar drive rate (if your mount offers that choice) to follow the Moon itself, as it has a motion of its own against the background stars. It’s that orbital motion that takes it from west to east (right to left) through the Earth’s shadow. 

The fields of view and size of the Moon’s disk with typical telescope focal lengths.

Filling the camera frame with the Moon requires a surprising amount of focal length. The Moon appears big to our eyes, but is only 1/2º across. 

Even with 800mm of focal length, the Moon fills only a third of a full frame camera field. Using a cropped frame camera has the advantage of tightening the field of view, but it still takes 1200mm to 1500mm of focal length to fill the frame. 

But I wouldn’t worry about doing so, as longer focal lengths typically also come with slower f-ratios, requiring longer exposure times or higher ISOs, both of which can blur detail. 

A camera on an alt-azimuth GoTo Schmidt-Cassegrain.

For close-ups, a polar-aligned equatorial mount is best. But if your telescope is a GoTo telescope on an alt-azimuth mount (such as a Schmidt-Cassegrain shown here), you should be able to get good shots.

The field of view will slowly rotate during the eclipse, making it more difficult to later accurately assemble a series of shots documenting the entire sequence. 

But any one shot should be fine, though it might be best to keep exposures shorter by using a higher ISO speed. As always, take lots of shots at different settings. 

You won’t be able to tell which is sharpest until you inspect them later at the computer.

TIP: People worry about exposures, but the flaw that ruins many eclipse shots is poor focus. Use Live View to focus carefully on the sharp edge of the bright part of the Moon. Or better yet, focus on a bright star nearby. Zoom up to 10x to make it easier to see when the star is in sharpest focus. It can be a good idea to refocus through the night as the changing temperature can shift the focus point of long lenses and telescopes. That might take moving the scope over to a bright star, which won’t be possible if you need to preserve the framing for a composite. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 5 — HDR COMPOSITES

Using an equatorial mount tracking at the lunar rate keeps the Moon stationary. This opens up the possibility of taking a series of shots over the wide range of exposures needed to capture the Moon from bright to dark, to assemble later in processing. Take 5 to 7 shots in quick succession. 

An HDR composite from the December 2010 eclipse.

High dynamic range software can blend the images, or use luminosity masks created by extension panels for Photoshop such as Lumenzia, TK8 or Raya Pro. Either technique can create a final image that looks like what your eye saw. The key is making sure all the images are aligned. HDR software likely won’t align them for you very well.

The January 2019 eclipse layered and blended in Photoshop.

Blending multiple exposures will also be needed to properly capture the eclipsed Moon below the Pleiades, similar to what I show here (and below) from the January 2019 eclipse when the Moon appeared near the Beehive star cluster. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 6 — ECLIPSE TRACK COMPOSITES

Another popular form of eclipse image (though also one rife for laughably inaccurate fakes) is capturing the entire path of the Moon across the sky over the duration of the eclipse from start to end. 

The track of the September 2015 eclipse, accurately assembled to correct scale.

It can be done with a fixed camera on a tripod but requires a wide (14mm to 20mm) and properly framed lens, to capture the sequence as it actually appeared to proper scale, and not created by just pasting over-sized moons onto a sky to “simulate” the scene, usually badly. By the end of the day on November 19 the internet will be filled with such ugly fakes. 

You could set the camera at one exposure setting (one best for when the Moon and sky are darkest at mid-eclipse) and let the camera run, shooting frames every 5 seconds or so. The result might work well as a time-lapse sequence, showing the bright sky darkening, then brightening again. 

But chances are the frames taken at the start and end when the sky is lit by full moonlight will be blown out. It will still take some manual camera adjustments through the eclipse. 

For a still-image composite, you should instead expose properly for the Moon’s disk at all times, a setting that will change every few minutes, then take a long exposure at mid-eclipse to pick up the stars and Milky Way. The short Moon shots are then blended into the base-layer sky image later in processing. 

Framing the eclipse path for the start of the sequence.
Framing the path so the Moon ends up at a desired location on the frame.

If the camera has been well-framed and was not moved over the 3.5 hours of the eclipse, the result is an accurate and authentic record of the Moon’s path and passage into the shadow, and not a faked atrocity! 

But creating a real image requires a lot of work at the camera, and at the computer. 

TIP: Shooting for composites is not work I would recommend attempting while also running other cameras. Focus on one type of image and get it right, rather than trying to do too many and doing them all poorly. 

PHOTO OPTION 7 — ECLIPSE SHADOW COMPOSITE

One of the most striking types of lunar eclipse images is a close-up composite showing the Moon passing through the Earth’s umbral shadow, with the arc of the shadow edge on the Moon defining the extent of the shadow, which is about three times larger than the Moon.

Such a composite can be re-created later by placing individual exposures accurately on a wider canvas, using screen shots from planetarium software as a template guide. 

A composite of the Moon moving through the umbra.

But to create an image that is more accurate, it is possible to do it “in camera.” Unlike in the film days, we don’t have to do it with multiple exposures onto one piece of film. 

We take lots of separate frames with a telescope or lens wide enough to contain the entire path of the Moon through the umbra. A polar-aligned equatorial mount tracking at the sidereal rate is essential. That way the scope follows the stars, not the Moon, and so the Moon travels across the frame from right to left. 

Framing for a shadow composite.

Start such a sequence with the Moon at lower right if you are framing just the path through the shadow. Use planetarium software (I used Starry Night™ to create the star charts for this blog) to plan the framing for your camera, lens and site, so the Moon ends up in the middle of the frame at mid-eclipse. This is not a technique for the faint of heart!  

A shadow-defining composite from January 2019, with the Moon near the Beehive cluster.

An interesting variation would be using a 200mm to 250mm lens to frame the Moon’s shadow passage below the Pleiades, to create an image as above. That will be unique. Again, an accurately aligned tracker turning at the sidereal rate will be essential.

Acquiring the frames for any composite takes constantly adjusting the exposure during the length of eclipse, which can try your patience and gear during the wee hours of the morning. 

I’ll be happy just to get a good set of images at mid-eclipse to make a single composite of the red Moon below the Pleiades. 

TIP: It could be cold and lenses can frost over. A battery-powered heater coil on the optics might be essential. And spare warm batteries.

The 4-day-old waxing crescent Moon on April 8, 2019 in a blend of 7 exposures from 1/30 second to 2 seconds, blended with luminosity masks in Photoshop.

PRACTICE!

To test your equipment and your skills at focusing, you can use the waning crescent Moon in the dawn hours on the mornings of October 29 to November 2 or, after New Moon on November 4, the waxing crescent Moon on the evenings of November 6 to 10. While the crescent Moon isn’t as bright as the Full Moon, it will be a good stand in for the bright part of the eclipsed Moon when it is deep in the umbra. 

Even better, the dark part of the crescent Moon lit by Earthshine is a good stand-in for the part of the Moon in the umbra. Like the eclipsed Moon, the crescent Moon’s bright and dark parts can’t be captured in one exposure. So it’s a good test for the range of exposures you’ll need for the eclipse, for practising changing settings on your camera, and for checking your tracking system.  

The crescent Moon is also useful to test your manual focusing, though the sharp detail along the terminator (the line dividing the bright crescent from the earthlit dark part of the Moon) is much easier to focus on than the flat, low contrast Full Moon.

A selfie of me looking up at the total eclipse of the Moon on January 20, 2019, using binoculars to enjoy the view.

DON’T FORGET TO LOOK!

Amid all the effort needed to shoot this or any eclipse, lunar or solar, don’t forget to just look at it. No photo can ever quite capture the glowing nature of the eclipsed Moon set against the stars. 

A selfie of the successful eclipse chaser bagging his trophy, the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019.

I wish you clear skies and good luck with your lunar eclipse photography. If you miss it, we have two more visible from North America next year, both total eclipses, on May 15/16 and November 8, 2022. 

— Alan, www.amazingsky.com 

How to Photograph Comet NEOWISE


Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park in Twilight (July 14, 2020)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.

Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park (July 14, 2020)
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the eroded hoodoo formations at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, July 14-15, 2020. A faint aurora is at right. The foreground is lit by starlight only; there was no light painting employed here. This is a stack of 12 exposures for the ground to smooth noise, blended with a single untracked exposure of the sky, all at 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.


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. 

Comet Path
This chart shows the position of Comet NEOWISE at nightly intervals through the rest of the summer. However, the rest of July are the prime nights left for catching the comet at its best. Click or tap on the image to download a full-res copy.


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. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Red Deer River from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. The sky is brightening with dawn twilight and a small display of noctilucent clouds is on the horizon at right. This is a two-segment vertical panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 200 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.


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. 

Selfie Observing Comet NEOWISE (July 15, 2020)
A selfie observing Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with binoculars on the dark moonless night of July 14/15, 2020 from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. A faint aurora colours the sky green and magenta. The faint blue ion tail of the comet is visible in addition to its brighter dust tail. The ground is illuminated by starlight and aurora light only. This is a blend of 6 exposures stacked for the ground (except me) to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky and me, all 13 seconds at f/2.5 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. Topaz DeNoise AI applied.


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.

Panorama of Comet NEOWISE Over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2
A once-in-a-lifetime scene — A panorama of the dawn sky at 4 am on July 14, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. Noctilucent clouds glow below the comet in the dawn twilight. Venus is rising right of centre paired with Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, while the Pleiades cluster shine above. The waning quarter Moon shines above the Vimy Peak at far right. The Big Dipper is partly visible above the mountain at far left. Capella and the stars of Auriga are at centre. This is an 8-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.5 for 15 seconds each at ISO 100 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Exposure Considerations 

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. 

Histogram
The histogram as shown in Adobe Camera Raw. Cameras also display the image’s histogram in the Live View preview and in playback of recorded images. Keep the histogram from slamming to the left.

— 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. 

Comet NEOWISE Over Dinosaur Park (July 15, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the badlands and formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on the night of July 14-15, 202. This is a blend of 6 exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise, with a single exposure for the sky, with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII. The ground exposures are 1- and 2-minutes at ISO 1600 and f/2.8, while the single untracked sky exposure was 20 seconds at ISO 3200 and f/2.5.

My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides extensive instruction on the best camera settings for exposure and noise reduction.

Location Considerations

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?

Comet over Canola Field (July 15, 2020)
With a 35mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 3200 and f/5.6 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

Comet over Canola Field Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
With a 50mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of three 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and f/5 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, all with the 50mm Sigma lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

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. 

StarryNightFOV
StarryNight™ and other programs offer “Field of View” indicator frames that can show how the scene will frame with (in this example) lenses from 24mm to 135mm.


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. 

Comet NEOWISE with NLCs Above Prairie Lake (July 10-11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over Deadhorse Lake near Hussar in southern Alberta, taken just after midnight on July 10-11, 2020 during its evening appearance. The comet shines just above low noctilucent clouds. This is a blend of nine exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise and the water, with a single exposure for the sky, all 4 seconds with the 135mm Canon lens at f/2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 1600.


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). 

Canon 6D Live View Wide
The Live View screen of a Canon DSLR. Look in your manual for tips on how to boost the Live screen image brightness with the Exposure Simulation option.

Canon 6D Live View Zoom5x
Magnify the image 5x, 10x or more with the Zoom box centred on a star to focus the star to a pinpoint.

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!

Stellarium Web
The free web version of Stellarium shows the comet, as do the paid mobile apps.

  1. 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.org  Be 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). 

Comet NEOWISE and NLCs over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2020
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with a small display of noctilucent clouds over Emerald Bay and the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, at dawn on July 14, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of four exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, blended with a single short exposure for the sky, all 20 seconds at f/2.5 and ISO 400. All with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

  1. Planning Where You Need To Be

I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris mobile app (https://www.photoephemeris.com) — there is a free web version available. Many like PhotoPills (https://www.photopills.com).

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. 

TPE
The screen from The Photographer’s Ephemeris app showing the planning map for the image above, with the faint yellow line indicating the line toward the comet’s azimuth.

Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.

TPE 3D
The simulation of the real scene above, of the comet over the Prince of Wales Hotel, using TPE 3D app. The simulation matches the real scene very well!

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.

Astrospheric
The Astrospheric app prediction of skies for me for the night I prepared this blog. Not great! But clear skies could be found to to east with a fresh hours drive.

  1. 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. 

For sites outside North America, try ClearOutside (https://clearoutside.com) 


Advanced Techniques 

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.

Comet NEOWISE and Aurora Panorama (July 13, 2020)
A panorama of the sky just before midnight on July 13, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the front range of the Rocky Mountains and an arc of aurora across the north. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.2 for 25 seconds each at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

1. Panoramas

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. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River Panorama (July 11, 2020)
What a magical scene this was! This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the sweep of the Red Deer River and Badlands from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. Light from the waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination, plus twilight. This nicely shows the arch of the twilight colours. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI applied.

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. 

For a video tutorial on how to do the layering and masking in programs such as Photoshop, see my How to Shoot Moonlit Nightscapes video at https://vimeo.com/theamazingsky/moonlighttutorial. 

Comet NEOWISE over Horseshoe Canyon (July 11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Horseshoe Canyon formation near Drumheller, Alberta on the night of July 10-11, 2020, taken about 2 a.m. MDT with the comet just past lower culmination with it circumpolar at this time. Warm light from the rising waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination. This is a blend of six 1- and 2-minute exposures for the ground at ISO 800 and 400 stacked to smooth noise, with a single 30-second exposure at ISO 1600 for the sky, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII.

3. Exposure Stacking 

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. 

Comet NEOWISE Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
A close-up of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) on the night of July 14/15, 2020 with a 135mm telephoto lens. This is a stack of nine 1-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon lens wide-open at f/2 and Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro tracker tracking the stars not the comet. Stacked and aligned in Photoshop.

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. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro
The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and 135mm lens used to take the close-up shot of the comet above.

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. 

Star Adventurer Polar Axis Angle
This is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. All trackers have a polar axis that needs to be aligned to the Celestial Pole, near Polaris.

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.

Clear skies and happy comet hunting!

— Alan, July 18, 2020 /Revised July 23 / AmazingSky.com 

 

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