How to photograph Neowise Comet

An incredible celestial object Comet C/2020 F3, otherwise known as the Neowise Comet, is currently orbiting the sun and is visible from Earth… and it is putting on quite a show! It won’t be visible from Earth again for another 6800 years!

If you are wondering how you can see and photograph this incredible phenomenon, this guide aims to answer all your questions!

UPDATES – July 25, 2020

A few quick, key updates from shooting this a few more times this week:

If you want to see Neowise with the naked eye, this weekend is your last chance… and you will need very dark skies, and/or a camera, telescope, or binoculars. It is getting very dim.

The tail has become incredibly long, especially the second ion tail, but is night as vibrant as it used to be.

It is first visible in the direction of West by Northwest, and sets above the horizon in the direction of NW.

Did I mention you need VERY dark skies?

UPDATES – July 19, 2020

Biolumiscence sparkles blue in the Pacific Ocean during high tide, while Neowise Comet sets above.

After a week of chasing and photographing Neowise Comet up and down the Oregon coast, I wanted to provide a few new insights.

The comet is best viewed in the evening now; in fact, most places will never see a morning appearance as it barely clears the horizon before it is light out. However, the evening shows are getting longer and brighter.

When I say evening, I mean 90 minutes after sunset. About 60 minutes after sunset, the camera will start to see it but our eyes still will not. At 90 minutes after sunset, night has officially begun and the comet will be clearly visible to the naked eye.

Keep in mind that the darker the sky, the brighter the comet! If you are trying to view Neowise from any kind of metropolitan area, it will be difficult to find.

Each night, the comet becomes visible slightly more Westerly and slightly higher in the sky than the night before. Right now, it begins due NW and sets under the horizon in most places between NNW and N.

The last thing to note is that you truly need clear horizons; elevation helps a lot with this. We often lost visibility behind sea stacks from the shore, but just a short hike up a bluff and suddenly it was well above our foregrounds.

What is the best time to photograph Neowise Comet?

The camera can pick it up as early as 60 minutes after sunset, but our eyes won’t be able to pick it out for another 15-30 minutes after that. Of course, the exact window will vary based on your location. Those at mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere will have the best opportunity to see it.

On the evening of July 22nd the Neowise Comet will be closest to the Earth when it will be 64.3 million miles (103.5 million km) away! After then it will continue to move further away into outer space.

Each night, the tail grows longer and the comet has continued to get brighter so far!

Photographing Neowise Comet as it rises near Mt Mcloughlin in Southern Oregon.
Photographing Neowise Comet as it rises over Mt Mcloughling in Southern Oreon.

Where do I look to see Neowise Comet?

At sunset, if you are far enough north, you will see Neowise Comet in the direction of NW. It will move eastward through the night.

This is complicated though… As the comet moves from NNW to N it will decrease in altitude (moving from higher in the sky towards the horizon). Once it passes N and continues NE, it will start rising through the sky again. Imagine its trajectory as a big semi-circle (or smile!) with the comet travelling left to right, down then up.

Be aware that it will not clear the horizon by a very wide margin, so you will also need to find relatively flat spaces to observe it from. Each night the comet will start its journey along the semi-circle from a slightly higher altitude in the evening, making evening visibility increasingly easier. However, visibility prior to sunrise will decrease as the comet will be dipping below the horizon earlier each night (and not popping back up the other side until its too light out!).

Its exact location in the sky will vary slightly depending on where you’re located. The Stellarium website can help you find where Neowise Comet is visible in the sky at your location at any given time. In the bottom right corner of the screen, you will find a time and date button. If you click this button it will open up the option to change the date and time you’re viewing to help you discover when and where to see Neowise Comet. If you drag the slider back and forth, it will hopefully better demonstrate the trajectory I’ve tried to describe!

Other factors to consider to photograph Neowise Comet

You will need to be free from overwhelming light pollution, though it has been visible in some brighter than expected places. The rule of thumb is, if you can see any stars, you can see the comet!

Furthermore, you will need clear skies to be able to see the comet. If it is cloudy then the clouds will obscure visibility of Neowise Comet.

If possible, find a composition for your photo with a clear horizon facing relatively North. Don’t worry about missing it, you will be able to easily see the comet with the naked eye.

Neowise Comet rise over Mt Shasta

What camera settings should I use to photograph Neowise Comet?

Depending on your equipment and goal, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for setting your camera to photograph Neowise Comet. If you are shooting the comet as part of a landscape, as I have done in this photography guide, you can get away with a longer shutter speed because you are shooting at a wider angle. The more you zoom in, the more you will have to worry about star trails and blurring the fast-moving comet.

This photo of Neowise Comet was shot at / 4"/ F4 / ISO 3200 as sunlight began to creep in.
This photo of Neowise Comet was shot at / 4″/ F4 / ISO 3200 as sunlight began to creep in.

I found that a 6-10 second shutter speed worked well for most focal distances between 40-70mm.

As you are shooting at night, your aperture will likely need to be as wide open as possible. I was using a lens that could only stop down to F4 when there was moonlight available. As we are now in a new moon phase, F2.8 or wider would be ideal.

As for the ISO, I always recommend shooting at whatever you need to get the shot right. Of course, the exact model of camera you are using will play a factor in this as not all sensors handle high ISOs the same.

For reference, I was shooting at F4 / 5″ / ISO 3200 for most of my early shots with moonlight. Since entering the new moon phase, I have been shooting at F2 / 10″ / ISO 10K for most post shots, varying slightly based on focal length and shadow detail.

READ MORE: Southern Oregon Photography Locations

What focal distance range is best?

Personally, I found myself shooting in the 40-60mm range for most of my compositions. This is largely due to my love for the scenes I have been shooting, as I want to include all of the scenery.

In any event, I wouldn’t go much wider than 24mm because you will shrink the comet too much. In most cases, I recommend zooming in as tight as you can while still maintaining a pleasing composition to give more scale to Neowise Comet. Most of my shots have been between 24-50mm at this point, but I always look for opportunities to shoot between 100-200mm, when possible.

Close-up photography of Neowise Comet.
Close-up photography of Neowise Comet.

READ MORE: Discover everything that’s in our camera bag!

How long will Neowise Comet be visible? What comes next?

No one knows exactly how long this will last, but experts estimate it should be viewable through the end of the month. It is likely to begin fading in brightness soon, but the tail will continue to get longer and longer.

Most predictions estimate visibility will have ended by the later days of July at the latest (unless something very crazy happens). Moving into August, the comet will only be visible with a telescope.

Tips to photographing with lunar light

Many people who have not done much night photography are here trying to learn in time for this event. You first need to temper expectations and understand that photography is the art of capturing light, which is never more difficult than it is at night when very little light is available.

However, there will be some moonlight available to shoot with through July 16th, though it will be getting fainter each night. This light makes stars more difficult to see, but the Neowise Comet is plenty bright enough to see and photograph. In fact, the moon provides some gorgeous light for your foregrounds, which is why you can see so much detail in the shots on this page.

Neowise Comet photography rising over Mt Shasta California

If you understand how to shoot in Manual (a necessity for night photography), one option for noise-free images is to do one very long exposure using the moonlight at a low ISO, then go back to shooting the comet at shorter shutter speeds and higher ISOs. You can easily denoise and blend your sky from one shot with a foreground from the long exposure. For example, when the moon was at 50% I was able to shoot at F4 / ISO 200 and get a perfect exposure with a 10-minute shutter.

Photographing Neowise Comet in the UK

So, Adam wrote most of this blog post. However, after seeing his incredible shots, I (Sophie) decided to take a spur of the moment trip to Stonehenge to see if I could capture this magical moment above the UNESCO World Heritage Site! Here’s what I learned about photographing Neowise Comet here in the UK…

The comet was visible last night, July 12th, from approximately 80 minutes after sunset in a NNW direction and seemed to remain visible throughout the night. It was difficult to spot initially as the sky was still quite bright, but as it got darker the Neowise Comet easily became visible to the naked eye.

This image of Stonehenge was taken at 50mm / f1.4 / ISO 320. It is a composite of a 20 second exposure to get the detail on Stonehenge and a 2 second exposure of the sky to keep the comet and stars sharp. I took this photo at 23:40, two hours twenty minutes after sunset.

Stonehenge makes for a great stop on the way to the Cotswolds Villages. This view of Stonehenge is visible from the roadside and I naturally passed it on my way to Bath and the southern Cotswolds Villages from London.

Photographing Neowise Comet above Stonehenge.
Neowise Comet over Stonehenge just after sunset on July 12th.

Final Thoughts

If you are based in Oregon and need some inspiration, I have put together this guide to my favorite Southern Oregon photography locations. You are sure to find some compositions and destinations to set the stage for your Neowise Comet photoshoot.

This guide was thrown together pretty quick, but I wanted to get something out sooner than later as I know many of you are hoping to get out and photograph Neowise Comet before its too late! We will be continuing to update it as we find out more information.

I hope this has been helpful and invite any feedback you care to offer! Additionally, I will attempt to update it daily as it’s exact schedule becomes better known.

Happy shooting!

Found this guide on how to photograph Neowise Comet helpful? Pin it! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Written by
Adam Marland is a professional travel blogger and landscape photographer from Oregon. After over a decade of experience as a freelance travel photographer, Adam found national acclaim when he became the National Park Foundation's โ€œChief Exploration Officerโ€ in 2021.

12 thoughts on “How to photograph Neowise Comet”

  1. The last photo of the comet in the above does a great job of showing off the gaseous ion tail (faint blue trailing off in a straight line towards the faint two stars) and the dust tail (the brighter yellow-orange curving to the right towards the brighter star). The ion tail is made up of individual atoms and molecules that become ionized (hence the name) and emit blue light as part of the ionizing process. The dust tail is made up of much larger (relative to the ions in the ion tail) dust particles (hence the name) and they just reflect the sunlight that shines on them. The ions get pushed by the sunlight so the ion tail always points away from the sun while the dust tail gets left behind as the comet moves through the solar system so it curves because the path of the comet is curved.

    • Yes you will be able to see it in Wisconsin. It’ll start to become visible in the evening about 90 minutes after sunset. I’d recommend checking Sterllarium website to get a better idea of exactly where and when it’s visible for you. We’ve updated this blog post with more information about how to use this resource too. As you need a tripod and a longer shutter speed to capture a good photo of the comet, you’re not going to be able to get a shot with the iPhone unfortunately.

  2. It is absolutely wonderful to view and much larger than the photos make it appear, when viewed through binoculars. It can be seen with the naked eye above the horizon to the NNW in the Pacific NW and incredibly beautiful, with the tail covering a noticeable swath in that quadrant of the sky. Thank you for these tremendous photographs and description!

    • I’ve yet to see it through binoculars. My trip to Stonehenge was so last minute, I was already out and didn’t have much with me! I’m sure it must be amazing to see up close like that though. I had just my eyes and camera to view it with. Fingers crossed the clouds will ease up here soon and I can get you again. Sophie x

      • The “Neowise Comet over Stonehenge just after sunset on July 12th” photo is amazing. The wide expanse of sky doesn’t take away from the comet, in fact it enhances it, along with the sunset afterglow. Excellent articles and very helpful!

  3. Excellent Adam. Very helpful for those who are new to shooting the sky at night. You have some great images from this event. Saw your one of them on KDRV TV the other night. I spend a half hour or so with one of my student teaching them online and they went and got a great shot in Sedona AZ that evening.

    • Im so glad you think so Larry, and appreciate you taking the time to show your support! Its been so invigorating having something new and exciting to chase! Matt Hoffman, the weather guy, is actually the one who talked me into chasing this thing ๐Ÿ™‚

      I hope you’re getting some winners as well Larry!


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