“Comet Con” From Southern Utah

Because of our recent interstellar visitor, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, I decided to adventure west to darker skies in search of optimal viewing and photographic opportunities. A close friend’s parents had just built a new home and moved to Salt Lake City, so I cashed in on their open invitation, and use of their Jeep (lucky me, right?).

For comet purposes, I chose Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is about a 4-4.5 hour drive south of SLC. If you’ve ever been there or look at it on a map, the term “grand” in an understatement. I believe it encompasses over 1 million acres. The first night I chose a location called Devil’s Garden, which is about a 30-minute drive from the town of Escalante where I stayed. The bulk of that drive is on a gravel BLM road, which I associate with a DARK sky! It’s an awesome location with sandstone hoodoos, unique landscapes, and grand vistas to the west. Upon arrival there were lingering thunderstorms, and thick clouds that provided the best sunset colors I’ve seen in recent times, but then also caused me grief until 23:30 when they decided to open up and reveal the comet. I can say I was totally awestruck when I finally did see it.

Since it was late, and the sky was pretty dark in an exceptionally dark location, I struggled with settings at first. I initially tried for a telephoto shot, but I don’t have one that goes lower than f/4.5 so that plan was quickly scratched. Next, I went to my 50mm prime, which I don’t think I’ve ever shot at night prior to this. This also turned into an experiment. I initially went for ISO 6400, f/2 for 10 sec and the histogram showed major clipping in the shadows. I stood there scratching my head thinking how are these guys in NYC shooting for 2-6 sec at f/5.6. Ah, yes, light pollution. I was also shooting on my shiny, brand-new, week-old Nikon D850 and decided why not push the limits and see what “she’s” made of. So I went to ISO 10,000 at f/1.8. Still shadow clipping at 10 sec. So I dropped it in 5th at ISO 12,800, f/1.8 for 10 sec with the intent to stack a few images to eliminate the noise. Believe it or not, there was still clipping at those settings. The final result is a stack of 4 light frames, no darks, stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker (comet-airglow image). You can see there is a beautiful (in my opinion) green hue of air glow accompanying the comet, which I was thrilled about. To round out my lens marathon I also tried out my 14-24 f/2.8 at 24mm, but I still prefer the results of the 50mm.

This brings me to another little tidbit I unintentionally learned while setting up my playback options in the new camera, and figured I’d share just in case. I somehow (don’t ask because I have no clue) set my picture control to monochrome. So all the images I shot on the first night showed up on the display as B&W. I had somewhat of a panic attack, but had no cell service to try to Google a solution, and at the very least I’d have a monochrome image of the best thing that’s happened in 2020. I will spare you the details, but I found a few articles via Google that stated even in this setting Nikon cameras will record only B&W images in the JPEG format, and that the NEFs will still record in color. You can bet the first thing I did upon returning to my apartment at 1:00am Monday morning was put the card in my computer. Luckily the articles proved true and I was able to sleep again.

For night number two my original plan was to head even farther south to a place called Dancehall Rock and Sunset Arch. However, I turned a 6-mile hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls earlier in the day into an 8-mile hike when I took my drone out on a trail, and left my brand new D850 sitting on a nearby rock and didn’t realize until I was almost at the end of the hike. Yes. I really did do that. Thankfully I found her right where I left her. Dancehall also requires a 1.5 hour drive on the same BLM road, which I just wasn’t up for upon returning at 2 to 3:00am. So, I actually just went back to the coffeehouse that I got breakfast at, called Kiva Coffeehouse. Not only do they have great espresso, but it has easy access from the paved road and is situated in such a way that has perfect NW views with beautiful sandstone cliffs. And despite a sign in the parking lot stating no overnight parking, I can verify they leave the gates open and have tables and chairs set up next to the NW facing views.

I arrived around 21:50 and NEOWISE was already blazing in all her glory. So I got the telephoto shot I wanted at 70mm, and as soon I changed to my 50mm, the only thin band of clouds in the entire sky decided to blanket the comet tails until she set, sadly.

Though I was hoping to get more quality photos out of the trip, I’m ecstatic I was able to photograph what I did, and even moreso that I got to witness my first comet in such pristine skies. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait another quarter of a century for the opportunity to present itself again.

Maggie Machinsky is a member of the Astrophotography group. You can see her photos on Instagram @photo.gypsea