Comet over Ellenville

Hats off to Faissal Halim, who was the pathfinder for our July 20 AAA mission to image Comet NEOWISE from the Scenic Valley Overlook at Pine Bush, NY, in the Shawangunk Mountains, about 1 hour and 45 minutes from NYC by car.

Upon arrival, Faissal, Stan Honda, Chirag Upreti, George Preoteasa, Christopher Hull, and I staked claim to a 60ft section of the overlook, which I have to say was nicely appointed with a lovely stone wall upon which lenses, accessories, backpacks, and even tripods were placed.  Very handy.

The view was north-northwest, perfectly centered on the scenic valley below.  Comet NEOWISE was smack in the middle, about 20° above the horizon, just below Ursa Major, and emerged gradually from the twilight as we strained to make out first details.  The small town of Ellenville was off to the right of the north meridian, and as darkness fell it was revealed that the Milky Way was dumping tons of stars into the little city. (See Image 4).

I used the Sony a7r3 camera with a Zeiss Battis 18mm f/2.8 lens, and also brought along my new Sony 85mm f/1.8 lens for a closer view of the “star attraction.”

It’s a thrill to photograph a comet with such a prominent tail — and all the more special as this comet will not be back in our neighborhood for another 6,766 years.  (That’s a lot of Photoshop upgrades between now and then!)

Fun facts: NEOWISE/2020 is named for the orbiting NASA space telescope called the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer that discovered it on March 27 of this year. The comet is about 3 miles wide and hurtling through the solar system at around 17,500 mph (about 4.8 mi./s).  So if you see this thing coming up behind you on the highway, move over into the center lane!

The biggest challenge for those of us trying to image wasn’t its speed, distance, or magnitude —it was our own atmosphere, as day after day views to the northwest were all too often clouded out. Only the persistent lucky few were able to get decent photos initially.  So, I was thrilled to finally be in a relatively clear sky and quickly set up my rig, waiting for the twilight to fade away.

My plan was to make three distinct images.  First, a vertical landscape of the comet over the colors of the sunset with the 18mm lens; second, a close-up of NEOWISE in the black of space with the two separate tails (ion, going straight up, and dust, veering to the right) with the 85mm lens; and finally, some larger horizontal and panorama shots of the comet over the valley with the 18mm, showing the town in the distance to give a sense of scale.

Image 1 (Blue Hour Comet) shows the horizon and the fading colors of sunset using the 18mm f/2.8 lens (iso 1,600; shutter speed 13 seconds).  For those of you familiar with the 500 Rule for avoiding star trails in a night sky image, I decided to stay well within this rule to keep the stars more pinpoint.

For image 2 (The Tail), the 85mm lens was used at f/2.8, iso 3,200 for 5 seconds.  This image is a single exposure.  Regrets? Yep. In retrospect, I would have taken multiple images in order to “stack” or layer the images later in post-processing.  Stacking uses multiple images to distill a final image that helps reduce some of the noise inherent in higher iso settings.

Image 3 (Valley) is a horizontal landscape image to show the vastness of the valley relative to the comet and to give a sense of scale to the viewer.

Image 4 (Valley Pano) is a panorama blending two side-by-side horizontal images together in post-processing.

This was the first time I attempted to blend horizontally-oriented frames together instead of vertical frames.  I found the images came out too “bent” for my panorama software to “stitch” together in post.  So, there’s some unwanted distortion in Image 4.  Nevertheless, I’m happy to at least have generated a couple of photos that I think capture the moment.  Every outing is a learning experience.

All in, it was awesome to witness and image this extraordinary cosmic event.

And again, big thanks to Faissal Halim and our astrophotography team guru Stan Honda for leading the way on this shoot.

Preston Stahly is a member of the Astrophotography group. You can see his photos on Instagram @preston.stahly