Comet Neowise over the Never Summer Mountains

Comet Neowise over the Never Summer Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Comet Neowise over the Never Summer Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I wasn’t very excited when I first heard about Comet Neowise in July 2020. I don’t own a telescope; without one, I assured myself, it wouldn’t be possible to make a decent photograph. Then photos and instructions for shooting the comet started popping up on the web. Wait a minute, people are recommending a 50mm lens mounted on an ordinary DSLR? The comet’s tail is that long? It had been more than 20 years since I photographed Comet Hale-Bopp setting over the Saber in Rocky Mountain National Park using Fuji Provia 400 film pushed two stops. Now, equipped with high-end digital tools that would make the job much easier, I just had to get out and shoot Comet Neowise.

I started with a dry run at an obscure overlook on Flagstaff Road outside of Boulder. To my surprise, the parking lot was nearly full, the overlook was packed, and the buzz of excitement emanating from the crowd was palpable. I shot a few test frames and quickly realized that I was too close to the lights of Boulder to make a good photo. In addition, the foothills in the midground were dotted with houses with their lights on. I needed a truly dark location with a clear view of the sky looking northwest, far from city lights, rural subdivisions, and roads illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. In addition, I wanted to get up high so that the horizon would be at approximately my elevation. I knew the comet would be low in the sky, and I didn’t want to be down in a valley where the comet might drop below the skyline before I had a chance to shoot it.

After scouring my map of Rocky Mountain National Park, I settled on an 11,881-foot knoll high above Milner Pass that offered a spectacular view of the Never Summer Mountains. When the forecast called for clear skies, I hiked in, shot a mediocre sunset, and waited as night fell.

My camera saw the comet before I did—a fuzzy dot with a long tail that grew steadily more prominent as the sky became darker. I shot first with a 50mm f/1.4 lens so I could include both the comet, still well above the skyline, and the peaks of the Never Summers below. As the comet sank lower in the sky, I switched to an 85mm f/1.4 lens. To my delight, the comet and its tail filled half the frame with the short telephoto. Every few minutes I shot a sequence of nine sky images, exposing at 10 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 6400, then a sequence of four land images, exposing at 40 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 6400. Shooting multiple identical frames of both the sky and the land would allow me to reduce noise in the final image by stacking the frames and combining them using Stack Mode>Median in Photoshop or the equivalent procedure in RegiStar.

As midnight approached, my luck ran out. Clouds began creeping in from the southwest. Satisfied that I had made the best images I was going to get that night, I headed south, descending tundra and scree until I regained the Mt. Ida trail. I followed the trail down to the trailhead, then cranked up the “Dad rock” (my daughter Audrey’s name for my favorite ‘80s music), and endured the two-hour drive home.

On January 3, 2021, astronomer Greg Leonard discovered the comet that now bears his name—C/2021 A1 (Leonard). As I write this in February 2021, Comet Leonard is far from Earth, but it has the potential to become the brightest comet of 2021 toward the end of the year. After the joy of photographing Comet Neowise, you can be sure I’ll be eagerly anticipating Comet Leonard’s closest approach to Earth and making plans to photograph it.