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Home Articles & How-To's Astrophotography & CCD Imaging Comet Photography

Comet Photography
by Mark Shephard
Amongst all the wonders of the universe, comets arouse more than their fair share of
interest. Is it because they are ephemeral beasts, here today and gone tomorrow,
perhaps forever, or is it that they are everchanging on a daily or weekly time scale?
Whatever the reason, they capture the interest of the general public and the dedicated
amateur and professional astronomer alike. So the question that frequently arises is
"How do I photograph a comet?"
There are several considerations which I will deal with in turn.
The Camera
An SLR camera, preferably manual and with a non-electronic shutter is essential.
Exposures to capture a comet will range from a few minutes to perhaps 15 minutes, so a
cable release which will allow the shutter to be locked open for this period (the "B"
setting on the shutter speed dial) is also necessary, as of course is a firm tripod on which
to mount the camera.
What lens to use? Comets with their tails cover a surprising distance across the sky,
frequently 10-15 degrees (a hand span at arms length) so a moderate wide-angle lens
(i.e. 35mm focal length) is ideal, but a normal 50mm lens is still OK. Set the lens to it's
largest apperture (i.e. f =2.0) as the distant end of the comet's tail is very faint. For
more detail of the comet head use a 135-200mm telephoto lens, but don't expect to
capture fine detail of the comet head itself, it is after all, buried in a shroud of dust.
Finally, check the lens focus and set to infinity.
The FiIm
Comets move haven't you noticed. So unless you want a somewhat blurred photograph,
a fast film (ASA 400 to 1000) is necessary. Print or slide film doesn't matter, however if
you use print film get the photo lab to print your negatives at various densities to get the
best effect. With these film speeds, an exposure of 5 minutes will show the comet head
and the brightest part of it's tail, for capturing the full extent of the tail, go for 15
minutes. Don't be afraid to take several photos of increasing time but check the position
of the comet in the camera viewfinder before each photo.
Where To Take The Photographs
The limiting factor for all astrophotographs is the night sky fog limit. This is the time it
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Comet Photography
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takes for the background lighting to overwhelm the object being photographed. If you
live in a city, this may be as short as a couple of minutes (if using fast film) especially if
bright flood lights or street lights are nearby. It really is best to get out of town. This is
especially so when the comet (or any other object for that matter) is very low in the sky,
as Comet Hale-Bopp was for us southern hemisphere observers. Finally, go where you
won't be troubled by car headlights, they really are annoying and will ruin any long
exposure photograph.
So, there it is. Fast film, wide-angle lens, dark sky and a 10 minute exposure and you
are sure to capture a comet. Oh, and by the way, don't be afraid to have a tree, windmill
or old house in the foreground, it adds interest to your photographs. Happy shooting!
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Comet Photography
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