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Chasing Comets

Image of Neowise comet over the Atlantic ocean as seen from Norfolk, UK at dusk with a light up pier in the foreground.
Astrophotographer & Formatt Hitech Official Ambassador, Duncan Arnold shares his experiences photographing Comet C/2020 F3, better known as NEOWISE.

July 2020 saw fevered excitement build within astronomy communities in the Northern hemisphere with the predicted arrival of Comet Neowise (C/2020 F3) that was discovered on the 27th March this year. Neowise had the potential of being the brightest comet to grace our night skies since Hale-Bopp passed Earth in 1997, 23 years ago. Neowise certainly didn’t disappoint, it was probably one of the most photographed comets in history and was clearly visible to the naked eye even from within light polluted cities.

Neowise comet as photographed at night against a Norfolk, UK lighthouse and starlight sky Comets have a nucleus that is effectively constructed from frozen gases, rock and dust that are in orbit around the sun, ranging in size from a few miles to tens of miles. 

As comets make their closest pass of the sun, the nucleus starts to heat up releasing dust and gases that form a tail. In the case of Comet Neowise, its nucleus was just over 3 miles wide and released a tail that was around 10 million miles long!

On the 3rd of July, Neowise made its closest pass of the sun in its orbit and started to become visible from the UK on the 6th of July. 

Typically, the first few days that Neowise was visible in Norfolk it was cloudy, the first opportunity thankfully came to me on Friday the 10th of July. So, with a reasonably clear evening sky I headed to Cromer on the north Norfolk coast to meet up with some friends and capture Neowise over the pier.

Having looked at the position of the comet, I used Google Earth to work out a good vantage point which happened to coincidentally be outside the Red Lion public house, overlooking the promenade and pier.  As blue hour faded into nautical and astronomical twilight, we began taking images and at 22:46 hours we had our first image of comet Neowise on camera, after another 15 minutes it was then visible by the naked eye.

Happy with the images taken at Cromer we decided to move on to another iconic Norfolk Landmark, Happisburgh lighthouse.

After a short drive along the coast road we arrived at Happisburgh and set up to capture more images of this magnificent looking comet.

It was fantastic just to just watch Neowise slowly drift across the sky and capture images in between breaks in the cloud.  The image to the left was taken on my Sony a7r iii and believe it or not my Sony 90mm Macro lens which is insanely sharp and a lens I had never used before for astrophotography.

The camera settings for this shot were:

  • ISO 1600
  • Aperture F/2.8
  • Shutter speed 6 seconds.

Just after 2am we packed up happy in the fact that we had all witnessed and photographed this amazing looking comet, a first for us all.

The next opportunity came a couple of days later on the Sunday night so I headed to one of my favourite locations in Norfolk, Brograve Mill, a derelict wind pump on the side of Waxham cut. 

Neoswise comet in the sunset sky reflecting in a river passing by Brograve Mill in the UK

Upon arrival, Neowise was nowhere to be seen, hidden by a bank of slow-moving cloud.  Eventually after a two hour wait Neowise made its appearance. 

I had hoped for the comet to be more central to Waxham cut but the delay caused by cloud meant it wasn’t quite where I had hoped to capture it but still just managed to get its reflection.

The following few days brought more cloud throughout the night restricting the opportunity for more images, but that’s okay, Neowise should be back in approximately 6,800 years’ time! 

Hopefully we will get another comet like this in my lifetime, it was certainly a sight to behold in what has been the crazy year of 2020.

Portrait of Duncan ArnoldDuncan is currently employed as an IT security specialist, but his passion for photography means the majority of his spare time is spent on one aspect of his craft or another.
He is a member of Formatt Hitech team and runs workshops with fellow ambassador Dibs McCallum.

Find Duncan online at facebook.com/focusbug and focusbug.co.uk
For workshops, visit throughthelensworkshops.co.uk