One semi-cloudy day around the 4th of July, I got an alert from SkyWalk 2 on my phone. Something..something.. comet visible. I didn't think much of it since two promising comets - C/2019 Y4 ATLAS and C/2020 F8 SWAN both fizzled out. Upon further investigation, I stumbled across a few articles which talked about how the now named C/2020 F3 NEOWISE survived the trip around the sun and was now rapidly brightening to our view.
Shot over a message about it in the Milky Way Photographers admin chat and shenanigans group. As always, the mad scientist and general persuader to get out there, Kirk Keyes, corrupted me into dropping everything to chase this. He noted that this has the potential to be quite spectacular. We hadn't seen anything like this since Hale-Bopp back in 1997!
It all started in Chicago...
I originally was not planning on shooting the comet from downtown Chicago. After all, it's a Bortle 9 class sky! However, I saw images surface of the comet shot in the bright pre-dawn sky. So I thought to myself... "self, that would render light pollution a non-issue!"
Que the hard part. Planning. I knew that the comet would be visible. How do you frame a tiny object and still incorporate land elements without losing the small object? The answer lies in the use of a telephoto lens. (Note - this will change later as the comet traveled closer to Earth). The next issue - figuring out a place far enough away to get both foreground and comet.
On to the scouring of google maps. The few spots close to downtown that I typically visited were not facing the right direction or were too close to frame using a 70-200mm. After some futzing around with google and PlanIt Pro, I settled on a hospital parking garage.
Comet NEOWISE over downtown Chicago. Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm - 2-panel Panorama. The above image still required a 2-panel panorama shot at 70mm to fit the entire skyline. However, it was exactly what I envisioned and hoped for!
Venus and the Sears (Willis) Tower. Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm @ 200mm As a bonus, the planet Venus lined up PERFECTLY with the Sears (Willis) Tower. How could you not not resist this shot? I kept expecting lighting to blast out of the antennae! I was so thrilled to see the comet, and happy with fact that this was visible from a major urban area. Was ready to call it a day and put the camera away until...
THAT GLORIOUS TAIL
Close up of NEOWISE. Shot as it "set", hugging the horizon. The orange hue is from the last light of the sun setting.
The following day to two, after shooting the comet from downtown Chicago, images popped up showing this absolutely beautiful tail. This was the kind of detail visible from dark sky locations. That was all the motivation needed to go from "I'm happy with the Chicago shot" to "I'm going to chase this until you cannot see it anymore." Plus... Location is Everything.
The neat thing about Astrophotography is you are always learning and adapting. Upon searching for locations to shoot this comet, I noticed that in the online planetarium, above a certain latitude, the comet was visible ALL NIGHT! This was due to its circumpolar motion. Granted, this was time-based, as it traveled closer to us and then ultimately away from us. The all-night viewing came into play around July 14th, 2020. I had absolutely ZERO excuses to back out now. This also opened up opportunities for deepscape images since the position would swing the comet close to the horizon. For more on Deepscapes, refer to Milky Way Photographer's article: https://milkywayphotographers.com/article/2020/04/24/deepscapes-leave-the-wide-angle-lens-at-home/
The wheels turned in my head; weather aps, planetarium aps, and Planit pro were all open at the same time.
Door County, WI - July 10th-12th, 2020
The setup - shot with the backup camera.
The first stop on the "Finding Neowise" tour was the quaint little peninsula, Door County, WI, that juts off into Lake Michigan. I head over here quite often, as it's only 3-4 hours from Chicago. These dates were special in that the comet was visible for a short time after the sunset to the north-northwest, until about midnight. Then it would show up again around 2 AM in the north - northeast until sunrise. Door County provided this unique situation where one could shoot the comet after sunset on the western side and then head over to the eastern side for its rising. All in less than 20 minutes! The only caveat to this plan was the moon. We were still dealing with a bright moon. Although some detail was lost on the comet's tail, it was not enough to completely overpower visibility.
There was one night skunked night due to both high winds and clouds. However, the other two nights provided some wonderful viewing conditions.
NEOWISE as seen during dawn.
Even got a chance to shoot my car with the comet!
NEOWISE and the Eclipse. My trusty beater car has more epic portraits than my race car. Ha!
The above images illustrate the power of using a telephoto lens. Up until this trip, I rarely broke out the telephoto for astro shots. The lens compression, coupled with the comet along the horizon, created this illusion of a giant force to be reckoned with! Also, note how it doesn't take much for that illusion to start to fade away. In the shot with the sailboat, notice how much smaller the comet looks than in the other shots. The final night in Wisconsin had a brief appearance of the Northern Lights. Not visible to the naked eye, but stacking a few images brought out the hidden color! I ended up missing a much better Aurora display the following night. That will be redeemed later on.
VERY Faint Aurora with NEOWISE rising above the bluff.
Back to Chicago
I went back home for a few days to regroup. Although fuming about not staying one more night in Door County to catch the Northern Lights, work required me to return. The next leg of this trip featured a return to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There were a few favorite subjects there I wanted to photograph with the comet. Although some worked out, some shots did not, due to weather.
Michigan's Dark Sky Wonderland - The Upper Peninsula
There's this picturesque lighthouse that sits atop a rocky cliff in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The problem with the Keweenaw is persistent cloud cover thanks to Lake Superior. This would require a very fluid and flexible schedule. Oddly enough, I had training for a work program that week. This was the reason for splitting the trip into a few segments. Like everything photography related for me, the predicted clearest skies was also a workday.
Chapter 1 - Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor
In typical Great Lakes fashion, the forecast wasn't conclusive. Heck, it was cloudy the entire day up in the Copper Harbor region. The modeling showed that between midnight through sunrise, it would go from cloudy to clear. The following days didn't look promising. That small window was all I had.
The training concluded at 12:30 PM that bright and cheery Chicago Thursday afternoon. I rushed home and tossed everything in the car. Luckily, most of the car was never unpacked from the Door County trip! T-minus seven-hours to Eagle Harbor Lighthouse! The entire drive was rather dreary, cloudy, and rainy at times. I began to contemplate the hasty exit from the Chicago area. However, without risks, there are no rewards.
Comet NEOWISE and Eagle Harbor Light - 35mm.
Eagle Harbor Light with NEOWISE - 200mm
Around midnight, as all the weather apps predicted, almost like a light switch, the clouds disappeared, and the heavens shined brightly above with a billion stars. What an incredible sight. Comet NEOWISE hung out in the north-western sky like a beacon. By now, there was no mistaking this comet. It was bright - even the tail was naked-eye visible.
I was beyond thrilled. Sat up and watched NEOWISE skim the horizon before rising back up as dawn set in. The shot below was taken as day broke with Copper Harbor Light in the distance.
Copper Harbor Lighthouse and Comet NEOWISE at day break
Chapter 2 - Whitefish Point
The next few days of comet chasing proved a challenge due to weather. I learned that when you are chasing the night sky, it is best to be mobile all the time. So I camp from my car. Although I wanted to spend a few more days in the Keweenaw, the "Keweenaw Curse", as I call it, had other plans. Clouds rolled in and stayed steady for the next few days. I needed a new plan. Out came the weather aps, dark sky charts, and Google. All signs pointed towards Whitefish Point. Three and half to four hours away. Normally I stop over at Pictured Rocks, since that is one the way. However, the relentless cloud cover persisted all the way to the far eastern point of the peninsula. To the car! Well, after a nap.
Whitefish Point is a rather busy area. It is known best for the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There is a memorial dedicated to the shipwreck, as well as a museum dedicated to the many ships lost on Lake Superior. The lighthouse itself sits on the shores of a large beach lined with all sorts of rocks. On any given day, there are many rock hunters out there. Also nearby is Tahquemenon Falls - the crown jewel of Michigan. You'll never be alone at Whitefish Point. Well, except in winter.
This night was no different. I shared the beach with a number of people - comet chasers, milky way chasers, rock hunters and the like. Actually, I had fun helping people find and spot the comet.
By the way, had no intentions to shoot this many lighthouses with the comet. Roll with the punches!
Whitefish Point Lighthouse with our celestial guest.
Chapter 3 - Rainy Days and Improvising
After a successful night of shooting out at Whitefish Point, the weather from the western U.P. caught up to the Eastern U.P. I retreated over to our family's property near De Tour Township to ride out the thunderstorms.
And boy did it rain! It was mesmerizing - listening to the rain off the roof, and the booming echos of thunder through the miles upon miles of forested land. It forced me to be "in the moment" and slow down from the constant on the go run. The forecast showed that the entire day would be shot, so relaxed and enjoyed the sound of silence. After the storms, of course!
As luck would have it, around 9pm, the clouds broke! Knowing there wasn't much of a window, chose to hang around the property. Why not do a comet selfie? We like to ride ATV's up there, so incorporated the ATV into the shot. Ended up as a nice keepsake from the whole adventure. Also got to get a good night's sleep since the clouds returned around midnight.
Chapter 4 - THE SHOT - Mackinac Bridge and Comet NEOWISE
Clear-ish skies were in the forecast for the next few nights. This was July 19-21st. According to the scouting with Stellarium and PlanIt Pro, the optimal night to shoot the Mackinac Bridge with NEOWISE was July 20th, around 3AM. I crossed all my fingers and toes that the clouds would give me that opportunity.
Arrived at Colonial Michilimackinac (park) for sunset. It was still mostly cloudy. ClearDarkSky said it would clear out after midnight, so I was here for the long haul. Set up a 35mm shot while waiting for the Comet to move into position with the bridge. I wanted to shoot a wide-field view to capture the comet's overall motion throughout the night.
Time-blended composite of Comet NEOWISE's motion from 10PM until around 4AM. The clouds moved in and blocked the view for about an hour, but it still made for a neat composite!
Cue the Telephoto!
The time has come! NEOWISE was about to cross the Mackinac Bridge's towers! The alignment ended up epic-ally better than expected! I jumped for joy at the sight of this comet traversing the bridge. This really was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I did have to shoot this shot low to the ground, as the wind was brutal that night. As you can see from the images, there's no real good reflections in the lake. It was THAT windy. So while the comet made for an epic shot, I wanted that reflection there. Beggars can't be choosers, though! I planned to return the following day to try again. But you'll see that this one was the better shot overall.
Comet NEOWISE crosses the Might Mac's Towers - July 20th, 2020. It is shots like these that every photographer dreams of!
The following night in Mackinaw City was much calmer, but hazier. Light pollution from the Mighty Mac suppressed the detail from the comet to begin with. Couple that with the haze, and the detail was almost entirely lost. Despite gaining the reflection in the water, the shot from the previous night was the clear winner. Note how much this comet changes position in just 24 hours!
The Mighty Mac and Comet NEOWISE - July 21st. Note the hazier conditions and loss of detail in the comet.
Stopped over at Wilderness State Park this night, as well. The sky is darker over there, so figured it would be a decent spot to capture Milky Way, as well as some detail shots of NEOWISE. The Airglow created this rainbow of colors in the close-up shot. As an Airglow fanatic, this was icing on the cake!
Wild Airglow and NEOWISE. Shot from Wilderness State Park near Mackinaw City, MI.
Never one to back down from a Milky Way shot! Busted out the Nikon D850 and snapped off a few 35mm shots of everyone's favorite galactic core, as the Nikon Z6 fired away on the 200mm shots.
Milky Way shimmers overhead at Wilderness State Park - Mackinaw City, MI.
Chapter 5 - Back to Whitefish Point
Comet NEOWISE shown with Aurora dancing over Lake Superior. Stacked shot.
The remainder of the trip was all bonus. The optimal days for viewing NEOWISE were in the past. From the 22nd-ish and on, it would grow fainter as it whizzed on out our solar system. I returned to Whitefish Point since the weather looked best there. Plus my mom wanted to see the comet. Already on a adrenaline high from the Mackinac Bridge shot, did not think anything could top that...
Then the Northern Lights come out! If there is anything this trip taught me, its worth hanging out for a solid week or longer. Cloudy days were rewarded by these epic conditions! Never thought in a million years I'd catch the Aurora with a Comet.
Single image exposure of NEOWISE with the glow from the Northern Lights.
Another view of NEOWISE though some driftwood. This is a stacked shot for noise reduction.
Chapter 6 - End of an Adventure
All good things must come to an end. And comets must move on! In the last few night of decent NEOWISE naked-eye visibility, I ventured back to Mackinaw City. This time, bought my cousin along to show her the ropes of night photography. While we battled clouds, she was super excited to see what her camera could capture. We managed to get a few Milky Way shots, but the clouds persisted over towards the north. She stayed a few more days and eventually got to see the comet.
I, on the other hand, headed back to the land of lights. this trip was more than I ever could have dreamed of. Comet NEOWISE was truly a gift from the universe - sent here as a reminder that though the darkest of times, there will always be light!
Cheers and here's to 2021!