How to see the Neowise comet – an idiot’s guide!

We’re going a bit off-piste on this one. I’m no professional photographer and I’m even less of an astronomer. We did however manage to a) find the Neowise comet in the sky and b) take some snaps of it. This is a once in a lifetime thing – it won’t be back for over 6,000 years. Get your arse outside on a clear night and do something that doesn’t involve the word ‘lockdown’. In this article I’ll explain how to find Neowise and what you’ll need to do if you want to take some fancy pics of it.

What is Neowise?

Neowise is a comet. At the age of 45 it’s the first comet I’ve ever seen and it’s also the first comet my son has ever seen. We saw it on Thursday 16th July 2020 and I was sufficiently motivated to write this blog about the whole experience – it really was quite special. It’s not actually called Neowise. Technically it’s called C/2020 F3 but commonly referred to as Comet Neowise. It was discovered by astronomers using the Neowise space telescope and I guess that name is a bit more catchy. It’s visible to the naked eye if you have good eyesight. Easily visible with binoculars or a telescope. You don’t have long to see it – a matter of days from me clicking ‘Publish’ on this article. If you’re reading this in future time sorry you missed it but you can see what it was all about below. Oh, and I’m afraid it’s only visible in the Northern hemisphere. If you’re South of the equator you’re probably out of luck for this one – sorry folks!

Telescope pointing to the horizon
Camera settings: 10 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800, 35mm

How to find Neowise in the night sky?

We tried to find the comet by looking out of our bedroom window a few days ago and failed miserably. We looked really, really hard and just couldn’t find it. We thought we were too low down or our view was being obstructed by other houses. This turned out to be incorrect. Will explain later. At the time of writing it’s not that low to the horizon – higher than we thought it would be anyway. So if it’s a clear night but there are distant clouds on the horizon, don’t worry – it’ll be well above those. Our biggest mistake on our first attempt was that we gave up too early. The night sky was just too bright from the setting sun. If we’d left it for a couple more hours I reckon we’d have seen in from home with no problems.

How to find Neowise comet
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 18mm

So, bear in mind it was 16th July 2020 and we were looking from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK (around 55 degrees North). If you’re in a different part of the world or on a different day then things will be… different. But hopefully this will point you in the right direction, so to speak:

  • Look to the North (you’ll need a compass) – you should easily see a bright star slightly above the horizon. You’ll not miss it. Work your way up from the horizon and it’s the first star you’ll see – I think this is Capella. Sorry if it’s not. This is a property maintenance website.
  • To the left of Capella there’s another slightly dimmer star lower in the sky – I think this is Menkalinan. Imagine the distance between these two stars as being ‘one unit’. Work your way left about 3 units from Menkalinan.
  • Now look slightly higher than Capella and you should see Neowise. With the naked eye it’s very dim and will look like a splodge, depending on how telescopic your vision is. To me it’s a splodge. With binoculars you should easily be able to see it.

How to photograph Neowise?

If you want to take a quick snap of Neowise the bad news is that this is very difficult from a mobile phone. You need the camera to be VERY steady and on a long exposure. Holding your phone is a non-starter. You can try experimenting with balancing it on a rock and setting a timer to trigger the shutter.

Neowise comet on a blue sky
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm

I used my trusty Canon DSLR with a Sigma 18-35mm lens. Not the ideal lens for this sort of thing… but if I can successfully take a pic of it with this lens you should manage fine with a stock lens. Here are a few tips that might help you to photograph Neowise:

  • Wait until it’s dark – 11.30pm onwards for us
  • Use a sturdy tripod
  • Set your resolution / file size as high as it goes
  • I just used auto-white balance for this and it was fine
  • Use manual everything else including manual focus

Focus on the brightest star you can find and keep that focus locked in. If needs be take a few test shots to make sure the focus is as good as you can get it.

Neowise comet against a dark sky
I’m not sure if you can see the two little blue stars to the left of Neowise – I thought they were kinda cool.
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600, 35mm

DSLR settings to photograph Neowise

I experimented with a lot of different settings and have shown each individual configuration in the captions. Here’s a good starting point:

  • Shutter speed: 8 seconds
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • ISO: 1600
Looking for satellites
Hunting for satellites!
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/3.2, ISO 1600, 35mm

Struggling to find Neowise in the sky?

The biggest issue we had was that we were looking for it too early. Since it’s in part of the sky that’s illuminated by the setting sun unfortunately it’s very hard to see until the sky is dark. From around 10-11pm we couldn’t see it at all. From around 11-11.30pm I had photographed it without realising. From about 11.30pm onwards we could see it with the naked eye. It was also much higher on the horizon than we thought it would be – as you can see it’s well above the cloud line.

Accidental photo of Neowise
When I took this picture I had no idea I’d captured the comet! Camera settings: 6 sec, f/5.6, ISO 800, 18mm

This is a once in a lifetime event. Forget about the lockdown for one evening and think a bit bigger. I really hope you get to see it. This was an unforgettable night for me and my son and I hope we get another clear night so my daughter gets a chance to see it. Take care folks and if you’ve enjoyed this do me a favour and subscribe to my YouTube thing. Tattie bye!

Weetslade at night
An enjoyable evening at Weetslade! Giant drill bits with a satellite in the distance.
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm
Big dipper
It would be rude to exclude the Big Dipper!
Camera settings: 8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm
Big dipper and Neowise comet
Have you spotted it?
Camera settings: 10 sec, f/4, ISO 1600, 18mm
Andy Mac
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