Pic of the Week 7/31/20
Location: Burkburnett, TX
Date taken: 7/22/20
When things go bump in the night, its enough to make you heart skip. You might even let out a small gasp. Too many times have I been out in the thicket under a blanket of stars photographing the night sky and I hear a twig snap next to me causing me to jolt, jump, or jeer at whatever phantom is causing the ruckus. Usually, it’s a rat, a bug, or some other small animal. But that doesn’t keep the mind still. No, if anything, it exacerbates the situation and sends my thought into a tumble of all kinds of threats and foes. Feral hogs, a pack of wild coyotes, the Boogeyman; all plausible conclusions when your imagination is spiraling out of control. Usually after a breath or two I’ll calm down and get back to shooting. But what happens when the “bump in the night” is actually a good thing, when an unexpected startle leads to a fantasy-like image?
After successfully capturing comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) just a week before, I wasn’t ready to give up on the comet yet. First, this was the comets closest distance to the earth (a mere 64 million miles away) and it just too dang cool not to keep photographing. But much like a lot of my night sky photography, the comet itself is only an interesting subject the first time you see it. Every time thereafter its old news. So, I started searching for a location to photograph comet NEOWISE above an interesting subject. This led me to Google Earth, and I began scouring the maps and street views looking for my subject. I needed the subject to line up with the path of the comet, and I needed something that would make a good silhouette against the night sky. I searched my database of cached locations, but they were all too far away for me.
I had spent the past few weeks photographing the comet and I was tired of driving home late at night. I had already been to the Wichita Mountains (twice), across the Red River, Copper Breaks State Park, and other locations in the surrounding area. My goal was to find a good location, with an interesting subject, less than 30 miles from my apartment. I knew of a few old barns and stables off Hwy 240 west of Burkburnett, so I started there. The comet was going to line up with the barn, but it wasn’t at an interesting angle and the barn wasn’t the most photogenic. That led me to search all the backroads and county roads around 240. Finally, I found my location an old barn off Slama road not far from the Burkburnett city limit. The only problem would be the light pollution, but I was far more concerned with subject and travel distance than a yellowish haze in my sky.
Weather was also a concern, low clouds decided to hang around all afternoon and I was worried the sky would be covered. After I got off work, I observed satellite, looked a weather models, and read sky charts to determine the risk of cloud cover. Since I was so close to home, I figured it would be worth the gamble. I arrived on location just before sunset. The sun was blocked by a thick wall of gray on the far western horizon. “Just stay over there.” I said to the clouds. Above me clouds had thinned to wispy strands of condensed water vapor reflecting the remaining sunlight. I stood staring at the barn admiring the skeletal remains of the roof and imagined what it looked like in its prime. The skies above it cleared and the familiar blue to pink gradient filled in around the barn. A barn owl screeched as it took flight from the barn. A lone horse grazed quietly outside the barn paying no mind to my presence.
I lined up my composition and set up my camera confirming the position and angle comet NEOWISE would be above the barn. Sometime after 11:30pm would be perfect. One thing I did not consider with this location was the traffic. For being such a small unassuming road, it was busy. There were quite a few vehicles that drove by throughout the evening and as the sky darkened their headlights blasted my scene with an unmanageable amount of light. But one thing I did notice, if I shot the exposure a few seconds earlier I could get just the edge of the headlights on the barn. This lit the barn nicely and could be used in the final image blend. I spent the next few hours watching the night sky waiting for the comet.
Around 10:40pm I began to hear a crashing and knocking in the barn. It sounded like the tin roof hitting against something, but there was no wind, so something was moving in that barn. I didn’t pay too much attention to it; I had my eyes focused on the comet. I was snapping away enjoying the silhouetted subject below the now visible tail of comet NEOWISE. I was very proud to see my composition work and I was excited to capture what I thought was a unique photo of NEOWISE. Then around 11:45pm I could hear the low rumbling of a diesel engine truck ¼ mile from my location. Just for fun, I thought I would go ahead and expose an image with the headlights of the passing truck illuminating the barn. The truck got closer and the headlights edge was just barely lighting up the barn. I heard more clanging and banging from the barn and again paid no attention to it.
© Ben Jacobi
The camera shutter opened, and I watched the light scoot across the barn. I was shocked to see what was hiding in the barn—that old horse that was grazing the field earlier in the evening. The exposure ended just before the truck got too close and I was left with an image that featured NEOWISE, an old dilapidated barn, and a horse poking his head out the doorway. I debated even using this image, it just seemed so farfetched and unusual. But the result was an image that looked more out of fantasy than reality. Just when I thought I had an excellent composition and subject; a happy accident provided a much more interesting scene.
Below, I am attaching some of my efforts to photograph and document comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE. It has been fun getting to see the comet almost every night and seeing what creative imagery I can make with NEOWISE. There’s still a few more days to see NEOWISE, though it won’t be nearly as bright. Once its gone you’ll have to wait around another 6800 years before the comet graces our night skies again! Enjoy.
My first attempt at NEOWISE started with an early morning drive out of the city to see if I could catch a glimpse of the comet. I suspected a longer focal length was needed so I used my 85mm f/1.8 lens to capture this first photo. The comet barely takes up any of the frame but it was a good frame of reference.
After finding the comet, it was time to see if I could get some closer shots. I pulled out my 300mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter and tried to line up a close up. Since the focal length was so long I had to keep my shutter speed short to capture the comet without it trailing. I fired off nine images to use for stacking and help clean up the noise in the image.
Now that I knew I could capture the comet, it was time to see what else I could incorporate into the composition. I decided I would shoot one of my favorite viewpoints in the Wichita Mountains at the Quetone overlook.
Between our clouded skies and my work schedule, I decided to wait until the comet was going to visible after sunset. This was just a few days, but when I got the first relatively clear sky I thought I would try using my sky tracker to get more details of the comet. I also learned a longer focal length would be helpful for a composition I was building in my mind.
This trial run was a success and now I knew I could track the comet and capture more details than before. This gave me the freedom to explore many different compositions. The orientation of NEOWISE opened up even more opportunities for creative photography. I drove out to Oklahoma the next evening.
My shot I had envisioned came to a reality which is always a good feeling. Now I had perfected finding comet NEOWISE in the evening sky. I was also able to predict pretty accurately where the comet would end up in the composition. From here I took the Red River Photography Club to Copper Breaks State Park to enjoy NEOWISE under an unobstructed sky.
The split tail was now more visible and under the very dark skies of Copper Breaks I was able to capture a nice photo of the comet and ion tail. Though my attention was divided and I wasn't able to create any interesting composition that night. NEOWISE was expected to be at its closest to earth on July 23rd.
Which brings us to the image I have shared today. I've already told this story and with that I thought I was through with comet NEOWISE. But it turned out I had one more night of shooting. This would be focusing only on the comet.
7/24/20 A fading comet NEOWISE in the texas night sky. Tracked and stacked image. 200mm (300mm equiv), 50sec, f/2.8, ISO: 1250 Five stacked images. I set out to only capture and focus attention on the comet. I wanted a much longer exposure and more detail in the tail and nucleus. Not bad for not having a telescope though, I could have improved on the tracking.
That wraps up comet NEOWISE for me. There are thousands of amazing images of this comet circulating the internet right now and while those are cool, I encourage you to get out and see the comet for yourself. Here's a link you can use to find NEOWISE in the sky. https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise