How I got the photo: Comet NEOWISE

Although I do night photography, I usually don’t photograph specific celestial events. But I had never photographed a comet before, and I couldn’t stay away.

Above: Nikon D750 and 50mm f/1.4 lens. Eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500. I love that both tails of the comet are easily seen in these images.

Planning the location

Finding where the comet would be visible was simple since it would be located just under the Big Dipper. It would be visible from approximately 9:30 PM to 12:30 AM in California.

I guessed that certain places such as Alabama Hills, Joshua Tree National Park, or Mono Lake would be filled with people photographing Comet NEOWISE, so I decided to photograph at Owens Valley Radio Telescope. There was less chance of it being overrun since one needed to have permission to photograph there, which I had. Thank you, Caltech!


Planning the gear

I had never photographed a comet before. What should I bring?

I brought most of my lenses. Better safe than sorry. But I would need a strategy.

Most of the time, I photograph at night using ultra wide angle lenses such as the Pentax 15-30mm f/2.8 or the Irix 15mm f/2.4. However, I was concerned that the comet might look really small with ultra wide angle lenses. I attached my 50mm f/1.4 prime lens, thinking that this might give me some reach. I did have a Nikon 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens, but I felt that I might need a faster lens. Also, I thought that a f/1.4 prime lens might be sharper.

This thankfully seemed to work well.


Determining how to photograph the comet

Sure enough, the comet was visible to the naked eye around 9:30 pm. It looked beautiful. I decided to set up most of my photos so that only part of the radio telescope would be visible in the frame. The viewer would be able to fill in the rest. This would also set my photos apart a little from most people’s photos, as most people tend to photograph the entire apparatus.

Although the 50mm f/1.4 has a hard stop at infinity, it doesn’t always mean that this is “true infinity”. I manually focused, adjusting the lens several times before photographing, and adjusting again between shots, as there seemed to be some variance with this lens for whatever reason. After it seemed to “settle down”, I applied gaffer’s tape to the focus ring so it would stay in place.

Above: Nikon D750 and 50mm f/1.4 lens. Eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500. This particular photo was created at 9:32 PM, just when Comet NEOWISE was becoming visible, still with a sliver of the moon in the sky. Later, the comet would become obscured by the light pollution from Bishop to the north. This was the first photo of the evening. I must admit that I let loose with an audible “Yessss!” when I saw the comet so clearly on the LED screen.


Camera settings

My settings with a Nikon D750 and 50mm lens was eight seconds at f/2.5 at ISO 2500.


I photographed at eight seconds because much longer than that and the stars would begin to to register as trails rather than pinpoints due to the rotation of the earth. With a 50mm, the lens is zoomed in noticeably more than with an ultra wide angle lens such as a 15mm. With 15mm lens, I often photograph at 15 or 20 seconds, not eight seconds.

I chose f/2.5 after experimenting with photographing at wider apertures such as f/1.8 or f/2.0. With those, I was experiencing lens aberration called coma at the wider apertures, making most of the stars appear as if they had sprouted wings! It’s a balancing act. We need a wider aperture to let in as much light from the stars as possible. But we also don’t want lots of distortion. Stopping down a little helped reduce the aberrations.

And finally, I decided on ISO 2500 because the Nikon has something called ISO invariance. This means that I could boost the exposure without penalty of noise in post-production rather than increasing the ISO in the field.


Going wide

I usually show up with two cameras. My other camera is a Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. I decided to photograph at 30mm to still enlarge the comet somewhat and photograph a bit more of the radio telescopes.

Pentax K-1 and 15-30mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds at f/2.8 with an ISO of 3200 seemed to work quite well.

Light painting

I wanted to illuminate the radio telescopes. They would have almost been silhouettes otherwise. I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device while the camera shutter was open.


Until we meet again, Comet NEOWISE!

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being in a quiet desert environment and photographing these magnificent radio telescopes and a comet that won’t come around again for about 6800 years. Just think what fantastic camera equipment we’ll have next time around!



Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols




Photo Tip: 3 Steps To Star Trails with Comet-Like Tails!!! Big Bend in Zion National Park

Big Bend Star Trails

A lot of you have asked how I create star trails that look like comets, so I’m gonna write about it, and that’s very sweet of me.  😀

I will discuss how to do this in Photoshop because, well, this is how I do it, but also, to the best of my knowledge, automated stacking programs such as startrails.exe ain’t gonna let you do this.  In case it matters, I’m using Photoshop CS4, but you should be able to do this in any version of PS that allows you to stack.  Awright… we’re just three steps from star trails with comet tail bliss!!

This tutorial assumes that you know how to take and process photos into star trails already.  If you don’t, visit here.

1.  CREATE STACK: In Photoshop, you select File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack, and then select the files you wish to stack and follow the prompts accordingly. This will result in a HUGE .PSD file, with 50, 80, 120 layers, however many you loaded.  And if you’re like me, they’ll be TIFFs.  16-bit TIFFs.  Yeah.  Have patience knowing that your computer is working very hard to make you happy right now.

2.  ADJUST LAYERS:  In the MODE PANEL WINDOW (which is the window that controls the Layers, etc. at the bottom right), change each layer from “Normal” to “Lighten”.
Some people occasionally use one of the other ones (such as screen, color dodge, linear dodge, lighter color), but “Lighten” is the most common, so whaddaya say we stick with it, cool?  Do this for each Layer.  Yup.  That’s a lot.  You can probably find a Photoshop Action for this if you Google around.  And for that matter, you can probably find it for much of this star trails or comet tail creating process.  Or you could create it yourself.  I have not yet.  No, I don’t know why I haven’t.

3.  ADJUST OPACITY:  Have you gotten carpal tunnel syndrome changing all your layers to  “Lighten”?  Great.  Now, you can exacerbate that further by changing all of your layers’ Opacity.  Y’see, the opacity defaults to 100% for each layer, so right now, you should have “normal” star trails that look like curved lines.  What I do by this point is I make a flattened TIFF file of this in case I decide later that I really do want to have “regular” star trails.

Okay, back to adjusting opacity.  Right next to the pulldown menu on the MODE PANEL WINDOW where you just changed all your layers from “Normal” to “Lighten” is another smaller pulldown menu that says “Opacity”.  It defaults to 100%.  So what you’re going to do is start from the top, and one by one, change each layers’ opacity to…well, something less than 100%.  You start at 100% and gradually reduce the opacity until the last layer has a really low opacity, like 2% or 5% or whatever you think looks great.  As you go along, you’ll slowly see the star trails begin transforming into comet trails, although the last part will remain full and bright until you adjust the very last Layer.  After that, you should see the results of all that clicking.  You should see each trail looking like a comet tail.

ADDENDUM (Summer 2013):
Beginning this summer, I began using a Photoshop action called Star Circle Academy Advanced Stacker PLUS.  My workflow is now the following:  I treat each individual photo first, cloning out unwanted airplane trails.  Then I use the Advanced Stacker PLUS to create comet-like star trails.  If it’s not aesthetically how I want it to look, then I will create the comet-like trails “by hand” as described above.


So hey, about this photo….here’s a little more about how it came to be!  I’m one of these people who are fascinated by the creative process, so I get into this kinda thing!

For this photo, I had to move the camera a couple of times. The moon seemed to be turbo-charged, cruising across the canyon sky too quickly. I moved the camera further over to the right, also a great view, and felt satisfied. I had The Organ bracketed by the Great White Thrown on the left and Angels Landing on the right, and all seemed good.

I had seen another photo of this taken by a photographer, one of the Milky Way. He and his son had set up this elaborate array of strobe lights, constant incandescent lights, and dish reflectors – all in all, five lights, placed 500 to 700 feet away from the camera, with strobes set to trigger via radio command. It was quite a setup.

I therefore was extremely surprised when I shined my Dorcy flashlight on The Organ and found that I could actually illuminate it even though it was monstrously huge and fairly far away. And sure, while the Dorcy is a very strong flashlight, almost like holding a car headlight in your hand, it still seemed absurd that I could do this. So I took one photo relatively early on, illuminating The Organ, and then began taking the sequence of shots to stack into a star trails photo, eventually blending the two together in Photoshop.

Title: Big Bend Star Trails
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm lens. This is a combination of 54 individual photos, with each one 30 seconds, f/2.8 ISO 125, all stacked together for a total of 27 minutes. The photo of the stacked photos was blended with another photo of the foreground, consisting of The Organ (center), Great White Throne (left) and Angels Landing (right), which was shot at 52 seconds f/2.8 ISO 250. The Organ was light painted with a Dorcy spotlight. Taken around 10 pm 22 March 2013.
Photographer: Ken Lee
Location: Zion National Park, Utah U.S.A.

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116, Feisol tripod.

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like). We discuss long exposure, night sky, star trails, and coastal long exposure photography, as well as lots of other things, so I hope you can join us!

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!