By Matt Watkins, Vanguard Ambassador
Like many other photographers over the past few months, I have found my camera staying in my bag for much of the lockdown here in the UK. Now that travel restrictions have been eased, I have been able to get out and get my photography mojo back. I’m not an astrophotographer by any stretch of the imagination, but a rare astrological event had me heading out for a night under the stars.
Back in 1997, when I was a mere 16 years old, I can remember being taken out by my father to view the Comet Hale-Bopp. I can remember the excitement I felt as I got to witness such an amazing sight. Fast forward to July 10th 2020 and the roles were reversed because this time it was me taking my youngest son out to see a newly discovered comet. Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise was discovered on March 27th 2020 by observers using the Neowise telescope. The comet became visible to the naked eye in early July and with a chance of some good weather and clear skies I made the trip to my favourite dark skies site near Blaenavon on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park.
It was anticipated that the comet would be visible close to the horizon in the North-Western skies not long after sunset, however, there was a thin band of cloud sitting on the horizon which blocked the view. Fast forward another hour or so and with fingers pointed to the sky, Comet Neowise started to come into view. The tail stretched across the sky and had a distinct orangy/pink glow to it.
As the night progressed, I was joined by some photography friends who I was due to travel to Iceland with the day the UK went into lockdown. As Comet Neowise passed over the top of The Sugar Loaf mountain, we were treated to another rare phenomenon of Noctilucent Clouds. These clouds are sometimes known as Night Shining Clouds and are formed high up in the mesosphere from tiny ice crystals. These clouds are only visible during the short summer nights when the sun just dips below the horizon. The light from the sun illuminates these clouds producing some spectacular displays of textures and patterns. We were treated to one such display that just got brighter and brighter through the pre-dawn hours to the point that we had completely forgotten about Neowise and were concentrating on the beauty of these clouds instead.
Astrophotography isn’t normally a genre I find myself shooting too much. So, I found myself experimenting with various settings until I found some that I was happy with. The first thing that I needed to use was a sturdy tripod. For this, I chose a Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263CB with the optional spikes so I could dig it into the ground and make sure it was rock steady. I was using a Nikon D850, a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 SP lens and an intervalometer to allow me to get the images. I used the live view function on the back of the camera to zoom in on star to manually set focus and turned off the image stabilisation on the lens. After experimenting with different settings, I settled on ISO1600, f/2.8 and a 4-second exposure. However, as the light started to increase around sunrise, I was able to drop the ISO down to 400 without having any effect on the shutter speed. Hopefully, these images show that if you step out of your comfort zone and experiment a little that you can still get good results.
As the sun started to rise in the east Comet Neowise and the Noctilucent Clouds began to fade into the pre-dawn light. I can’t remember the last time I got such a kick out of photographing a night sky. The company I was in also helped to make the night as special as it was. After all, it’s going to be another 6800 years before Neowise makes its way past the earth again! Seeing the wonder and amazement on my son’s face just brought back memories of when I was younger, and I got to see Comet Hale-Bopp with my father. Nights as memorable as these are few and far between and if you get the chance, I’d encourage you to do the same and make memories, even if you don’t take a photograph!
- Nikon D850 + Nikon Intervalometer
- Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 SP Di VC
- Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263CB with optional spikes
- Vanguard Alta Sky 53
About the Author
Matt is a South Wales based landscape photographer who is equally as happy in the mountains or on the coast. He regularly shares his experiences through workshops and 1 to 1 tuition along with giving talks at camera clubs.