A Drop in the Ocean
Want to use these as your wallpaper? Go ahead. If you want to use them elsewhere or if you want the original high resolution JPEG (or even RAW files) just contact me. These images are not in the public domain… yet.
I was so close to packing up my tripod, capping my lens, and giving up. I had been standing on top of Craiglockhart Hill for over thirty minutes now, with a cold breeze pilfering my precious warmth from me.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)
I had come to see and photograph the comet C/2020 F3, also known as NEOWISE. The journey to the top of the hill was tiring, but the experience of seeing a comet for the first time was going to make that hardship worthwhile. Only one issue:
Scotland had a habit of being cloudy at the exact wrong place and at the exact wrong time.
I had some idea of where to expect the comet to be, roughly facing North. I used the Stellarium app on my phone constantly to locate and identify the dots in the sky, and I would highly recommend it. They also have a free web version.
It can sometimes be tricky to gauge precisely where the astronomical body will be in the sky, especially as the app allows the field of view (FOV) to be adjusted by zooming in or out. That being said I knew where to look, but as soon as I got up it was immediate to me that I will not be viewing it tonight. There was a thick black layer of clouds obscuring the location where NEOWISE was expected to be visible.
Every. Single. Time. I go to observe an astronomical event, it’s cloudy. This happened with the multiple lunar eclipses (total and partial), the partial solar eclipse, the Mercury transit, and now with NEOWISE.
Regardless, I had made the forty minute journey here so I thought that I might as well stay and take pictures of other things, hoping that the clouds clear.
It was now nearly 2 a.m. I was defeated.
I think it’s time to give up and go home
I was taking pictures of Jupiter, though I wanted to turn around and look for NEOWISE one last time.
As I glanced away something in the corner of my eye caught me.
Did you spot it? Try zooming into the image
Sure enough, there it was, higher in elevation than I was expecting, but there nonetheless. It was incredibly faint, yet I could see it! An actual comet!!
I was genuinely about to pack up my things and start leaving, but that sudden blip in my peripheral vision reminded me of a (disputed) technique that some astronomers use called averted vision.
“It involves not looking directly at the object, but looking a little off to the side, while continuing to concentrate on the object” - Wikipedia
In my experience I’ve found it mildy useful, though it’s no nightvision.
Why did I call this blog post “A Drop In The Ocean”?
Different question first: what is the image below a picture of? Does it look like water or maybe a shore? Try looking at it upside down :)
The image is rotated upside down, or 180 degrees. It’s the sky
The reason why I gave this blog post that name is because of how perfectly the metaphor captures my experiences of astronomy and the insurmountable feelings of insignificance that the universe can force one to grapple with.
Standing up there, staring at the sky, I felt like a drop in an ocean. The comet, too, was a drop, mere arcminutes in the sky. How many people would even experience laying eyes upon such a surreal sight? How many would even spare a second thought?
If you haven’t had the opportunity to just stare at the heavens and wonder what it might all be (or why) then I highly urge you to find a dark, cloudless night and to just look up. You don’t require special equipment, it can be done spontaneously, and most of all it is always a rewarding experience.
I had everything packed away as I was descending the hill, but on the journey down I just had to take my camera out and capture a few more shots.
The Tower (feat. Venus & Aldebaran)
The colours are exaggerated, though not as much as you might think. It truly was a spectacular sight watching the sun rise over Edinburgh. Moreover, Venus and Aldebaran decided to poke their heads out from the horizon.
(Venus & Aldebaran have been digitally removed)
Just in this one night, being able to see Venus, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and a comet, all topped off with a beautiful sunrise over Edinburgh’s landscape… my vocabulary does not stretch far enough to find the words to describe it.
That concludes this story, however for those who are curious about photography there is a brief explanation and some tips regarding how to capture images at night time.
Let me leave you with this final image that I am currently using as my phone wallpaper.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)
Basic Night Photography Tips
At some point I will be making a beginners guide to astrophotography, but till then here are some camera tips for the curious shooter.
Exposure Bracketing/High Dynamic Range
If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of the moon at night, you might have become blindingly aware of how bright the moon can be. In order to get a decent picture you need to stop down your lens. This is done by increasing the f-stop (reducing the aperture diameter), for example from f/2.8 to f/10.
Wait a second, now everything else in my image is pitch black!
Hold on, this is the exciting bit! This is where exposure bracketing comes into play. By taking multiple (at least 2) pictures with differing levels of exposure (brightness), they can then be combined using software to maximise the bright details that were captured in the dark image, and the dark details of the bright image, forming a super-image of sorts.
A high dynamic range (HDR) image of Arthur’s Seat at sunrise
The above example is an HDR image of Arthur’s Seat using 2 photographs. It’s not mind-blowing per se, but the fact that the sky, mountains, buildings, and foreground trees are all visible is a testament to how well it can work - the detail in those trees were invisible normally!
Shooting In RAW
Let’s clear some questions up first, but please note that there will be simplifications.
What is RAW?
RAW is an umbrella term for image files that store the ‘raw’ information from the camera’s sensor, rather than a processed version like JPEG. The file sizes are much larger, however they offer much greater flexibility when editing (retouching).
Should I shoot my pictures in RAW format instead of JPEG?
It depends on several factors:
Storage capacity, free time, quantity of effort you have for photo editing, what you’re shooting
If you have limited drive space on your computer then you may consider not shooting in RAW, as they take up more file space* and you have to consider keeping both the RAW and processed JPEG files.
*It doesn’t necessarily take up more space. If you process your RAW files to a high quality JPEG (95 or higher) then they can take up just as much space as RAW files.
It also takes effort and time to process images. If you are not keen on editing most of your pictures then consider just shooting in JPEG format. The scene that you’re shooting may also play a part in this decision. If you have solid lighting and you are confident that you will nail your shots then there is no need to shoot in RAW.
That being said…
I highly recommend that you choose RAW. Why? It gives you room to make mistakes.
As an amateur photographer you are going to be making mistakes all the time and having the flexibility to fix it all in post in an invaluable tool to have on your belt. It won’t fix missed focus, motion blur, or other egregious errors, but it’s saved me time and time again. Sometimes you only get one opportunity to hit that shutter button.
Let’s look at an example of how much detail you can pull out of RAW images (sometimes).
Those two images are identical, with the only difference being that the bottom image has the “shadows” slider in Lightroom cranked to max. Has the image been saved? No, you would have to spend a lot longer in order to balance the settings, but remember, this was just one slider that I touched. There was all that detail ‘hiding’ in the file and this sort of thing is just not possible with JPEG.