Comet Leonard


First Up – Happy New Year to Everybody!!!

I really hope 2022 brings a much better opportunity to photography the night skies and that all the lock downs are behind us. (I hope this hasn’t jinxed things already).

The end of 2021 bought with it a little surprise in the form of Comet Leonard. Only discovered in early 2021 as it was entering our solar system, it was calculated this comet is in an orbit that takes around 80,000 years to complete. It is mostly ice and is about 1km wide and travelling at the mind blowing speed of 76km per second! That’s correct – per SECOND! There is some confusion/disagreement between websites as to whether it will ever be back in another 80,000 years with some websites claiming the orbit will take it out of the solar system never to return again. Other websites are saying it will never be seen again (with the underlying meaning of “in our lifetime”)

Either way, it is only visible in our lifetime from early December in the northern hemisphere and mid December in the southern hemisphere until mid January. So only about a 2 to 4 week window. A comets brightness varies significantly even on a daily basis and they have 2 tails, a more visible curved dust tail and a less visible blueish straight tail. As it’s turned out, comet Leonard has only been  visible to the eye for 4 nights so far but can readily be seen through a telescope or a good zoom lens every night. 

So I figured it was now or never – literally! So armed with nice new Sony 200-400mm Gmaster lens mounted on my MSM star tracker, I headed to Upper Coliban reservoir on 29/12/21 and with wonderfully clear skies set up and eventually found the comet in the South West. It was not naked eye visible and was not very big at all in my 400mm lens so this took a bit crafty thinking on how to get this. 

I set the camera to APS-C mode to crop in even further making my lens now a 560mm zoom. I was getting some good images and the MSM allowed me to extend my shutter speed out to about 20 seconds before getting any noticeable star trailing, although I later realised this was irrelevant. So I got some good useable images of a comet that looked dead boring! But as I was shooting, a plan was evolving in my head to use the comet image blended with a nightscape image. I framed the comet appropriately and shot a few more. I then moved to a nearby great looking tree and shot some LED lit images of that with my 70-200mm zoom at about 80mm. PS, I was also shooting a star trail sequence on my other camera as well – can’t help myself sometimes.

Back home, it came down to some serious blending of images in ON1. I expanded the comet image to about twice its size on the comet layer and then added the tree layer so the comet now looked large and obvious. My new problem was the stars in the comet image were now obviously streaked and looked terrible and the stars in the tree image were non-existent because I had exposed for the tree. The solution was to grab another unrelated star image and lay that in as a 3rd image. Much blending and masking later I arrived at the above.

Is it real? Absolutely not! Is it impressive? Absolutely yes! This raises the very old moral issue of should we as photographers even produce an image that is simply fictitious and false? My personal approach is that it is perfectly OK provided you announce that to the world. If there is no deception (I am telling you it is a constructed image and NOT real) then just enjoy it for the artistic interpretation it delivers. Others differ on that opinion and that’s fine, but it’s my personal approach to this issue.

I hope you enjoy this image but the main thing I am trying to communicate to you is the need for planning out your post production and shooting accordingly. On this occasion, I had to do that while shooting the comet as I truly had no idea what sort of image, if any, I was going to get until I shot it. Once I understood what I was getting and it’s pros and cons, I then spent a few minutes working out what would make it work in an image and ended up with the mental picture in my head that I had to turn into reality. Then I had to break down the image into it’s parts and photograph each part I needed. Even then I didn’t think of everything on the night (streaky background stars) but ultimately worked out a solution. So work backwards, imagine it in your head, break it into the individual parts you need, photograph those parts and put your vision together in post production.

Cheers Everyone.

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