About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Photographing Comet PanSTARRS

Imaging What You Can't See

Comets are quite common among celestial phenomena. We are all familiar with images of their luxuriant tails as these visitors from our solar system's origins streak around the sun. Most of these images come from telescopes. Comets that are visible to the naked eye are quite rare, on average occurring once every 5 to 10 years. This year we are anticipating two such "naked eye" comets and the first of these is in the sky right now (March 2013) . Of course, I had to take shot at photographing this unusual object.

Comet PanSTARRS was discovered in June 2011, and is rather unimaginatively  named after the telescopic survey that spotted it, the

No Comet, but the Orion Nebula
Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, which is located on the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii. Predicting the brightness of a comet remains an imprecise science, especially when we have never seen the object before. PanStarrs only makes a circuit around the sun once every 100,000 years.  We have no precise idea about it's composition and density and can't accurately judge how much of its surface will be blown off by the solar wind to form the characteristic and much anticipated tail. To this point I think it is safe to say that PanSTARRS' show has not been all we had hope for, but I couldn't let the opportunity literally slip past without taking a shot at capturing the performance. After all, this is March, the snow is brown, there is only a hint of buds on the trees, what else is there to shoot?

There is plenty of good information on the internet about where and when to look for the comet. Of course the first problem is the

Source: NASA
weather. Over the last several days there has only been two or three nights with reasonably clear sky's and I missed one of those while I was preaching my "Getting it Right in the Digital Camera" sermon to the nice folks at the Brattleboro Camera Club. 

First Night
My first clean shot at the comet was last Saturday night. We were invited to celebrate our friend John's birthday at their home in Chesterfield Village. Happily their house sits on a high ridge overlooking the Vermont Mountains to the west. A position out in there pasture provided a lovely unobstructed view to the setting sun and of the predicted position of PanSKARRS. A necessary requirement for seeing the comet was a location high enough to have a clear view of the horizon and this appeared to be perfect. As it turned out, timing of the observations was also a critical factor. PanSTARRS has been reaching its maximum brightness as it approaches the sun and can only been seen in a short period after sunset. Shoot too soon and the comet will be lost in the twilight brightness and too late, it will be obscured by the bright glow just above the horizon.

I settled in at a corner of John and Kathy's field, sitting on a stone wall. I arrived just as the sun was disappearing and began scanning the sky with my binoculars. I knew that the comet should be slightly south of the setting point of the sun on that night. There was a little haze right on the horizon but the sky was otherwise crystal clear. As the sky slowly darkened through the lovely "blue hour" of twilight and the

"Above Us Only Sky"
No Comet
background stars began to reluctantly appear, I kept hoping that I would catch a glimpse of a fuzzy dot that might be the first sign of PanSTARRS, but even with my binoculars, nothing appeared. I presume that by the time the sky was dark enough to see the comet, it had been lost in the hazy light at the horizon. Knowing that a long exposure in my camera might pick up something that my eyes would not, I began taking pictures across the sky. Exposure was tricky since there was enough light remaining to wash out long exposures. As my prospects faded I couldn't miss the fact that I was still in a beautiful New England farm pasture with the glorious blue twilight illuminating the adjacent barn and silo. As I focused on that scene, the previously
The Blue Hour
annoying glow on the horizon became a lovely compliment to the deep blue of the foreground. It was all remarkably calm and peaceful, but then, the gentle mood was abruptly broken. The farmer next door emerged and started repeatedly yelling at his cows to return to the barn, "Get the F!!k in Here!".   I love New England farms! But it was time to go. As I retreated to the house my defeat was softened by the knowledge that I was joining my friends for great food and much wine. We stumbled home late, but I couldn't go to bed without checking my images. I carefully surveyed each picture, and sadly saw nothing but points of starlight, but I was not ready to quite. 

Second COLD Night
My next opportunity came Wednesday night. I wasn't sure the clouds would clear, but I went back to the ridge along route 63 in Chesterfield to give it a shot. Once again the weather cooperated with clearer skies, but colder temperatures. This time, I set up at a small

Clouds Clearing at Sunset
Chesterfield, New Hampshire
town park across from the school. This location had the advantage of being right next to the road (and my car) and it had a granite bench which, with the help of a seat blanket, provided a comfortable observation spot. I set up in time for a dramatic sunset as the remaining clouds drifted away.  Then the wait began for the magic moment when the sky would darkened enough to reveal the "glory" of PanSTARRS. I thought I would have an easier time targeting the comet since it was predicted to be along the diagonal between the crescent moon and the sunset point on the horizon. That seemed to provide me with a simple path for my search. I settled in and with triumphantly hopeful music blaring from my iPhone, I began scanning back and forth. Back and forth for a long cold hour and one half. I knew the thing had to be there, but even with my binoculars, not a sign. Back and forth. I tried looking slightly away to benefit from the more sensitive portion of my retina, away from the fovea, no luck. Back and forth. It got darker and colder and I got more frustrated and annoyed. When I began loosing feeling in my fingers, I figured it was time to pack it in. I thought about getting some exposures of the sky before I left. They were worthless the last time, but summoning my last shred of hope, I grab a few wide images. I eventually settled on a 6 second exposure at f5.6 and ISO 800, which was enough to begin to see stars while avoiding blowing out the horizon. Done. I rushed to the car, cranked up the heat and headed home. 

PanSKARRS Appears
You can guess the rest. I sulked home and pulled up the few pictures.
The first thing I noticed was the dramatic sunset images. Then, bang! I had taken about 10 sky images where I though the comet should be and miraculously, there the bastard was! Hovering above the pink horizon glow was PanSKARRS. It wasn't big. I had shot at about 100mm to include the entire sky from the moon to the horizon, but it was crystal clear. I still can't believe that I couldn't see it, but, thank goodness for digital photography and high ISO.


I have since worked the image in as many ways as I can imagine, with a range of zoom. I would have loved to have captured the comet a bit larger and against some interesting background, but it is surprisingly

Zooming In
tough to frame something that you can't see! I have since heard from others who had the same experience, finding the comet only in a picture after the fact. This "naked eye" comet has provided to be decidedly non-naked, at least in our region, but I may not be done yet. the comet is expected to slowly fade over the next week or so, but it will also be getting higher in the sky. If I get another clear night, I may give it another try. I am thinking that I might use images from the camera to survey the sky zooming in on the LCD in hopes of finding the comet. If successful I will try to find some interesting foregrounds. Yes, I am, in all likelihood, tragically over-optimistic, but that's what keeps photography interesting. At least I will learn more preparing for the next "naked eye" comet. Comet Ison is scheduled to "blaze" across the sky this November and December! We'll see.

If you are interested in taking a shot at the PanSKARRS, get out soon. Find a clear night and an unobstructed view to the western horizon. Get there after sunset and bundle up. There are excellent resources on the web to tell you where to look. Good luck, and if you don't see the little sucker, you can always wait 100,000 years for its return.  Im the meantime, you can still enjoy the beautiful twilight hour, but don't forget to take a bunch of pictures anyway. You might get lucky.

For more information: NASA Site

Comet from Walpole

Addendum (A Third Night)
I took one more try and it was certainly the best for Comet PanStarr.    My neighbor Bob & I went to Alyson's Orchard on a hilltop in Walpole New Hampshire. The comet was higher in the sky to start. It was great to actually SEE the comet with binoculars and faintly with the naked eye.  I was able to get closer with my 100-400 Zoom. I am just about "cometed out", but I'm sure my enthusiasm will revive when PanStarrs returns in 100,000 years. 

Cosmic Plea

I was most impressed by the old Oak which has graced the peak for more than 200 years. This has always been one of my favorite majestic trees in the region. Sadly it is struggling after being hit by lightning a while back, but the folks at Alyson's are committed to saving this ancient witness to history. It struck me that the tree seemed to be beseeching the universe for salvation. I joined in.

Jeffrey Newcomer

1 comment:

  1. Very Nice and unique website. I just finished mine and i was looking for some Photographs and Pictures of Sun.