How to Photograph Comet ISON

Unfortunately Comet ISON suffered a fiery death. Here’s how you could have captured it, had it survived.

Let me first say: no one really knows if comet ISON will survive its brush with the Sun. On Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, comet ISON (C/2012 S1) will reach its perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) where it will fly within 1.1 million miles (1.86 million km) of the Sun. If it survives, it is speculated to be one of the brightest objects in the early morning sky.

comet ISON
via APOD: Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi (TWAN)

There is already speculation that comet ISON might not survive perihelion, but if it does, here are some tips for photographing it. To read the latest news about comet ISON, check out:

Where is comet ISON?

Comet ISON will be visible (if it survives) in the early morning sky to the southeast. We will need to wait a few days after the Nov. 28 perihelion to allow ISON to travel far away enough from the Sun to be visible in the dawn sky. On December 1, ISON should be visible on the horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise  in the east-southeast direction near the constellations Serpens and Ophiuchus. Each consecutive day after, ISON will appear higher and higher in the sky just before sunrise and will gradually dim for each consecutive day as it travels farther and farther away from the Sun.

See this animation of the eastern sky of comet ISON at 6am from late November to mid December traveling around the Sun: The horizon line is roughly center in the frame.

where to find comet ISON in the sky

What camera equipment do I need?
  • Camera
    • Any camera with manual controls should be a decent candidate for photographing ISON. You may need to use a shutter speed longer than 10-15 seconds so you will need to be able to use manual exposure mode.
  • Lens
    • Depending on how large comet ISON’s tail ends up being, you may be able to use a medium telephoto lens but most sources seem to suggest a lens as long as or longer than 300mm to get the closest crop on the comet.
  • Tripod
    • You will likely need some relatively long exposures to capture ISON so a tripod is an absolute must-have.
  • Smartphone app (optional)
    • I highly suggest using a smartphone or computer app such as Stellarium ( for helping pre-plan and finding ISON in the dawn sky.
  • Binoculars (optional)
    • Binoculars may be helpful in finding comet ISON if it is too dim to see with the naked eye. Also, do not look directly at the Sun through binoculars.

That’s all you should really need. Just start with a relatively bright exposure such as 10 seconds at ISO 1600-3200 and a wide open aperture of f/4.0 or lower and adjust accordingly. The image below is a photograph of comet PANSTARRS and the crescent moon taken on March 12, 2013. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye but showed up quite well in photographs.

comet panstarrs and moon
Comet PANSTARRS – March 12, 2013 200mm @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, 2.5 seconds

For more tips on exposure, check out my post: How to Photograph the Milky Way or get access to my online class at the link below for a complete project based class on Nightscape photography with 8 video lessons and 5 units of written content with all the essential skills needed to take amazing astrophotos.



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