How to Image Comet Pan-STARRS using DSLR

If you have a DSLR with at least 50 mm lens, then you might want to image the comet now visible in the western horizon right after sunset.

A simulated image for finding comet Pan-STARRS, which will be visible low in the western horizon for a week or two until it fades away from our view. Face west at around 6:30 pm and start shooting!

Imaging the comet C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS is comparable to imaging a very faint and distant fireworks. The trick is to use longer exposures, achieve precise focus, and minimize vibration. Here are simple steps on how you can attempt to image this comet:

1. Mount the camera on to a tripod and then point it to the western horizon.
2. Set the DSLR to Manual Shooting (M) mode.
3. Focus the camera lens manually to infinity, preferably by using the ‘Live-View’ function. You may use any visible star (or perhaps the planet Jupiter, which will be visible high in the sky) for precision.
4. Set the ISO to highest value (ISO 400 is recommended).
5. Set the aperture to its widest setting (e.g., f/1.8 is preferred instead of f/8).
6. Setting the correct exposure time is a bit tricky as it depends on a number of factors. In most cases, experimenting with various exposure times usually works best. Try 1 or 2 seconds exposure and then adjust accordingly (try shorter or longer exposures; for my 50 mm f/1.8 lens, I have used 0.3 seconds). The goal is to take a ‘bright enough’ photo of the sky. It means that the exposure time must be long enough so that the image of the very faint comet would register, but not too long so as to avoid over-exposure.
7. Once ready, press the shutter using the camera’s ‘remote shutter’ (or time-delay function) to minimize vibration caused by pressing the shutter.
8. Check your images for any hint of the comet. Keep on shooting, it will show up as soon as the background sky becomes relatively darker than the comet.
9. Once you have located the comet, you can then use it’s relatively bright head (nucleus) for a more precise focusing. Note that with powerful lenses, the nucleus and a hint of its tail shows up in the camera’s LCD when set to ‘Live-View’.

The comet is very faint and quite small, thus, it is recommended that you use longer lenses. The comet will show up nicely in photos, but it may not be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. To see the comet visually, you need at least a decent pair of binoculars. Timing is also critical since the comet will be visible only for a very short window, most probably only for about 30 minutes right after sunset, each day until next week. Happy comet hunting! :) For queries, kindly leave a comment.

For a recent comet photo taken with a DSLR, click here.
For tutorials on how to get started with astrophotography, click here.

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© Anthony Urbano (Manila, Philippines)


4 thoughts on “How to Image Comet Pan-STARRS using DSLR

  1. Hi Sir,

    How can we do this using a telescope as the lens? I can get the DSLR settings to the ones you prescribe. Where do I aim the telescope? I have Google sky map on my tablet.

    Will try to get this today while the skies are clear.

    Many thanks,

    • Yes. By attaching a DSLR onto a telescope, the telescope may act as the DSLR’s lens. The only difference is that the aperture (f/-number, e.g. f/1.8) can no longer be changed. Note however that due to high magnification views of a telescope, star trailing would become very evident, and thus, a tracking mount would be a necessity. :) Try locating the comet first using binoculars.

  2. Thanks so much for replying to my first comment.

    I don’t have binoculars or tracking mount yet. If I don’t use the telescope and have only the 50mm kit lens, will that be enough to capture the image?

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