Where to Photograph Comet ISON?

All sky-watchers are hoping that comet ISON is spectacular when it emerges from the solar glare. there is no guarantee on this, we just do not know. But it could be as pretty as comet Ikeya-Seki or comet McNaught, both of which became far brighter after perihelion passage.

Ohia and Sunrise
An ohia tree silhouetted against the dawn in the Saddle
If this does happen the question is where to go to photograph the comet. A week ago I found that ISON was slightly behind the ridge from the Mauna Kea VIS. Not badly, but enough to delay when I could acquire the comet and start taking photos.

This recent Saturday I only went partway up the Mauna Kea access road, just high enough to be clear of the clouds and haze. There is a turnoff on the east side of the road just above the cattle guard at about 8,000 ft, one mile below Hale Pohaku. Plenty of room to park a vehicle or two and plenty of level ground to take photos from.

After perihelion the comet will be much further north on the horizon, the Mauna Kea VIS will not work. The cattle guard site should work. Other options? If you have a 4WD you could drive out the R1 road for about a mile to find a good spot. Or head for the summit?

Lower elevation viewing sites will also work, but may be subject to cloud, fog, or vog. One club member reported sighting the comet from Waimea several times this week while taking a morning walk. It was visible just over the flank of Mauna Kea.

For best viewing I do strongly suggest getting above the tradewind inversion level at six or seven thousand feet. The most reliable place to do this on Hawai’i Island is the saddle. On some mornings the inversion level can be quite low, potentially leaving the entire saddle region clear. This is the condition I found this last Saturday. If the saddle is not clear you then have the option of driving up either the Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea access roads to climb above the cloud.

After photographing the comet, I explored the area a little, enjoying dawn in the saddle and scouting a place to take that perfect comet photo from. One of the prettiest, but relatively unknown, places on the island is the first couple miles of the Mauna Loa access road. Here the road crosses through recent lava flows studded with ohia trees. The result is a rock garden fantastic.

I spent a while looking for a nice tree or combination of trees and rock to use as a foreground. I photographed a number of candidates, but was not happy with anything. I may try a little higher on Mauna Kea this week, looking to find the right spot.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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