Five big lessons I learned from my failed attempt to shoot the comet NEOWISE
Like probably every photographer out there, I was determined to see and shoot the comet NEOWISE. I’m not very skilled at astrophotography, but come on – this is something you see once in a million years (or 6,800, to be exact). So, I set out to find the best observation spot, find the comet, and shoot it. Did I succeed? Nope. But did I love every minute of this adventure? Hell yes!
Although the photos I ended up with are underwhelming, to say the least, this whole experience has taught me a lot. In this rather personal article, I’d like to share my journey and five of my biggest insights. Hopefully, it will inspire you, amuse you, and put a smile on your face, which is just what this comet chasing did for me.
But first, some backstory
I was recently diagnosed with major depressive disorder, single episode. Those of you who’ve been through it know what I’m talking about. But for those of you who haven’t, I won’t bother you with details: you can read more about it here. Among other things, I lost interest in everything I used to love, and all my joy, creativity, and passion have been gone for the most time over the past eight or nine months.
The day I heard about NEOWISE was also the first day of my therapy. What a coincidence. I mentioned the comet to my boyfriend, who’s crazy about anything space-related. “I think we should try and see it,” I suggested. It took him three milliseconds to agree. Little did we know what a week was ahead of us.
The adventure begins
To understand what the lessons I learned mean to me, you can read about the crazy week that made me learn them. But you can skip right to the lessons below, I won’t get mad. :)
Anyways, last Wednesday, I went from Novi Sad to Belgrade to see my boyfriend (and the comet). I didn’t bring my camera – I read in a few articles that you can find NEOWISE with a naked eye and I believed it. As Belgrade is heavily light polluted, we went to an observation spot at a nearby mountain. Yes, it overlooks the heavily lit city. And no, we couldn’t see a thing. “Maybe if we went to the countryside,” my man suggested. “I planned to go tomorrow anyway, if you come with me we could find the comet there.” I was packed for only that one day in Belgrade. But it took me four milliseconds to agree to spend four more days in his grandparents’ house 300km from Belgrade.
We went there on Thursday but arrived too late to see anything but the inside of our eyelids. On Friday night, we took some mats and found a field ideal for observing the night skies. The village is so dark that we could see the Milky Way. But no, we couldn’t see the comet with the naked eye. Those who say it’s possible probably have eyes with 1000mm zoom, I have no other explanation. But hey, we enjoyed lying in the middle of the field, stargazing. It was relaxing, it cleared my mind, and gave me new ideas: “Maybe we should buy a telescope.”
After some googling, I stumbled upon a $40 telescope. My mind was blown – doesn’t that cost more? I was determined – we were gonna buy it! So, we woke up on Saturday, full of hope, and went to the nearest city to buy the telescope. The moment we returned to the village, it started to rain. Aaaand, it didn’t stop until we headed back home on Sunday. No comet for us!
Back in the city, all geared up
“Hey, I could come by tonight and we can look for the comet together again,” my significant other wrote yesterday. I responded: “You know I’d love that more than anything!” So we found a perfect spot in Sremski Karlovci, a lovely town some 10km from my place. An ideal view, clear skies, perfect timing, the camera and the telescope ready…
But we looked at the wrong thing!
We misinterpreted the sky map and pointed the telescope at the wrong object. I also framed my shots to capture a completely wrong celestial object. I think I captured NEOWISE in only one of the shots, but look where it’s at. And I’m not even sure that’s it:
“Okay, this isn’t working. Wanna check out the Moon?” I asked. “Yeah, let’s try,” Vladan agreed and set the telescope towards our satellite. “Oh my god… Come here. Look!” There it was: the image I would only see in textbooks and other people’s photos. The Moon. In all its beauty, with all those craters… I keep reliving the moment I first saw it with my own eyes and get the chills every time. But that wasn’t all!
We both felt some kind of adrenaline rush after seeing the Moon. So he drove some more to find a spot at the nearby mountain from which we could see Saturn and Jupiter. He was setting the telescope and as I was setting up my camera to shoot something else. And then he screamed: “Dunja, leave everything, come quick!” I could see it clearly: Saturn with its famous rings. Later on, we found Jupiter. When we focused perfectly, we could see its distinctive colors and some of its satellites that you can’t see with the naked eye. My gosh, what a feeling!
Both of us have felt ecstatic all day today. I checked out my photos looking for NEOWISE, but you saw what I ended up with. However, it didn’t change my mood a bit. I saw all those images from textbooks and the NASA gallery with my own eyes. And I learned so much in the process. Yes, this is where we finally get to the lessons part.
Lessons I learned
Some of these lessons are personal, but some are pretty universal. Here they are:
- I can still feel joy: after such a long time, I felt the purest joy and excitement. I felt like I returned to my old self who can have these feelings over small things such as seeing celestial objects through a $40 toy telescope. And man, it feels good to be back!
- I still have passion: related to the previous point, I also felt passion for something after a long, long time. I hardly had the energy to get out of bed in the morning since more or less December last year. But over the past week, I traveled hundreds of kilometers, I spent time and money, I improvised a lot, and I learned on the go. This means I can still feel passion, and that’s just what I need for writing, photography, and other things in life that I love doing. I didn’t even reach my goal this time, but this brings me to the next lesson:
- Sometimes, the journey is (way) more exciting than the goal: we can feel free to say that I haven’t seen or shot the comet. But I traveled a whole lot, I spent quality time with my loved one, I was overwhelmed with emotions when I saw the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. This was such an awesome week, and I enjoyed it to the max instead of being frustrated that I missed the comet. Sometimes, the goal is overrated. The journey is way more epic!
- Stargazing makes earthly worries seem small: this crossed my mind while Vladan and I were lying in the field watching the night skies above us. We were talking about planets, stars, and galaxies out there. About the numbers and sizes of them. It all made me feel so small and insignificant in comparison – and it was so liberating. People should stargaze as often as possible.
- Shared joy is doubled joy: it meant a lot to me that I had someone I love with me to share my emotions and thoughts during this adventure. It doesn’t have to be an emotional partner, but I generally think that sharing the joy makes it double. I need my solitude when I’m feeling f*cked up, but I was now reminded that joyful moments are much better when I share them. And I’m grateful that I had something to share at last!
The adventure ends… or does it?
“Hey, I could come by tomorrow and we can look for the comet together again,” I sent a message to my boyfriend two hours ago. “The bus is at 5 pm… We’re such psychos hahaha.”
“No, we’re not. We’re just enthusiasts,” he responded.
As you can see, I’m still not giving up. And who knows what else I might learn until NEOWISE is gone for the next 6,800 years? :)
Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.