Comet NEOWISE from Palo Duro Canyon – July 23, 2020

Sometimes I have these grand visions for how things should work – whether it is my own kids’ birthday parties, a Disney family vacation, or a nighttime landscape with the comet NEOWISE hanging over the canyons of Palo Duro.
On one occasion, a colorful birthday cake for my then 7-year-old daughter ended up face down on the floor of a local pizza joint. When we flipped it over, the mix of colors would have made Monet blush. Five little girls looked on in horror while the one I loved cried. But it was a birthday party they won’t forget! On another occasion, our family was at Disney World when my five-year-old had a meltdown on a boat and actually laid down in the middle of the aisle. Folks coming on board had to step over her. My wife just put her head down to hide. It was later on that we realized my youngest daughter had a phobia about being on the water and on a boat. But we cemented those issues!
* * *
I spent most of the summer photographing the Rocky Mountains and even a few days on the more arid western slope near Grand Junction. The time in the mountains allows me to escape the summer heat of Texas and the raging Covid pandemic in the south while enjoying the beauty of cooler mountain climates at elevations above 9,000 feet.
And this leads me back to my vision for the comet. I’d planned on leaving Colorado for my trek back to Texas and stop over at one of my favorite places, Palo Duro Canyon. I wanted to see the Comet NEOWISE in the dark skies of the panhandle and photograph this rare event from somewhere in the red rocks of this state park. I’d already photographed NEOWISE from Berthoud Pass, Colorado, in the early morning hours, and now wanted to see it from my home state.
That was as far as my vision would take me. Shortly before I departed on the 16 hour drive back home to the Texas Hill Country, I found out Palo Duro Canyon was not allowing visitors in the park after 10pm. It was July 22, and NEOWISE was only visible in the evening and best seen around 10pm. Ironically, about the same time as my planned departure from Colorado, I had a client contact me wanting an image of NEOWISE over the canyon. Bummer.
So I got creative.
First, on the evening of July 23, I stopped in west Texas and shot the night sky using my star tracker. This instrument allows the camera to track the stars and photograph the night sky using a long exposure. Using this device results in stunning, sharp pinpoints of light for the stars and little noise in longer exposures. The comet was clearly visible, hanging just beneath the Big Dipper. Setting in the western sky, the crescent moon added a surprise element in this photograph taken on July 23.
But I couldn’t get into Palo Duro Canyon State Park. So I did the next best thing. I’ve visited this area many times in the past, and I had a RAW file image that showed the canyon facing northwest, that was exactly what I was planning on shooting. With full disclosure to the client, I used this as the base image and the star-tracked night sky to show the comet. An hour of Photoshop magic later, this was my creation straight from the canvas of God…

palo duro canyon, comet, neowise, moon, big dipper, capitol peak, summit, night sky, hiking, state park
Comet NEOWISE over Palo Duro 2 : Prints Available

From the night of July 23, 2020, this is a composite image of the Comet NEOWISE over the beautiful red rocks of Palo Duro Canyon. The foreground was taken from the summit of Capitol Peak after the sun had faded. The comet fanned out beneath the Big Dipper. Just a little after sunset, and the crescent moon fell behind the western horizon.


I know some photographers are purists, and I am most of the time, as well. But I have no issues with dabbling in the creative universe when a client asks. After all, I have two young mouths to feed and a wife to keep happy. I don’t want to be a starving artist. So far so good.
My grand vision of this particular scene didn’t play out exactly how I’d intended, but the end result was pretty similar to what I had in mind. No one cried nor threw a fit, and no birthday cakes were overturned. While a few obstacles presented themselves, I’m still pretty happy with the final image in all of its creative glory. The purists may throw stones, but I’m not hungry here 
Stay safe, Friends.
~ Rob
Images from Texas

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