Updated: May 30
The warm sunny days turning into chilly evenings... could it be fall already? It appears so! If you have followed our special installments for each season, you must be back again for our fall astrophotography target suggestions. The weather's right and so is this list of targets. We won't keep you waiting, check out ideas for this season below!
You can find our list of the best targets for the other three seasons below:
Late September is usually when temperatures start to drop in most areas. Many amateur astrophotographers will miss the warm weather they've been able to photograph in the past few months. For others, like us in Nevada, the drop in temperature is something we're thankful for because the desert can be way too hot - even at night.
Fall also means less noise on your DSLR camera sensor, or being able to cool down your cooled astrophotography camera all the way if you want to!
The months of September, October, and November make up the most diverse season of the year when it comes to Astrophotography. Unlike Spring where almost all popular objects are galaxies, or Summer where the night sky is mostly filled with nebulae, fall has it all!
Lastly, even people who enjoy star clusters will find excitement in the sky during the fall season, with two of the brightest globular clusters waiting to be captured, Messier 92 and the Great Pegasus Cluster Messier 15.
Because there are so many beautiful objects to image this season, make sure to take your time and do not try to rush through all of them! These targets will disappear over the next three months, they will rise again next year, fresh and ready to be photographed.
We often make plans to image a specific object when it becomes available, but sometimes we simply do not have enough time until it is too late. When this happens, we tell ourselves that we'll be more prepared next year with higher skills and better equipment. Below is a good example of what we mean, by our progress on the Andromeda Galaxy over time.
The targets listed below are, in our personal opinion, the 15 best deep sky objects to photograph for amateur astrophotographers in the fall. This list contains 4 galaxies (or groups of galaxies), 9 nebulae, and 2 star clusters.
Several other targets are present in the sky as well but are much smaller than the ones in this list and more difficult to capture for beginner astrophotographers.
1 - Messier 92
Let's start this guide with one of the oldest and brightest globular clusters in the night sky: Messier 92.
M92 is a fantastic target to image due to its size and brightness, but it is not that popular among amateur astrophotographers as it lies close to an even more impressive cluster: M13.
Located in the constellation Hercules, M92 is believed to be 27,000 light-years away from Earth and was discovered in 1777. It was re-discovered a few years later in 1781 by Charles Messier, who decided to add it to his famous catalog.
The cluster is home to about 330,000 stars and is fairly bright with a magnitude of 6.3.
It can be visible unaided if you are far from light pollution.
This object might be in our best fall astrophotography targets, but it is also very high in the sky in Summer as well. The best time to capture it might be around July and August.
Still, put this one on your priority list if you intend to photograph it when Spring begins.
Photographing this object should be fairly straightforward. As with all dense clusters, you need to be sure that your tracking and guiding are excellent and that the wind conditions are low to nonexistent during your imaging session. If you do capture frames that were affected by the wind and show even the slightest hint of star trails, make sure to discard those as they will make the cluster look blurry and messy.
Did you know? Messier 92 is coming towards us at a speed of 69miles/s.
2 - The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293)
The Helix Nebula, also called the Eye of God or even the Eye of Sauron, is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth and the first one discovered to have cometary knots. It is colorful, very bright, and makes for an awesome target to photograph. It looks similar looking to M57, the Ring Nebula, except that it looks much larger (about half the size of the full moon).
The Helix Nebula is a fairly popular target for amateur astrophotographers as it is easy to capture and does not require too much total exposure time. We, for example, only spent one hour and a half on this object with our ASI 1600MM to get the image you see below. We also attempted it with our stock DSLR camera in the past and spent less than three hours on it to get a nice result. You can see the comparison by clicking on the image below.
Spending extra time on the nebula will help reveal the fainter outer gas that is seen expanding from the main ring. It should also make the overall structure and the cometary knots more defined. The picture on the right is from NASA. It is a combined image from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and shows an image in infrared so that you can clearly see all the details within and around the object.
If you intend to image this target this season, plan ahead and look at how high it rises in your sky depending on where you live. Here in Las Vegas, the Helix Nebula is low on the horizon and doesn't rise high in the sky and it does not stay visible for much of the night. It is a challenging target when you don't take the opportunity to plan.
In our attempts, we only had about 3 hours total before it set low on the horizon. If you have the same problem, you can spend several nights on it and add all the data together later.
3 - The Great Pegagus Cluster (M15)
The Great Pegasus Cluster, or Messier 15, is one of the oldest known globular clusters in our galaxy. M15 is overall about 360,000 times brighter than the sun.
This colorful and bright globular cluster can easily be seen with any instrument and with the naked eye from a dark location. This beautiful ball of stars is also one of the easiest star clusters to photograph. Capturing the 100,000+ stars it is home to can be achieved by taking 30 to 60-second exposure shots. Of course, you must ensure that your tracking and guiding are perfect and not over-expose the stars. You should be able to get a great final image with just one or two hours of total exposure time.
You can find this object in Pegasus. It is not very far from another cluster, Messier 2.
*We're working on imaging M15 and will upload our result once we capture it!*
4 - The Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
Messier 31 is the most famous galaxy in the night sky. Even if you have never been interested in astronomy or astrophotography, chances are, if you hear the name "Andromeda Galaxy" you know it's something awesome.
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the few galaxies visible to the naked eye from Earth. It is much larger than most people think as it spans over 6 times the size of the full moon. This means that small telescopes are a better fit than large instruments for photographing this target. The image we attached below was taken with our Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9, which has a focal length of 800mm. As you can see, the Andromeda Galaxy barely fits in the entire frame! You can of course use a large telescope but will most likely need to do a mosaic.
In pictures, you will be able to also see two of M31's satellite galaxies, Messier 32 and Messier 110 (pictured left).
Make sure to include those in your frame when you decide to image this target! Both are dwarf elliptical galaxies so do not expect to see any details in them no matter your exposure time.
Messier 31 is also a great fit for wide-field astrophotography with just a DSLR camera and a lens. Click on the image to be redirected to our main post where we show you our results using different kinds of setups.
M31 is very easy to photograph. It is an excellent target for beginners and processing can be either very simple or complex depending on how much of the galaxy fills up the frame.
Want to follow us in the desert and learn exactly how we photographed the Andromeda Galaxy? Check out Episode 4 of Galactic Hunter!
Messier 31 can be found in the constellation of Andromeda, not too far from another large galaxy, the Triangulum Galaxy (M33). It was believed to be a nebula all the way until the 1920s! The galaxy is moving towards us at high speeds and will collide with the Milky Way in about 3.75 billion years.
Make sure to click on the link below to see our image of the Andromeda Galaxy in high quality, as well as the wide-field version taken without a telescope!
5 - The Triangulum Galaxy (M33)
The Triangulum Galaxy is another large and bright object that rises high in the sky in the fall season. It is located not far from M31 and is also one of the easiest galaxies to photograph for beginners.
Originally named the Pinwheel Galaxy, it is now most often called the Triangulum Galaxy to avoid confusion with Messier 101, the other "Pinwheel". Just like the Andromeda Galaxy, M33 is also on a path to collide with our Milky Way. Don't worry, we'll be long gone before that happens.
An interesting fact about the Triangulum Galaxy is that it contains one of the largest nebulae from any galaxy in our local group!
The picture on the right shows an overlay of the object (image by NASA).
Called NGC 604, it is about 40 times the size of the Orion Nebula.
Messier 33 can be photographed with any size telescope and also widefield with just a camera and lens! A star tracker is of course recommended. If using a 50mm lens, you can include both M31 and M33 in the same frame. The image below was taken with our Orion 8" Astrograph and our stock DSLR camera. We spent a total of 3 hours on this target.
You can see us capture it from beginning to end in Episode 5 of Galactic Hunter!
6 - The Phantom Galaxy (M74)
Discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780, the Phantom Galaxy is a small and faint spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces about 32 million light-years away. Although M74 is extremely faint (it has the 2nd lowest surface brightness of all the Messier objects), it can still be spotted with large binoculars and any other instrument if observed from a very dark location. The object will look like a small blurry patch, but you could actually be able to differentiate the nucleus from the spiral arms if using a good telescope.
We suggest imaging this object with a medium size to the large telescope and spending a minimum of 3-4 hours on it assuming you are capturing it from a Bortle 4 or 5 class sky.
We imaged M74 in Episode 11 of Galactic Hunter! Check it out!
7 - Stephan's Quintet (HCG 92)
Stephan's Quintet is a group of 5 galaxies, 4 of them having a physical connection and designated as HCG 92, in the constellation of the flying horse: Pegasus.
Not very bright, and tiny, these galaxies make up a beautiful group. Something you can do to make your final image more impressive is to include NGC 7331 in the frame. It is a much larger and brighter galaxy that is not that far from Stephan's Quintet and should easily fit in the field of view of most telescopes.
The galaxies creating Stephan's Quintet are NGC 7317, NGC 7318a, NGC 7318b, NGC 7319, and NGC 7320c.
8 - The Heart Nebula (IC 1805)
IC 1805 is full of Hydrogen Alpha and will look all red (like a heart, right?) when photographed with a DSLR camera. We personally prefer the narrowband version of this object, specifically the Hubble Palette combination of narrowband data to give it some nice blue and orange colors.
Also known as the Heart Nebula, IC 1805 is a huge target (5 times the size of the full moon), and cannot be photographed using a large telescope unless you plan to do a mosaic. You may also want to focus on a specific area if you do not own a small telescope, like Melotte 15 near the center of the heart, or the Fish Head nebula near the "bottom" of the heart shape.
Although IC 1805 is pretty faint with a magnitude of 18.3, it shows up pretty nicely in images and does not require that many hours of exposure to really pop out.
Make sure to visit our full post to learn more about this target, get some tips to image it, and see what each narrowband channel looked like before being combined!
Did you know? The Heart Nebula is also often called the "Running Dog" Nebula.
9 - The Soul Nebula (IC 1848)
Designated Westerhout 5, the Soul Nebula lies in Cassiopeia extremely close to the Heart Nebula, the two pretty much touch each other! They are often captured into the same wide-field frame and the pair is often called "The Heart & Soul". How sweet.
IC 1848 is, like IC 1805, huge and pretty easy to capture! It can be done with a small telescope or with just a camera and a telephoto lens.
High-definition images will show two galaxies near the Soul Nebula, Maffei 1 and Maffei 2, normally hidden behind the Milky Way gas. There are also several small clusters somewhat visible in the gases of the nebula.
10 - The Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635)
Also in the constellation of Cassiopeia is the colorful Bubble Nebula. It is not a large target, but it is surrounded by a lot of gas and makes for a fantastic photograph.
NGC 7635 is an emission nebula discovered in 1787 by William Herschel. It is located approximately 10,000 light-years away from Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope captured this object to celebrate its 26th anniversary in space, and the image quickly became a favorite of the crowd!
We photographed this target with our amateur equipment and got a decent result. We plan to add more data to it in the future though! [Update: we did!]
If getting the faint gases around the bubble is your main goal, try to spend as many hours as you can on it with narrowband filters. Click on the image below to get information and see a high-resolution photo with the outer gases are all mostly made of Hydrogen Alpha. A DSLR camera with a Hydrogen-Alpha clip-on filter is also a great way to image the Bubble Nebula without breaking the bank.
11 - The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023)
The Iris Nebula is such a beautiful target! It kind of looks like… Heaven. But in space. Its ethereal bright blue core is surrounded by an incredible amount of thick dark dust lanes.
It is also recommended to photograph this target far from any light pollution. For our own attempt (see image below), we drove two hours to a Bortle 2 site in order to evade Las Vegas' insane light pollution. This is also when we first used our full-frame OSC camera, the QHY128C! Make sure to click the image to see it in better quality!
Because of the difference in brightness between the core and the dark dust around it, processing this object is pretty difficult and might be too challenging for beginners. We suggest that you keep this target in the back of your mind until you feel like you have the right processing skills to take it on.
12 - The Elephant's Trunk Nebula (IC 1396)
IC 1396 refers to a large nebulous area in Cepheus, about 2,400 light-years away. Beginner astrophotographers usually mostly care about one specific part of this region, IC 1396A nicknamed the Elephant’s Trunk nebula. It is a small concentration of gas and dust where new stars are born, that takes the shape of an elephant’s trunk.
Imaging this target can be a little bit difficult as it is pretty dim! Long hours of integration time will allow you to get a clean, and bright result especially if using narrowband filters.
13 - The Cocoon Nebula (IC 5146)
The Cocoon Nebula appears as a very bright star surrounded by expelling gas. This nebulosity has a distinct pink color and gradually becomes darker. IC 5146 is a popular target because of its enormous dark lane that makes it look like the tail of a comet.
This formation of dark interstellar clouds is called Barnard 168. If using a wide enough telescope, make sure to try to include the entire tail in your image and you'll be sure to have an impressive result! The most challenging part is bringing out Barnard 168 during processing.
14 - The Flaming Star Nebula (IC 405)
The Flaming Star Nebula looks like… a hot flaming star with lots of smoke expelling from it! IC 405 is fairly bright and can be photographed by beginner astrophotographers easily. The challenge lies in framing the target just right to get the most out of all the gas surrounding the bright blue star AE Aurigae.
Make sure to plan your shot ahead by simulating what you will see with your camera and telescope depending on the focal length using any planetarium software or app.
15 - The Pacman Nebula (NGC 281)
We end this list with a fun one! You can probably guess why the Pacman Nebula got its name, if not, think harder. It is a pretty easy target to image with any telescope and camera, but this object really shines when photographed with Hydrogen-Alpha and Oxygen III filters.
The Pacman Nebula is an emission nebula that can be found in the constellation Cassiopeia.
Near the core of the Pacman Nebula lies a young open cluster, IC 1590. It is pretty faint but easily visible in photographs. It can also be visible with small instruments if you are far enough from light pollution. In this cluster are more than 279 stars that shine on the gases all around.
That wraps up our Fall astrophotography targets! If you didn't see an object you expected, don't worry, it may have fallen under a different list! Check out our other seasonal target lists for more ideas and inspiration. If you want to know what you can photograph all year long, we have a book with 60 targets you can photograph called The Astrophotographer's Guidebook! Purchase a copy here.
Watch the video below if you'd like to learn about these targets in a video format.
We hope that this helps beginner astrophotographers as they traverse the cosmos and capture beautiful objects during the cooler autumn months,