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IC 434 - The Horsehead (And Flame) Nebula

Updated: May 18, 2023

IC 434 (The gases behind the horse’s head) and Barnard 33 (The actual horse’s head dark nebula) form the famous Horsehead nebula, not far from the Orion Nebula.

Photographing this group of nebulae is easy, as long as you spend enough time on it, as the red gases of IC 434 are pretty faint and will look grainy if the total exposure time is too low.

IC 434 refers to the pink cloud you see behind the horse head. Barnard 33 is the actual Horse Head, which is a dark nebula. 

We imaged this target several times, with different equipment going from a simple DSLR camera and tripod to a telescope and narrowband filters! We'll show you our favorite attempts below.


The Horsehead Nebula with a small refractor from the city

January 2021

In January of 2021, we made a video where we photographed the Orion Nebula with the Radian Raptor 61 refractor telescope from the city. We used a one shot color cropped sensor camera for that shot along with the Triad Ultra filter. The image turned out great for just 9.75 hours of exposure (see it HERE!).

Radian Raptor and QHY600M
The equipment used for tonight's image

A few days later, we set up our equipment again but this time took off the Triad Ultra filter and the OSC camera, and instead attached our monochrome camera with filter wheel. The camera used is the QHY600M which has a full frame sensor, so our field of view is much wider! Because of that we were able to include both the Horsehead Nebula and the Orion Nebula in a single frame!

We ended up getting about 8 hours and 15 minutes in total. The color palette here is rarely seen, and might not be to your liking, but we wanted to get a little crazy and we tried an O/H/S combination instead of the usual S/H/O or H/S/O. You can see that image in our new video HERE.

NASA teased us by featuring it on their "Sky" Facebook page but did not pick it for an APOD of course, so we decided to keep on imaging it every single night until reaching 30 hours of exposure. Here it is below!

The Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula with a small refractor in narrowband from the backyard


Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Radian Raptor 61

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight with RC-Astro Plugins


Total Exposure Time: 30 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 10 minutes for the nebulosity / 10 seconds for the core

180 lights for the nebulosity / 15 lights for the core - 15 Darks - 15 Flats

Filters used: Chroma 3nm Narrowband

GAIN: 56

Below you can see the difference in framing between an APS-C camera and a full-frame camera!

Full frame vs cropped sensor for astrophotography

We also made a starless version, this time using the Hubble Palette (SHO) which looks really nice and has a peaceful feel to it. The details in the gases can also be seen slightly better when there are no stars everywhere. Let us know what you think of this starless version, we like it a lot!

Some of the brightest stars (for example the ones part of Orion's belt) and some very small ones (upper left corner) were no removed by StarNet, but they're not that bad anyway :)

Make sure to watch our full video about how we photographed this area of the sky from our backyard!


The Horsehead Nebula with an unmodified DSLR camera

December 2017

The photo below was the result of 4 hours of exposure, using an 8” telescope.

This was actually our very first target with our first telescope. At that time, our auto-guiding camera was glitching and did not want to work. We could only do 3 minutes of exposure time and even then, there was some star trails and blur in all the images. When we exchanged the guiding camera, the horse was too low in the horizon to re-do it, so we promised ourselves that we would meet again in 2017. 

We spent 4 hours, guided, on IC 434, and it looks much better now! Still not perfect, but until we are able to get a CCD camera, this will have to do!


Telescope: 8" Astrograph

Processing: Pixinsight


Total Exposure Time: 4 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 6 minutes

40 lights - 10 Darks - 30 Bias

ISO: 800


"Nebula" or "Nebulae"?

Photographing the Horsehead nebula also means capturing its neighbors in the frame. Although obvious, know that this is more of a group of nebulae than a single one.

The Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) is right next to the horse!

This nebula obviously got its name due to its shape, and you can see it on the left of our main image! In true colors, it has a mix of bright and dark yellows, as well as some dark dust overlapping it.

NGC 2023 is a small blue reflection nebula visible just on the bottom left of the horse.

Make sure to be careful as you bring out the details within its gases during processing. It has a very bright core and because of that it is pretty easy to blow out!

Here you can see the Horsehead Nebula again but this time with Narrowband filters. As you can see, NGC 2023 does not really pop that much in this palette, and appears orange instead of blue.

The rest of the image is mostly made up of blue color instead of red. Why? Simply because Oxygen was assigned to Red, when it's usually Hydrogen Alpha.


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How to find the Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead and flame nebula can not be seen with the naked eye, and are too faint to be seen through binoculars. It is also a challenging object to find through telescopes, mostly because the horse’s head is a dark nebula, while the gas behind it is made of hydrogen. The use of a filter on a large aperture telescope will help spot the group, but both NGC 2023 and NGC 2024 will be more visible than IC 434 and Barnard 33.

The easiest way to find the Horsehead nebula is to locate the bright star Altinak, in Orion’s belt. Pointing your telescope at this star will ensure that you are on target, then you will simply have to re-center the nebula before photographing it. Another way to find it if planning to do some wide field photography is to aim your lens towards the Orion Nebula.


Cool Facts

  • Detected in photographs in 1888

  • Horse’s head would be invisible if there was no colorful gases behind it

  • Bright star Alnitak shines light into the flame


Photographing IC 434 with a DSLR camera and lens wide-field

The Horsehead and Flame nebulae are an awesome target for wide field photography. Below you can see our wide field image of the target, using a 300m lens, on a Canon t3i and using a iOptron Skytracker to track the sky!

IC434 can also be obtained when imaging the huge Barnard's Loop emission nebula. You can also get M42 and M78 in the same frame if using a 85m or 50mm lens!

Below is Barnard's Loop, we spent 7.2 hours on the imaging (watch Episode 8!), using this time a 50mm lens, also tracking the stars with our Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount.


Processing: Pixinsight


Total Exposure Time: 7.2 hours

RGB Exposure Time: 3.6 hours

Hydrogen Alpha Exposure Time: 3.6 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 6 minutes

73 lights, calibrated with Darks and Bias

ISO: 800


Single Shot & Processing of IC 434

Processing the Horsehead Nebula is a ton of fun! There is so much color, shapes, and nebulosity in the entire image that every processing step is both challenging and fun. The image below is what a typical mask of this target looks like, you can see it looks pretty awesome even with no color!

A single shot of 6 minutes of IC 434. You can already see so many details in the gases! Seeing this beauty on your camera screen really makes you happy and motivate you to take as many as you can!

This image is a full processing of just 7 frames at 6 minutes each. As you can see, the only way to really bring out the details is to be very aggressive with the processing steps, which is why you should really spend enough time on the imaging and not be too impatient to pack up!


Previous images of IC 434

Below are all of our images of IC 434 before reaching our first great result. See the progression!


Final Thoughts

IC 434 is one of the most beautiful targets in the night sky. It is also great for beginners who are seeking a little bit of a challenge. This nebula, being part of the Orion constellation, stays high in the sky for a long period of time, allowing you to really take your time and ace your capture!

Have you captured the Horsehead Nebula? Attach your image in the comments and let us know your acquisition details!

Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date with our work!

Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia Grelin

Galactic Hunter


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