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Messier 20 - The Trifid Nebula | Astrophotography Tips and Images

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Messier 20 is a great target for amateur astrophotographers, no matter which instrument you own. A close-up image will show a lot of details, especially in Barnard 85, the dark nebula.

A wide-field shot will allow you to capture both M20 and M8 in the same frame. Both are about the same magnitude and make for an impressive photo together.

Object Designation: M20, Sh2-30, NGC 6514

Also known as: The Trifid Nebula

Constellation: Sagittarius

Object Type: Emission Nebula

Distance: 4,100 light-years away

Magnitude: 6.3

Discovery: Charles Messier on June 5, 1764

Messier 20 is not a common deep-sky object. The Trifid Nebula and the stars that burn in the gases are probably the youngest of our galaxy. Two red and blue areas show the gas surrounding the birth of new burning stars. Check out our latest attempt at this target and discover tips on how to capture this object yourself.


M20 & M8 - Bortle 2 Skies Without Filters

July 2023

In preparation of Season 4 of the Galactic Course, we needed to change our telescope at Utah Desert Remote Observatories. We had a Stellarvue SVX130T there originally and swapped it out for a Celestron RASA 8. It was a great change of pace to photograph new objects with the RASA and we enjoyed not having to deal with a filter wheel because it doesn't have any!

We mentioned above that imaging both M20 and M8 together can yield lovely results. Without any filters, the outcome will be in "true color" and we hoped it would bring out some fun Ha details because of the dark skies at the remote observatory. Our thoughts? IT'S BEAUTIFUL!

See Messier 20 with its neighbor Messier 8 below. We have two versions, the left is the finished image, and we also used StarXTerminator to create a starless version (seen on the right).

Click the images to see a high-resolution photo.


Camera: ZWO ASI2600MC

Telescope: Celestron RASA 8

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

Processing: Pixinsight, with R-C Astro plugins


Total Exposure Time: 8 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes

Filters: N/A

Gain: 100


The Trifid Nebula in Narrowband

August 2019

3 years passed since our first attempt, so we decided to revisit this target with a wider telescope and our new CMOS camera. Below is the result with the ASI 1600MM-pro cooled astrophotography camera.

Truth be told, we actually prefer the image we got with our Canon t3i, mostly because the one below lacks a lot of detail in the second blob. Perhaps we should have spent a little more time with the Oxygen III filter? You will also notice that some of the stars are a bit too pink and maybe oversaturated.

Messier 20 with CMOS camera


Telescope: Meade 70mm APO

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR

Processing: Pixinsight


Total Exposure Time: 3 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

Filters: Ha (1 hour) / SII (1 hour) / OIII (1 hour)

Gain: 139


First Attempt - Trifid Nebula with a DSLR Camera

August 2016

We first imaged this nebula three years ago, with our Canon t3i. You can see the result below.

Sadly, this unmodified DSLR camera is not great for bringing out the Hydrogen Alpha gases, so the red area doesn't show as much as we were hoping it would. 

To the bottom right, you can see the cluster of stars Messier 21 as well. That's 2 Messier objects in one frame!

Trifid Nebula with DSLR camera


Camera: Canon t3i

Telescope: 8" Astrograph

Mount: Atlas EQ-G

Processing: Pixinsight


Total Exposure Time: 3 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

60 lights - 21 Darks - 20 Bias

ISO: 400


Locating the Trifid Nebula

star chart for locating Triffid Nebula

M20 is located just above the Lagoon Nebula in the Milky Way band. To find it, you can simply follow the same steps as for Messier 8, but this time, head just a bit higher.

Messier 20 is smaller than its neighbor and will be relatively easy to spot with binoculars, but seeing it with the naked eye is more of a guessing game. It will look more like a fuzzy star than a gray patch.

Once again, do not wait until the last minute to capture this nebula, as it does not rise very high.

You may also see Messier 21 through binoculars or a telescope. M21 is a star cluster that is near the Lagoon!


Cool Facts about M20

  • Dark nebula in front appears to separate the two blobs

  • Photographed by Hubble in 1997

  • Brightest star is a triple star system


Single Shot and Processing of M20

Below you can see our single shots of Messier 20.

The first image (in color) was taken using our unmodified Canon t3i DSLR Camera. It looks really good for just 3 minutes of exposure, and the colors are really popping already!

The three other ones are, in order, 3 minutes with Ha, SII, and OIII filter. M20 can be seen on the top right of each narrowband image. The nebula in the center of the frame is M8, the Lagoon Nebula, which we imaged at the same time.


Trifid Nebula M20 astrophotography

Just like M8, M20 doesn’t get very high from the horizon. This can be challenging when photographing it because you want to make sure that there are no big cities in the direction of the nebula, or it will create a light pollution dome that you will have to shoot through.

Make sure to make Barnard 85, the black nebulosity, visible in front of the beautiful reds and blue of M20.

Messier 21 astrophotography

On the left is a cropped image of the open star cluster Messier 21.

It was near the edge of our photo so we are glad it was included in the field of view!

You can see some faint gasses in the background, mostly hydrogen alpha.


Our Full Episode About Capturing Messier 20

In Episode 13, we try out a wide telescope, the Meade 70mm APO Astrograph, and photograph both Messier 8 and Messier 20 in the same frame! Watch it below to see how we ended up with our final image.


Final Thoughts

The Trifid Nebula is a colorful target that is easy to photograph for anyone! We are glad we were able to revisit this target several times with a DSLR camera, a cooled astrophotography camera, and an Astro-dedicated camera. Being able to see the changes in size, color, and quality really makes us happy. Of course, in that time we've gotten more knowledgeable, enhanced our processing skills, and had a better grasp of our gear.

It's amazing that we've been in this hobby long enough to shoot the same target three times and attempted to capture better images. We'd like to say that each time has been an improvement in some way rather than be negative about what we couldn't capture. Progress is what keeps us going and we think our latest capture is the most beautiful we've gotten in some time - not just for Messier 20.

If you would like to practice processing this target and perhaps we're passed the season or it's on your list, download our raw data for M20 & M8. It would support us and help you progress on your Astro journey.

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

Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter


astrophotographer's guidebook image

Description: Discover 60 Deep Sky Objects that will considerably improve your Imaging and Processing skills! Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced astrophotographer, this detailed book of the best deep-sky objects will serve as a personal guide for years to come! Discover which star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies are the easiest and most impressive to photograph for each season. Learn how to find each object in the night sky, and read our recommendations on imaging them in a quick and comprehensive way. Each target in this guide contains our advice on imaging, photos of expected results, and a useful information table. We've also included a few cool facts about each target, a map to find it in the night sky, and more!

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