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M42 - The Great Orion Nebula - Astrophotography Tips & Images


Messier 42, also called the Orion Nebula, is the most popular nebula to photograph! And it is one of the easiest objects to capture.

M42 looks amazing in photographs through both telescopes (as seen below) and DSLR lenses (scroll down!).


Object Designation: M42

Also known as: The Orion Nebula

Constellation: Orion

Object Type: Reflection & Emission Nebula

Distance: 1,350 light-years away

Magnitude: 4.0

Discovered in: Pre-historic times


We've imaged the Orion Nebula several times, using different cameras, telescopes, and under different levels of light pollution. We'll show our best results in this post!


 

The Orion Nebula with a Medium Format Camera

October 2023


In October of 2023, I decided to partner with Dark Matters Astrophotography to work on some images together. Dark Matters Astrophotography uses the best possible gear to capture deep-sky objects under the darkest possible skies.


The first dataset obtained from the telescope is the Orion Nebula, and it is free for everyone to process! This was taken from Animas, New Mexico using a Planewave CDK14 telescope and... a medium format camera!


Be sure to click on the image to open the full-resolution version!


GEAR USED:

Telescope: Planewave CDK14

Mount: Astro-Physics 1100 w/ Absolute Encoders

Camera: Moravian C5A-100M

Filters: Chroma LRGB 50x50mm

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 12.6 hours

Luminance – 224 x 2 mins – Chroma 50×50 L

Red – 50 x 2 mins – Chroma 50×50 R

Green – 53 x 2 mins – Chroma 50×50 G

Blue – 51 x 2 mins – Chroma 50×50 B

 

The Orion Nebula from the city with a small refractor

December 2020


Radian Raptor 61 and Atlas EQ-G

We decided to spend 2 nights on M42 from our Bortle 9 backyard using the a small refractor telescope.


Sadly, as you can see in our video, clouds rolled in and in the end, we only gathered about 9.75 hours of data within these two nights. Still, the result is pretty good!



Our only wish is that we picked an exposure time of 10-15 seconds for the core instead of 30 seconds, as even 30 seconds is way too long to not blow out the bright core of M42. Make sure to take note of that!


Orion Nebula Astrophotography from the city backyard

GEAR USED:

Camera: ZWO ASI071MC

Telescope: Radian Raptor 61

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight with RC-Astro Plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 9.75 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes for the nebulosity / 30 seconds for the core

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

Filter used: Radian Triad Ultra

GAIN: 90


 

One hour on the Orion Nebula using an unmodified DSLR camera

February 2016


The following photo was taken through our 8” reflector telescope with a total exposure time of only 1 hour! This was taken from a Bortle 4 zone about 45 minutes away from Las Vegas.


M43 (The little ball-shaped nebula on the left of the heart shape of M42) is visible, as well as the Running Man Nebula (top left). When capturing it, be sure to also take a few short exposure shots for the bright core as well as the Trapezium cluster!

The Orion Nebula (M42) taken with a Canon t3i - Astrophotography with a DSLR camera and 8" Orion Astrograph f/3.9 reflector newtonian telescope in Las Vegas, Nevada


GEAR USED:

Camera: Canon t3i

Telescope: 8" Astrograph

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 1 hour

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes for the nebulosity / 15 seconds for the core

20 lights for the nebulosity / 15 lights for the core - 18 Darks - 111 Bias

ISO: 800


 

"Nebula" or "Nebulae"?


The Orion nebula is almost always photographed with two other nebulae: M43 (De Mairan's Nebula) & NGC Sh2-279 (The Running Man nebula). See a close-up of both below.


Messier 43 is an H II region that is pretty much part of M42.


Both objects are only separated by a lane of dust.


The image on the left is a tight crop from the main image, rotated 90 degrees to the left.




The Running Man Nebula taken with a Canon t3i - Astrophotography with a DSLR camera and 8" Orion Astrograph f/3.9 reflector newtonian telescope in Las Vegas, Nevada

Sh2-279, or Sharpless 279, or... let's make it easier, the Running Man nebula is located just to the left of M42/M43.


The photo on the right was taken from the main image but rotated 90 degrees to the right where you can see the man running from left to right.


Make sure to frame your camera properly and get all of the Running Man, you do not want a cut nebula in your magnificent image.


 

How to find the Orion Nebula in the night sky

How to Locate The Orion Nebula M42 in the night sky with a map, astronomy and astrophotography for beginners, orion constellation

M42 is the easiest nebula to find. It is located in Orion’s sword and is obvious to spot as it looks like a star. It lies between other deep-sky objects, such as the Horsehead and Flame nebulae, M78, and even the Witch Head nebula.


Messier 42 is one of the brightest nebulae in the sky and is easily visible with the unaided eye even though it looks just like a regular star. The nebula is an amazing sight through binoculars, as you can make out its shape as well as its bright core.

Any size telescope will reveal more of the gases with different shades of gray. You will also be able to spot the four stars that form the famous Trapezium cluster in the core of the nebula.

 

Cool Facts

  • Discovered in 1610

  • The nearest stellar nursery to Earth

  • The Trapezium is an open cluster that powers the gases all around


 

All You Need To Know Before Imaging Messier 42


We made a video where we give you a ton of tips to image M42, watch it below! We also show you several of our attempts at capturing this beautiful object. Our hope is that with this video and this written post, you will be fully ready to photograph the Orion Nebula and will get an amazing result.




 

Wide-field Astrophotography of the Orion Nebula with a DSLR camera


M42 can easily be photographed without a telescope! We recommend that you aim for the emission nebula Barnard's Loop. You can also get IC 434 and M78 in the same frame if using an 85m or 50mm lens!

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


Click on the image below to visit our full post about Barnard's Loop.

Barnard's Loop Astrophotography taken with a Canon 7D Mark II - Wide field DSLR astrophotography without a telescope in Las Vegas, Nevada

GEAR USED:

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

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


 

Wide-field Astrophotography of the Orion Nebula in narrowband

July 2021


In January of 2021, we made a video where we photographed the Orion Nebula with the small Radian Raptor 61 telescope, from our backyard. We used a one-shot color APS-C camera for that shot along with the Triad Ultra filter. The image turned out great for just 9.75 hours of exposure (you can see it if you scroll back up!).

In the comments, you guys told us you would love seeing the same type of image but this time taken with a monochrome camera. Your request has been answered!


On the next clear night, we set up our equipment again but this time took off the Triad Ultra filter and the cropped sensor camera, and instead attached our monochrome camera with the filter wheel.


We spent once again two half-nights imaging this part of the sky, in the hopes to get exactly the same amount of data we got on our last attempt for a great comparison. We ended up getting about 8 hours and 15 minutes in total (VS 9 hours and 45 minutes on the APS-C version), and even with lower integration time, the image looks very good! Make sure to watch the full video HERE!



GEAR USED:

Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Radian Raptor 61

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight with RC-Astro Plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

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


As you can see, we had a much wider field of view because the camera used is a full-frame camera and not a cropped sensor like the ASI071MC we used before. We took advantage of that and included the Horsehead Nebula (IC434) in the frame! We are in love with this image!


The color is rarely seen, and might not be to your liking, but we tried an O/H/S combination instead of the usual S/H/O or H/S/O.


Below you can see the difference in framing between a cropped sensor camera and a full-frame camera!


Astrophotography: Cropped sensor vs full frame camera example

 

Single Shot & Processing of M42


Processing the Orion Nebula is very easy! The only trick is to know where the nebulosity is supposed to be and to not mess up the background extraction at the beginning!


If you have the chance, take the time to travel to a dark zone to photograph this target (and every other target as well...)

Below you can see the huge difference between a 30-second single shot from our parking lot in Las Vegas, and a single shot from our imaging spot near the desert. If we can, we will try to update this post in the future to show what a single shot from a Bortle 1 zone looks like!

The Orion Nebula (M42) single 30 second shot comparison from Las Vegas (Bortle 9) and the desert (Bortle 4) astrophotography with a DSLR camera and a telescope

If you are interested in learning how I process all our images, you can find our full processing workflow guide HERE.


 

Camera lens Astrophotography of M42


As we said above, the Orion Nebula can easily be captured without a telescope. It is a great idea to capture the entire Orion complex with a small lens, but it is also a good target for telephoto lenses, both tracked, and untracked. See our images of M42 using a 300mm lens with and without a tracker below! Both photos have a total exposure time of 3.5 hours.

The Orion Nebula taken with a Canon t3i and a 300mm telephoto lens - Wide field Astrophotography without a telescope in Las Vegas, Nevada


We got this image using our t3i with a 300mm lens f/5.6 on a simple tripod!


Because of the focal length of the lens, we could only do 6-second exposures before getting star trails.


The Orion Nebula taken with a Canon t3i and a 300mm telephoto lens - Wide field Astrophotography without a telescope in Las Vegas, Nevada


This image is, obviously, the same nebula, but this time using an iOptron SkyTracker!

Because of the tracking, we were able to do 3-minute exposures instead of 6 seconds!


Notice how the Running Man nebula is much more visible, and how M42's shape is more like a heart than in the untracked photo.



 

The Very First Picture of the Orion Nebula ever Taken (1880)



The 1st astrophotography image - 1880 - Henry Draper
The 1st astrophotography image - 1880

Did you ever wonder what the very first astrophotography image was? Well you're about to find out!

On the right is the first picture of the Orion Nebula ever taken, and it also is the very first image of a celestial object! Henry Draper (1837-1882) is considered as being the pioneer of astrophotography. Doctor by day, Draper was a hobbyist astronomer who managed to snap a picture of the heavens for the very first time. You might not recognize the Orion Nebula on the right, but it actually shows the Trapezium cluster in its core.


Henry Draper immediately realized that he could improve this image, and decided to photograph the nebula again several times.


The photo on the left shows M42 taken by Draper in 1882. You now can make out the shape of the nebula much easier!


Sadly, he died at the age of 45 that same year of double pleurisy, and so was unable to continue his astronomical work.


In case you were wondering, Draper used an 11" Clark Brothers photographic refractor telescope.



And below is a quick comparison of the first-ever picture of M42 in 1880, with our own first-ever picture of M42 using a telescope in 2016 😅



 

The Orion Nebula with a Smart Telescope


We imaged the Orion Nebula with the Stellina observation station from Death Valley, California. We only spent a total of 10 minutes on it but the result is impressive!


It took just a few minutes between the moment we took Stellina out of our trunk and the moment we started imaging with it. You can see our review post and video of this product HERE.


The Orion Nebula (M42) taken with a Stellina smart telescope in Death Valley, California - Astrophotography with the Stellina Observation Station by Vaonis.

 

Imaging the Orion Nebula with the QHY533M

February 2022


We imaged Messier 42 in February 2022 with the QHY533M and a small refractor telescope.


The QHY533M attached to our small refractor telescope
The QHY533M attached to our small refractor telescope

This shot was taken from our backyard, using beginner grade 7nm beginner filters. Be sure to read/watch our full review about the QHY533M.


The telescope used, which you can see on the right, is a small 70mm refractor from Meade, now discontinued.


The picture came out really great, especially considering the low exposure time (2.5 hours in total). The camera did a good job at revealing lots of details and colorful gases. The Orion Nebula appears blue and golden here because of the color palette used, the "Hubble Palette" using narrowband filters.


M42 in narrowband using the QHY533M

The Orion Nebula photographed with the QHY533M from the city

Want to process your images following our own workflow? Get our guide HERE!


GEAR USED:

Camera: QHY533M

Telescope: Meade 70mm APO

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight with RC-Astro Plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 2.5 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes

Gain: 76


 

Some previous attempts at M42


Below are all of our images of Messier 42. See the progression!


 

Final Thoughts


Messier 42 is by far the best nebula to not only photograph but observe in the night sky. We'd love to see your own versions of the Orion Nebula! Post them below if you have photographed this target before :)



Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia Grelin

Galactic Hunter




 

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19 Comments


Craig Stocks
Craig Stocks
Oct 30, 2023

Thanks for sharing the data. I couldn't resist trying it out in PixInsight and Photoshop.



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Replying to

Very nice and beautiful core!

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Luke Shepherd
Luke Shepherd
Mar 19, 2023

SHOLRGB M42

Here’s an updated image from this summer, here’s the link to my Facebook page where you’ll be able to find my original post www.facebook.com/Lshepastrophotography

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Bryan Jones
Bryan Jones
Mar 14, 2023

Taken 3 March 2023


What a difference a year makes and adding better equipment. I have a post further down in this thread.


SvBony SV503 80ED Refractor Telescope 0.8 Focal Reducer at 448FL ZWO ASI533MC Pro Optolong IR/UV Cut Filter SvBony SV106 200mm Guide Scope ZWO ASI120MC-S Guide Camera ZWO ASIAir Mini ZWO Electronic Auto Focuser (EAF) Celestron Advanced VX Mount


40 Lights @ 120 Seconds 50 Darks @ 120 Seconds 115 Flats 200 Bias


Stacked and Processed in Pixinsight Blur Xterminator and Astro Flat Pro Photoshop 2023

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Luke Shepherd
Luke Shepherd
Feb 12, 2022

My most recent image of M42 and probably my best image to date, taken with my 10" Quattro CF at F3.62 and the QHY268M. It is also my very first image I have printed on metal.