M42 - The Great Orion Nebula - Astrophotography

Updated: Jan 27

  • Featured on Universe Today IG August 2016.

  • Featured on Orion Telescopes & Binoculars 2016 Holiday Catalog, page 41.

  • Featured on Orion Telescopes & Binoculars "featured member" webpage.

  • Featured on The Astrophotographer's Guidebook.

  • Featured on the cover of The Astrophotographer's Journal.

  • Featured on All About Space Magazine - Issue 87 (p90)

  • Featured on Amateur Astrophotography Magazine - Issue 61

  • Featured on NASA's Sky Facebook page - January 20, 2021

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 from the city with a small refractor

We decided to spend 2 nights on M42 from our Bortle 9 backyard using the Radian Raptor 61 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!


Camera: ZWO ASI071MC

Telescope: Radian Raptor 61

Mount: Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount

Guiding: ZWO ASI290MM Mini

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight


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

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!


Camera: Canon t3i

Telescope: Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9

Mount: Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount

Coma: Baader MPCC Coma Corrector MkIII

Guiding: Starshoot Autoguider - 50mm Guide Scope

Processing: Pixinsight


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.

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

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

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 a 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 Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount.

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


Camera: Canon 7D Mark II

Lens: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens

Mount: 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

Would you like to hang this photo in your home? Get a print HERE!

Wide-field Astrophotography of the Orion Nebula in narrowband

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 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!


Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Radian Raptor 61

Mount: Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount

Guiding: ZWO ASI290MM Mini

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAir Pro

Processing: Pixinsight


Total Exposure Time: 8 hours and 15 minutes

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

50 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!

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!

If you are interested in learning how I process all our images, you can download a full PDF "follow along" file that contains 77 pages, a full 1 hour and 45 minutes walkthrough tutorial video, our custom pre-sets for your dashboard and even raw data 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.

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.

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 Orion Nebula with Stellina

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 Unboxing video of this product in the REVIEW tab of this website [coming soon], as well as a full review of this futuristic astrophotography instrument.

The Orion Nebula from our backyard

February 2020

The Orion Nebula was our second attempt at doing Astrophotography from our very light polluted backyard in Las Vegas. If you'd like to see what our very first image from home looked like, make sure to visit our California Nebula post!

Using the TRIAD Quad-band filter on our ZWO ASI 071MC camera, we spent just 20 minutes on Messier 42 to see what the results would look like... We were stunned. We did 30 second exposures to ensure that the core would not be blown away, and as you can see, the Trapezium cluster is clearly visible!


Camera: ZWO ASI 071MC

Telescope: Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9

Mount: Atlas EQ-G motorized Mount

Coma: Baader MPCC Coma Corrector MkIII

Guiding: ZWO ASI 290MM Mini

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR

Power: Pegasus Astro Pocket Powerbox

Filter: TRIAD Ultra Quad-Band

Processing: PixInsight


Total Exposure Time: 20 minutes

Exposure Time per frame: 30 seconds

Gain: 90

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 :)

If you would like to get our photo of the Orion Nebula as a print, or other, you can support us and see some options HERE.

Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia Grelin

Galactic Hunter


Below you will find images of the Orion Nebula taken by Galactic Hunter followers, with different types of equipment so you can compare with ours!

M42 shot with a Canon 7D on a Sky-Watcher Pro ED Apochromatic - 7.5m total exposure

Photo taken by John B.

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