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NGC 7293 - The Helix Nebula DSLR Astrophotography Tips

Updated: Jun 1, 2023


The Helix Nebula designated NGC 7263, is commonly referred to as the Eye of God or even the Eye of Sauron, and looks like a larger and brighter version of M57, the Ring Nebula. This unique and interesting nebula is located in the constellation of Aquarius and is about 650 million light-years away.


This planetary nebula is a very popular target for beginner astrophotographers, not only because it has cool nicknames but also because it is very easy to capture.

Helix Nebula astrophotography

We imaged this target with our unmodified Canon 7D Mark II DSLR camera and did it again about 2 years later but with our ZWO ASI 1600MM-Pro CMOS camera. You can see in the image above the immense difference between the two. We used the same telescope for both images and we will provide details about how we achieved these results below.


We spent just under 3 hours of total time imaging it with the DSLR camera, and just half of that at one hour and 30 minutes with our cooled astro camera. You will see that the ASI 1600MM camera's result is much better no matter the amount of time spent!


Below you can find our first attempt at the nebula taken with the DSLR camera, followed by our latest version of the Helix taken with the cooled astronomy camera so that you can compare both images easily.


 

Imaging the Helix Nebula with a DSLR Camera

October 21st, 2017


We went to our usual stargazing location in the desert from 6 PM to 12 AM. We contacted members of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society asking if they'd like to join us for a night of imaging, and a few of them came with their telescopes! It was fun and it felt nice having company for once.


We decided to photograph the Helix Nebula knowing it would become too low on the horizon for the rest of the year very soon. Even though it was already low, we spent about 2 hours and 45 minutes on it until it completely disappeared behind Laughlin's light pollution dome, which was quite visible in the distance.


We spent the rest of our time photographing IC 5146 (The Cocoon Nebula) and the star cluster M37. We only spent one hour on each but we were pretty happy with the outcome of Messier 37. The Cocoon Nebula, however, we would like to revisit.


The Helix Nebula with our Canon 7D Mark II DSLR Camera

Helix Nebula DSLR Astrophotography

GEAR USED:

Mount: Atlas EQ-G

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 2.7 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

54 lights - 15 Darks - 15 Bias

ISO: 800


 

Imaging the Helix Nebula with a Cooled Astrophotography Camera

October 31st, 2019


Two years later, we went back to that same stargazing location in the desert with the same telescope and mount but with a different camera!


NGC 7293 was even lower in the horizon than the last time, so we only had time to collect about an hour and 30 minutes of total exposure. This is also the first time we decided to do bi-color imaging, using only Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen III filters. The final result turned out gorgeous. There was so much more detail than we have ever seen, but you can see for yourself below! It blows our minds that the stars in the DSLR image are so bloated compared to the ones in this retake, knowing we followed the exact same processing workflow for both. This also might be because we were imaging in RGB rather than Narrowband.


The Helix Nebula with our ASI 1600MM Camera

Helix Nebula monochrome astrophotography

GEAR USED:

Mount: Atlas EQ-G

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

Filters: Ha (45 minutes) / OIII (45 minutes)

Gain: 75


 

The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) DSLR Astrophotography with a Canon 7D Mark II unmodified camera in Nevada

DSLR Astrophotography:

Spending about two hours on this target will give you the beautiful, colorful nebula as seen in the image on the left.


Note that ours is affected by a little bit of light pollution from a nearby city, so you might be able to get a cleaner image than this one with the same exposure time!




The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) CMOS Astrophotography with a ZWO ASI 1600MM-Pro monochrome cooled camera in Nevada

Monochrome Astrophotography:

Using a cooled monochrome astrophotography camera, the narrowband filters helped reveal the faint outer gas as you can see in our image to your right.


We wish we could have spent more time on it to gather more data but this is all we could get! It is still beautiful though and we can always add more to it next year. We always make sure to keep our raw files in a folder in case we want to stack more over time!


The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) Astrophotography by NASA Using the Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Astrophotography:

Adding several more hours will allow you to capture the fainter, outer gases being expelled. The picture on the left is from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Although our DSLR version doesn't do it justice, know that it is really easy to photograph this target and have it look very close to Hubble's version even with a cheap camera.



 

Locating the Helix Nebula

How to find the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) in the night sky using a map and star hopping

The Helix nebula can be found in the Aquarius constellation, in an area devoid of bright stars.

Even though the Helix is the brightest planetary nebula in the night sky, it is not that easy to observe.


Because of its size, the nebula has a low surface brightness, making it difficult to spot through a large telescope. The key is to use binoculars or a low-power telescope so that the light from the Helix can be concentrated in one obvious spot in the wide visible sky.

NGC 7293 can also be seen with the unaided eye, as long as your vision is excellent and no light pollution is present from your observing site.


Keep in mind that from any place in the United States, the Eye of God does not rise very high in the sky, and disappears after a few weeks. Make sure to capture it before it is gone or you will have no choice but to wait an entire year to meet it again.

Cool Facts about the Helix Nebula

  • The first planetary nebula discovered to have cometary knots (about 20,000)

  • Expands at a rate of 40km/s

  • About half the size of the full moon


 

Single Shot & Processing of the Helix Nebula - DSLR Camera


We had the chance to take a few shots of the Helix from our usual imaging spot (Bortle 3.5) but also from a Bortle 1 zone near Tonopah, Nevada! As you can see below, the difference is very impressive! Sadly, our laptop literally broke during our Tonopah night and we were unable to image the Helix Nebula from there, so all the stacked images are from the Bortle 3.5 zone.


The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) DSLR Astrophotography comparison between a Bortle 3.5 and a Bortle 1 zone, Las Vegas desert and Tonopah, Nevada

When it comes to the processing of NGC 7293, we had a little bit of trouble with the noise reduction because although we imaged from a pretty good Bortle zone, the Helix was low in the horizon and we had to shoot through Laughlin's (city not far from Las Vegas) light pollution dome.


We would really like to add more data to this next year and make sure it is higher in the sky when imaging.


 

Single Shot & Processing of the Helix Nebula - Cooled Camera


Processing the nebula was a true challenge for us this time because it was our first attempt at Bi-Color imaging! We had no idea how to combine two filters into three channels and we spent a long morning trying to figure it out. Thankfully, the internet is a wonderful place full of great tutorials and we were able to successfully stack our files using PixelMath on PixInsight.


Below you can see the 45-minute stacked images for both narrowband filters used: Ha and OIII. As you can see, they both look very different! The Hydrogen Alpha filter reveals all the outer gases, while the OIII filter only shows what's within the nebula. It's pretty fascinating.



 

Final Thoughts


The Helix Nebula is a very popular target among beginner astrophotographers. With great astrophotography equipment and the right conditions, you can get beautiful results. Don't worry if you didn't manage to get the image you wanted, you can take a page out of our book and try it again at a later time! The difference in skill and gear over two years is humbling.


We recommend you give this one a try before attempting M57, the Ring Nebula, as this target will be a larger and easier version.


Make sure to capture it as soon as it gets dark and when it is as high as possible in the sky because NGC 7293 does not rise much in most locations!



Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter




 

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