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NGC 2264 - The Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula | Astrophotography Tips

Updated: May 17, 2023

NGC 2264 is probably the most festive deep-sky object out there! It is a large emission nebula located 2,500 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros, and is famous for looking exactly like a Christmas tree 🎄. NGC 2264 refers to two objects: The Christmas Tree cluster and the Cone Nebula. It is also home to a third and fourth target, the Fox Fur Nebula and the Stellar Snowflake Cluster.


Object Designation: NGC 2264, LBN 911, SH 2-273, Cr 112

Also known as: The Christmas Tree Cluster, the Cone Nebula

Constellation: Monoceros

Object Type: Emission Nebula

Distance: 2,500 light-years away

Magnitude: 3.9

Discovered in: January 18,1784 by William Herschel



We have captured the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula a few times over the years, and we will show you our favorite attempts in this post!

NGC 2264 is best photographed in late Fall and throughout Winter. Try to image it just in time for Christmas!



 

The Christmas Tree and Rosette Nebula with a DSLR Lens Wide-field

March 2023


After imaging NGC2264 with a telescope at 350mm and 655mm focal length, we wanted to now capture it widefield using a 135mm lens!

Shooting this area of the sky without a telescope is very exciting because you can include several deep sky objects and so much overall nebulosity in your frame. In our case, we did our best to frame our shot so that both NGC2264 and the Rosette Nebula would be visible. The main objects included in our final shot are:

  • The Christmas Tree cluster

  • The Cone Nebula

  • The Fox Fur Nebula

  • The Stellar Snowflake Cluster

  • The Rosette Nebula


We spent a total of 15 hours on this image, from our Bortle 9 backyard in Las Vegas using a duo band filter. The lens used is the Rokinon/Samyang 135mm f/2, which is in our opinion one of the best lenses you can own for astrophotography.


Click the image to see it in high-resolution

The Rosette Nebula and Christmas Tree cluster in one image

GEAR USED:

Mount: ZWO AM5

Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins

Accessories: Astronetics

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 15 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 6 minutes

Gain: 100


 

NGC 2264 in Narrowband with a Monochrome Camera

January 2023


remote telescope utah desert remote observatories
Our telescope at Utah Desert Remote Observatories

The main target we captured with our remote telescope throughout November, December, and January is none other than NGC 2264.


We used our SVX130 telescope, which has a longer focal length (655mm) than the small beginner telescope we used from home for our previous attempt (350mm).


Because this telescope is hosted remotely (at Utah Desert Remote Observatories), we were able to really take our time throughout these three months and spend a whooping 80 hours imaging this target! This is our new record, which beats the 61 hours record previously held by the Seagull Nebula & Thor's Helmet Nebula. There are still a few available spots at UDRO if you'd like to set up your telescope under Bortle 2 skies permanently.


The image below is the result, with and without stars. The details are very crisp, the noise is basically non-existent, and the colors came out vibrant! You can click the image for the high-resolution version.



GEAR USED:

Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Stellarvue SVX130

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 81 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 20 minutes for SHO, 1 minute for RGB

Gain: 56



 

NGC 2264 with a Duoband Filter from the Backyard

December 2022


In November and December 2022, we decided to do our best to capture the Christmas Tree Nebula early so that we had time to process it and upload it before Christmas Day. The nebula was high enough behind the neighbor's trees around 10:30 PM each night, so we captured approximately 6 hours of data for 5 days until we decided to stack it all.


Woman with telescope outside for Christmas
Don't worry. It's not real snow!

We used our small refractor telescope and a full-frame camera to capture a wide view and include as much gas as possible. Because we shot this with a color camera from our Bortle 9 backyard (meaning the light pollution is terrible), we used a duo-narrowband filter to block most of the unwanted light and only keep hydrogen alpha and oxygen III bandpasses.


With 33 hours of integration time, the result turned out beautiful as you can see below! Be sure to watch our Christmas Special video to see how we captured this target.


Click the image for the full-resolution version!

Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula Astrophotography from backyard

Want to process your images following our own workflow? Download our PixInsight Guide!


Camera: QHY600C

Mount: ZWO AM5

Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 33 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 10 minutes

Gain: 26


 

NGC 2264 with a Reflector Telescope in Bi-Color

December 2019


Our very first encounter with dew was on this very target... Living in Las Vegas, we are used to dry nights all year long, and so never use a dew heater here. Yet this was taken the day following a storm, and the evening was very humid which made the mirrors on our 8" Newtonian wet.


At 800mm of focal length with our reflector telescope, the entire tree and more were able to fit in our frame. You can see the Cone Nebula on the top right and the Fox Fur nebula around the upper middle left (just above the bright middle star). The Christmas Tree cluster can easily be seen, going from the Cone Nebula to the bright star in the center. That bright star represents the tree base.


This image was taken during a very humid night, and we know for sure that it affected the quality. We are not done with this target and will revisit it on a dry night. This was taken in bicolor, using two narrowband filters, Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen III.

The version below resembles the Hubble Palette. Scroll down to see it in different combinations!


NGC 2264 in bicolor with the ASI 1600MM

The Crescent Nebula NGC 6888 in Cygnus - ZWO ASI 1600MM-Pro Astrophotography using a Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9 reflecting telescope in the Nevada desert and with an ASI Air, LRGB

GEAR USED:

Telescope: 8" Astrograph

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 2 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes

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

Gain: 139



 

How to find the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree Cluster?

How to find the Pacman Nebula in the night sky, map

The Christmas Tree cluster and the Cone Nebula are located in the constellation of Monoceros. It is pretty close to a bright and famous deep-sky object: the Rosette Nebula.


Finding the cluster is not easy. Most of the stars in Monoceros are faint, and so the easiest way to star hop to the object is starting from the Orion constellation.


The Orion Sword region and the Rosette Nebula lie close to NGC 2264


The Christmas Tree Cluster shines bright enough to be spotted with the naked eye. It can actually be seen easily with a pair of binoculars.

With a telescope, you should be able to make out the shape of the tree. On the other hand, the nebulosity within is much more difficult to spot. You may or may not be able to resolve it using a large telescope under a very dark sky.


 

The Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula Information


The Christmas Tree Cluster was discovered in 1784, the nebulosity around it was found 2 years later, the day after Christmas. It is located in the Orion arm of the Milky Way, about 2,500 light-years away from Earth.


NGC 2264 is made up of four distinct sections, which are all somewhat overlapping:


  • The Christmas Tree Cluster

  • The Cone Nebula

  • The Fox Fur Nebula

  • The Stellar Snowflake Cluster


Let's go over these below and learn more about each part.


 

The Christmas Tree Cluster


The Christmas Tree by ESO
The Christmas Tree by ESO

The bright stars of the Christmas Tree Cluster form the iconic shape of a Christmas tree! 🎄


This is very visible on the image on the left, taken by ESO. Do you see the shape of the tree when looking at these bright blue stars?


The Christmas Tree Cluster is an open cluster of stars located within all the nebulous gasses of NGC 2264. These stars are fairly young, and were formed between 1 and 4 million years ago from the surrounding molecular cloud. The open cluster is home to at least 600 stars.



 

The Cone Nebula


The Cone Nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope
The Cone Nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Cone Nebula is visible at the top of the Christmas Tree, and represents the tree topper. On the right is the object taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.


The Cone Nebula is a pillar of gas that spans 7 light-years in length. Within these gases, thousands of new stars are born over time.


The Cone Nebula is very similar to the famous Pillars of Creation, which we photographed in Messier 16.




 

The Fox Fur Nebula



The Fox Fur Nebula astrophotography
The Fox Fur Nebula from our starless image

The Fox Fur Nebula is a diffuse and dark nebula visible just "under" the Christmas Tree.


It pops out easily on astrophotography images due to its bright blue color, resulting from the light of young blue stars reflecting against the dust of the nebula.


As you may be able to see in most pictures, the gas in the Fox Fur Nebula directly interacts with the Hydrogen Alpha gases from the Christmas Tree section itself.


 

The Snowflake Cluster


NGC 2264 in Infrared from the Spitzer Telescope
NGC 2264 in Infrared from the Spitzer Telescope

The fourth distinct part of NGC 2264 is another open cluster, named the Stellar Snowflake Cluster.


The Snowflake Cluster is a bit difficult to spot in true-color images of the Christmas Tree, but easily pops out in infrared pictures.


The image on the right was taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope in two-color infrared. You can see the bright stars from the Snowflake Cluster near the center of the object. In infrared, young stars appear red, whereas older stars look blue.


Both young and old stars help create this insane amount of dust you can see all around, but they also destroy this gas as they heat up over time.






 

Recommended Telescope to Photograph NGC 2264



The Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula make up a very large object, and there is also an incredible amount of dust that extends a long way from the nebula itself.


If you only care about the Christmas Tree itself, we recommend a telescope with a focal length of around 600 to 800mm, like a good 8" Newtonian telescope or the Askar FRA600 refractor telescope. If you would like to get it widefield with as much exterior gas visible as possible, go for a much smaller telescope, like the 300mm focal length Askar FRA300 Pro.



Above you can see our attempt with an 800mm focal length telescope (left) versus a smaller 350mm focal length telescope on the right. The fields of view are very different!


 

Do I need Filters to Capture the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula?


NGC 2664 as a whole is mostly made up of Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen, with a little bit of Sulfur. It is a great target for both broadband and narrowband imaging, although you will be able to capture more using narrowband filters.

Duoband narrowband filter

If you own an unmodified DSLR camera or a one-shot-color camera, we suggest getting a duo-band narrowband filter. This filter will block most of the light pollution, and only let HA and OIII bandpass penetrate to your camera sensor.


Our favorite duo-band filters are the ones that produce no halos on bright stars. We recommend either the Askar 6nm Color Magic filter (what we used for our backyard image) or the Optolong L-Ultimate 3nm filter.


If you want to avoid getting a filter, you can instead modify your DSLR or mirrorless camera to make it more sensitive to hydrogen alpha, which is what most nebulae are made of. You can learn all about getting your camera modified for astrophotography in our full blog post.


Below is a comparison image of an unmodified camera (left) and an astro-modified camera (right). The amount of gas visible with the modified camera is incredible compared to the stock DSLR! The modification was done by Astrogear.

stock vs modded camera for astrophotography

 

NGC 2264 Without a Telescope


The Christmas Tree cluster and Cone Nebula can easily be captured without a telescope. It is bright, large, and contains gasses that expand all around! With a DSLR lens, you also can include the nearby Rosette Nebula in your frame.


Samyang 135mm f2

For this task, we suggest the fast and high-quality Samyang 135mm f/2 lens.


Although you could capture the object with just a tripod, we recommend getting an affordable star tracker, which will allow you to take long exposure shots and not have to re-center your target every 5 minutes.


If your camera is modified, this portable rig is a great combo for this beautiful Winter nebula.



 

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Processing NGC 2264

2019 image


Processing the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree cluster was not difficult, although we feel like we could have tried a little harder to get some of the faint gases on the top left and bottom right of our image.


The filters used to get this result were two narrowband filters:

  • Hydrogen Alpha (2 hours)

  • Oxygen III (2 hours)


 

What kinds of bicolor combinations could we have processed?

2019 image


Below you can see a few different bicolor combinations obtained using PixelMath. We have an RGB style one on the left, an orange dominant one in the middle, and a yellowish one on the right. We weren't really sure as to which one we should pick and process, but ended up choosing the one that looks the most like the Hubble Palette (orange). If you don't already know, we've been deeply in love with processing the Hubble Palette for most of our images since getting our ASI 1600MM.



 

Get our Raw Data of the Christmas Tree!


Our Raw Data page provides a dataset for this particular target and several others, which you can use to practice processing high-quality astrophotography data! These master files have been calibrated and prepared for you to easily open them in your processing software.



 

NGC 2264 FAQ


  • How did the Christmas Tree Cluster get its name?

The Christmas Tree cluster got its name because its brightest stars are located in a way that they form the shape of a Christmas tree. This looks very obvious both visually through a telescope eyepiece and in pictures.


  • In which constellation is the Cone Nebula located?

You can find NGC2264 in the constellation Monoceros, not far from other popular deep-sky objects like the Rosette Nebula.


  • How big is the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula?

It is difficult to calculate the true size of NGC 2264 because there is so much extra gas expanding from all directions. Visually speaking, NGC 2264 has an apparent size of 20 degrees.


  • How far is NGC 2264?

The Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree Cluster are located approximately 2,500 light-years away from Earth.


  • How long should my exposure time be when photographing the Cone Nebula?

To image NGC 2264, like most nebulae out there, we suggest taking 5 to 10-minute exposures, and spending at least 3 hours on it. If your goal is to also reveal all the fainter gas expelling from the outside of the nebula, you will likely need to spend several full nights capturing data.


  • Should I use a filter to image the Cone Nebula?

NGC 2264 is mostly an emission nebula, which makes it a perfect narrowband target. Using H, S, and O narrowband filters is the key to get the cleanest and most impressive result. You can also use a color camera with a duoband filter. If you do not want to get filters, you can definitely image this target without any! Just be sure to get away from light pollution. Another option is to get your camera modified for astrophotography, making it much more sensitive to hydrogen-alpha.


  • What equipment do I need to photograph the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree Cluster?

You can capture NGC 2264 with any small or medium size telescope. A good field of view for this object which would include all the expanding gasses around it would be around 300mm of focal length. You can also get a great image with a tighter field of view, like 600-800mm, and concentrate on the tree itself. If you do not own a telescope, we recommend imaging this target with a star tracker and a great DSLR lens, like the Rokinon 135mm f/2.


 

Final Thoughts


The Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula are wonderful targets to photograph just in time for the holidays! We were not very happy with our first attempt with the reflector due to the humidity, but are much happier with our latest images.


Have you photographed this object? Attach your image to the comment and let us know what gear you used!




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


Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter






 

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