Updated: Dec 9, 2019
In this post you will find our Top 15 targets to photograph with a DSLR camera without a telescope. Most of these are relatively easy to capture for beginner amateur astrophotographers who do not yet own a full deep sky imaging rig. The objects in this list can be imaged with an affordable lens such as the Pancake lens (24mm), the "Nifty Fifty" (50mm) or a telephoto lens.
We remember the day we bought our first DSLR… We were so excited. But you know what we remember most? We remember having absolutely no clue where to point our shiny used camera at! After capturing the 3 “beginner targets” (M31, M42 and M45), we had to either spend hours on Stellarium hesitating on which target to do next, or just take 100 shots of a random one and hope for the best.
We made this guide for the beginners who only have a DSLR and a tripod, or a DSLR and a small tracker.
When we were starting, we could never find such a list. Those are the top 15 easiest wide field astrophotography targets without a telescope.
For the best Astrophotography targets with a telescope and a motorized mount, you can find our picks for each season below:
Note: Magnitude => The lower, the brighter.
All photos below were taken using just a cheap Canon t3i DSLR and a tripod, sometimes with a small tracker. For full quality images, check out our gallery.
You can watch our video about this list HERE.
I - THE ANDROMEDA GALAXY (M31/M32/M110)
Huge and bright galaxy, the easiest of them all!
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the few galaxies visible to the naked eye from Earth. It has a diameter of more than six times that of the Moon!
The Andromeda Galaxy can easily be photographed with a DSLR and no telescope, as proven by the images below.
Click HERE to see our image of M31 taken with a telescope.
Check out Our full Episode about M31 to see us photograph this beautiful galaxy from A to Z!
The Andromeda Galaxy with a 300mm lens at F/5.6.
Use the arrow to see M31 photographed with a Canon 50mm lens at F/1.8 instead.
II - THE TRIANGULUM GALAXY (M33)
Messier 33 is the second easiest galaxy to photograph after M31! It has beautiful, bright spiral arms with lots of star forming activity. Capturing this target widefield will not yield lots of details, but you can use the wide framing to your advantage to also include the Andromeda galaxy, as well as a star cluster in the same frame, as seen below!
Click HERE to see our image of M33 taken with a telescope.
Check out Our full Episode about M33 to see us photograph this beautiful galaxy from A to Z!
M33 (left) and M31 (right) using a Canon 50mm lens
III - THE ORION NEBULA (M42)
Messier 42 (along with M43) is our third pick for the best targets to image with a DSLR camera and no telescope. The Orion Nebula is the most iconic nebula in the entire night sky and is actually the easiest of all to photograph during the Winter season. M42 is part of a bigger group, which comes at Number IV!
Below you can find our image of M42 with just a DSLR and a tripod (left). On the right, you can see the same target taken a few months later using the same DSLR, the same tripod, and a small iOptron SkyTracker. Notice how the Running Man nebula becomes visible!
Click HERE to see our image of M42 taken with a telescope.
M42 without a tracker (left) and with a tracker (right) using a Canon 300mm lens
IV - THE HORSEHEAD NEBULA (IC 434)
IC 434 is not that easy with an unmodified DSLR camera and just a tripod, but we thought we'd mention it anyway as this is one of the most famous targets in the sky.
Photographing the Horsehead nebula with a DSLR will be much easier for the folks who have modified their camera for astrophotography (and so can see hydrogen alpha better) and also if you use a tracking device or motorized mount.
In your image, you should be able to spot the Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula, and the bright bottom star from Orion's Belt "Alnitak".
Click HERE to see our image of IC 434 taken with a telescope.
IC 434 - The Horsehead and Flame nebulae using a Canon 300mm lens
V - MESSIER 78
M78 is also not an easy one, but it still deserves its spot in this list. You will definitely need a tracker for this one and a lens that will allow you to shoot wide open. We suggest you aim towards Orion's Belt with a 50mm or even a 85mm lens and set your aperture at f/4 or below. You should be able to catch M78 in your frame. More info when you reach Number VII!
Click HERE to see our image of Messier 78 taken with a telescope.
Crop on M78 using a Canon 50mm lens at f/1.8
VI - THE WITCH HEAD NEBULA (IC 2118)
The Witch Head Nebula is the last target in the vicinity of the Orion Nebula that deserves to be mentioned in this list. Although not too difficult to photograph, you should not attempt this with a big lens unless you have a good tracker and plan to image it for many hours. It is faint, but rather large and not far from the very bright star Rigel, making it a very easy target to find in the sky.
Crop on IC 2118 - The Witch Head nebula using a Canon 50mm lens
VII - BARNARD'S LOOP
Mag: +5 (Varies)
Although Barnard's Loop also "contains" the four targets we just previously discussed, the loop is still a target on its own and actually pretty easy to photograph with a DSLR camera.
Using a 50mm lens, like the image below, make sure to frame it properly to get Barnard’s Loop, M42, M43, the Running Man Nebula, M78, the Horsehead and Flame Nebulae, the Witch Head nebula…). We definitely recommend a tracker for this, although we're pretty curious as to what you could achieve without one.
Click HERE to see more information about our capture of Barnard's Loop taken with a telescope.
Check out Our full Episode about Barnard's Loop to see us photograph this beauty from A to Z!
Barnard's Loop, using a 50mm lens at f/4 on a motorized mount
VII - THE PLEIADES (M45)
Messier 45 is part of the "Easy 3" targets for beginner astrophotographers. The main challenge is to manage to get the blue gas visible around the stars.
That is actually very easy to do with a sky tracker, as you can start seeing some nebulosity with just one shot of about 90 seconds. It is not impossible to do either with just a tripod and a DSLR camera as long as you take many exposures.
You can capture this target with a telephoto lens (300mm in our case, see image below) or using a wider lens, as seen near the California Nebula on Number VIII.
Click HERE to see our image of Messier 45 taken with a telescope.
Messier 45- The Pleiades Star Cluster using a Canon 300mm lens
VIII - THE CALIFORNIA NEBULA (NGC 1499)
The California Nebula is a beautiful, elongated nebula with a red tint. It ressembles the state of California, hence its name. You can easily capture this target with a telephoto lens, but we recommend the use of an Ha filter. If you do not have one, try photographing it widefield, like on our image below! You can also frame it rigth to get M45, the Pleiades star cluster in there.
The red hue of the California Nebula, the blue color of the Pleiades and the dark trail dividing them in the middle make for a very great looking image.
The California Nebula (left) & The Pleiades (right), using a 50mm lens
IX / X - BODE'S GALAXY & THE CIGAR GALAXY (M81 & M82)
Mag: +6.9 / +8.4
Two galaxies very easy for beginners, and for the price of one!
M81 (Bode's Galaxy) and M82 (the Cigar Galaxy), are a pair of galaxies in the constellation of Ursa Major. The main challenge is to bring out the details in Messier 81's spiral arms, as well as show the red gas expelling from the center of Messier 82.
Click HERE to see our image of Messier 81 and Messier 82 taken with a telescope.
Bode's Galaxy (left) & The Cigar Galaxy (right), using a 300mm lens
XI - THE WHIRLPOOL GALAXY (M51)
A very easy one for beginners! One of the best examples of what happens when 2 galaxies collide. You can see the larger one (M51a) eating the smaller one (M51b) in a fiery spin!
Click HERE to see our image of Messier 51 taken with a telescope.
Crop on M51 with a Canon t3i at 300mm
XII - THE MOON
Since there is no point of doing deep sky imaging (at least without a good filter) when the moon is up, why not capture the moon itself? Our satellite may be a burden for us deep sky imagers, but since you can't tell it to go away, make the best out of it and find ways to be creative with it!
Oh, and we have a tutorial article about Ways to be Creative with our Moon, how convenient is that?
Check out Our full Episode about the Moon to see us photograph our satellite from A to Z!
All the Phases of the Moon over Las Vegas
XIII - THE MILKY WAY
An Obvious one!
This is by far the easiest astro-related target to capture (Unless you are not able to drive a few miles away from light pollution).
But overall, super easy. You can simply photograph is in one long exposure, and be happy with the result, or stack a number of shots of 20+ seconds each (depends on your lens, use the 600 or 500 rule!), you don’t need to track to get an amazing result, it’s all about the Post-Processing!
Staring at our galaxy, using the not-so-good stock 18-35mm lens
XIV - PLANETS
Here is one that you may not have thought of when trying to come up with good targets for just a DSLR camera and a tripod. Planets (well, especially 2 of them) can actually appear on your camera live view very easily due to their brightness. The good thing is, you don't even have to take any long exposures or stack anything to photograph a planet.
The two planets that look best with just a DSLR camera and a tripod are Jupiter and Saturn. Why, you may ask? Well, you will not see any detail or even different colors using most lenses (from 50mm to 300mm). The reason why they are in this list is... their MOONS! Both of those planets have many, many moons. Several of those moons are so bright that they are easily visible in a single shot. Just make sure to play with the settings (mostly shutter speed and Aperture) to get the best result.
Jupiter and its moons, using a Canon t3i and a 300mm lens
XV - COMETS
This one is kind of tricky, as it mostly depends on what comet is up in the sky and how bright it is, but it deserves to be in this list nonetheless. While trying to image M51 with our camera and tripod in January 2016, we were able to capture the beautiful Comet Catalina as well!
Of course it doesn't look great, unlike the results you could get with a telescope, but it was still very cool to image! To this day, this is still the only comet we ever captured. We really hope to be able to photograph one with our telescope soon!
Click HERE to see our image of Messier 51 taken with a telescope.
M51 (Top, near the right), and Comet Catalina (Bottom) using a Canon t3i
If you have already captured all 15 of those targets, here are 6 more that could have easily made the list!
1- The Heart Nebula
2- The Soul Nebula
3- The Lagoon Nebula (M8)
4- The Trifid Nebula (M20)
5- The Veil Nebula
We started with the very basic and free "Deep Sky Stacker" (Windows only), it will give you good results.
We now use Pixinsight, which is simply the best possible software out there, but it has a huge learning curve.
There you go! You, who doesn't know what target to do next, this list will keep you busy, and most importantly, will make you learn a lot before purchasing a telescope!
Below is the video we made about this list of the best targets without a telescope.
GALACTIC HUNTER BOOKS
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!
Description: The Astrophotographer’s Journal is a portable notebook created for the purpose of recording observations, cataloguing photographs, and writing down the wonderful memories created by this hobby. This book contains more than 200 pages to memorialize your stargazing and imaging sessions, as well as a useful chart on the last pages to index exciting or important notes. Read back on the logs to see how much progress you have made through the months, the problems you overcame, and the notes taken to improve in the future. Just as the pioneers of astronomy did in their time, look up and take notes of your observations as you are the author of this star-filled journey.
Description: The Constellations Handbook is a logical guide to learning the 88 constellations. Learning the constellations is difficult. Remembering them is even harder. Have you ever wanted to look up to the night sky, name any pattern of stars and be able to tell their stories?This book groups the constellations in a logical order, so that the reader can easily learn them by their origin, and see how their stories interact with one another as a group.The last pages of this book include an index of all 88 constellations, each with a slot where you can write your own personal tips and tricks in order to memorize them with ease.The Constellations Handbook is not just another guide listing all the constellations from A to Z and their location, it is the perfect companion for stargazing, and a learning journey through the ages.