Updated: May 31
As a beginner in astrophotography, you might be limited by budget and skills. But, that doesn't mean you can't photograph objects in space with what you have, and you can do it without a telescope! Find 15 of the best DSLR astrophotography targets you can capture with a camera and lens below.
As you gather equipment to make your dream rig, you can practice taking photos of the objects in this list which can be taken with affordable lenses, such as the Pancake lens (24mm), the "Nifty Fifty" (50mm), or a telephoto lens.
We remember the day we bought our first used DSLR camera. We were SO excited! But, what we remember the most was having absolutely no clue where to point our new (to us) camera!
The top beginner objects - M31, M42, and M45 - are easy astrophotography targets that are typically the first objects an amateur astrophotographer will photograph. Perhaps you quickly and eagerly captured those, and you're left wondering what else there is to photograph. You can either spend hours on Stellarium debating on which target to do next or just point at random parts of the sky and hope for the best... or read this guide!
Rather than let another astrophotographer spiral, we made this guide for beginners who have managed to obtain a DSLR and a tripod, or a DSLR and a small tracker.
It takes time to get a full setup, but that doesn't mean you can't start imaging! We went through the same thing, after all, not everyone is fortunate enough to get gear quickly. We wish we could have found such a list back then, and lucky for you, you're just a scroll away. Below you will find the 15 best astrophotography targets for beginners. These are wide-field targets that can be captured without a telescope.
For the best astrophotography targets with a telescope and a motorized mount, you can find recommended objects for each season below:
Can you capture deep-sky objects with just a camera and tripod? Watch the video below!
Magnitude => The lower the number, the brighter it is.
All photos below were taken using a cheap, used Canon t3i DSLR and a tripod, and sometimes with a small tracker.
The more practice you have in this phase, the easier it is to apply your skills later.
For high-quality images, check out our gallery.
You can watch our video about this list HERE.
1 - The Andromeda Galaxy (M31/M32/M110)
A huge and bright galaxy - the easiest to capture 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 to the left.
Above is 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.
Watch our video about M31 to see us photograph this galaxy from A to Z!
2 - 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.
M33 (left) and M31 (right) using a Canon 50mm lens.
Capturing this target as a wide-field astrophotography target will not yield a lot of details. However, you can use the wide field of view to your advantage and try to include the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as a nearby star cluster in the same frame as in the image above.
3 - The Orion Nebula (M42)
Messier 42 (along with M43) is our third recommendation for the best astrophotography targets to image with a DSLR camera.
It might be surprising to know that you don't need a telescope to capture the Orion Nebula. This object is perhaps the most popular and recognized nebula in the entire night sky. During winter, it is the easiest target of the season. M42 is part of a bigger group coming up in the #4 slot!
M42 without a tracker (left) and with a tracker (right) using a Canon 300mm lens.
Above is our image of M42 taken 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 camera and the same tripod, but now with a small iOptron SkyTracker. Notice how the Running Man Nebula becomes visible!
4 - The Horsehead Nebula (IC 434)
IC 434 is not an easy object to photograph with just an unmodified DSLR camera and a tripod, but we mentioned it regardless because it is a famous target in the sky.
IC 434 - The Horsehead and Flame nebulae using a Canon 300mm lens.
Photographing the Horsehead Nebula with a DSLR is easier for folks who have modified their camera for astrophotography. Cameras that are customized or built for this type of photograph allow you to see hydrogen-alpha (Ha) within the object and work best when using a tracker device or motorized mount.
If you try your hand at this object, you should be able to spot several targets: the Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula, and the bright bottom star from Orion's Belt "Alnitak."
See our image of IC 434 taken with a telescope.
Create your perfect setup: Check out our full astrophotography equipment.
5 - Messier 78
Despite M78 also being a not-so-easy object for DSLR cameras and tripods, we felt it still deserved a spot in this list.
You will need a star tracker for this one and a lens that will allow you to shoot very wide.
Crop on M78 using a Canon 50mm lens at f/1.8.
We suggest you aim towards Orion's Belt with a 50mm or an 85mm lens and set your aperture at f/4 or lower. You should be able to catch M78 in your frame, however, you might be luckier if you try to shoot the astrophotography target listed as #7.
See our image of Messier 78 taken with a telescope.
6 - The Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118)
The Witch Head Nebula is the last target in the vicinity of the Orion Nebula that is worth mentioning in this list.
The fun part about this astrophotography target is that it's somewhat of a challenge! It is faint, but large enough to spot since it's not far from the very bright star Rigel, making it a very easy target to find in the sky.
Not every target should be easy - that's what makes astrophotography a hobby worth keeping. You can always come back later and try again when you have the gear!
To the left is a crop on IC 2118 - The Witch Head nebula using a Canon 50mm lens.
Unless you have a big enough lens and a star tracker, you should not attempt this just yet. If you have both on hand, try to capture it but be prepared to plan to image it for several hours.
7 - Barnard's Loop
Mag: +5 (Varies)
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.
See more information about Barnard's Loop taken with a telescope.
Check out our 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
8 - M45 - The Pleiades
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.
See our image of M45 taken with a telescope.
Messier 45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster using a Canon 300mm lens
Download Raw Data: Practice processing with our raw data practice files.
9 - The California Nebula (NGC 1499)
The California Nebula is a beautiful, elongated nebula with a red tint. It resembles 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 in our image below! You can also frame it right 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
10 - Bode's Galaxy and The Cigar Galaxy (M81 & M82)
Mag: +6.9 / +8.4
These two galaxies are very easy for beginners and you get two for one!
Messier 81 (Bode's Galaxy) and Messier 82 (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.
See our image of M81 and M82 taken with a telescope.
Bode's Galaxy (left) and The Cigar Galaxy (right), using a 300mm lens
11 - 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!
Messier 51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, is an interacting galaxy because of its companion object. It is located in the Canes Venatici constellation, however, you will find it easier to spot using the Big Dipper asterism (in Ursa Major)
See our image of Messier 51 taken with a telescope.
Crop on M51 with a Canon t3i at 300mm
12 - The Moon
Since there is no point in doing deep sky imaging (at least without a good filter) when the moon is up, why not capture the moon itself? No matter the moon phase, you can get a beautiful image as long as it's not a new moon. 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!
Check out our episode about the Moon to see us photograph Earth's natural satellite!
We reviewed the ZWO ASI585MC which is a planetary camera, but it also works very well for lunar photography. If you love the moon, you might enjoy having this camera!
All the Phases of the Moon over Las Vegas
Have fun with the Moon: Read Ways to be Creative with our Moon.
13 - The Milky Way
An obvious one! But, a good one nonetheless! The Milky Way is by far the easiest Astro-related target to capture (unless you cannot drive a few miles away from light pollution).
You can photograph it with one long exposure or stack a number of shots of 20+ seconds each (depending on your lens, use the 500 rule!). The best thing is that you don’t need to track to get an amazing result, it’s all about the post-processing!
Check out our articles about Milky Way photography:
Don't forget to check out our Milky Way tutorial page.
Staring at our galaxy, using the not-so-good stock 18-35mm lens
14 - The 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, two 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 for planetary imaging.
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 on 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
Get to know the planets: Learn about the planets in order.
15 - Comet Astrophotography
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 on this list nonetheless. The best comet for Northern observers that was visible to the naked eye recently is Comet Neowise. This was an incredible sight, as you can see below, and was in the sky for about 3 weeks!
See our report on Comet Neowise with several images and videos!
Read other comet-related articles:
Comet NEOWISE using a Canon 7D Mark II and 50mm lens
Want to learn all aspects of astrophotography in the most efficient way possible?
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Honorable Mentions for Wide-Field Astrophotography
If you have already captured all 15 of those targets, here are 6 more that could have easily made the list!
The Heart Nebula
The Soul Nebula
The Lagoon Nebula (M8)
The Trifid Nebula (M20)
The Veil Nebula
Processing DSLR Astrophotography
We started with the very basic and free "Deep Sky Stacker" (Windows only), which will give you good results.
We now use PixInsight, which is the best possible software out there but it has a huge learning curve. We have several tutorials available on our Learn PixInsight page to help you learn quickly.
No Telescope - Wide-Field Astrophotography Video
Below is the video we made about this list of the best targets without a telescope.
All in all, if you don't have a telescope yet you can still do astrophotography. As long as you have a DSLR camera and a lens, you can try your hand at wide-field astrophotography. This list is a great place to start if you don't know the capabilities of your gear. While the results may not be as detailed as what you get with a telescope with particular deep-sky objects, you can still get decent results.
DSLR astrophotography is a great example of doing what you can with what you have. The pressure of upgrading gear quickly can be overwhelming, but it's just as good to take your time and build your knowledge. If you are not pleased with the results - the amount of practice you get familiarizing yourself with the camera will be just what you need for when you eventually upgrade your gear.
We hope this list will keep you busy, and most importantly, will make you learn a lot before purchasing a telescope! If you get a photo you love with help from this list, share your image in the comments below, we'd love to see it!
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, cataloging 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.