Updated: Nov 8
Spring has sprung, and that means galaxy season is officially here! Below we've outlined the 15 best (and easiest) targets for spring astrophotography. Don't forget to bookmark and check out our other guides for each season, so that you have targets for Astrophotography all year long. This guide is one of four installments to help astrophotographers get ideas about what to photograph each season. Here's what we recommend for the spring season.
Find targets for the other seasons below:
March marks the end of the cold winter months and the beginning of Spring! If you were lucky enough to have many clear nights during December, January, and February, your telescope had quite the winter season capturing colorful objects - like the Orion Nebula or the Pleiades. If not, don't worry, it's almost time for fairer weather and your chance at astrophotography again!
Spring is also known as "Galaxy Season" and, aside from the three exceptions listed below, all the targets we recommend for spring astrophotography are galaxies.
It's likely that you will spend most of the season imaging galaxies, but fret not. Once summer rolls around, the Milky Way will rise up in the sky and bring with it many nebulae. So enjoy three months of galaxy-hunting and aim to get better yourself at processing them!
Depending on your location, the first day of spring may still be very cold or bring rain. In Nevada, we the season usually begins with us waiting by the telescope with coats on and ends with t-shirts. We hope fair weather and clear skies come your way!
If you're just starting out in astrophotography, spring is a great time to start getting familiar with your equipment because the temperature is just right. However, be wary of extreme heat because it can impact on your camera sensor. Summer is when you start running into temperature-related issues, like hot pixels and noise if you are using an uncooled DSLR camera.
Discover more about these issues in our 15 summer astrophotography targets article.
We love the spring season because this is the time we first imaged a deep sky object for the first video episode of Galactic Hunter: Messier 101 (The Pinwheel Galaxy). If you have been following us on YouTube since the beginning, you know that it all started with M101 from the Nevada desert. This target means a lot to us. Watch the video below if you'd like to see how we captured it with our old unmodified Canon T3i DSLR camera!
The targets listed below are based on our personal opinion. After getting more familiar with what's in the night sky, we still recommend these 15 deep sky objects because they are the best and easiest to photograph for beginner amateur astrophotographers this season. The list contains more than 25 galaxies (divided into 11 groups and 4 nebulae). In total, that adds up to 15.
Of course, there are many other great targets to choose from, but they may be smaller than the ones listed. Keep in mind, we're always out to help beginner astrophotographers, so smaller and more difficult targets didn't cut it for us. But if you're up for the challenge, we've got a YouTube series for beginner and advanced skill sets for each month! Check out the one for March.
1 - Markarian's Chain - The Virgo Cluster
Magnitude: 9.0 - 15.0
We said that you'll get your fill of galaxies this season, and we weren't kidding. Markarian's Chain will get you started on Galaxy Season with a bang!
Markarian's Chain is made up of more than 8 galaxies, including several Messier objects. It is located in the heart of the massive Virgo Cluster of galaxies and these 8 members appear to be making a chain when observed with any instrument.
Astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian discovered that at least seven of these galaxies are moving coherently in space, and decided to give his name to the chain.
Photographing this group of galaxies is fairly easy as the members spread out in a large area of the sky and all have different magnitudes. You can observe or image Markarian's Chain with any small telescope or with a DSLR camera and a lens on top of a star tracker.
Our favorite members of the chain are Markarian's Eyes, staring at you from a distance of 52 million light years.
They are located near the center of the group and you should aim to frame your shot according to these two interacting worlds.
You can see a picture of the Eyes on the left, so you can understand why this beautiful pair of galaxies is called "The Eyes".
We have not had the chance to photograph Markarian's Chain yet. We have taken test shots several times but never went through with spending several hours on it and stacking our results. This target is actually too large for our current setup (Orion 8" Astrograph and ZWO ASI 1600MM camera), so we are waiting to get a wider telescope before really attempting to capture it. We might just use our DSLR camera on a tracker if we get impatient!
2 - The Sombrero Galaxy (M104)
Messier 104 may look very small in photographs compared to some of the other famous Messier objects, but it has the largest supermassive black hole ever recorded in any nearby galaxy!
The Sombrero Galaxy is small and not impressive to look at, but it is bright enough to be seen with binoculars and small telescopes if observed from a very dark site.
M104 is very popular among amateur astrophotographers because, if done well, one can reveal tons of details in the beautiful dust lanes that cross in front of the galaxy's luminous center. Processing this target might be a little bit tricky because you need to make sure to not make the core too bright or your image will look overexposed.
Our photo below was taken with an unmodified Canon DSLR camera and our 8" Astrograph telescope. The total exposure time compiled to achieve this result was 3 hours. Click on the image to see all the acquisition details and, if you have the time, watch our Episode 6 of Galactic Hunter to learn how we captured the Sombrero Galaxy!
Did you know?
Messier 104's supermassive black hole has a mass of more than 1 billion suns.
3 - The Rosette Nebula (NGC 2237)
Sometimes also called "The Skull," the Rosette Nebula is an impressive object that can be photographed in both Winter and early Spring. It is easy to image and is often an amateur astrophotographer's first nebula after the obvious Orion Nebula (M42). Unlike Messier 104, the Rosette Nebula is much larger, it also contains its own cluster of stars, NGC 2244, in its center.
The Rosette Nebula can be found in Monoceros, and the cluster of stars can be spotted with binoculars quite easily. You might see a blurry patch of gas if observing the nebula with a small telescope, but you would need to be under a really dark sky.
The Rosette Nebula is mostly made up of Hydrogen Alpha gas, which naturally appears red in photographs. Although it is an easy target to image with an unmodified DSLR camera, you will be able to get much more data if you either attach a DSLR Ha Clip-On filter to your camera or modify it for astrophotography.
If you own a monochrome CMOS or CCD camera with a filter wheel, the Rosette looks fantastic in both a regular LRGB palette and the Hubble Narrowband palette.
4 - The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101)
Constellation: Ursa Major
As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is with Messier 101 that we started Galactic Hunter! We have imaged many deep-sky objects before that, but this is the one that first appeared in a YouTube Episode.
The Pinwheel Galaxy is a large spiral galaxy that is seen head-on. As we explain in our episode, M101 has a very low surface brightness, making it difficult to spot visually, but it looks fantastic in photographs! M101 is easy to capture and process and is a great target for beginner astrophotographers. The galaxy contains about 1 trillion stars and is about 70% larger than our Milky Way!
On the right, you can see Hubble's version of M101, taken in 2009.
This image is interesting because it was, back then, the most detailed image of a galaxy ever taken by any telescope!
You can clearly see a lot of small details in the object's spiral arms, and a beautiful bright core.
If you look at both this image and ours below, you can see that the galaxy is actually not symmetrical! This is because M101 has several dwarf companions, including NGC 5474 (visible on our image on the top right of the frame) pulling on M101's arms with gravitational forces.
The Pinwheel Galaxy can be found in one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky, Ursa Major. Look for the handle of the Big Dipper Asterism and you should find M101 just above the double stars Alcor and Mizar.
5 - The Leo Triplet (M65, M66, NGC 3628)
Magnitude: 10.25, 8.9 & 10.2
The famous Leo Triplet is a group of galaxies consisting of 2 Messier objects (M65 and M66) as well as NGC 3628, also known as the "Hamburger Galaxy" due to its shape. They are located in the constellation of Leo (obviously), not far from Ursa Major and Virgo.
Messier 65 and Messier 66 are both intermediate spiral galaxies that are only 20 degrees apart, making them a beautiful pair to look at with any instrument. M65 has a magnitude of 10.25 and lies 35 million light-years away. M66 is the brightest of the group, at magnitude 8.9, and is located 36 million light-years away from Earth. NGC 3628 (The Hamburger Galaxy) is more similar in distance (35 mly) and magnitude (10.2) to M65 than M66.
It is unsure if NGC 3628 is a barred or unbarred spiral galaxy, as it is really hard to tell from the angle it is viewed. For now, it is officially an unbarred spiral. All three galaxies are known to have been interacting with each other in the past.
Photographing the Leo Triplet is not difficult. The three objects can easily fit in most telescope/camera's frame of view without being cut off and are bright enough to be seen even with a short exposure shot. Processing all three targets at once may be a challenge as you need to make sure they are similar in brightness, detail, and saturation.
6 - The Sunflower Galaxy (M63)
Constellation: Canes Venatici
There is no need to explain why this beauty is named after a flower. This is the kind of galaxy you take a picture of and print to gift your loved one for Valentine's Day.
Messier 63 is a spiral galaxy in the faint constellation of Canes Venatici, 37 million light-years away. It got its nickname of "Sunflower Galaxy" because of its bright yellow core and the shape of its spiral arms which look like flower petals. Messier 63 was one of the first galaxies studied where a spiral structure was identified.
The Sunflower Galaxy is a great target for beginner astrophotographers if you are prepared to spend enough time on it to reveal the faint details in the arms. Processing it is also easy, and can be really fun as the galaxy will appear to bloom (pun intended) in details and colors as you go through your processing workflow.
Did you know?
Messier 63 was Pierre Méchain's first discovery, in 1779! Pierre Méchain was Charles Messier's friend and colleague.
7 - Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82)
Magnitude: 6.94 & 8.41
Constellation: Ursa Major
M81 and M82 are two beautiful galaxies that are easy targets for beginner astrophotographers looking to get two impressive objects for the price of one. Both galaxies are very different from one another. Messier 81 is a spiral galaxy seen face-on (just like M101) and you can clearly see the arms of the galaxy spreading out around the core. M82 on the other hand is a starburst galaxy that is seen edge-on.
Its nickname, the Cigar Galaxy, was given to the object because of the visible hydrogen Alpha gas being expelled from its core.
You can see this in the picture on the left, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Messier 82 is one of our favorite galaxies in the night sky. You can see our own image of this beautiful deep-sky object below, along with its neighbor, Bode's Galaxy.
Although the pair is not difficult to image, it is not easy to reveal the starburst region of M82. Beginner astrophotographers using a DSLR camera (like ourselves when we took our image) often have no problem getting a beautiful overall photo of the two but struggle to show the hydrogen alpha gas being expelled from M82.
A long total exposure time will of course help, but if you really want the gas to be obvious in your own work, we would recommend adding a couple of hours of exposure using a DSLR Ha Clip-On filter. It also helps if your camera is modified for Astrophotography, but the filter should be enough for this specific target as it is pretty bright already!
8 - The Owl Nebula (M97)
Constellation: Ursa Major
In case you are getting sick of galaxies, here is another nebula for your to photograph during the Spring season!
M97 is tiny, faint, and not that impressive, but it is a popular target anyway. Nicknamed the "Owl Nebula" after William Parson's hand drawing after his discovery in 1781, M97 looks like a ball of gas in space with two dark spots representing the eyes of an owl. Messier 97 is very small and dim, making it a fun but challenging target for beginner astrophotographers.
The reason why it is popular is mainly that, just like the seventh object on our list, it can be photographed with a neighbor! M97 also lies in Ursa Major and is very close to another Messier object: M108. Messier 108 is a galaxy nicknamed the "Surfboard" as it is seen edge-on. Although not as easy as most other objects on this list, the pair is a great target if you are looking to capture both a nebula and a galaxy in the same frame.
We photographed M97 and M108 on our 12th Episode of Galactic Hunter. Check it out if you are planning on capturing the two as we talk about several important things to know including how to frame the pair nicely.
9 - The Whale Galaxy (NGC 4631)
Constellation: Canes Venatici
Back to galaxies, we have NGC 4631, which is a barred galaxy in Canes Venatici that is seen edge-on. It has a slightly distorted edge, making it look like a whale. It is located 28 million light-years away and is about the same size as our Milky Way. It is too thin and dim to be seen with the naked eye and is almost impossible to spot with binoculars.
The Whale Galaxy is pretty faint, but like M97, it is a popular target for amateur astrophotographers because it also has a neighbor nearby, the Hockey Stick Galaxy (NGC 4654/4657). The Whale also has a dwarf companion, the tiny elliptical galaxy NGC 4627.
You should easily be able to capture all three objects easily unless you are using a very large instrument.
As you can see in the image above from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Whale Galaxy is full of details! It also has a gradient range of colors, which can be difficult to process for beginners.
We suggest keeping this object near the bottom of your list until you have captured several other Spring targets. The main goal during processing is to bring out the yellow core, the bright blue color coming from the star clusters, and the red patches of Hydrogen Alpha indicating the star-forming regions within the arms. There are also several dark dust lanes that could be revealed with enough exposure time.
This is also a dim Galaxy so keep it near the end of your list if you are just starting out in astrophotography.
10 - The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)
Constellation: Canes Venatici
The famous Whirlpool Galaxy! This is a very easy one for beginners and is one of the most photographed objects in the sky!
It is probably the best example of what happens when two galaxies collide. You can see the larger galaxy pulling and absorbing the smaller one in a fiery spin.
Messier 51 is very easy to find in the night sky and lies around the famous Big Dipper asterism.
Messier 51 can be seen with binoculars quite easily. The core of the galaxy, as well as its companion NGC 5195, can be better observed through small telescopes.
The photo below was taken with our 8” telescope and our old unmodified DSLR camera, it is a stack of 20, 6-minute exposure photos. If you compare this image with the one from Hubble, notice how a stock DSLR camera with no filter does not show the red hydrogen-alpha gases that the HST was able to reveal.
During processing, the main challenge lies in bringing out the faint outer shape of the expelling gases from their interaction. You will also be happy to see a few tiny galaxies floating in the background of your image.
Did you know?
Three supernovas have been discovered since 1994 from the Whirlpool Galaxy
11 - The Jellyfish Nebula (IC 443)
IC 443 is one of the most studied supernova remnants. The star is believed to have gone supernova anytime between 3,000 and 30,000 years ago. 5,000 light-years away from Earth. The explosion gave birth to a Neutron star, now sitting in the center of all the nebulous gas spreading around.
IC 443 is very dim and cannot be seen visually unless you are using a high-quality telescope with a filter on it. You might be able to spot a hint of its gas with binoculars if observing from a perfectly dark location.
It is located in Gemini, on the opposite side of the two bright stars Castor and Pollux.
If using binoculars to scan this area of the sky, you might stumble on the star cluster Messier 35, located very close to IC 443.
This nebula is nicknamed the "Jellyfish Nebula" because, when photographed, the gases look like the shape of a jellyfish's head and body. IC 443 is faint and difficult to capture, but it still deserves its place on this list. Using an unmodified DSLR camera is not the best option to image this object unless using filters. You should be able to get a great final image of it as long as you have the patience to spend 6 or more hours capturing all these dim photons.
12 - The Needle Galaxy (NGC 4565)
Constellation: Coma Berenices
NGC 4565, or the Needle Galaxy, is one more perfect example of a galaxy seen Edge-on.
NGC 4565 has a very bright core and the bulge is clearly visible. At magnitude 9.5, the Needle Galaxy is pretty faint and is not visible to the naked eye. Observing it through a telescope will give you a similar view as if you were looking at the Cigar Galaxy (M82). NGC 4565 contains about 240 globular clusters, which is almost 100 more than what we have in the Milky Way!
NGC 4565 was discovered in 1785 by William Herschel and is located in the constellation Coma Berenices.
A good reason to photograph NGC 4565 is its two satellite galaxies, so challenge yourself to have all 3 visible in your final image! Processing your data might be a little bit difficult because of how bright the core of the Needle Galaxy is (similar to Messier 104) and how faint the outer arms are. The two small nearby galaxies are also faint, so make sure to try your best to make them stand out without over-processing NGC 4565. If processed correctly, you should be able to see the bright core, the elongated gases in the arms, and the overlapping dust lanes in the galaxy.
Did you know?
The Needle Galaxy is located just 3 degrees away from the North Galactic Pole.
*We're working on imaging the Needle Galaxy and will upload our result once we capture it!*
13 - The Black Eye Galaxy (M64)
Constellation: Coma Berenices
The Black Eye Galaxy, or... The Evil Eye Galaxy, or... The Sleeping Beauty Galaxy…
The 64th object in the Messier catalog has many nicknames, thanks to the dark bands of dust that are passing in front of its bright nucleus.
M64 is a spiral galaxy, also in the constellation Coma Berenices that lies about 34 million light-years away.
The Hubble Space Telescope has photographed this object in the past, as you can see on the left. It is a pretty unique-looking galaxy, which is why it is very popular for amateur astrophotographers.
M64 is home to about 100 billion stars and is part of the M94 group of galaxies (also called the Cat's Eye Galaxy Group).
Although it has a very bright core, M64 has very dim arms making it a difficult target to image if you really want the whole body to be visible. The nucleus will easily appear in your image, without trouble, but expect the dark dust lanes and the arms to be a challenge to process. The Black Eye galaxy still deserves to be on this list of the easiest targets for beginner astrophotographers, just make sure you spend enough time on it and preferably from a dark location.
14 - Messier 106
Constellation: Canes Venatici
M106 is not a highly popular target, probably because it doesn't have a nickname like most other main Messier objects, but it has a very unique shape which makes it one of the most beautiful deep sky objects of the Spring season. It also has several other galaxies around it, including the companion NGC 4217, seen from the edge, that will look nice on your final image!
Messier 106 can be found in the constellation of the hunting dogs: Canes Venatici. It is home to more than 400 billion stars! M106 is officially a galaxy that is between "normal" and "barred spiral".
The 106th object in the Messier catalog can easily be photographed by amateurs with cheap equipment. It has a magnitude of 9.1, which is pretty faint but has a high surface brightness which makes it easy to spot with binoculars or small instruments. As for Astrophotography, a DSLR camera will have no problem gathering the light from the core and the arms of the galaxy, but you should spend at least two or three hours on it.
The spiral arms of M106 are full of Hydrogen-Alpha, so if you are able to, make sure to add a couple of hours or more with a Hydrogen-Alpha filter to add to your data during processing. We imaged M106 both with and without a HA filter, and you can see the comparison by clicking on our image below!
Did you know?
Two supernovas were discovered in M106 since 1981.
15 - Thor's Helmet Nebula (NGC 2359)
Constellation: Canis Major
Our favorite nebula on this list! Please note that NGC 2359 is higher in the sky in Winter, but is still available at the beginning of Spring in case you missed it!
Thor's Helmet is a more complex version of the Bubble Nebula and really does look like Thor's Helmet. It is a really faint target with a magnitude of 11.45, but surprisingly, its colors really pop even with an unmodified DSLR camera, so give it a try if you are up for a challenge!
NGC 2359 spans about 30 light-years in diameter and is located not far from Sirius in the constellation of the great dog, Canis Major. It gets its glow from the massive Wolf-Rayet star WR7 which sits at the center of the Helmet shape. This star is believed to be near the end of its life and will soon turn into a supernova.
If you plan on imaging this target soon, we recommend that you spend as many hours as your patience will allow you to really gather as much data as you can. Thor's Helmet has a lot of faint outer gas that will only become visible if you have plenty of images to stack.
That concludes our list of the 15 best spring astrophotography targets! We hope one of these targets made your personal list for your astrophotography sessions this season. If you want to know what you can photograph all year long, we have a book with 60 targets you can photograph called The Astrophotographer's Guidebook! Purchase a copy here.
Watch the video below if you'd like to learn about these targets in a video format.
Hoping this will help many beginner astrophotographers capture beautiful objects for the beginning of the new year,