Updated: Nov 8
Summertime is peak astrophotography season. Not only is the Milky Way the most prominent at this time of year but some of the most exciting deep-sky objects can also be photographed in summer! This is another installment of our guides to help you find out what to image each season. We won't keep you, below are our recommendations for summer astrophotography targets.
You can find our list of the best targets for the other three seasons below:
June marks the start of summer and is often long-awaited by eager, amateur astrophotographers. Spring is known as "galaxy season" as it is full of them in the evening sky! Halfway through spring, we're pretty tired of shooting galaxies, and the few nebulae high above, such as the Rosette Nebula or Thor's Helmet.
Summer is when the core of the Milky Way band rises during the evening hours, and holds the most colorful and most iconic nebulae in the night sky. Many of these objects are bright and choice picks for beginner astrophotographers who are using a DSLR camera.
Monochrome camera users who like to shoot in narrowband will also thrive during the summer months as most of these nebulae are full of Hydrogen Alpha, Oxygen, and Sulfur - so get those narrowband filters ready! Cooled Astrophotography-dedicated cameras will also be very useful to combat the heat of the hot months of June, July, and August, the high temperature being the downside of this season.
If, like us, you live in a desert landscape-type state like Nevada, you know it gets insanely hot in June, July, August, and even September. You may notice that imaging with a DSLR camera within that period can be a bit of a headache.
As we showed you on the 11th Episode of Galactic Hunter, the heat brings out hot pixels in each of your single shots, which, in the end, can ruin what otherwise would be a great image. In the video, you can see us using an uncooled Canon 7D Mark II DSLR camera in the desert of Nevada where temperatures reach above 100 degrees. We compare our single shots of Messier 74 during a very hot night and several weeks later when the temperature went down. The difference in quality is insane.
In short, if you expect to image in very high temperatures this Summer, make sure to take your darks and bias frames properly, and try to make the best out of the cooler nights.
Comparison of a single shot of M74 taken under different temperatures. Click the arrow!
The targets listed below are, in our personal opinion, the 15 best deep-sky objects to photograph for beginner astrophotographers. This list contains 12 nebulae, 3 globular star clusters, and 1 categorized as "other" totaling a nice 16. Why the extra target? One of these suggestions is actually a 2-in-1 option featuring two nebulae very close to each other.
There are some galaxies high enough to be captured in Summer for astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere, but none of them are large, bright, and easy enough. The objects in our lists are geared toward beginner astrophotographers, so we have left those out. Additionally, some of these objects make for wonderful wide-field photographs. Let's get to it!
1 - The Eagle Nebula (M16)
Messier 16 is by far one of our favorite nebulae in the entire night sky. The core is visible in both short-exposure photographs and visually, thanks to the open cluster located within it. The 8,100+ stars that are part of this cluster illuminate the gases all around the bright region.
The amount of gas in the outer region you will see in your image will depend on your location and the quality of your sky.
The Eagle Nebula is one of the most popular targets in the Summer skies for both beginner and long-time astrophotographers. This drive to capture M16 often comes from one of NASA's most iconic images: The Pillars of Creation, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.
This image was taken with Hydrogen-Alpha, Oxygen, and Hydrogen filters, so you shouldn't expect to get similar colors using a DSLR camera, but even in regular RGB channels and using an unmodified DSLR, the Pillars can look stunning.
We have only been able to photograph this target with our unmodified Canon t3i camera. We gave it another try with upgraded equipment and it came out spectacular! Take a look at our post about the Eagle Nebula to see the high-resolution image.
Below is the first-ever image taken during a hot July night in the desert of Nevada. As we mentioned, we used our old Canon T3i camera without any modifications or filters. This was attached to our Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9 Newtonian telescope, mounted on our sturdy Atlas EQ-G Motorized Mount. Each of our shots was 3 minutes long at ISO 400, for a total of 3.45 hours of exposure time.
2 - The Great Cluster in Hercules (M13)
Another great summer astrophotography target that isn't a galaxy or nebula is the most impressive globular cluster in the northern hemisphere.
Messier 13, or "The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules" is made up of about 500,000 stars. It is visible with the naked eye if you are in a very dark zone away from light pollution, as a tiny blurry patch in the sky. The cluster becomes more visible using a pair of binoculars or any telescope.
Photographing Messier 13 is not difficult but can be a little tricky. The cluster is so bright and compact that you will have no problem revealing it on your camera with any length of exposure. What you need to avoid is launching a series of photos with exposures that are too long.
Globular clusters, especially this one, have many bright stars that are each extremely close to each other that taking very long exposures will most likely overexpose the object as a whole, resulting in a "blown out" cluster.
You also need to make sure that your guiding is perfect! A little bit of drifting or even wind will ruin the entire image. Just try to imagine thousands of stars very close to each other... with trails.
We suggest doing 30 seconds of exposure for globular clusters.
Did you know?
M13 has been targeted in November 1974 to send a message to potential extraterrestrial civilizations.
It will take 25,000 years to get there, and the same amount of time for an eventual response.
3 - The Trifid Nebula (M20)
The Trifid Nebula and the stars that burn within its gases are some of the youngest in our galaxy. Two red and blue areas often called "lobes" show the gas surrounding the birth of new burning stars.
Using an unmodified DSLR camera, getting the red Hydrogen-Alpha gases is kind of a challenge. The reds start to become obvious after about 3 hours of exposure under a dark sky. You can see in our image below that the final result is decent even with an old unmodified T3i Canon DSLR camera.
A monochrome camera will of course help to get better colors and details, and we will add a comparison image to M20's blog page once we capture it with our ASI 1600MM Astrophotography camera. If you have a Hydrogen Alpha filter clip-on for DSLR cameras, like the one we used to capture Barnard's Loop in our 8th Episode of Galactic Hunter, you could probably make a great impact on your image by adding one or two hours of it to your regular RGB channels.
Messier 20 is located in Sagittarius, near M8, the Lagoon Nebula. M20 and M8 are great wide-field targets for either small telescopes or camera lenses. Depending on what instrument you are using, both of these beautiful nebulae should be able to fit in your frame without the need to create a mosaic.
If you're like us and are working hard towards capturing all the Messier objects, you'll also be happy to know that the open cluster M21 is very close to the Trifid Nebula.
4 - The Omega Nebula (M17)
The Omega Nebula (also often called the Swan Nebula), is home to 800 stars and is one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions in our galaxy.
M17 is located in Sagittarius, really close to other great nebulae like the Eagle Nebula (M16), the Trifid Nebula (M20), and the Lagoon Nebula (M8), so make sure you are aiming at the right target! Messier 17 is easily visible through wide telescopes and binoculars. It is difficult, but the nebula can also be spotted with the naked eye by keen observers under very dark skies far from light pollution.
Being a bright diffuse nebula, M17 is very similar to the Orion Nebula but is seen edge-on rather than face-on. It is also about three to four times farther from Earth than Messier 42.
The bright core of M17 makes it seem easy when processing, but the challenge behind this DSO lies in getting as much of the faint outer gases as possible.
5 - The Lagoon Nebula (M8)
Fifth on the list is another super summer astrophotography target we enjoy - the Lagoon Nebula is a large, colorful, and bright cloud of gas that rises with the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius (yes, again!). M8 can easily be photographed with an unmodified DSLR camera and does not require a lot of exposure time to look nice.
In the heart of Messier 8 is the Hourglass Nebula, illuminated by the bright star Herschel 36 (bottom right)
The Hubble Space Telescope captured this deep part of the Lagoon Nebula, as seen on the right, and this really shows the different chemical elements interacting with each other.
In it, you can spot Oxygen (blue), Hydrogen (Green), and Sulfur (Red). Each of the faint "tornadoes" in the center of this image is about half a light-year long.
You can also capture this target wide-field, either using a small telescope or attaching a lens of any size to your DSLR/Mirrorless camera instead. The image below is the result of 10 hours of total exposure using the ASI2600MC and our RASA 8 telescope. We did not use any filter for this and our camera is a one-shot-color camera, so the colors in this image are considered true color. If you are using a DSLR camera, adding a Ha Clip-on filter will help you get these rich red hues as well.
You may notice an open cluster of stars within the Lagoon Nebula. That cluster, NGC 6530, is unavoidable as it sits just in front of M8. We think it really gives a little extra beauty to the overall image.
6 - North America (NGC 7000) and Pelican Nebulae (IC 5070)
NGC 7000: 4
IC 5070: 8
Despite being very large, you will not be able to spot them with the naked eye, as their gases are spread out and quite dim. However, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope (e.g. 3”) will reveal a patch of gray light.
For the best results, the use of a UHC filter is recommended when looking at the target through a telescope, but you will not be able to see any shapes or details until taking a long exposure shot with a camera.
Located in the Summer constellation of the swan, Cygnus, both of these objects are just perfect for small telescopes, or just camera lenses. North America (120' x 100') and the Pelican Nebula (60' x 50') are large but should fit very nicely together in the same frame depending on the focal length of the lens you use.
The North America Nebula (left) is more than four times the size of the moon and looks like the North American continent. The Pelican Nebula (right) is relatively smaller and fainter but when framed next to each other, it creates a jaw-dropping image.
These two large emission nebulae are separated by a wall of dark nebulosity. Both targets will appear completely red if using a DSLR camera. It is advised to have an Astro-modified camera or a Hydrogen Alpha filter to really get the most out of these objects. A monochrome camera will of course have no problem capturing the insane amount of details in narrowband.
Did you know?
The brightest stars in the area form the “Little Orion” asterism.
7 - Messier 75
Messier 75 is the most centrally concentrated globular cluster in the entire Messier catalog, counting about 400,000 stars.
This object is rather small when observing it through most telescopes, and you should not expect to see much more than a fuzzy ball of light with a bright center. This is not really due to its size, but rather its distance. M75 is located 47,600 light-years away from the Milky Way's galactic center, in the constellation of Sagittarius.
It is the second most distant Messier globular cluster, right after M54 (which isn't located inside our galaxy).
If you are using a large telescope, Messier 75 will look great in photographs and, despite its apparent size, can reveal lots of details. Simply make sure to not overexpose your image and get a good guiding graph before attempting to capture it.
8 - The Dumbbell Nebula (M27)
The Dumbbell Nebula was the first planetary object discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, and it is today an easy target to photograph for beginners.
Why? Messier 27 is the second brightest planetary nebula and is large enough to be visible with binoculars and small telescopes. Due to its high surface brightness, a telescope will yield lots of details in the gases of the nebula, and you may even recognize the shape of a dumbbell!
How do you locate the Dumbbell Nebula?
Messier 27 can be found inside the famous Summer Triangle (composed of the bright stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega), in the constellation of Vulpecula.
Star-hop from Altair and head down towards Deneb in a straight line. You will land on M27 about one-third of the way there.
Also note that an open cluster, NGC 6830 containing just about 30 stars lies just a couple of degrees west of the nebula.
The photo attached below was taken with only 1 hour and a half worth of exposures, using our unmodified Canon 7D Mark II DSLR camera. We chose to do 6 minutes of exposure for each of the frames. This is pretty long as we now often do 3 minutes for most targets, but we were hoping that doubling the exposure time for each individual frame would help bring out the red "X" shape inside the nebula. This is particularly difficult to obtain if using a DSLR that is not modified or does not have a Hydrogen Alpha clip-on filter.
9 - Rho Ophiuchi
At a distance of about 500 light-years, Rho Ophiuchi is the closest stellar nursery to Earth and is found near the bright orange star Antares.
Rho Ophiuchi is, in our opinion, the best wide-field astrophotography target to capture during the summer season. This cloud complex is located in the constellation of Ophiuchus, very close to the brightest region of the Milky Way band.
This target is huge, so no need to break out the telescope - just grab a 50mm lens. All you need is a DSLR camera, an intervalometer, and a way to track the sky! You can either use a motorized mount that you usually use for your telescope or a smaller device like the Omegon Mini Track for example!
Framing is very important for this target. We talk about this subject in depth in Episode 12 of Galactic Hunter if you're interested. If using a 50mm lens (which we recommend), you should be able to frame both the entire Rho Ophiuchi complex and a bright part of the Milky Way band in your image.
Make sure to take advantage of software like Stellarium, Sky Safari, or Astronomy.tools to plan ahead and avoid any surprises once on the field.
10 - The Ring Nebula (M57)
Messier 57 is a small planetary nebula in the constellation of Lyra. M57 got its nickname, the Ring Nebula, because of its round/oval shape. This object is surprisingly bright when observed through a telescope eyepiece and stands out against the darkness of space despite its very small size.
It is believed that our sun will expel gas in a similar shape when it dies.
How to Locate Messier 57
The Ring Nebula is not difficult to locate.
It lies just 2,283 light-years away from Earth, just south of the very bright star Vega.
Messier 57 is very easy to find, because it is located almost exactly in between the two bottom stars of Lyra, Sheliak, and Sulafat.
Simply start from one of those two and make your way to the other in a straight line. You will spot your target just a little closer to Sheliak than in the true center.
Want to know exactly how we obtained our image of the Ring Nebula? Check out Episode 2 of Galactic Hunter. In this video, you will see us venture into the desert on a hot June night, set up our equipment, talk more about our target, and... have an unfortunate encounter with wildlife.
In short, M57 is a top target for beginner astrophotographers, as it compensates for its small size by being very bright on camera, meaning you do not need to spend hours and hours on it to get beautiful results.
To get our image see below, we spent a total of 3 hours, using our old Canon t3i unmodified DSLR camera and our 8" reflector telescope mounted on our equatorial motorized mount. Click on the image to visit our full blog post about this object
11 - The Wild Duck Cluster (M11)
At a distance of 6,200 light-years, Messier 11 is the farthest open cluster in the Messier catalog that can be seen with the naked eye. Its nickname, the Wild Duck Cluster, was given to it because the brightest stars in the cluster seem to form a triangle resembling a flock of ducks flying.
Containing about 2,900 stars, Messier 11 is one of the most compact and star-rich clusters out there. The image you can see below is what we managed to get with just 2 hours of exposure time when photographing the Wild Duck with our 8” telescope.
We made the mistake of doing 6 minutes of exposure time for each shot, but we now know that we should have done much shorter exposure times, like 30 seconds instead. Notice that you can see dark interstellar lanes in several spots around the cluster.
Make sure your tracking and guiding are perfect for this target, as with any cluster, or you will end up with a blurry mess.
Processing M11 is not very difficult. You just need to make sure to not over-process your image because these hundreds of stars are easy to blow out using the histogram or curve tools.
Messier 11 may not be the most impressive star cluster to photograph, but it is a good target for any amateur astrophotographer, especially if you are new to clusters and do not want something a little less massive than, for example, Messier 13.
12 - The Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380)
Located approximately 8,000 light-years away, NGC 7680 is an open cluster with a lot of nebulosity forming the shape of a… wizard!
This target is best photographed with a cooled Astrophotography camera and narrowband filters. It is filled with great details but also faint. It is still a great target for DSLR camera owners, but expect to spend long hours during your imaging session to get fair results. Using an unmodified DSLR camera without filters, the object will look mostly red, with similar colors to other popular nebulae during the Summer season like Messier 8 or NGC 7000.
Because of the number of stars within the gases, the Wizard Nebula is one of astrophotographers'
favorite object to make a “star-free” version of their image during the processing steps in order to enhance details previously hidden behind those stars.
The Wizard Nebula is located in the Cepheus constellation, on the right side of Cassiopeia’s “W” shape.
Do not expect to spot the Wizard with your naked eye or binoculars, because it is not possible even in very dark skies. The only way to see the nebula is through a telescope. We recommend observing far from light-polluted areas and considering the use of an O-III filter.
13 - The Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888)
The Crescent Nebula, sometimes also called the Euro Sign Nebula, is made of a shell, a shockwave moving outward, and a shockwave moving inward, that resulted after the Wolf-Rayed 136 star became a red giant.
It is a rather faint object, and gets its glow from the massive Wolf-Rayet star in its center, blowing stellar winds all around. The star is nearing the end of its life and should produce a massive supernova explosion when it dies.
The crescent nebula is not bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, and it is extremely difficult to spot with a telescope unless observing from a very dark site and with a UHC or OIII filter on. The Crescent Nebula can be found in the constellation Cygnus, between the middle star, Sadr, and the star at the base of the swan’s neck.
NGC 6888 is a colorful target that is suitable to image with both medium and large instruments.
Photographing and processing this nebula is fun because of all the faint gases in the background and hints of nebulosity. This target is best imaged from a site free of light pollution early in the summer season.
Although too faint and difficult to be on this list, try to get its neighbor, the Soap Bubble Nebula in the same frame. It was discovered in 2007 by amateur astrophotographer Dave Jurasevich!
14 - Messier 24
M24 is the designation for the Sagittarius Star Cloud. It is not a nebula, a galaxy, or a cluster, but rather a very dense concentration of individual stars spanning over 9 times the size of the full Moon.
Messier 24 is 10,000 to 16,000 light-years in-depth and 600 light-years wide in the sky. More than 1,000 stars can be visible within a single field of view using binoculars.
Because of its size, M24 is a good wide-field target as you will not be able to use your telescope to capture the entire concentration. Attach a DSLR camera to a star tracker, and use a camera lens to photograph this target. The main challenge you will face is finding the perfect area of the sky to point your camera at. Make sure to frame it right to have the entire thing in your image.
What makes this star cloud impressive, aside from the tens of thousands of stars visible, are the several interstellar dust lanes that divide some of these packs of burning stars.
Make sure to go easy when editing your image, because it doesn’t take much to turn this beautiful blanket of stars into an over-processed mess.
Excluding clusters, M24 is the densest concentration of stars in the Messier catalog. The star cloud is also a good visual target for low-power telescopes and is one of the few most impressive targets through binoculars. You may also see M24 with the naked eye without much trouble from a zone far from light pollution.
The Sagittarius Star Cloud can be seen anytime when the Milky Way is visible, so the best time to view it is during the Summer months. It can be found in the Sagittarius constellation, near M17, the Omega Nebula, and the open cluster M18. It is located about 4 degrees north of the bright blue star above the Teapot asterism.
Did you know?
Messier 24 is not considered a deep sky object.
15 - The Veil Nebula (NGC 6960)
The Veil Nebula is a beauty of the night sky and a great Summer target for any amateur Astrophotographer!
NGC 6960 is also often called the Witch’s Broom Nebula or Bridal Veil Nebula.
It is a beautiful diffuse nebula divided into three parts: The Western Veil (NGC 6992, left - taken by Martin Pugh), the Eastern Veil (NGC 6960, middle - taken by Ken Crawford), and Pickering’s Triangle (NGC 6979, right - taken by T. Rector).
The Western Veil is the easiest to spot because of its bright star (52 Cygni) which can quickly be found with the naked eye. This target can only be seen through binoculars or a telescope and will be difficult to spot without an OIII or UHC filter. The Western and Eastern veils are worth viewing through an instrument, but Pickering’s Triangle is much too faint and will be a challenge to observe.
Pickering’s Triangle is the faintest of the three, but photographing each part of the Veil with amateur equipment is easy!
Our image of the entire Veil Nebula complex (also known as the Cygnus Loop) below was taken with our QHY600M camera through our small refractor telescope. We spent 12 hours on this target, from our light-polluted backyard but the result is impressive!
We have reached the end of the list, and of course, these aren't the only objects to photograph this season. These summer astrophotography targets will keep you busy for a few years at least, so don't forget to bookmark this page and come back to cross off what you've captured. Keep a list of targets with you all year long and for all seasons with 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.
Let us know in the comments if you have any questions or doubts!