Updated: Feb 17
Featured on Amateur Astrophotography Magazine - Issue 61
Welcome to our guide about the 15 best and easiest deep sky objects to photograph during the Winter season! Make sure to check out our other guides where we cover each season, this way you will never run out of Astrophotography targets all year long :)
You can find our list of the best targets of the other three seasons below:
See The Astrophotographer's Guidebook for a complete physical guide of the best targets of the year!
Put on your gloves, Winter is here! and it does not disappoint.
The cold months of December, January and February gives us two of the easiest and most impressive targets to capture for amateur astrophotographers: The famous Orion Nebula, and the majestic Pleiades star cluster.
There aren't many large and bright galaxies up in the sky during this season, which is good because the months of March, April and May are just full of them! Feast up on nebulae with a side of clusters before Spring, also called "Galaxy Season" sneaks up on you.
The best part of the Milky Way band and its bright core are now completely gone and are hibernating until it gets warmer. That doesn't mean there is nothing impressive in the sky!
Winter is often awaited by amateur astronomers because it gives rise to what may be the most famous constellation in the night sky: Orion.
The constellation of Orion is huge, easily recognizable, and is home to a handful of bright and large nebulae. Look for the hunter's shoulder and you will spot the red supergiant star Betelgeuse, the 9th brightest star in the sky.
Can you spot it on the image on the right?
The Orion constellation is also an excellent target for wide field astrophotography, thanks to Barnard's Loop.
Although most of the targets in this list do not require any filter for your camera, know that having a Hydrogen Alpha filter will help you get better images for a few of them, including Barnard's Loop.
The targets listed below are, in our personal opinion, the 15 best deep sky objects to photograph for beginner amateur astrophotographers in Winter. This list contains 6 star clusters, 2 galaxies, and 7 nebulae. Yes, that adds up to 15.
You could find a few more galaxies and nebulae for astrophotographers in the Northern hemisphere, but those would be much smaller than the ones in this list and more difficult to capture for beginner astrophotographers.
This Winter you will also be able to photograph the Christmas tree nebula, right in time for the
Holidays! Let's get started!
I - THE CRAB NEBULA (M1)
Let’s start with the very first object in the Messier catalog!
The Crab Nebula is an impressive supernova remnant that is expanding at a rate of 1,500kms per second. It is not very large (well, not yet) with an apparent size of 420" x 290" in the sky. Messier 1 became what it is when a star went supernova in the year 1054 AD. We know this because there are reports from China that the explosion was visible to the naked eye for up to two years after it went supernova. Oh, and also, it was so bright that it was visible during the daytime for 23 consecutive days.
Being the only supernova remnant in the Messier catalog, M1 is one of the most popular deep sky objects to photograph in the sky, and is rather easy to capture!
The Crab Nebula is colorful and has tons of details, as you can see in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
If you have the chance to image this beautiful object this Winter, here is a cool fact for you to think about:
Charles Messier decided to start his catalog of Deep Sky Objects after accidentally stumbling upon the Crab while looking for comets. This is the nebulous object that gave birth to the famous Messier Catalog!
We photographed this object twice, once with our unmodified Canon t3i camera, and 3 years later with our CMOS Astrophotography camera but unguided.
Below is our image of the Crab Nebula with our CMOS camera. We only spent 1 hour on it and had trouble with our guiding that night so did that unguided. The camera was attached to our Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9 newtonian telescope, mounted on our sturdy Atlas EQ-G Motorized Mount. You can see the comparison between DSLR and CMOS on our full blog post by clicking the image below.
II - MESSIER 35
The second deep sky object in this list of the 15 best targets to photograph in the Winter season is Messier 35.
This large open cluster is believed to be about 110 million years old, and is located 2,800 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. It was discovered around the year 1750 and is about the same size as the full moon.
M35 is sometimes overlooked, but it is a beautiful open cluster of stars, very close to a second cluster: NGC 2158. Both objects can easily be photographed in the same frame, making for a beautiful final image full of stars. The only tricky part about photographing both targets at once is to properly center the camera. Make sure your framing is impeccable, that way you can capture both clusters without cutting either one off. Although this is not as crucial as if you were to image a globular cluster, you should still ensure that the tracking of your mount and your guiding are excellent. If not, all these stars might start drifting and overlap each other!
How do you locate Messier 35?
Messier 35 is the only Messier object located in the Gemini constellation. This beautiful open cluster and its neighbor can easily be found by first spotting the nearest bright star: Capella, in the Taurus constellation.
From Capella, find the next bright star in Gemini, Alhena. From there, move back in a straight line towards Capella again and the line will lead you directly to M35. You should land on the cluster a little more than halfway through.
The cluster can be seen with the naked eye under very dark skies, and can easily observed through binoculars as well as any size telescope.
If your goal includes seeing the neighboring cluster NGC 2158, a larger telescope will be needed. That second cluster can be found just 15 arc minutes to the southwest of M35.
III - THE CALIFORNIA NEBULA (NGC 1499)
NGC 1499 is an elongated cloud of gas in the constellation Perseus. It got the name "California Nebula" because when photographed, it has the shape of the California state.
This emission nebula is located just north of the bright star Menkib in the Orion arm of our galaxy. NGC 1499 gets most of its glow from another bright star, Xi Persei, which you can easily spot in the pictures below.
The California Nebula, despite being a famous target for beginner and advanced amateur astrophotographers, is really difficult to spot visually with a telescope.
NGC 1499 is mostly made of Hydrogen-Alpha gas, and even with a camera attached, getting the right angle to make the entire object fit in the frame is a blind challenge.
It of course helps if you own a Hydrogen-Alpha filter for either your DSLR camera or your cooled astrophotography camera. Modifying your DSLR camera to allow for the Ha gas to reach the sensor is also a great idea.
If you do not have the money to upgrade/modify your camera or to purchase a filter, there is another good option: wide field astrophotography!
We used our old Canon T3i unmodified DSLR camera and our Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens to image the California Nebula wide field. It turned out really great, as you can see below.
Note that, as an added bonus, you can also include the famous Pleiades star cluster in the same frame. To do this, try to center the bright star Zeta Persei (ζ Per) in the middle of your frame.
IV - THE PLEIADES (M45)
Messier 45, the beautiful Seven Sisters of the night sky, just about the easiest star cluster to photograph!
The Pleiades were observed by Galileo Galilei, but have been known to humans since before 15,000 BC. Prehistoric paintings have been found in the famous Lascaux caves in France, along with the Taurus constellation itself.
Take a look at the image on the left, drawn by our ancestors. Are you able to spot the stars representing the Pleiades?
In Mythology, the name of the seven sisters are Sterope, Electra, Merope, Maia, Celaeno, Taygeta & Alcyone.
M45 is huge, and is by far the easiest deep sky object to spot in the entire night sky. The seven brightest stars can be seen without any instrument, and light pollution has no effect on their visibility. M45 is also four times the size of the full moon, making it obvious in the sky if you know in which general direction to look.
The Pleiades are extremely bright, and looks amazing in both close up shots using a telescope and wide field astrophotography. The stars in the Pleiades are blue and glow against the faint nebulosity that they are passing through.
The photo you see below is the result of only 2 hours of total exposure with our 8” Newtonian telescope! You can click on the image to see a lot more acquisition details.
V - THE BEEHIVE CLUSTER (M44)
The open cluster M44, also called the Beehive Cluster or the Manger, is the third brightest object in the Messier catalog. It contains about 1,000 stars and is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth.
The Beehive Cluster is slightly visible to the naked eye from a dark site. It is best seen through binoculars or small telescopes, which will reveal hundreds of stars that are simply too faint to be seen otherwise. You can find M44 in the faint constellation of Cancer. First, start in Gemini and look for its two brightest stars: Pollux and Castor. Draw an imaginary line starting from Castor that goes straight through Pollux and continues. Follow the imaginary line until you reach the Beehive cluster.
The Beehive is best viewed near the end of Winter through the beginning of Spring, as Cancer rises higher into the sky when Winter is about to end.
The Beehive cluster may not look very exciting visually, but becomes really impressive through astrophotography.
In photographs, M44 shows its large size and its stars, mostly white and blue, with some smaller ones being red and orange, shine with a wide variety of brightness. You can see that unlike many other popular open clusters, the stars in Messier 44 have plenty of space to breathe between one another.
*We're working on imaging M44 and will upload our result once we capture it!*
VI - MESSIER 95
At magnitude 11.4, Messier 95 is one of the faintest objects in the Messier catalog and is impossible to see with the naked eye. It is also pretty small, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good target to photograph!
M95 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy that contains a ton of detail. This object is best imaged using a large instrument, like a 12" telescope or bigger.
M95 contains about 40 billions of stars, and is receding from the Milky Way at a rate of 778 km/s. It is located in the constellation of the lion: Leo. It has several other galaxies as neighbors, as it is part of a group of galaxies, the M96 group, also known as the Leo I Group. These galaxies can be found about one third of the way between Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, and Denebola.
Although we suggest to photograph the group with a rather large telescope, you do not necessarily have to and can opt for a wide-field view of that area. We managed to capture it with our cheap 8" Newtonian Astrograph, and we also were able to include several more galaxies in the frame! The three Messier objects you can see below were actually all photographed while initially aiming for M95. You can read more on that on the next target of this list.
VII - MESSIER 96
M96 is also receding from the Milky Way at a high rate of speed: 897 km/s to be exact.
It is considered an intermediate spiral galaxy, and just like M95, it is part of the Leo I Group of galaxies.
The group is made of more than 12 galaxies, M96 being the brightest and largest member!
Just like for M95, we recommend photographing this galaxy either by itself with a large instrument, or using a 8” telescope and include as many members of the group as possible.
Below is our image of the Leo I group. A total of 7 galaxies can be spotted, including 3 Messier objects: M95 on the top right, M96 on the bottom right, and M105 on the left. M105 appears as a bright blob of light, the two galaxies visible next to it are NGC objects.
We spent a little over 2 hours imaging this part of the sky, and were complete beginners. This was one of our first images with a telescope and, as you can see, we made the background sky way too black during processing.
VIII - MESSIER 37
The 8th object in this list of the best targets to photograph in Winter is an open cluster that contains about 500 stars.
There are three open clusters in the constellation of Auriga, M37 being one of them. It is the largest, brightest, and most populated of the three. M37 was discovered in 1654, and is located very close to M36 and M38.
M37 is located in Auriga, in between the constellations of Gemini and Perseus.
You can easily find M37 if you know how to find Auriga's pentagon asterism. The cluster lies just to the exterior of the pentagon shape, unlike M36 and M38 which are inside of it.
Messier 37 is not visible to the unaided eye, but starts to resolve itself when observed with a pair of binoculars. The number of stars you can see in the cluster will depend on what instrument you use. Some of the faint member can only be seen with a large telescope.
Photographing this object is simple and getting great results does not require many hours of exposure. It is also rather easy to process even for a beginner.
This is our photo taken with our unmodified Canon 7D Mark II camera. This was only 45 minutes of total exposure doing 3-minute shots at ISO 800. While mildly exciting, it is still a beautiful cluster of stars to capture. Also, it looks like an underwear floating in space.
IX - THE ORION NEBULA (M42)
There are three deep sky objects known as being the "Easy 3" for beginner astrophotographers to image:
M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy | best photographed in Fall
M45 - The Pleiades Cluster | best photographed in Winter, mentioned earlier
M42 - The Orion Nebula | also best photographed in Winter, more info below
Earlier in this list, you read about M45, the easiest star cluster to observe and photograph in the months of December, January and February. Well, lucky you, the easiest nebula is also up in the sky in Winter. Messier 42 is one of the most popular objects in the sky, and is most beginner astrophotographers' first attempt at deep sky imaging.
The Orion nebula looks amazing no matter how you look at it. It is visually impressive through any pair of binoculars or any size telescope, appears stunning in wide field astrophotography using just a DSLR and a lens, and of course looks absolutely incredible in images taken with a telescope.
Doing wide-field astrophotography on Messier 42 using a 50mm or a 85mm lens will reveal plenty of dust surrounding the nebula, almost reaching the gas expelling from IC 434, the Horsehead nebula.
The Orion Nebula is the nearest stellar nursery to Earth, and is located in Barnard's Loop, along several other objects we will discuss later in this post.
On top of being the easiest target to photograph, M42 is also the easiest nebula to spot in the night sky. It is one of the brightest nebulae in the sky and can be seen in Orion's sword.
The photo below was taken with our old unmodified Canon T3i DSLR camera through our 8” telescope. The total exposure time was only one hour!
Messier 43 and the Running Man Nebula can also be seen in this image (M43 being the ball shaped blob in the middle, and the Running Man being on the top left).
When you image this target, make sure to take an extra series of very short exposures in order to capture the famous Trapezium cluster of stars. It is located in the bright core of the nebula and will be washed out if you only stack long exposure shots. The Trapezium illuminates the gases in the Orion Nebula.
X - THE HORSEHEAD NEBULA (IC434)
The Horsehead Nebula is a magnificent object located very close to the Orion Nebula. Although it is usually referred as just "IC 434", the head of the horse is actually the dark nebula Barnard 33, positioned on front of a lot of hydrogen alpha gas, IC 434.
The Horsehead Nebula is almost always photographed with its two neighbors, the small blue reflection nebula NGC 2023 and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024).
The Flame Nebula is very impressive looking and is full of details! It is illuminated by the bright star Alnitak, in Orion's Belt. Alnitak is so massive that you may go through a bit of trouble during processing to ensure it is not blown out.
Similarly to the Eagle Nebula and its Pillars of Creation, the Horsehead Nebula gained in popularity when NASA decided to image it with the Hubble Space Telescope. Photographing this object yourself is not difficult, as long as you are willing to spend several hours on it from a dark zone. You could also capture IC 434 rather easily from your backyard if you own a Hydrogen-Alpha filter for your camera. The red gases behind the head of the horse are faint, but will reveal themselves drastically if using an Ha filter.
The Horsehead and Flame nebulae are too faint to be seen to the unaided eye of even with binoculars. It is also pretty difficult to spot using a telescope, mostly because your eye will be drawn to the bright Alnitak instead. Once again, the use of a Hydrogen filter will help spot the nebula, although you are more likely to only see NGC 2023 and NGC 2024.
IC 434 is also a great target for wide-field astrophotography with a DSLR camera and a 50mm or 85mm lens. We'll get back on that later when we discuss Barnard's Loop.
The photo below was taken with our Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9 telescope from a Bortle 4 zone, the total exposure time was 4 hours and we did not use any filter. Our Canon 7D Mark II is also not modded.
Did you know?
It wasn't until 1888 that the Horsehead Nebula was discovered, through astrophotography!
XI - THE WITCH HEAD NEBULA (IC 2118)
Here is another faint deep sky object that was discovered with the rise of astrophotography!
The Witch Head Nebula was found in photos in 1909. It lies only 2.6 degrees East of Rigel, the 7th brightest star in the sky. Although Rigel is part of the Orion constellation, IC 2118 is officially located in Eridanus. The Witch Head Nebula has a magnitude of 13, meaning it is very faint and will be near impossible to spot both visually and with short exposure shots. Using a narrowband filter will help see it as an elongated lane of dust, but even then, you would have to be under very dark skies and should not expect it to look impressive.
During the Winter months, you should have plenty of time to image IC 2118 as it rises really high in the sky, followed by Orion. The nebula lies 900 light-years away from Earth and can be found by aiming your instrument towards the bright star Rigel.
The Witch Head Nebula received its spooky name because when photographed, the shape of the gas is similar to the face of a witch seen from the side. Can you see it on the picture? A hint: the witch is looking towards Rigel.
Because of this bright star, processing might get a little tricky. The brightness of Rigel may clash with the faint gases of the nebula, and you should be careful to not be one-sided during each processing step.
Just like the other deep sky objects around Orion, the Witch Head Nebula is also a great target for wide-field astrophotography.
If you have a motorized mount or even a small star tracker, we suggest using a 50mm lens on your DSLR camera and point it towards Rigel. Take a long exposure shot and you should see the nebula appear clearly next to the star. We'll show you the result of photographing IC 2118 wide field later.
XII - MESSIER 78
Surprisingly enough, this beautiful diffuse reflection nebula does not have a common name and is only referred to as Messier 78.
Discovered in 1780, M78 is made of two main stars that are bright enough to illuminate the dark lanes of dust that are currently passing in front of them.
M78 can be found in Orion, very close to M42 and IC 434. It is not visible to the unaided eye but can be spotted quite easily with a telescope.
Messier 78 can be a little tricky to find the first time, but it is advised to take a wide field image of the Orion's belt area and, once spotted, use a bigger lens or instrument.
If you do not have the patience to do that, and do not own a GoTo mount, try to find it directly with your telescope by scanning the area around the Flame nebula.
Beginner astrophotographers might find M78 challenging to image. It may be the brightest diffuse reflection nebula in the sky, but it is still mostly made of dark dust. Make sure to spend as much time as you can on this target, as processing this object is pretty difficult and will for sure be challenging. We had to revisit this nebula 3 times in order to get a result we liked.
We also made a video of how we processed this object from beginning to end which you can see HERE. Make sure to download our raw files and try processing it yourself!
XIII - BARNARD'S LOOP
Finally, we can talk about imaging the Orion area of the sky wide-field!
Barnard's Loop is an huge emission nebula in the constellation Orion that is believed to have originated about 2 million years ago. Just like IC 434 and M78, the nebula is faint and was discovered with long duration film exposures in 1895. Barnard's Loop cannot be seen with the naked eye and it is debatable whether you can observe it through a telescope with the right filter. In any way, the nebula will only look impressive if you are willing to image it.
In photographs, Barnard's Loop's hydrogen gas spans all the way from beyond M78 to almost reach Rigel in Eridanus.
This target may be a little difficult for beginner amateur astrophotographers, but with patience and the correct filter, one can obtain a jaw dropping image that include several different nebulae. You can watch us capture Barnard's Loop in Episode 8 of Galactic Hunter. As you can see, we struggled, especially because our DSLR camera is unmodified, but we did not give up and ended up with a result we love!
This target is also tricky to process, because you need to make sure that all the different nebulae visible in your image are not left aside. For example, it is very easy to blow out the Orion Nebula without realizing it due to its bright core.
You do not need your telescope to image this target, so we suggest you attempt to image it on a night when you feel like doing some wide field astrophotography. Even if you do not own a clip-on Hydrogen-Alpha filter for your DSLR camera, you can do like us and come back on a different night to add that second batch to your existing data.
The image below is the result of 7.2 hours of total exposure. 3.6 hours being without any filter and an additional 3.6 hours with the newly-purchased Ha filter.
Did you know?
The origin of the loop is still unknown to this day.
XIV - THE DOUBLE CLUSTER IN PERSEUS
NGC 869: 3.7
NGC 884: 3.8
Here is not one, but two beautiful open star clusters to photograph in January, February and March. NGC 869 and NGC 884 are nicknamed "The Double Cluster" due to their proximity and resemblance to one another. Both clusters have about the same size, same magnitude and even age. In Greek mythology, NGC 869 and NGC 884 represent the jewels from the handle of Perseus' sword.
Amateur astrophotographers who decide to capture the Double Cluster in Perseus often end up with a surprise in their final image: a third cluster! NGC 957 is another star cluster that is less prominent and smaller than its two neighbors, and often finds a way into an astrophotographer's camera censor.
You could also decide to image NGC 957 by itself, but that would require a large telescope.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 are about twice the size of the full moon, and can easily be seen with the unaided eye if under a dark enough sky. They can be found in the Perseus constellation, very close to Cassiopeia's W shape.
XV - THE CHRISTMAS TREE & CONE NEBULA (NGC 2264)
We end the Winter season with the most festive Deep Sky Object of all! NGC 2264 refers to two objects as one: The Christmas Tree cluster, and the Cone nebula, which forms some of the nebulosity around the cluster. The tree also contains the Fox Fur nebula and the Snowflake cluster.
The Christmas Tree Cluster is a great target for beginner astrophotographers because it is basically four targets in one. The main cluster, as well as the Fox Fur nebula, are very easy to photograph and do not require many hours of total exposure time. Getting the red color out of the gas will require some work but can be done relatively easily and without the need of a Hydrogen-Alpha filter.
The Christmas Tree Cluster was discovered in 1784, it wasn't until 1786 that the nebulosity around the cluster was spotted… the day after Christmas. NGC 2264 is located in the constellation Monoceros, in the Orion arm of the Milky Way. It lies 2,600 light-years away from our solar system.
Not far from the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula is the famous Rosette Nebula, which we'll talk about in our post for the 15 best targets to photograph in Spring.
And that is the end for the 15 best targets to photograph for the Winter season!
Now that we have completed our top 15 picks for each season, we now have the best 60 Astrophotography targets of the year!
Make sure to bookmark this page along with our guides for Spring, Summer and Fall in case you need some help finding a target to photograph in the future. You can also get yourself The Astrophotographer's Guidebook to have this list with more details and tips next to you at all time :)
You can also watch the video below if you prefer learning about these targets in a video format.
Hoping this will help many beginner astrophotographers capture beautiful objects during this cold season,
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.