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8 Deep-Sky Targets for Galaxy Season

Galaxy Season Astrophotography Projects
|Galaxies|8 Comments

In the astrophotography realm, Galaxy Season refers to the period in Spring when the night sky offers up a buffet of incredible galaxies to observe and photograph. From early March until Mid-May, the window of opportunity for night sky enthusiasts is open to those who wish to a wide variety of different galaxies.

In this post, I’ll provide a list of promising galaxies that are possible to photograph with a small telescope. A higher magnification telescope is required for an up-close view of many of these galaxies, but it is still a lot of fun to try these with a small refractor as well. 

Astrophotography in the Spring

Whether you own a large SCT (Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope) or a small refractor, galaxy season means an opportunity to focus on a new array of deep-sky objects that are well-deserving of your attention.

The thought of photographing another galaxy full of countless stars and unknown worlds can make you feel pretty small. This is one of the many amazing feelings experienced by backyard amateur astronomers and photographers alike.

Sunflower Galaxy

The Sunflower Galaxy in Canes Venatici.

The photos you’ll see below were captured using modest equipment, with varying levels of skill and technical knowledge along the way. Most galaxies are better suited for telescopes with longer focal lengths due to their small apparent size and dim characteristics (See my latest galaxy photography setup). 

Many of the images in this post were captured using a small 80mm refractor (Explore Scientific ED80). The focal length of this telescope produces images with a wide field of view, and thus a small portrait of the galaxy observed.

Ideally, you’d use a telescope with a focal length of at least 600mm or more on the galaxy season targets mentioned below. This article was originally published in March 2017, and updated on March 28, 2020.

8 Targets for Galaxy Season

Why do amateur astronomers and astrophotographers call the time between March and May “galaxy season”? The answer is that our own galaxy blocks our view of many galaxies in the night sky, so we can see the most galaxies when we see the least of our own. 

This is particularly evident for observers in the northern hemisphere during early spring. The Virgo Cluster is in prime position for observing and imaging by late March, and it is absolutely filled with galaxies.

Most of these, of course, do not make great astrophotography targets. Here is a list of the ones that do.

1. The Leo Triplet

Designation: M65, M66, NGC 3628
Magnitude: 8.9 (M66)
Constellation: Leo

The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet is a personal favorite of mine because it offers a view of 3 distinctly different types of galaxies at once. The designation for these galaxies are M65, M66 and NGC 3628.

The photo above was captured from my backyard in March. 2019. The Leo Triplet is referred to as the M66 Group and lies approximately 35 million light-years from Earth.

2. Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy

Designation: M81, M82
Magnitude: 6.94 (M81)
Constellation: Ursa Major

M81 M82 Galaxies

I dare you to find a more photogenic pair of galaxies in the entire night sky.  These 2 galaxies are equally as brilliant, and conveniently close together.  These factors make M81 and M82 an extremely popular astrophotography choice. These galaxies are members of the M81 group, with M81 being the largest galaxy in the group overall.

The photo above was captured using my rarely used Orion 8” F/4 Newtonian.  The objects benefitted from the added focal length (800mm), but there is still not enough data acquired to do this pairing justice.

Here is a closer look at the M82 Galaxy (The Cigar Galaxy) captured using a telescope with a focal length of over 1000mm. You can now see some of the fine details and textures of this galaxy in detail.

M82 Galaxy

3. The Pinwheel Galaxy

Designation: M101
Magnitude: 7.86
Constellation: Ursa Major

The Pinwheel Galaxy

 

The Pinwheel Galaxy, or M101 as it is classified, is a beautiful face-on spiral galaxy located in the constellation Ursa Major. Photographically, the core of the Pinwheel Galaxy is evident even in short exposures. To capture the outer arms, longer guided exposures are needed.  

This gorgeous galaxy is located 21 million light-years from Earth. In 2006, NASA and the ESA released this incredible close-up of the Pinwheel Galaxy, which was the most detailed image of a galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope at the time.

4. The Whale Galaxy

Designation: NGC 4631
Magnitude: 9.8
Constellation: Canes Venatici

Whale Galaxy

The Whale Galaxy is quite small when captured through a small refractor telescope. However, the one advantage a wide field instrument has in this scenario is the ability to capture the nearby Hockey Stick Galaxy (NGC 4656, NGC 4657).

I really enjoy the look of this galaxy, as more integrated exposure time adds interesting details and color information reminiscent of the Cigar Galaxy.

I tried photographing this galaxy again in 2017 using a cooled CMOS camera (ZWO ASI294MC Pro) instead of a DSLR. This version is a little better because I used a refractor with more focal length (712mm). 

Whale Galaxy

The Whale Galaxy in Canes Venatici.

5. The Whirlpool Galaxy

Designation: M51
Magnitude: 8.4
Constellation: Canes Venatici

Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy is a magnificent sight through a large telescope under dark skies.  I have been lucky enough to observe M51 through a 20” Dobsonian telescope under dark skies. The interacting galaxy (NGC 5195) can be distinguished by keen observers.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is classified as an interacting, grand-design galaxy.

Here is a recent image of the Whirlpool Galaxy from 2020. I used a Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 refractor for this one, on a night was particularly good “seeing” conditions. 

You’ll notice that the image is in black and white, and that is because the image was shot using a monochrome CCD camera and a luminance filter. 

Whirlpool Galaxy through a telescope

The Whirlpool Galaxy.

6. The Needle Galaxy

Designation: NGC 4565
Magnitude: 10.42
Constellation: Coma Berenices

Needle Galaxy

This unique edge-on spiral galaxy was the subject of one of my first YouTube videos. This galaxy has a small apparent size, especially through a small telescope.

However, this does not take away from the dynamic presence of this “must-shoot” deep-sky object. 

7. The Black Eye Galaxy

Designation: M64
Magnitude: 9.36
Constellation: Coma Berenices

Black eye galaxy

The Blackeye galaxy includes a notable dark band of dust in front of the bright nucleus. This galaxy is in a prime location for visual or photographic observation in the Spring.  

Despite its small apparent size, M64 is a noteworthy target for visual observation in the constellation Coma Berenices.

8. The Sombrero Galaxy

Designation: M104
Magnitude: 8.98
Constellation: Virgo

Sombrero galaxy

The Sombrero is widely appreciated due to an iconic photo captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. This unbarred spiral galaxy is located in a vast area of black space in the constellation Virgo.  Larger instruments are better suited this small, yet striking galaxy.

It is interesting to note that the Sombrero galaxy is about 1 third the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy.  With an apparent magnitude approaching 9.0, this deep-sky object is within range of backyard telescopes!

9. Markarian’s Chain

One of the notably missing targets on this list is Markarian’s Chain.This is a stretch of galaxies located in the constellation Virgo and forms part of the Virgo Cluster.

Markarian's Chain

Markarian’s Chain of galaxies in Virgo.

Below you will find the video I created sharing the 8 galaxy season targets mentioned above:

I hope that this post can assist you in your own astrophotography endeavors as a reference. Each and every one of the galaxy photos took several hours to capture and process, yet it is still difficult for me to share them in their current state.  

As all amateur astrophotographers experience, I often look back at my old work and think “what was I thinking?”.

How to Find Galaxies to Photograph

I like to use a planetarium software called Stellarium to plan my galaxy season projects. This is free software that allows you to set specific filters catered to your interests. 

Stellarium also provides fascinating details about each of the galaxies you find, and key details such as their size, magnitude, and apparent altitude from your location. Be sure to set up your location information properly to ensure you are seeing an accurate representation of the night sky. 

planetarium software

Use a planetarium software like Stellarium to plan your projects.

You can also enter in your specific camera and telescope information in the sensor view mode, to get a preview of the exact image scale you can expect with your system. You can also try this handy image scale and field-of-view calculator to better plan your galaxy photo. 

As I learn new and better ways to produce high-quality images, I will update my collection of images taken during galaxy season. Clear skies!

Resources:

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Ivan says:

    Great post, I was just looking for something like this. Considering how most galaxies are relatively small targets, what type of scope and focal length would ideally capture their details?

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks, Ivan. An 8″ SCT such as the Celestron C8 has a focal length of 2032mm, so that could capture most of these galaxies in detail. That added focal length means that accurate guiding is essential to produce a sharp image.

  3. Rex Kiser says:

    Hi Trevor,
    I just watched your You Tube video on processing the Rosette Nebula. Stunning image and a great walk through using DSS and Photoshop. I just got my first telescope last month (Celestron Evolution 9.25) and have been working on the easy stuff so far. I bought an inexpensive CCD camera and realize that I will have to get a better camera either CCD or DSLR. Would I be better off purchasing a higher end DSLR or a CCD camera? I mainly plan to image Nebula and Galaxies and wonder which would be better for that purpose. Thank you and I absolutely love your work!

    • Trevor says:

      Thanks, Rex. That is a really tough call. I am right in the middle of testing a new CCD camera, and just tonight got some decent results. It all comes down to what you can see yourself enjoying the most down the road.

      If you can put up with the added software and even steeper learning curve, perhaps a CCD at this stage would set you on the right track for your imaging goals well into the future.

      This opens the door to complete narrowband imaging – which means more time and money, but the potential for jaw-dropping images.

      Thanks for the kind words, and let me know what you decide:)

  4. Trevor,

    I enjoyed watching your video on the 8 galaxy targets and have learned a great deal from all of your VlOG. I am considering having my Canon t6s astro modified the DSOs. Will this conversion help with capturing the colors in the galaxies? I think it wont because the removal of the Ir Cut filter lets in the reds more commonly seen in nebulae and from all of the images i have seen so far, there are not any red galaxies. Am i right?

    • Trevor says:

      Thanks, Kenneth. You’re right, it’s mostly for picking up the reds in emission nebulae. However, a number of galaxies have nebulae located within them such as the Triangulum galaxy. The difference between M33 taken with a modified camera and a stock version is huge!

  5. JimH says:

    Hi Trevor,

    Just completed watching your tutorial on the California Nebula, and it is really good. My question involves white balance. I have a camera that has been modified for full spectrum. Using the California Nebula as an example, I am guessing that for the RGB version of the image, I would do a custom white balance on a sunny day using the 18% gray card. Or if I wanted to use a LPF, I would do the custom white balance with the LPF filter in place?

    And for the HA image, since all I would be interested in is the Red Channel, that no White Balance is necessary.

    My initial experimentation with this on the RGB version was to set no custom no White Balance where I took about 50 images, but too short an exposure, and the whole image is red with it hard to separate the nebula from the rest of the image. I was anxious to try something and hadn’t yet figured out I should perhaps do something with White Balance. I now have the 18% gray card and know how to set Custom White Balance. But there is very little that I can find on line to guide me through these steps.

    Thanks

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Jim. Thanks for the kind words. About the white balance. I use auto white-balance while shooting RGB with the DSLR. After stacking the images in DSS, my image will be anywhere from grey to pink. A quick initial white balance can be performed on the image using the Levels > Set Gray Point Eye Dropper. (the middle one) – This should create a gray sky and the true color of the DSO.

      To get a real accurate color of the sky/DSO you can edit the levels of each channel separately – around 30/30/30 for a neutral sky works well.

      For Ha images – you will only pull out the red channel to use in your RGB-Ha composite. So white balance is not an issue.

      So basically what I’m saying is that I start by shooting Auto WB, and then make all adjustments afterwards in Photoshop. These same adjustments could be made on each frame before stacking, if you prefer.

      Hope this helps.

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