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.
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)
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.
2. Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy
Designation: M81, M82
Magnitude: 6.94 (M81)
Constellation: Ursa Major
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.
3. The Pinwheel Galaxy
Constellation: Ursa Major
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
Constellation: Canes Venatici
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).
The Whale Galaxy in Canes Venatici.
5. The Whirlpool Galaxy
Constellation: Canes Venatici
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.
The Whirlpool Galaxy.
6. The Needle Galaxy
Designation: NGC 4565
Constellation: Coma Berenices
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
Constellation: Coma Berenices
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
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
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.
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!
- Building a Telescope Rig to Photograph Galaxies (Video)
- Spring Constellation: Leo the Lion – EarthSky
- Spring Constellation: Virgo – EarthSky