Brightest Galaxies in the Night Sky

brightest galaxies

A galaxy is a collection of stars, gas, dust, and dark matter held together by gravity. There are several different types of galaxies, including spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies, and lenticular galaxies, which are often classified based on their appearance,

The largest galaxies (i.e. supergiants) are thought to contain up to one hundred trillion stars, while the average galaxy contains around 100 million. Each galaxy orbits a center of mass, which, in most cases, is made up of dark matter.

Although capturing any deep-sky object is an incredible feat, photographing a galaxy beyond our own, is a memorable experience. 

While some galaxies are quite large and easy to spot (such as the Andromeda Galaxy) others are comparatively small and dim.

If you are new to astrophotography and/or have a modest telescope (in terms of size and aperture), start with the brightest galaxies in the night sky. 

List of Brightest Galaxies

Below is a list of the brightest galaxies in the night sky based on available apparent magnitude values. Magellanic Cloud types and dwarf galaxies have not been included in this list. Any of these objects would make great deep-sky targets.  

  1. Andromeda galaxy (Mag 3.1)
  2. Triangulum galaxy (Mag 5.72)
  3. Whirlpool galaxy (Mag 5.8)
  4. Centaurus A (Mag 6.84)
  5. Bode’s galaxy (Mag 6.94)
  6. Southern Pinwheel galaxy (Mag 7.6)
  7. Pinwheel galaxy (Mag 7.9)
  8. Sombrero galaxy (Mag 8)
  9. Sculptor galaxy (Mag 8)
  10. Cigar galaxy (Mag 8.41)
  11. Leo Triplet (Mag 8.9)

1) Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda galaxy is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, one of the largest known galaxies in the universe, and is our closest galactic neighbor at 2.5 million light-years away. At a diameter of approximately 220,000 light-years, the Andromeda galaxy is roughly twice the size of our Milky Way galaxy, and is the largest galaxy in the Local Group of galaxies. 


This spiral galaxy is the most popular galaxy target among amateur astrophotographers thanks to its size and brightness. It can be appreciated using nothing more than a stock DSLR camera, a telescope, and a tracking mount. Though this target can be seen with the naked eye (even in the city), darker skies will allow for longer exposures with better contrast. Here are some resources if you plan on photographing the Andromeda galaxy. You may also want to check out my best image of the Andromeda Galaxy yet for more tips or my Andromeda Galaxy astrophotography tutorial for processing the image you capture. 

Designation: Messier 31, M31
Constellation: Andromeda
Apparent Magnitude: 3.1
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 2.5 million light-years
Recommended focal length: from 300mm – 600mm 
Best time to photograph: July – November

brightest galaxies

Andromeda Galaxy | Trevor Jones

2) Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum galaxy is one of the most distant objects that observers can view with the naked eye under great viewing conditions (i.e. clear, dark skies with no light pollution). This galaxy may be home to 40 billion stars (compared to the Milky Way’s 400 billion, and Andromeda’s 1 trillion stars) and is a suspected ‘gravitational companion’ to Andromeda with both galaxies moving towards our own.

The Triangulum Galaxy is a spectacular sight when photographed through a telescope. Its large, colorful spiral formation has been well-photographed by amateur astrophotographers using a camera and telescope. Through astrophotography, we can reveal the hydrogen gas (i.e. the pink areas) seen throughout the spiral arms in the galaxy. A camera modified for astrophotography (i.e. the stock IR cut filter is removed) will make a big difference in revealing the reds and pinks.

Designation: Messier 33, M33, NGC 598
Constellation: Triangulum 
Apparent Magnitude: 5.72
Category: Spiral Galaxy
Distance: 3 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 400mm – 800mm
Best time to photograph: August – December 

Triangulum Galaxy

Triangulum Galaxy | Trevor Jones

3) Whirlpool Galaxy 

The Whirlpool galaxy has a distinct face-on spiral structure and luminous core. These distinct spiral arms, packed with stars, gas and dust,  act as star-forming regions, compressing hydrogen gas to form new stars. The young stars can be found glowing bright blue while the older stars are yellower in appearance, often found near the center. Also nearby is NGC 5195, a companion galaxy to M51.

It is an extremely satisfying astrophotography target due to its high surface brightness and impressively detailed spiral arm structure. If you happen to capture this target in LRGB, adding additional luminance data can be a good technique for this broadband target. 

Designation: Messier 51, M51
Constellation: Canes Venatici
Apparent Magnitude: 5.8
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 31 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 500mm – 1000mm
Best time to photograph: March – July 

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy

Whirlpool Galaxy | Trevor Jones

4) Centaurus A Galaxy

The Centaurus A galaxy is the fifth brightest galaxy in the night sky and only visible to those at lower northern latitudes or in the southern hemisphere. The centre of this galaxy, which is the closest galactic nucleus to Earth, is also home to a supermassive black hole. It is known for the large lane of dust that stretches across the middle of the galaxy. 

From my latitude, this particular target is not within reach, so I don’t have any experience photographing it. 

Designation: NGC 5128, Caldwell 77
Constellation: Centaurus
Apparent Magnitude: 6.84
Category: Elliptical galaxy
Distance: 12 million light-years 
Recommended focal length: 600-1000mm
Best time to photograph: June – September

Centaurus A CEDIC Team

Image: CEDIC Team at Chilescope, Processing – Bernhard Hubl

5) Bode’s Galaxy 

This bright galaxy is located 11.6 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. Its arms spiral all the way down to an active galactic core, showcasing a great example of a grand design spiral galaxy. Along with the Cigar galaxy, Bode’s galaxy is part of the M81 group, which includes more than 40 galaxies. 

This galaxy is bright enough to observe under light-polluted skies. I am even able to easily spot it during the new moon phase under my Bortle Scale Class 6 backyard sky. To find it, look towards the Big Dipper in Ursa Major, and use the stars Merak and Dubhe to draw a line towards M81 and M82. From there, point your telescope below and to the right of this line, and you should see the glow of Bode’s Galaxy after scanning the area.

Designation: Messier 81, M81, NGC 3031
Constellation: Ursa Major
Apparent Magnitude: 6.94
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 96,000 light-years
Recommended focal length: 500mm – 1000mm
Best time to photograph: March – July 

Bode's Galaxy

Bode’s Galaxy | Trevor Jones


6) Southern Pinwheel Galaxy 

The Southern Pinwheel is a face-on spiral galaxy with well-defined arms, similar to its northern counterpart, the Pinwheel Galaxy. It appears to have a double nucleus thanks to a potential ring of stars that orbit around the supermassive black hole at its core. It’s off centre nucleus is thought to suggest it had, at some point, absorbed a small satellite galaxy.

Again, given its location, I have not had the chance to shoot this particular target. Though I imagine using some of the same techniques for the Pinwheel galaxy would work, considering their similarities. 

Designation: Messier 83, M83, NGC 5236
Constellation: Hydra
Apparent Magnitude: 7.6
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 15 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 400mm – 800mm
Best time to photograph: March – May

Southern Pinwheel Galaxy - NASA

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgement: W. Blair (STScI/Johns Hopkins University) and R. O’Connell (University of Virginia)

7) Pinwheel Galaxy 

The Pinwheel galaxy is nearly twice the diameter of the Milky Way and is thought to contain at least one trillion stars. Though it is large in size, it is not easy to observe because of its long distance from Earth, at 21 million light-years. Its asymmetrical grand spiral design is due to the tidal forces from six companion galaxies that are nearby. 


The Pinwheel galaxy can be located with your telescope by star-hopping from the bright star Alkaid, in the handle of the Big Dipper. Though it is bright enough to capture from your backyard, you’ll need to focus on getting plenty of exposure time (2-3 hours), a healthy signal-to-noise ratio and pulling the surface brightness of the galaxy forward during image processing. 

Designation: Messier 101, M101, NGC 5457
Constellation: Ursa Major
Apparent Magnitude: 7.9
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 21 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 400mm – 800mm
Best time to photograph: March – July 

the pinwheel galaxy

Pinwheel Galaxy | Trevor Jones

8) Sombrero Galaxy

The Sombrero Galaxy is a lenticular galaxy, meaning it contains a large-scale disc with no spiral arm structure. This disc is a large symmetrical ring of dust, viewed almost edge-on, that actually surrounds the centre nucleus. It is the disc of dust and the bright nucleus that form the shape of a Mexican hat, giving the galaxy its name. 

The Sombrero Galaxy is a fantastic astrophotography subject to photograph during galaxy season. Although this galaxy appears very small (9′ × 4′ angular diameter) in the night sky, even a small refractor telescope will reveal the Sombrero Galaxy’s memorable appearance. A telescope with more aperture and focal length is recommended (1000mm+), to really pull this object in for a closer look. 

Designation: Messier 104, M104, NGC 4594
Constellation: Virgo
Apparent Magnitude: 8
Category: Lenticular galaxy
Distance: 31 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 600mm – 1200mm
Best time to photograph: March – June


Sombrero Galaxy | Trevor Jones

9) Sculptor Galaxy 

The Sculptor galaxy is currently going through a period of intense star formation and contains a supermassive black hole that appears to be dormant. As a spiral galaxy, its arm structure is not as pronounced as some of the other targets in the category. 

I have not photographed this galaxy, but it is considered one of the most easily view galaxies, after only Andromeda and Bode’s Galaxy. It can be found south of Diphda (in Cetus), which can be identified using the bright stars in the Great Square of Pegasus.

Designation: NGC 253, Caldwell 65, Silver Coin, Silver Dollar
Constellation: Sculptor
Apparent Magnitude: 8
Category: Spiral Galaxy 
Distance: 11.4 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 600-1000mm
Best time to photograph: September – December

Sculptor Galaxy by Adam Block

Sculptor Galaxy | Adam Block Mount Lemmon SkyCenter University of Arizona

10) Cigar Galaxy

The Cigar galaxy was originally believed to be an irregular galaxy, though using near-infrared images, two symmetric spiral areas were discovered. As a starburst galaxy, star formation happens at a much higher rate than most other galaxies which can be triggered by many factors, including the interaction with other galaxies or the merger between galaxies. M82 is the closest starburst galaxy to Earth at 12 million light-years away. 

The Cigar galaxy and Bode’s galaxy are often photographed as a pair since they are both bright galaxies within the same field of view. A stock (non-modified) DSLR camera is more than capable of capturing this galaxy, and Bode’s galaxy if you happen to shoot these targets together. It is tempting to shoot these two targets using a wide field of view because the area contains many other galaxies such as NGC 3077, and NGC 2976. However, expect a loss of detail in your primary subjects (M81, M82) using a shorter focal length. 

Designation: Messier 82, M82, NGC 3034
Constellation: Ursa Major 
Apparent Magnitude: 8.4
Category: Spiral galaxy
Distance: 12 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 500mm – 1000mm
Best time to photograph: March – July 

Messier 82 galaxy

Cigar Galaxy | Trevor Jones

11) Leo Triplet 

The Leo Triplet is a group of spiral galaxies that have all been impacted by gravitational interactions with each other. It includes Messier 65, Messier 66 and NGC 3628, also known as the Hamburger Galaxy. Messier 66 is the largest and brightest of the three objects with an apparent magnitude of 8.9. NGC 3628, observed edge-on, is the dimmest of these objects at 10.2 magnitude. 

The Leo Triplet can be captured in a single field of view. The unique orientation and tilt of each galaxy also makes them appear different from our vantage point on Earth for an interesting composition. 

Designation: M66 Group (includes M65, M66 and NGC 3628)
Constellation: Leo
Apparent Magnitude: 8.9
Category: Group of spiral galaxies
Distance: 35 million light-years
Recommended focal length: 400mm – 600mm
Best time to photograph: January – May

The Leo Triplet

Leo Triplet | Trevor Jones

Other Noteworthy Galaxies

Below is a list of other targets to try this galaxy season. 

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