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Photograph the North America Nebula

The North America Nebula (Cataloged as NGC 7000 or Caldwell 20) is a large emission nebula in the constellation Cygnus. The shape of this nebula looks a lot like the continent it was named after and covers an area more than four times the size of the full moon. 

From the northern regions of Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, this is one nebula who’s name becomes obvious right away. I have overlayed the shape of the continent over the image to showcase how similar the shape of NGC 7000 is.

North America Nebula

Over the years, I have photographed the North America Nebula countless times using a camera and telescope (and sometimes, a camera lens). A wide-field refractor telescope with a short focal length is recommended for such a large astrophotography target. 

In this post I will share a number of photos of this beautiful nebula, and the equipment I used to get the job done. The following image was captured using a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi DSLR camera and an Explore Scientific ED80 apochromatic refractor telescope. 

The North America Nebula captured using a DSLR camera and 80mm refractor telescope.

The telescope used for the photo above had a focal length of 480mm. When in combination with a crop-sensor (APS-C) DSLR like the Canon EOS Rebel Xsi, the North America just fits into the entire frame. A telescope with a shorter focal length will reveal an equally impressive nebula close by, IC 5070. 

This photo was created by taking 35 x 5-minute exposures @ ISO 1600 under moderately dark skies. The images were calibrated and stacked to improve the signal-to-noise ratio before the final processing was done in Adobe Photoshop CC.

astrophotography telescope

The Telescope used for the photo above (Explore Scientific ED80)

Where is the North America Nebula?

As far as nebulae go, this one is extremely easy to locate in the night sky. The North America Nebula is observable to those living in the northern hemisphere, in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.

Visual astronomers may have a difficult time detecting this diffuse nebula through the eyepiece, but a short 30-second exposure will reveal its familiar shape with a DSLR camera (A camera that has been modified for astrophotography will help). 

The star map below indicates where you’ll find the North America Nebula in Cygnus. I’ve placed labels of the brightest stars and notable deep sky objects over a wide-field image of the “Northern Cross” region of the Milky Way.

The North America Nebula (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “North American Nebula”) is rather easy to find thanks to its close proximity to the bright star, Deneb

Cygnus constellation map

Deneb is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and is one of three stars in the “Summer Triangle” (the other two are Altair, and Vega). In terms of backyard astrophotography, NGC 7000 is a massive target with apparent dimensions of 120 x 100 arcmins. 

The constellation Cygnus includes plenty of hydrogen gas, and several popular emission nebula deep sky objects. The Pelican Nebula sits right next to the North America Nebula, and is often photographed in the same frame. For a photo like this a focal length of approximately 300mm or less is required. 

North America Nebula Details

  • Constellation: Cygnus
  • Designations: NGC 7000, Caldwell 20, Sharpless 117
  • Object Type: Emission Nebula 
  • Apparent Magnitude: 4
  • Size: 120 x 100 arcmins, 6 degrees
  • Distance: 1,500 lights years from Earth

From the northern hemisphere, the best time to observe and photograph the North America Nebula is from June – September. During the summer months, the constellation Cygnus reaches high overhead throughout the night. This is an opportune time to capture NGC 7000 as is the least affected by poor transparency and turbulence in the air. 

It is said that it is possible to observe this emission nebula with the unaided eye, but requires extremely dark skies and excellent seeing. Binoculars and small telescopes will show this nebula as a faint, foggy patch of light. Only through astrophotography, are we able to reveal the intense red color of the hydrogen alpha emission line. 

Astrophotography

NGC 7000 is a well-photographed astrophotography target, using a wide-field telescope, or a camera lens attached to a DSLR. The glowing hydrogen gas emitted from the North America Nebula, particularly around the Cygnus wall make it a sought-after image for backyard astrophotographers. 

To capture the intense hydrogen gas of this interstellar cloud, long exposure images must be captured on a tracking equatorial mount. A light pollution filter, especially one with a narrow band-pass that isolates hydrogen alpha (h-alpha) light is best. 

The standard best practices apply when photographing this target, such as a precise polar alignment, and a concentrated effort to focus the stars. Framing up the target in the orientation you desire will likely eat up the majority of your setup time. The framing you choose may vary widely from the ones shown on this page, depending on the magnification of the optical instrument used. 

Owners of high-magnification, long focal length telescopes (1000mm+) tend to focus their attention on a specific area of the nebula. There are a few stand-out sections of the North America Nebula, none of which are quite as impressive as the Cygnus Wall.

The Cygnus Wall 

The “Cygnus Wall” refers to the area of the nebula that resembles Mexico and Central America. This region of the nebula exhibits the most concentrated star formation, where new stars are being born from dense clouds of gas.

The photo below highlights just how intense the glowing light emitted from hydrogen gas is in the Cygnus Wall. This photo was captured using a dual-bandpass filter (Ha + OIII) and a one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera. 

The Cygnus Wall

The Cygnus Wall. Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO and ZWO ASI294MC Pro. 

In the image above, the 550mm focal length of the telescope used (in combination with the image scale of the camera) was a little too “deep” to capture the entire nebula. This should give you a good idea of how large this object is in terms of astrophotography. For comparison, have a look at the field of view using a DSLR Camera (Canon EOS 60Da), and a William Optics RedCat 51 at 250mm. 

I have to admit, the image below is a little soft. Some serious noise reduction was applied to help reduce the severe thermal noise. There simply was not enough integrated exposure time to improve the signal-to-noise ratio on this one. (44 x 3-minutes @ ISO 3200).

However, I believe image is useful to those looking to frame up this target using a telephoto camera lens or wide-field telescope. The “near-starless” appearance of this image is due to the narrowband filter used (Triad Ultra Filter), and the star minimizing techniques applied in post processing.

A wide-field look at NGC 7000 and friends. William Optics RedCat 51. 

Astrophotography with a Camera Lens

The image below was captured using a Canon EOS Rebel DSLR (full-spectrum modified) and a Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L Lens.  The lens was set to its maximum focal length of 105mm to produce the scale of this target shown below. At this focal length, the Pelican Nebula is also in the frame, along with nearby Deneb to the upper right. 

This image was captured from a Bortle Scale Class 8 backyard, on a small camera tracker called the iOptron SkyGuider Pro. A mid-range zoom lens like the 24-105mm can be tricky to focus and balance, but offers an incredible opportunity to photograph objects in space from a new perspective.

A wide field view that includes the Pelican Nebula

The North America Nebula and Pelican Nebula at 105mm.

Several 2-minute exposures (at ISO 800) were stacked together using DeepSkyStacker, followed by further image processing in Adobe Photoshop. A Skytech CLS-CCD filter was used to help reduce the city glow and capture more contrast in the nebula. I have found this light pollution filter to be effective when shooting emission nebulae with a modified DSLR. 

The image above was cropped after processing in Photoshop to remove unwanted stacking artifacts near the edges. Compare the magnification of this nebula at 105mm to one taken at 300mm. This time, I used a Canon EF 300mm F/4L lens to capture the action. As the focal length of the telescope or camera lens increases, so do the intricate details of Caldwell 20.

Astrophotography with a 300mm Camera Lens

The North America Nebula and Pelican Nebula at 300mm.

Final Thoughts

Sharpless 117 is probably one of the most photographed deep sky objects in the night sky. It’s right up there with the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy. This glowing nebula is so large and well-defined, it’s no wonder amateur astrophotographers like me return to Cygnus year after year. 

I have now photographed this object at least a dozen times, and my astrophotography skills have improved year over year. Its interesting (and perhaps inspiring) to witness the progress made on a specific target over time. The timeline below shows my progress on NGC 7000 over the years.

learning astrophotography

The best thing about the North America Nebula in terms of astrophotography, is that you can capture it using almost any camera. It’s bright enough to capture without an astro-modified camera (sensitive to IR light), and large enough to capture using a small telescope or camera lens. 

I highly suggest you take a shot at this incredible deep sky object with your camera. Capturing a photograph of this nebula for yourself may just inspire you to develop your passion for astronomy for the rest of your life. 😉  

More Noteworthy Nebulae in Cygnus

NGC 6888: The Crescent Nebula

The Sadr Region and IC 1318

Sharpless 101: The Tulip Nebula

Helpful Resources

New to Astrophotography? Get Started

NGC 7000 in Narrowband (Light Vortex Astronomy)

A Road Map to the North America Nebula (Sky and Telescope)