Skip to Content

galaxy season

Photographing the Sunflower Galaxy

|Galaxies|4 Comments

In this post, I will share the techniques and equipment I used to take a picture of the stunning Sunflower Galaxy. With the world largely shut down for me, deep-space astrophotography in the backyard has been a welcome escape. 

Cataloged as Messier 63, this stunning galaxy is about 25 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Canes Venatici. The months of April and May are the perfect time to photograph M63 from mid-northern latitudes.

You can also watch the video of this process on my YouTube channel:

Photographing the Sunflower Galaxy

The spring season is nicknamed “Galaxy Season” for astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere because there are so many interesting deep-space galaxies up for grabs at this time of year. 

If you’re typically a “nebula guy” like me, photographing galaxies is a nice change of pace, and the approach to the image is quite different than a large nebula.

Galaxies are typically much smaller in apparent size than nebulae, and emit light in the broad spectrum.

Image Scale

The size difference between a large nebula and the Sunflower Galaxy (to scale).

You can’t use narrowband filters to ignore the light pollution from the city the way you can with nebulae, and achieving a natural look to the galaxy and surrounding stars may take some time to get right.

Some people prefer to use a mild light pollution filter when imaging broadband targets with a color camera. I recommend the Optolong L-Pro filter for those looking to capture long exposure images with more contrast from the city. 

After 3 years of use, this filter continues to provide the best results for one-shot-color, broadband astrophotography from my location. Shooting unfiltered is my only other option, and this method can be hit-or-miss depending on the target.

To photograph the Sunflower Galaxy, I used a sensitive monochrome CMOS astronomy camera with LRGB filters. This camera uses a motorized filter wheel that allows me to select the filter I want to use without touching the camera.

Telescope filter wheel

I use a ZWO 7-position (36mm) filter wheel with my dedicated astronomy camera.

Planning the Shoot

All of the photos I capture from the backyard are shot through heavy light pollution (Bortle Scale Class 7), and the seeing conditions are often poor as well. There is no substitute for dark skies, but backyard astrophotography in the city can be done, and the results may surprise you. 

The moon (80% illuminated) was out during this session, which is not ideal for capturing true-color images of galaxies, but I’ll take what I can get. Generally, you’ll want to avoid capturing galaxies when the moon is full, as this light diminishes the contrast in your image and washes out faint details. 

On the night of this imaging session, the forecast was cold and clear, and that’s enough for me to set up my telescope. Spring is a great time for astrophotography because the nights are still long, but the temperatures are a lot more tolerable. 

backyard astrophotography

My humble backyard in the city (and Rudy). 

I am getting better at planning my astrophotography sessions. The ‘old me’ would just see a clear forecast, start setting up, and ‘figure it out’ from there.

But without planning, you will always lose precious clear sky time googling examples of targets to image and potentially selecting something that isn’t a good fit for your skies or your gear.

I use Stellarium for isolating object types, size, and location. I even have a custom landscape (my backyard) loaded in so I can see when certain objects will clear the house or run into the tree.

Stellarium is great for filtering deep-space objects by apparent size, and magnitude, so you can isolate targets that are a perfect fit for your imaging setup. 

Stellarium software

I imported a custom landscape into Stellarium to see where objects will appear in the night sky from my backyard.

Astrospheric is one of the more reliable weather apps out there, and it’s usually the one I can safely plan my imaging sessions around. I actually use a mixture of weather forecasting apps, but I enjoy the level of detail and layering of Astrospheric best. 

I also like to hop on AstroBin to see examples of the exact object I’m about to shoot and filter the images down to ones using the same telescope I have. Not only will you get a better idea of the size and image scale of your target, but a detailed breakdown of the exposure lengths and filters used.

It is a truly remarkable resource. You can register for AstroBin using this link for 20% off a subscription. It is well worth it!

Filter it down even more to a “top pick” version, and get inspired by some of the most amazing amateur astrophotos you’ve ever seen.

Related Article: The 19 Best Astronomy and Stargazing Apps for You Mobile Phone

My Telescope

I’ve been getting a lot of use out of my Celestron Edge HD 11 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope this galaxy season, and it’s currently the scope with the highest native magnification I own right now.

Normally I love a nice fast apochromatic refractor, but the object is only 10 x 6 arc-minutes in size. I appreciate nearly 2000mm of focal length with this telescope (when the reducer lens is used). 

Celestron Edge HD 11

My Celestron Edge HD 11 telescope.

It’s been nice to use the Edge HD 11 this galaxy season, last year a lot of people were excited about this telescope and I am glad to come through on my promise to get some impressive images with it.

Flat frames have been a little challenging with the scope. There is no getting around not taking flats for a broadband image in this much light pollution.

I’ve had to do lots of tests to get it right, including experimenting with different exposure lengths and using different materials to filter the objective. I do not own a dew shield yet for this telescope yet, which is not ideal

Trevor Jones

I use a 0.7X reducer lens on my SCT for faster more light-gathering power and a practical focal length.

I am using a ZWO ASI2600MM Pro camera to capture the Sunflower Galaxy, which requires a set of LRGB filters to create a full-color image. 

This camera has been an absolute dream thus far, and I know it will be a popular choice for amateur astrophotographers moving forward. 

My Approach

I am trying a new approach to galaxies and LRGB imaging in general. I’ve decided to capture much shorter exposures through each RGB filter than I typically would.

In contrast, I’ll take longer exposures through the luminance filter, in an attempt to collect the important details of the Sunflower galaxy structure. 

I notice that a lot of great astrophotographers will capture galaxies using shorter exposures in RGB, and longer for the luminance (LUM), and that’s exactly the approach I used to photograph the Sunflower Galaxy.

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro camera

The camera is a ZWO ASI2600MM Pro monochrome CMOS camera.

I collected an hour through each color filter and 1.5 hours in luminance data. The RGB exposures were 90-seconds each, and the luminance were 3-minutes each.

The idea was to capture enough quality color data to provide the overall natural color of the object and use the grayscale luminance data for the details.

I run the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro camera at Unity Gain, and Bin the Images 1 x 1. I have been advised to capture my images Binned 2 x 2 with this setup, and drizzle the data (during the integration/calibration stage) to retain the native image resolution.

The idea to capture more data in a shorter amount of time by increasing the pixel size (using software binning). It sounds too good to be true, but I’ll test this method out over the coming weeks and report back. 

my telescope

My telescope pointed towards the Sunflower Galaxy. 

This telescope shoots at F/7, so I’m not sold on going as short as 30-60-seconds. If your telescope is in the F/4 range, a 30-second exposure is likely all you’ll need for RGB.

Image Acquisition and Autoguiding

My little autoguiding system with the ZWO ASI290mm Mini and 72mm refractor has been working fantastic on this rig. Guiding with PHD2 has been extremely accurate, and I simply don’t have to worry about it whatsoever.

The ASI290MM mini is one of the best-selling guide cameras on the market, and it happens to be an incredible planetary camera as well (I used it to photograph Mars and Saturn last summer).

The guide scope has a focal length of 420mm, which I am happy to say has been more than adequate to effectively guide this big SCT.

autoguiding setup

I use a 72 doublet refractor (420mm) mounted to the upper rail of the SCT for autoguiding. 

I have it clipped onto the top rail of the Edge HD 11, and I really like that I can easily shift the system back and forth on top of the OTA to achieve balance.

With the telescope accurately polar aligned (using the QHY PoleMaster) and balanced, a quick star alignment routine was all that was needed for precise pointing accuracy. 

Results

Overall, I am happy with the image of the Sunflower Galaxy I was able to capture. The new (proper) approach to LRGB imaging seems to be paying off, and I will certainly employ this technique again in the future. 

The image is a little soft, in my opinion, but that is largely due to the heavy cropping from the original image frame, as well as my personal processing style for this target.

To create a stronger image, I believe collecting data under a dark, moonless sky is required. Unfortunately, a big galaxy rig like this is tough to travel with. 

sunflower galaxy

The Sunflower Galaxy. 4.5 Hour Exposure. 

Processing the image was time-consuming, but also a lot of fun. I stacked each set of LRGB image exposures separately in DeepSkyStacker, and built the image in Adobe Photoshop using channels. 

I outline this process in a video found in my premium image processing guide. 

Image Processing Guide

The Sunflower Galaxy is a deep-space object that can take your breath away when you see that first exposure appear on the screen.

Whichever galaxies you’ve been photographing this spring, I hope you take a moment to soak in the experience.

In terms of hobbies, astrophotography is like nothing else. I sincerely hope it brings you as much joy as it does to me. Until next time, clear skies!

Helpful Resources:

Related Tags

8 Deep-Sky Targets for Galaxy Season

|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:

galaxy season

Related Tags