Choosing the perfect target can be a difficult task, especially if you’re a seasoned astrophotographer with a lot of images, are brand new to this hobby and don’t know much, or even if you simply live in an area with very little clear skies. I’m going to break down what kinds of targets you should look at shooting for a whole bunch of different scenarios here so you can start narrowing down the perfect target.
If you’re brand new to this hobby, choosing a target may be overwhelming for many people, but it is pretty straight forward depending on the kinds of things you want to see.
Firstly, if you’ve never taken a deep sky image before and have a fairly standard focal length range of 300-600mm (that may seem like a large range, I’ll get to that), you should be looking at the brighter nebulae. If it is winter time, look at the constellation Orion first, here you have the horsehead and flame nebula, the Orion nebula, the witch’s head nebula and more. They are all bright enough to be shot well under light polluted skies and with beginner equipment. They have also been shot so many times that there is a plethora of learning material online about how to process them and techniques to build on. These targets will always look best with a narrowband filter, but if you have a moddified DSLR or astro camera, an Ha filter is a fantastic start to get some pretty striking images. If you have a wide angle photography lens like a 35mm or an 18mm or something, shooting the whole constellation is a great way to go. On the other hand, the Andromeda Galaxy is also available this time of year for stock DSLR shooters and color cameras. It’s huge, bright and easy to find if you don’t have GOTO so I can highly recommend giving that a go. Objects like M35 are also up in the winter and can be very easy to capture due to it being a star cluster. Not exactly my favorite target to capture personally, but some people love star clusters and shoot them all the time. I encourage you to look up even more targets for the winter to see what you like since at the end of the day, there are hundreds of options. If you don’t have any filters or a modified camera though, I would say galaxies and what are called broadband targets are what you should look for for best results.
If it’s spring, look for galaxies first, M81 and M82 are a great starter target that are rewarding while being easy to shoot. They even give experienced astrophotographers something to do because of the faint details that can be pulled out of that area of sky. M51 is one of my personal favorites because it is a galaxy merging with another one and it’s very interesting to look at. I’ve found that it also tends to be a fan favorite of family members and generally people who don’t know about space objects. In terms of nebulae, there isn’t much available, but early in the spring starting in January I’m shooting the Rosette nebula. I redo this target basically every year and every year I see it get better. Very easy to shoot, but difficult to master and you’ll always be rewarded going back to it. Other galaxies to look for are M101 (Pinwheel), the Leo Triplet, Markarian’s chain etc.
Summertime is prime time for nebulae. Tons of options available, many of the best being in the south, such as the Eagle Nebula, North America Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, the Veil Nebula etc. The list could go on for hours, but the point is there are tons of options. Beyond nebulae, the Milky Way is up this time of year and is a great target if you can get to a darker sky area. I’ve actually had success shooting the Milky Way off the beach on a moonless night even in a light polluted area. On the east coast of the US it rises over the ocean so you shoot away from any light pollution.
The fall is a bit of a mixed bag of objects where some transition out of the summer and others are transitioning into the winter targets. Generally you can finish shooting anything from the summer or begin winter targets late in the fall if your horizon allows for it. Great targets this time of year for beginners I would say are the Heart and Soul Nebula and M33 (Triangulum Galaxy).
The Experienced Imager
So what do you do if you’ve imaged everything already. Let’s say you’re the type of person who has good gear, but no new additions this year and have imaged mostly everything you think you want to image. This can leave people with the thought of just stepping away from the hobby but there are options.
For these people I would recommend taking on a real challenge. Something like Ou4 is a great target because it is near impossible without good narrowband filters and an astro camera. I’m specifically referring to the dolphin shaped OIII nebula in the middle of it, as far as I can tell only two people have ever shot it with a DSLR and I’m one of them. It took over 65 hours of exposure time over a month and a half and many weeks of processing trial and error. For a mono camera with filters, it’s easier, but still a good challenge and a rarely shot target.
I would also start looking at some of the faint galactic objects available throughout the sky. There are some really tiny galaxies that are interesting, but also you can add data to older targets that are commonly shot and bring out all of the faint galaxies in the background. Most people don’t shoot these and they can really make your images stand out from the crowd.
Now comes some of my more niche ideas. One thing I want to give a go in the coming months is trying to shoot a gravitationally lensed target. Gravitational lensing is when the light from say, a galaxy, passes by a black hole or sufficiently massive object to actually bend the light from the background object before it gets to Earth. This results in some pretty wild looking objects that almost nobody shoots. There are a ton of them and you can definitely set yourself apart by trying to capture very niche targets like this. My advice would be to research more weird phenomena that happens in space and trying to capture it as best you can.
Very Little Clear Skies
If you don’t get much time to image throughout the year, follow the beginner guide for the most part. You will likely be restricted to shooting the brightest targets in the sky or taking months to shoot one object. If you’ve got the patience, go for the latter, but otherwise, concentrate on getting objects in Orion or the brighter galaxies.
Another options for this group of people is planetary imaging. You can image planets even in breaks in the clouds and with pretty inexpensive gear. I see some good images of Saturn and Jupiter coming out of a dobsonian and a phone. The key here is having a good processing knowledge to get good results. Planetary imaging is more centered around taking a video for a few minutes and stacking the individual frames which means you only need a fraction of a second to get an image and only a few minutes over the course of a night to come away with good results. If you have a phone and at least an 8 inch dobsonian, you should be able to get decent results today with that setup.
What If You’re A Regular Photographer?
So what if all you have is your DSLR or mirrorless camera and a regular old lens? Easy, shoot constellations, the milky way, Andromeda or star cluster areas (focal length permitting). The bigger objects can be seen even through a 35mm lens and the milky way is best seen through the widest lens you can get unless you’re going for a core picture. A landscape photo with the milky way has been done many times, but if you’ve got a new take on the idea people always seem to enjoy them.
People always like to make astrophotography out to be this very expensive hobby that you need to dump hundreds or thousands of dollars into to get good results. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you have some creativity and gain some knowledge about processing, you can get by with anything you currently have, even just your phone.