Targets

In addition to simplicity, the other major advantage to wide-field astrophotography is the potential for imaging objects that are too spacious for any telescope. Also, smaller objects can be depicted in their "natural surroundings", and you can image many objects at once, albiet at small image size.

Below are links to lists of objects in several size categories for objects visible in the northern hemisphere. I include my own photographs and some hints on photographing most of these objects, but I have left out many objects. When I give a recommended time, I am generally refering to film with ASA 800 or 1000, although ASA 400 can work well, too. It has been several years since I shot the following photos, so most of the specific films I used are not made anymore and I don't give the film names. The appropriate chart(s) in Uranometria 2000.0 (1st edition) are given parenthetically.

Targets Greater Than 15 Degrees

This is the big stuff for which you must use a camera lens.

The Milky Way

You can spend a long time exploiting all the possibilities for the Milky Way! 50mm and shorter lenses work very well; this extends all the way down to the shortest lens you can buy. I don't have a lens between 58mm and 135mm, but if you go much above 50mm your pictures are in the Milky Way as opposed to outside looking in. Some individual objects within the main band of the Milky Way are featured later.

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The brightest part of the visible Milky Way, logically enough, lies towards the center of our Galaxy. Here is an 8 minute exposure of the summer Milky Way. I took this as the center of our Galaxy was setting which explains the orangish "sunset" color. The brightest point source in the frame is Jupiter. 35mm f/2.8 lens wide open, on Fuji Super G+ 800.

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Conversely, the faintest part of the Milky Way lies in the winter sky when we are looking directly away from the center. This part of the Milky Way is a good test for a dark sky; if you can easily see this part of the Milky Way then you have a pretty decent site.

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Another great part of the Milky Way is the area in and around Cygnus. This photo is centered on the "Great Rift" in Cygnus where dust obscures our view of the background light, spliting the visible Milky Way in half. In addition you can easily see the North America Nebula on the right. The bright star Altair lies in the lower right corner. 20 minute exposure with a 35mm f/2.8 lens set at f/4 on 5 October 1997.

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Zodiacal Light

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The Zodiacal Light is a faint band of sunlight scattered by dust in the plane of the solar system. From rural locations, it appears as a cone of light (tilted to the south for most Northern Hemisphere observers) rising from where evening twilight ended or morning twilight will begin. If skies are dark, it is quite obvious visually, and may appear yellowish. This photo shows the Zodiacal light extending up to the Pleiades. Comet Hale-Bopp is looming on the right side of the frame, dating this photo to 1997 (April 1st Universal Time; still the 31st Mountain Time). The exposure was taken with a 35mm lens set at f/4, for 4 minutes on ASA 400 film. A lens longer than 35mm might not frame the Zodiacal Light well enough to see it in the photo, but you can try a 50mm lens.

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The Gegenschein/Zodical Band

The Zodiacal Light continues all around the sky. Under very dark skies, one can see a subtle brightening at the anti-solar point, usually called by it's German name the Gegenschein or "counterglow". The part of the band between the "standard" Zodiacal Light and the Gegenschein is even fainter. I've seen the Gegenschein quite a few times, but have only seen extensions of the Zodiacal Band away from the Gegenschein a couple times. This is a very tough photographic project. If you can see the Gegenschein, you might give it a try. Several months a year this feature is superimposed upon the Milky Way and impossible to see or image. As with the zodiacal light, a 35mm lens or shorter is recommended, and a fish-eye lens can be ideal. An important issue I have discovered here is that a wide-open lens will usually suffer from very noticable vignetting on exposures longer than a few minutes and can make the Gegenschein difficult to see on film. Try stopping down one f-stop and exposing for at least several minutes on fast film. Shoot near midnight to maximize the visibility.

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The Aurora Borealis/Australis

I have an entire site devoted to the aurora. That site includes a gallery of photos and how-to information for observing and photographing the aurora.

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10-15 Degree Targets

Objects in this size range are just barely framed in a 135mm lens, but are still large when imaged through a "normal" lens.

The Hyades (#133-4,#178-9)

Large nearby star clusters respond well to just about any exposure time you want to try. I put this in the 10-15 degree range because there are members of Hyades cluster well outside the "V"-shape. With fast film and a fast lens, you can get a respectible photograph with a 50mm or shorter lens without tracking.

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Barnard's Loop (#226)

This is one of those objects which is very difficult to observe visually, but very much within the range of modest astrophotography. The Loop shines in the light of H-alpha so a red sensitive film can be helpful. Like other similar objects, hypered Tech Pan 2415 and an H-alpha filter with long exposure times work very well for black-and-white. For color photos, you need a relatively long exposure time. For instance, a 9 minute exposure at f/2.8 (remember, f-ratio is the most important factor for diffuse objects) on ASA 800 or 1000 film will faintly, but distinctly show the entire semi-circle (which extends almost exactly 15 degrees north-south) if you are using a 105mm or shorter lens.

Note that the feature is much larger than depicted in Uranometria 2000, 1st edition. A 3 minute exposure at f/2.8 will reveal the section drawn in that atlas and this part fits into a 135mm or 200mm frame. With judicious framing, a 135mm lens will show the main part of the Loop, along with the Orion Nebula, Flame Nebula, and a hint of the Horsehead Nebula!

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Here is a photo of the Orion area which shows Barnard's Loop. This was a 9 minute exposure with a 50mm f/1.7 lens set at f/2.8 on 7 January 1997 using Kodak Royal Gold 1000.

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And, here is the close-up view with my 135mm f/2.8 lens set at f/3.4 depicting the "judicious framing" photo I mentioned above, with the bright part of Barnard's Loop as well as the other nebulae. A close-up of this photo is shown below. A 5 minute exposure on ASA 640 film on 4 April 1997.

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5-10 Degree Targets

These objects will fit in a 200mm lens or even a 300mm. However, these objects are still relatively well imaged with a "normal" lens.

Coma star cluster (#148)

Large nearby star clusters respond well to just about any exposure time you want to try.

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Lambda Orionis nebulosity (#180-181)

This is much larger than depicted in Uranometria 2000, 1st edition; at least 7 degrees and more or less circular. It's very faint, though, and exposures of a few minutes at f/2.8 on ASA 800 or 1000 will barely pick this up.

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Here is a photo of the Orion area faintly showing this nebulosity very near the center of the frame. A 20 minute exposure with a 35mm f/2.8 lens set at f/4 on ASA 1000 film on 6 December 1997.

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2-5 Degree Objects

Now we are really getting into the "small" stuff, with overlap into the world of prime focus astrophotography. The larger objects on this list can still be relatively well imaged by a 135mm lens, but a 200mm or 300mm is better. A couple of the brightest objects can still be interesting in a 50mm lens, especially if they are near other small objects.

Andromeda galaxy (#60)

Although the classic photos are taken with telescopes, M31 is a nice object for medium telephoto lenses. Even a few minute exposure with a 135mm lens at f/2.8 and ASA 800 film will faintly reveal a dust lane and the two primary satellite galaxies, M32 and M110.

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Here is a 7 minute exposure with a 135mm f/2.8 lens wide open on ASA 640 film. This is only a portion of the frame scanned at high resolution. You can see the galaxy extending about 2 degrees in this photo.

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Alpha Persei star cluster (#63)

Large nearby star clusters respond well to just about any exposure time you want to try.

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Gamma Cygni nebulosity (#84)

This is an oft-forgotten region of patchy nebulosity in Cygnus. With judicious framing, one can get the more famous North America Nebula and the Gamma Cygni region in the same 135mm frame (see below for that combo). While the latter area is made of of several small patches of nebulosity, they have almost exactly the same surface brightness as the NAN, and thus require the same exposure times as that object (see below).

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This is a 4 minute exposure with a 135mm f/2.8 lens wide open on ASA 400 film. This photo was shot in February 1997 and only about 2/3rds of the frame is shown.

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North America Nebula (#85)

This is another H-alpha object. A several minute exposure at f/2.8 is recommended. This looks very good with a 135mm lens, and a 300mm lens will give you a very large image.

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This is a 4 minute exposure with a 135mm f/2.8 lens wide open on ASA 400 film taken immediately before the previous photo of the Gamma Cygni region. The Pelican Nebula is barely visible just above and to the right of the N.A.N.

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Just for kicks, here is a full-frame view that shows both the North America Nebula and the Gamma Cygni complex in October of the same year. This was an 8 minute exposure on ASA 640 film with the 135mm lens set at f/3.4.

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California Nebula (#95)

In my early days of astrophotography, I took an exposure with my 50mm lens in the general Taurus-Perseus area and was surprised by a rather large area of nebulosity. The camera store that processed the film happened to have a star atlas and we identified the smudge as the California Nebula. I have accidentally photographed it the same way many times with the 50mm lens. This is best with a 135mm or longer lens as it is comparable in size to the North American Nebula. It is a bit fainter, though, so something like 5-10 minutes at f/2.8 is good.

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I don't have a good "close-up" image, but here is very small view of the nebula, an 8 minute exposure at f/3.5 with a 28mm lens on ASA 1000 film. Note that this nebula also shows up in my Zodiacal Light photo with a 35mm lens.

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Veil Nebula (#120)

This is a tough object for camera lenses because it's faint and small. A 10-15 minute exposure with a fast 135-300mm lens is best. However, if you just want to capture it on film, try a 50mm lens on the entire Cygnus region with a 10 minute exposure and it should be obvious on the frame.

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This 6 minute exposure was taken on 5 Oct 1997 with a 135mm f/2.8 lens wide open on ASA 640. Although underexposed, one can faintly see the primary (western) section of the supernova remnant just above center. This is a close-up view of only part of the frame.

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Northwest Monoceros nebulosity (#182)

This is the blob of nebulosity around the open cluster NGC 2264. Quite faint, and a 9 minute exposure at f/2.8 on ASA 800 or 1000 barely shows this.

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Here is a photo of the Orion area including this object in the upper left (above and to the left of the very obvious and small Rosette Nebula). 9 minute exposure on ASA 1000 film with a 50mm f/1.7 lens set at f/2.8.

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Small Targets

There are a few "small" targets that can still be interesting in a telephoto lens. Keep in mind that you won't see much detail.

Pleiades (#133)

It may be surprising, but at f/2.8 the nebulosity surrounding the cluster shows up in a five minute exposure on 800-1000 speed film. Keep in mind that most of the really good prime focus images are taken at much slower f/ratios requiring much longer exposure times for the nebulosity. The object can be quite attractive (and very small) with a 50mm lens and if you are paying attention, there are other photos on this page that show the Pleiades.

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Although not well-tracked, here is a 5 minute exposure of the Pleiades taken on 5 October 1997 with a 135mm f/2.8 lens wide open. This is a partial frame scanned at high resolution.

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Zeta Orionis complex (#225)

This is made up of the Flame Nebula immediately to the east of Zeta Ori, and the "dagger" of nebulosity upon which is projected the dark Horsehead Nebula. Surprisingly, the primary dust lane in the Flame Nebula, and a hint of the Horsehead Nebula can be seen in a few minute exposure at f/2.8, even with a 50mm lens. Of course, to see any detail at all, you need a medium telephoto lens. With a fine-grained film and excellent tracking a 135mm lens can do a suprisingly good job with this area.

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This is a 5 minute exposure taken on 4 April 1997 with a 135mm f/2.8 lens set at f/3.4 on ASA 640. Again, this is a partial frame scanned at high resolution. Note the outer southern halo of the Orion Nebula, and the detail in the Flame Nebula. Oh yeah, the Horsehead Nebula, too. This is a good time to remind you that this photo (and all other long exposures without star trails) was taken using a hand-powered barndoor tracker I built myself!

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Orion Nebula (#225)

The Orion Nebula is the brightest such object available to northern observers. This is a large star forming H II region mostly shining in the red light of H-alpha. On ASA 800 or 1000 film, the nebula can be recorded in a short, untracked exposure with a fast 50mm lens. Just remember that this is a very small object compared to the other objects discussed on this page. Exposures longer than a couple minutes at f/2.8 tend to wash out any detail, unless you are using a fairly long telephoto lens.

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This is the same photo as above; a 5 minute exposure taken on 4 April 1997 with a 135mm f/2.8 lens set at f/3.4 on ASA 640.

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Variable or arbitrary sized

These are objects which, depending upon circumstances, can be imaged at a large range of focal lengths.

Comets

This is where wide-angle astrophotography really shines. With all due respect to good prime focus astrophotographers, in my opinion even the best telescopic photos of Hyakutake were not as good as modest quality wide-field shots (although there were some great Schmidt camera photos), simply because they could only catch part of the comet. (Hale-Bopp did show enough detail for great prime-focus photos, though.) As with any diffuse object, fast f-ratio is all-important. The appropriate focal length depends upon the size of the comet. For a spectacular comet like Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp, you want to try your entire arsenal at least once. As far as exposure time, "several minutes" is a good start. Most of the really good Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp photos were exposures from 2-10 minutes.

However, with very fast film, don't be afraid to try to photograph an extremely bright comet like Hale-Bopp without any tracking. Shoot your lens wide open or closed down one f-stop and use the table at the bottom of the calculations page to determine how long you can shoot without trailing. Also, don't be afraid to shoot longer and allow a small amount of trailing and keep in mind that my times are fairly conservative. Experiment. Also experiment with different films. Different films have different color response and this can affect what you see. Hale-Bopp showed a very nice yellow dust tail in addition to the typical blue plasma tail so different films empasized different features. Also, a comet like H-B which spent a lot of time near the Milky Way was in areas of the sky with a lot of red nebulosity which shows up very well on a several minute photo at f/2.8 and a 50mm or shorter lens.

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First, here is a 4 minute exposure of Hale-Bopp taken on 27 March 1997 with a 135mm f/2.8 lens set at f/3.4 on ASA 800 film.

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And, a 5 minute exposure on the same night with a 58mm f/1.4 lens set at f/2.4. Note how the comet dwarfs the Andromeda Galaxy!

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Here is a 4 minute exposure of Comet Hyakutake taken in March 1996 with a 50mm f/1.7 lens set at f/2.8 ASA 800 film. Note the bowl of the Big Dipper on the left side of the frame. The detached portion of the tail at the upper left is real.

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Meteor showers

Given the sheer number of hours my shutter has been open to the sky, it's rather remarkable that I'd never captured a decent meteor until the Leonid storm in 2001. I must admit that my attempts hadn't been very persistant. In December 1996, I captured two faint Geminids without trying. I've heard a rule of thumb that it takes 50 exposures to get a really good meteor so outside a major shower you will need persistance.

For exposure times, you should locally determine the length of time that you can expose without picking up any significant sky fog and go with that. You may hear the advice that when you are specifically trying to catch a meteor on film you should close the shutter if one goes through the field of view. Unless you have already exposed long enough to have sky fog problems, I would tend to ignore this advice. I think you should always expose as long as possible because of the possibility of picking up multiple meteors on the same frame. For a meteor shower, this can give a dramatic protrayal of the concept of the radiant of a shower. It will be rare that you will pick up multiple meteors on one frame, but I think it's worth a shot. On the other hand, if you happen to catch an incredible fireball on film, I would recommend ending the exposure!

I wrote that previous paragraph in 1997, and finally I was able to verify that sentiment during the 2001 Leonid storm. I caught multiple meteors on several frames with 5-10 minute exposures, including one exposure where I caught 16 Leonids and a non-shower fireball!

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Planets and the Moon

When people think of photographing the planets and the Moon, prime focus or eyepiece projection immediately come to mind. However, this is a very rich field of wide-field astrophotography. Some of the best targets are conjuctions of one or more planets and the Moon, or two or more planets by themselves. Due to the 12 degree per day average motion of the Moon, you can usually fit both the Moon and a particular planet in the same frame with a 135-300mm lens on the appropriate day each lunar month. Twilight shots of a crescent Moon with Venus or Mercury are especially nice. Keep in mind that you will have to overexpose the Moon to bring out the planet and the twilight colors. However, this can also bring out Earthshine in the Moon which is usually a Good Thing. In situations like this, you can meter the sky to get a good exposure. Bracketing is good, too, because unlike just about any other astrophotography, you can wash everything out with a slightly too-long exposure. And don't forget about lunar eclipses! A 135mm lens works well to get the Moon along with surrounding stars. A challenging project is to photograph the motion of a planet relative to the background stars over the course of several weeks or months.

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I'm going to leave most of this to your own imagination, but here is a photo of a close conjuction of Jupiter and Venus in early 1999. This was a 10 second exposure with a 58mm lens set at f/5.6 on ASA 800 film.

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Minor planets (asteroids)

As with planets, you can take a sequence of photos to see the motion of an asteroid. However, since most are faint, the effect is even better, because it can be hard to find even a 10th magnitude asteroid visually, whereas it's motion can be apparent in two photos taken a day apart.

I was doing so much of this that I have an entire page devoted to asteroids, with pairs of photos showing motion for 8 asteroids and that number is so small because it only shows three months worth of effort!

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Star trails

The great thing here is that you don't even need a tracking platform. Just lock the shutter open and wait. Also, a poor quality or slow lens isn't as big of a factor here. Star trails with another natural object like a mountain or waterfall in the foreground can yield a spectacular photograph. In a situation like this, a crescent Moon can provide illumination for the object. Star trails also bring out the variety of star colors very well. You will have to do some serious experimentation because on very long exposures, the quality of your skies will determine how long you can expose at a given f-ratio. At f/2.8, you will see more stars, but the frame may wash out before you get long trails. At f/11, you may be able to expose for hours, but will only record the brightest stars.

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This photo was taken from aptly named Mirror Lake in Wyoming's Snowy Range on 10 October 1996. This is a 30 minute exposure with a 35mm f/2.8 lens set at f/4 looking back at Laramie. About 5 minutes into the exposure the wind picked up, breaking the calm of the lake and giving the "watercolor" effect. There seemed to be a large amount of dust in the air, emphasizing the light pollution of Laramie.

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This one was taken two nights later with a lens and a 30 minute exposure. This photo vividly shows the apparent rotation of the sky about the North Celestial Pole. In addition, you can see that the skies really are dark at this location, unless one looks back towards Laramie. On these nights I was able to easily see the Gegenschein and had a naked-eye limiting magnitude of +7.1.

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Constellations

This is another easy subject. For a large constellation and fast film, you don't even need to track. Smaller constellations like Lyra will require something like a 135mm lens and tracking. Of course, constellation photos can be a by-product of shooting other relatively large deep-sky objects, and vice versa. Most of the photos on this page feature various constellations, so I won't give any specific photos here.

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