Capturing a giant cloud of dust and gas in space, also known as a nebula, is a lot trickier than taking a few shots of the stars, not only because you need to be in the right kind of environment to see one, but also because you will need to adjust many of your camera settings and equipment to capture every last detail without the image becoming blurry.
With that being said, however, if you’re someone who is fairly new to astrophotography and is desperate to see these gorgeous and colorful formations for yourself, they are surprisingly easy to see as long as you know what you’re looking for.
When you’re out in the field hoping to catch a shot of a nebula, try following a few of these techniques (see also “Star Photography Techniques for Beginners“) and tips that we have listed below to make the experience much easier so that you can start capturing these beautiful “star nurseries” with no trouble.
1. Choose A Camera Over A Telescope
When starting out with astrophotography, you will have the choice between either using a long-distance telescope, or a camera lens, and while telescopes used to be the golden standard when it came to observing anything in outer space (see also “Capturing The Beauty Of Nebula In Your Photos“), camera lenses have come a very long way, and are now considered by many to actually be the better option for beginners.
While telescopes will provide much crisper and higher quality images thanks to their high zoom level, the images themselves are also incredibly small and limited, which can be less than ideal when you want to capture every last detail of a large, bright, and beautiful nebula.
Camera lenses on the other hand excel at fitting everything into one image while still giving you a good amount of quality so that you can pick apart each object and color with ease.
Plus, when you buy a camera lens for astrophotography, you will also be able to use it for many other occasions too since the camera is so portable, something which is not the case with telescopes.
With that being said, if you’re just starting out and are confused about which to pick, sticking with a long-distance camera lens will make your life much easier.
2. Adjust Your Focal Length
You won’t actually need a lot of magnification to spot a nebula. A focal length between 135-350mm will be more than enough to get an accurate shot of a nebula, and if you’re lucky, even a galaxy too (see also “The Art Of Capturing Stunning Galaxies“).
Keep in mind however that your chosen focal length should depend on how many features you want to include in the photo.
If you want to capture the entire constellation for example so that you can include every last inch of detail in one shot, then you can even use a slightly lower focal length of around 50mm to 85mm.
If you’re struggling with choosing an exact number to land on, 200mm tends to be the sweet spot since this will provide crystal-clear images of any nebula that you focus on, while also being zoomed out just enough so that you can even capture two nebulas in the same photo if they are smaller, such as the Heart and Soul nebula.
3. Try Using A Tracker
Tracker mounts are often considered to be an essential piece of equipment for beginners since they make the overall learning process so much simpler by making it easy to capture clear and vivid photos without there being any risk of blurriness.
The way these mounts work is by automatically spinning the camera so that it compensates the motion of the Earth, allowing you to take a steady image that won’t be obstructed by the planet’s movements.
This blurriness will be most apparent when you’re using a slightly longer focal length, so trackers are usually better suited for astrophotographers who are trying to capture zoomed-in high-quality photos full of unique details and features, but anyone should consider using them when trying to capture a nebula or two.
4. Start With An Easy-To-See Nebula
Some nebulas can be a lot easier to spot than others, especially because they will have certain features and colors that contrast with the darkness of the night sky, making them very visible and a lot easier to snap a few photos of as opposed to many of the trickier ones which are usually left to the much more advanced astrophotographers.
The Orion Nebula is probably the easiest and most well-known type of nebula because of how noticeable it is in its appearance.
The core of this nebula is incredibly bright and can appear blown out in many images, while the outside is full of fainter gas and individual stars which give it a very recognizable appearance.
It can be seen from anywhere on Earth with a focal length of between 50mm and 300mm.
The Orion Nebula is just one of a handful of easy and beginner-friendly nebulas that can be spotted in the night sky, so make sure to start with these first before jumping into the much harder ones later down the road when you have more experience.
5. Find An Area With Dark Skies
While a lot of the easier nebulae, such as the Orion Nebula, can be seen from virtually anywhere on Earth, you will still have an extremely difficult time actually seeing them when the skies are fogged up with light pollution.
If you live in a city, this means you will need to venture out into rural landscapes and areas of agriculture to be able to get an accurate shot of the nebula.
The massed light that clusters together in cities creates a rusty orange haze that many of us are used to seeing whenever we look out our window after the sun goes down.
This forms a glare that masks the night sky itself, hiding all astronomical objects from our vision, so it’s important to try and get as far away from it as possible until that mist is completely absent and all that’s left is the pitch-black sky, the glistening stars, and the nebula far off in the distance.
6. Make Sure To Bring A Tripod
A tripod will not only help to prevent any shaking which can occur when aiming a camera with a hand, but it also helps to keep the shot steady and precise if there is a sudden gust of wind, ensuring that your images never come out blurry or distorted.
Tripods are an especially important piece of equipment for capturing nebulae because it can be extremely easy for the smallest of movements to shake the camera enough so that the smaller details, such as ripples of gas or stars, fade out of the image completely.
If you’re planning to also use a star tracker so that your images can be as precise as possible, make sure that you pick up a tripod made out of sturdy materials so that it won’t sag when the tracker is attached.
7. Locate The Nebula Locations Using Apps
Rather than trying to find the location of a particular nebula by using a map, it can be much easier to use one of the hundreds of amazing astrophotography apps which will take you directly to the best location to spot a nebula by using its built-in compass.
Many of these apps will also tell you the rising and setting time of the nebula, and some even allow you to simply aim your phone camera in the night sky, and the outline of the nebula (see also: The Best Settings For Nebula Photography)will appear, letting you know exactly where it is, and where you should be pointing your camera.
Star Walk, SkyView, and Sky Guide are some of the most popular apps that are available on both iOS and the Android store, but feel free to play around with a few different ones to see which suits your preferences the best.
8. Start With A Lower ISO
The ISO of a camera refers to the sensitivity of the sensor and how much light is gathered in the shot.
Adjusting the ISO is necessary when you want to make a subject look a lot brighter and more noticeable in the darker skies, but when you’re looking for nebulas, you won’t need to set the ISO very high at all because of how dazzling a lot of the easier-to-spot nebulas already are.
For beginner-friendly nebulas such as Orion and Dumbbell, start out with an ISO of 400. This may seem low at first, but it can make the final image a lot clearer since it won’t become oversaturated with light.
If the nebula is still looking a bit too dark, try changing to either an 800, 1600, or an even higher ISO setting instead, and keep switching between different values until the image is as clear as you want it to be.
Taking photos of the jaw-dropping nebulas that occupy our night sky is quite easy to do when you have the appropriate equipment and have tweaked your camera settings slightly, and once you start capturing one, you will be able to explore the thousands of others contained within the Milky Way Galaxy (see also “The Best Locations For Galaxy Photography“).