While a few nebulae can be seen with the naked eye when the skies are completely clear on a moonless night, most of the time, if you want to get a clear shot of these dust and gas clouds to the point where you can clearly dissect each section of their composition, you’re going to need to adjust the settings on your camera.
With star photography, you are free to experiment a little bit with how you adjust the settings of your camera or telescope in order to capture a shot just the way that you would like it, but because nebulae can often be a lot trickier to get a clear image of, you need to take more care when customizing your equipment.
However, don’t let this intimidate you or scare you away from nebula photography since they are some of the most beautiful and visually appealing subjects that we can see in the night sky, so if you want to try and take a few shots of them for yourself, here are the best settings to use.
Should You Use A Camera Over A Telescope?
Long gone are the days when you would need a large astronomical telescope just to be able to take deep-sky photographs.
Of course, you can still use a telescope, and it will often result in the image being a lot crisper due to the high zoom level, but cameras have come such a long way in the past few years, especially in terms of their functionality and modification potential, to the point where they can take pictures of stars, planets, and nebulae which are just as accurate as those taken from a telescope.
When it comes to stars and planets, picking between the two largely depends on how much you care about the subject being as focused and detailed as possible, but in relation to capturing nebula, cameras tend to work better because they can catch every inch of the subject within one image, which is incredibly important considering how big they are.
Therefore, this article is going to be focusing specifically on the best settings that should be used on a camera that will give you the best and most pristine image quality possible.
Best Camera Settings For Capturing A Nebula
If you don’t adjust your camera settings before you start snapping images of nebulae, you run the risk of the image coming out distorted and blurry, resulting in a lot of the smaller details and unique color patterns becoming hidden.
Because nebulae are essentially clusters of many smaller components all combined into one, you want to make sure that you can clearly identify each individual feature so that you can truly admire the beauty of these large space clouds, so to make sure your images are as clear as possible, here are the best settings to go with (see also “Capturing The Beauty Of Nebula In Your Photos“).
A focal length of between 120mm and 200mm will allow you to catch vivid and precise photos of most bright nebulae including the Orion Nebula, but do keep in mind that the longer your focal length, the more you will have to adjust and tinker with your exposure time.
With that being said, if you’re aiming to capture the entire constellation of Orion for example, then you will get better results by using a slightly shorter length of between 50mm and 80mm.
This will still provide you with enough accuracy so that you can clearly set each feature of the nebula apart, while also fitting everything within a single image much easier.
Once you have decided on your focal length, you will then be able to calculate the exposure time by following the 500 rule.
All you need to do is divide 500 by the number of your focal length, and the resulting number will be your exposure time in seconds. For example, if you are using a slightly lower focal length of 100mm, then you will have an exposure time of 5 seconds.
The longer shutter speed is therefore going to compensate for the much shorter focal length by using more light to enhance the photo and make it a lot clearer to see.
You can also try shooting a few frames at 1, 5, 15, and 30 seconds to test which shutter speed grants you the best picture quality.
Because the correct ISO level depends on a few different factors including the type of camera you are using and how much light pollution is in the sky at that time, it can be a little harder to land on a correct setting, so you will need to play around with different levels to see which works the best.
However, the value will need to be higher than regular ISO values which tend to be between 100 and 200, otherwise, it will struggle to pick up any details of the nebula with the final image coming out looking faint or even pitch black.
To start with, you can try using a more aggressive value such as ISO 6400, and if the stars and other details look a little too bloated or distorted, lower the ISO to around 1600.
Keep switching between values until you can clearly make out each individual color and feature of the nebula without having to guess.
With that being said, you are still able to also start with a lower value such as 400, and gradually work your way up from there until the image is bright enough. It’s all about finding that sweet spot for your specific camera.
Autofocus can become quite an annoyance when you’re trying to capture nebulae since it will struggle to focus on anything when there isn’t much light present, so it’s usually best to turn it off completely.
You can also simply center the autofocus on the moon or the nearest star, and then switch over to manual focus so that the autofocus doesn’t try to adjust itself on its own, which can end up getting in the way of your shots.
Long-Exposure Noise Reduction
If your camera has a built-in long-exposure noise reduction feature (LENR), this can be used as a handy tool to help make your shots a lot less blurry and much clearer and more accurate by weakening your thermal signal and reducing the noise of the image.
Keeping this on will mean that each shot can take a little longer than it normally would, but it’s a great tool for beginners who may require that extra assistance to make each of their shots crystal clear.
Choose RAW Over JPEG
Taking a photo through JPEG means that the image will become compressed which can make it look a little small and can even end up cutting out some of the details surrounding the edges of the picture.
This is especially a problem when capturing nebulae because many of them, such as the Orion Nebula, will have a bright core with the brightest stars stretching out from the center, so you won’t want to miss out on any of these details when taking your shots.
If you have the option to choose a RAW file format for your photos, you should therefore definitely choose this over JPEG when taking pictures of bright nebulae.
Image sharpening should be turned off when capturing nebulae since while it will help to make stars a lot more pronounced and visible, it also makes the overall noise of the image a lot more apparent, so it’s usually not worth keeping it on.
Setting your white balance to the “daylight” option will automatically color-correct the image in relation to the white color temperature of the stars, which in turn, will brighten up the entire photo to a level where each individual feature becomes more apparent without the color actually washing out the image.
Extra Equipment To Consider Bringing
These settings will ensure that your camera is able to capture the most precise, sharp, and accurate photos of a nebula possible, but if you want to make the experience even easier, there are a few extra pieces of equipment that you should definitely consider bringing along for the shooting session.
- Tripod – Any small shakes, even just from a gust of wind, can make a deep-sky photograph look blurry and unrecognizable, so it’s always worth attaching your camera to a tripod to keep it steady for those longer shots.
- Star Tracker – Star trackers automatically rotate to compensate for the Earth’s rotation, making it much easier to capture a steady photo which is especially useful for long-distance subjects such as a nebula.
If you are keen to capture some jaw-dropping shots of the giant colorful clouds of dust, gas, and stars that we call nebula, make sure that you modify your camera to the correct settings so that you will have the best chance of catching a few photos that are clear, precise, and free of any noise or distortion.