Horsehead and Flame Nebula

After a couple of attempts to acquire a decent image of the Horsehead and Flame Nebula, it finally happened in March of this year! My 2011 image represents a major milestone for me in astrophotography with a DSLR camera and telescope. Learning my new equipment (i.e., Celestron CGEM, XSi DSLR, and Orion Autoguider) and various software programs is really making a difference. My goal for this article is to point out the main factors that helped contribute to my success.

Image Comparison

Below is a comparison of my work for the Horsehead and Flame Nebula dating back to 2006. This represents the difference that experience with equipment and software makes when it comes to astrophotography. Click on each thumbnail for the full-size view.

Horsehead and Flame Nebula taken 12-25-06 Horsehead and Flame Nebula taken 3-5-10 Horsehead and Flame Nebula taken 3-5-11
2006 Image 2010 Image 2011 Image


For comparison, here are the details for each of the three photos:

2006 Image 2010 Image 2011 Image
Telescope Mount Meade LX200 Celestron CGEM Celestron CGEM
Telescope Optical Tube Orion ED80 Orion ED80 Orion ED80
Imaging Camera Canon Digital Rebel 300D Canon XSi 450D Canon XSi 450D
Autoguider None Orion Awesome Autoguider Package Orion Awesome Autoguider Package
Stacking Software ImagesPlus DeepSkyStacker DeepSkyStacker
Processing Software ImagesPlus ImagesPlus ImagesPlus
Final Image Editing Software Adobe Photoshop 7.0 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Adobe Photoshop CS3
Light Frames Stacked 10 x 5 min at ISO400 8 x 6 min at ISO1600 5 x 10min at ISO1600, 10 x 5min at ISO800, and 5 x 8min lights at ISO800
Dark Frames Subtracted Yes Yes Yes

Number of Frames and Exposure Times

My 2011 photo is much improved over the other two. An obvious difference is the increased number of light frames and exposure times. The frames for my 2011 image were taken over the course of two nights and combined in DeepSkyStacker (free download). In astrophotography, it is very important that the final composite image be composed of as many frames as possible. The more frames, the better the signal-to-noise ratio (more signal, less noise). My 2006 image and 2010 image both suffer from a lot of noise. They would have benefited from more frames. My 2011 image had some noise too, but much less than the other two images. I was able to remove most of it with software as I mention later. The final result of stacking yields a richer, more natural-looking photo.


The ability to take long exposures can be attributed to the use of an autoguider. I use the Orion Awesome Autoguider Package as shown in my review here. I did not have this capability in 2006 with my LX200 so my polar alignment had to be extremeley accurate and my exposure times were very limited. I could do 5-minute exposures, but had to sort through them for the few good ones that were suitable for stacking. With the Orion autoguider, I get to keep almost every exposure I take. Plus, I can capture much longer exposures which is important for acquiring fainter detail such as nebulosity. I took 10-minute exposures for my 2011 image with no problems. I have taken up to 20-minute exposures while using this autoguider with perfect frames each time. I continue to endorse the Orion autoguider since it is a low cost system and has worked really well for me.

Noise Removal

Even with stacking numerous frames, there was still some amount of noise in my image. To help on this, I used a free program called Noiseware Community Edition from a company called Imagenomic. I found it to be relatively easy to use and it did a pretty good job of removing the noise in my image. Below is a video from my good friend Jeff Turner from DaltonSkyGazer. He provides a nice overview of using this tool.


Processing in Photoshop

Some of the real magic occured in the final phase of image processing. I used some of the techniques that Adam Block teaches in his DVD tutorial for processing astro-images. Some of the filtering methods explained in the video really brought out the finer details that were hidden in the original photo. For instance, the Flame Nebula was soft and dim before using Adam’s techniques. The final photo shows nebulosity that is sharp and full of fine details. The Flame really blossoms out with a 3-dimensional effect. The entire image is very rich and really comes to life! Adam’s DVD tutorial available here.

Before After
Horsehead and Flame Nebula Before Horsehead and Flame Nebula Taken 3-5-2011

DSLR Astrophotography Method

I am continually refining my methods for acquiring and processing images.  For my recent Horsehead and Flame Nebula photo, I followed my latest tutorial for DSLR astrophotography very closely. This tutorial covers the following:

  • Astrophotography Equipment
  • Telescope Setup
  • Attaching the DSLR to the Telescope
  • DSLR Computer Connection
  • EOS Utility Instructions (automatic shutter control)
  • Object Centering and Focusing
  • Autoguider Setup
  • Collecting Light Frames and Dark Frames
  • Processing in DeepSkyStacker, ImagesPlus, and Photoshop

For my 2006 image, I followed my original tutorial for DSLR astrophotography. This one focused on using the Canon 300D (very popular DSLR for astrophotography in its time) and ImagesPlus software for shutter control and image processing.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the “Leave a Reply” section below. Also, I have added a survey below to find out if this article was helpful to you.

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  1. AstroPhotography Tonight

    Please feel free to add comments or ask questions here regarding my article: “Horsehead and Flame Nebula”.

    Ray Shore

  2. Well done my friend…very informative. That orion autoguiding package looks very nice…can’t wait to see your results this year…keep up the good work!!

    Alex Z.

  3. Nice article Ray. Really like how you have some previous exposures to compare with for several different years. Autoguiding and lots of lights makes a world of difference. Weather looks like spring rains here, some year I will get my first images out from the new observatory. Supposed to do Star Party with Alex, postponed with rain, can’t make the postponment date with work, n skies look good for it…go figure. Nice image and article as usual!

  4. Nice article. I just found your website yesterday and I’ve been reading through many old articles. I have a couple of questions about this one though.

    1) I get the need for a lot of lights… but why the different exposures? If the longer exposures bring out more detail in lighter areas, wouldn’t brighter areas blow out? Are you performing any kind of HDR routine with the final image?

    2) Did you have to use any kind of filter for the horsehead? I read somewhere else that it’s almost pointless to photograph the horsehead without an Ha filter. Is that true?

    Again, great website with tons of information. I’m getting ready to purchase a used CGEM mount because of your recommendations. I was thinking about it anyhow, but your reviews and recommendation pushed me over the top.

    1. AstroPhotography Tonight

      Hello Dan,

      Thanks for the feedback regarding my website! The stacking process helps to fill in those areas with detail that gets blown out. So by stacking different exposures, you end up with a final composite image with all the detail. Regarding a filter for the horsehead, no I didn’t use one. An Ha filter would help, but as you can see from my photo it isn’t necessary for a nice image.

      Congrat’s on getting a CGEM! You will like this mount!

      Ray Shore

  5. Thanks for this article I have found it to be very encouraging. I have aimed the scope at the horse head nebula and tried some exploratory shots but as yet nothing. Having read your article and noting you are using the Orion magnificent mini auto guider which I have recently acquired I will return with a decent shooting plan to see what I can capture.


  6. What an awesome sight. I have literally ZERO knowledge of the subject and I am just interested in getting into astronomy/stargazing with my son. Eventually I would love to get into photography, especially astrophotography.
    You have written this in a way that it is very easy to understand and although some of the more technical stuff goes over my head, I can actually see myself being able to take it up.
    Thanks for the inspiration!!
    Awesome article for tech minded and laymen.

  7. How did you get your starts in the 2006 photo to look like they do with the sharp crossing lines?

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