The Orion Nebula – iAstrophotography

The other weekend I had a chance to do some awesome iPhone astrophotography of Messier 42, better known as the Orion Nebula.  I drove about an hour and fifteen minutes northeast from San Diego to just outside a small town called Julian.  The slight elevation and surrounding mountains cut down on a lot of the San Diego light pollution to make for some excellent dark skies.  Below, I’ll go through some of the details on how I was able to capture this shot of the Orion Nebula on my iPhone.

Orion Nebula iAstrophoto

Orion Nebula iAstrophoto

First of all, I think the dark skies really helped.  It was a new moon and some of the darkest skies I’ve seen.  I got my telescope all setup.  The scope I used is the Celestron Advanced VX 6 inch Newtonian, which has been an absolute pleasure to use.  It only took about 10 minutes to get everything setup and tracking appropriately.  By the time I was set, Orion was just coming up well above the horizon.  This image (taken with just my iPhone) will give you a sense of how dark the skies really were.

Orion and Pleaides taken with just an iPhone!

Orion and Pleaides taken with just an iPhone!

With the telescope slewed to the Orion Nebula, I mounted my iPhone 6 using the Orion SteadyPix adapter.  In the past I’ve used ProCamera 7 and 8 as my go to apps for iAstrophotography, but this time I used NightCap Pro.  It performed like a champ!

I set the app to Long Exposure, with Night Mode and Light Boost (see options with green lights in lower left).  I also used the focus lock to get a close focus, then dialed it in further using the focus knobs on my telescope.

NightCap Pro is a great app for shooting deep space objects with an iPhone.

NightCap Pro is a great app for shooting deep space objects with an iPhone.

I wanted to experiment with image stacking a bit, so I took 4 shots of about 20-30 seconds each.  After the first 3-5 seconds I could notice the exposure picking up more light, but after that, I’m not sure if the longer exposure had much effect.  In any case, here’s what an individual frame looked like:

Single frame of Orion Nebula

Single frame of Orion Nebula

Even that turned out pretty impressively, but it’s not zoomed in at all and the surrounding blackness shows some noise.  So, I took 3 more frames like that.  Then I put the cap on my telescope and took 4 similar dark frames.

This was my first attempt stacking deep space images.  I ended up using Regim for Mac, and I found this video tutorial very easy to follow.  This process didn’t take long at all, and I think it definitely helped take some of the noise out of the background areas.  A little more editing in iPhoto and Instagram, and here’s the final product:

Orion Nebula iAstrophoto

Orion Nebula iAstrophoto

Let me know if you have any additional tips or if you’ve had success shooting any other DSOs with an iPhone.



23 comments on “The Orion Nebula – iAstrophotography
  1. Ren says:

    Hi. To capture the nebula did you mount your iphone to the eyepiece of the telescope?

    • Matt says:

      Hi there Ren! Yep, I used the Orion SteadyPix universal smartphone adapter to mount my iPhone to the telescope eyepiece for a steady shot. Check out this post for some tips on mounting your phone:

    • Mehdi says:

      Hi. I was contemplating whether to get an iph 6s plus or iph7 (if it has an advantage over iph6 for astrophotography). Has anyone tried out iph 7 for astrophotography, let me know.

  2. Sergio Campos says:

    Hello There,

    I have an iPhone 6 Plus. I want to buy Celestron Advanced VX 6 inch Newtonian Telescope and the Orion SteadyPix adapter. Will this setup works for the iPhone 6 Plus, or do you recommend a different setup, I know this post was made for iPhone 5/5s, so I don’t want to throw in the money and not be able to take good pics with my iPhone.

    • Matt says:

      Hi Sergio, sorry I’m just getting back to you! That’s a good question…I recently got an iPhone 6 (not plus), and it just barely works with the adapter. My hunch is that the Orion SteadyPix won’t work with the iPhone 6 Plus unless you made some sort of modifications. Definitely think it would be possible, but it would probably take a bit of ingenuity. Let me know if you give it a shot!!

    • Matt says:

      Hi Sergio,

      Hope you’re doing well! I just wanted to let you know about a new adapter that definitely works with the iPhone 6 Plus. It’s called the SnapZoom, and you can check out my review of it here: Hope this helps!


  3. Marty says:

    Matt-looks like you got a really nice result. Pretty impressive when compared to my few attempts at holding the phone up to the eyepiece! Just noticed that you live within a mile of me… Proving that it still a small world. We should do some telescopic observing sometime.


    • Matt says:

      Hey Marty! Thanks for stopping by the site, and wow definitely a small world! I just recently moved to North Park – but still close by. That would be great though…stay in touch, and perhaps we can get out for some observing after the holidays! Cheers!

  4. Riccardo says:

    I just Downloaded the App, too.
    I have a Dobson. And i tried to catch that Nebula, too. But i was not Able to 🙁 is it Maybe because i Need a autotracking?

    • Matt says:

      Hi Riccardo!

      So here’s the deal…it will definitely be harder with a Dobsonian telescope, though maybe not impossible. Like you guessed, because a Dobsonian mount doesn’t automatically track with the rotation of the Earth, the field of view will move during a long exposure photograph.

      However, you may be able to take a shorter exposure and still capture some of the nebula. I’d recommend either using an app like NightCap (but not set to long exposure) or ProCamera 8 (which will allow you to set the exposure for exactly 1/2 second. You’ll want to use the highest ISO setting or light boost mode with NightCap. Then also use your least powerful eyepiece to reduce the effect of the movement as much as possible. Do you already have an adapter to use?

      Let me know if you have any questions or how it goes!


      • Riccardo says:

        Hey thank you for reply! 🙂

        Tomorrow i am going to sale my Dobson tomorrow. I bought a Small Refractor. Skywatcher 70/500 for 50€. Really Cheap. And 2morrow i hope to pick up an NEQ3 with automatic Track. I build a IPhone adapter what worked very well so far at my Dobsonian and moon 🙂
        I hope i have some clear sky at the weekend so i will go out and take some Pics and i have to test the app. I dont know how exactly to manage the Settings for the best result. Could you maybe Upload some screenshots wich Settings you use? 🙂

        All the best.

  5. Sean says:

    Doesn’t NightCap’s extra long exposure just do a form of stacking? Have you considered just using more shots with the 1/2 second exposure, then stacking those?

    Also, I’ve been reading a lot about the iPhone camera changes (I have a 5 and am considering getting a 6). I believe you had a 4S, which is quite similar to a 5. One of the positive changes with a 6 is that you get true 8 MP shots in the dark. On the negative side, the maximum shutter time drops from 1s to 1/2s. What have you noticed in the field?

    • Matt says:

      Hi Sean,

      Thanks for stopping by! You’re correct…NightCap does essentially do a form of stacking. You’ll actually notice during the exposure that changes in the image become pretty much imperceptible after the first 5-10 seconds. I chatted with the developer of NightCap a while back, and he confirmed this. However, he suggested that taking multiple long exposures and then “restacking” may have some benefit. Specifically if the target object is moved slightly in the field of view to help eliminate hot pixels in the sensor.

      In this Orion Nebula example, I think I did actually “restack” four different 10-20s NightCap exposures. It seemed to help some, though that may just be confirmation bias, and most of the benefit probably came from just editing the image. Could definitely use some more exploration here though!

      As for the iPhone camera sensor….I do think the 6 is probably the best bet for iAstrophotography. I started taking iAstrophotos with a 5s, so I can’t comment on the shortening of exposure time from 1s to 1/2s. However, going from the 5s to the 6, the night performance does seem to be noticeably better. I think a lot of this is due to the increase in pixel size (though total resolution is the same), which helps capture more light. My hunch is that the sensor improvement going from the 4s to the 6 would outweigh the benefit of having a 1/2s longer exposure maximum with the 4s. Doubling the exposure time with a lesser quality, noisier sensor, would likely just worsen the image. There are certainly nice images to be found out there taken with a 4s, but for dimmer objects, I think the 6 is probably the best option.


      • Sean says:

        Thanks for the answer! Good point about the larger iPhone 6 sensor. I plan to get mine shortly, so I’ll get to see the results first hand soon enough.

  6. Julien says:

    Hi Matt.
    Thanks for all these information.
    I bought NightCap Pro and the SdudyPix adapter and now, I’m waiting for a clear night sky to test this application!
    Can you explain me how do you proceed to subtract a dark frame (rectangular image) on the original image which has a circle (field of view of the ocular)?
    Did you use the TIFF format?
    In addition, do you test NightCap Pro 6 on Orion Nebula? And on others deep sky objects like Andromeda Galaxy for example ?

    Thanks a lot !
    Julien (from France).

    • Matt says:

      Hi Julien,

      Thanks for stopping by the site!

      So, my memory is a little hazy since doing this several months ago, but if I remember correctly, I did in fact use the full TIFF file format. I didn’t want to do any cropping of the images to correct for the circular field of view (because I would probably mess it up and get each of them slightly off). Instead, I just loaded up all the light frames and dark frames in their original resolutions. Fortunately, I think the software can keep everything aligned properly even with the circular field of view. Essentially everything outside that field of view just stays black.

      However to be honest, I’m not really sure how much benefit I got out of the stacking – it was only 4 light frames and 4 dark frames. Also, NightCap Pro apparently does some noise cancellation of its own which I think is similar to dark frame subtraction. But let me know what you think!

      I just moved and am waiting to get my telescope out of storage, so I haven’t had a chance to test the new version of NightCap Pro 6 except for regular photography. I’m very excited to try it out though! I’ve taken a few pictures of the Orion Nebula with the old version. I’ve tried to capture the Andromeda Galaxy before and have come very close. Unfortunately, I can only seem to pick up a faint blurry smudge of the nucleus. I have a few ideas to try and get a better image though – stay tuned!


  7. Greg Slick says:

    Thanks! I am an old “geezer astronomer” not very computer OR astrophotography savy but you lesson opened up a whole new aspect to a hobby I have enjoyed for fifty years. Thanks!

    • Matt says:

      Hi Greg,

      Wow, that’s great to hear! Thanks for stopping by the site – glad you like it! Let me know if you have questions, and definitely let me know if you get some good images.


  8. Justin Choy says:

    How are you getting the pictures of the stars so clear? I have an iPhone 6 Plus and stars barely appear on my Nightcap Pro. Can you help me out with a step by step of how you set up to take the picture? Thanks!

    • Matt says:

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for stopping by the site! With an iPhone 6 Plus, NightCap Pro, and a tripod, you should be able to get nice crisp pictures of some of the brighter stars in the sky. The tripod is key, because you’ll be taking longer exposures, so the phone needs to be perfectly steady to avoid blurring. You’ll also want the Apple earbuds, which can be used to trigger the camera without shaking it.

      To take pictures of stars, you’ll want to tap the star button and select long exposure. Depending on how dark your skies are, you may want to use the light booster mode. From there, you just start the picture, wait 15 seconds or so, and stop the picture. This should be enough to capture star pictures.

      For more details on NightCap Pro, check out these tutorials:

      Let me know if you have more questions!

  9. Paul Robinson says:

    Superb write-up and photos! Appreciate all the feedback you’re giving posters, too!

    Would you have any recommendations for an iPhone holder that works with a camera tripod? I enjoy taking wide field constellation photos with my low-end, non-DSLR digicams, and would like to try it out with an iPhone, too!

    The digicam photos turn out well, although it’s often a nuisance fiddling with buttons, menus, focus control, delay timer, etc. in the dark. Many old digicams reset all their settings after taking a picture (e.g., self-timer delay start) and infinity focus, so it’s a nuisance hunting for the controls and turning them back on with very bight screens that ruin one’s dark adaptation!

    I may have to get a new iPhone, too, as I’m using the venerable iPhone 4!

  10. Eli Ron says:

    Hi Mat,
    Great pics!! Just got the steadypix pro. I’m using it with my iPhone 6s – was wondering how did you avoid issues with the volume button being pressed when the phone is fixed on the adapter. Thanks.

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