Many Milky Way photographers put their cameras away during the winter months. It’s not that it’s too cold (although that’s a good excuse in the northern hemisphere). They start rambling on about how the Milky Way Core is lost in the glare of the Sun, and so there’s nothing to photograph. And while the first half of that statement is true, the second half is patently false! There’s still the Andromeda Galaxy and the rest of the Milky Way out there! And that includes the Constellation of Orion. It’s on the opposite side of the sky from the Milky Way Core, and that means it’s going to be in the night sky when it’s not “Milky Way Season.” Incorporating Orion into your astro landscape photos is an excellent way to add interest to your starry night skies.
So first we’ll look at who Orion is in mythology, the stars
Orion is one of the easier to recognizable and noticeable constellations. It is perhaps the most splendid of all constellations, befitting for a venerated character from ancient times. Named for a hunter in Greek mythology, it’s a name so recognized that its use pervades popular culture – from comic book characters to music song and album titles, to buildings, cities, and companies, and NASA’s next human-carrying space capsule. Not only is it a cultural icon, but it is easy to find, looks beautiful in astro landscapes, and it contains a fantastic assortment of objects to photograph.
If you’ve been reading MilkyWayPhotographers for a while, you might think that the previous paragraph sounds a little familiar – well, part of it is. We published some of the text in this article last winter. But before you swipe left, this article has been updated and expanded with info on how you can make Orion the “star” of your nightscape photography. And we’ve added many excellent photos of Orion in the landscape by MaryBeth Kiczenski, Ralf Rohner, and Arnaldo Zannoni. So please, read on!
Orion’s Place in the Sky
Located on the celestial equator, Orion is visible across the world. Numerous cultures widely recognize the distinctive pattern of Orion. Perhaps the oldest depiction of the stars in Orion is on a mammoth ivory plate that’s 32,000 years old.
Often depicted as a person, the ancient Greeks saw him as kneeling; his left hand stretched out, holding his shield with his right hand holding a club raised above his head. Two bright stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, respectively, mark his right shoulder and left foot. Three stars in a distinctive line form his belt. The Sword of Orion hangs from his belt, comprised of three more stars and a sizeable gaseous nebula. Orion’s hunting dog, represented by the constellation Canis Major and the star Sirius, chases the celestial rabbit, Lepus, found below Orion’s feet. Orion’s focus appears to be the constellation Taurus, the bull, which looks to be charging at him. But his real focus is the constellation Scorpio on the nearly opposite side of the sky from Orion. These two constellations are locked in an eternal chase across the heavens. We’ll find out why when we look at the myths behind them.
Mythology of Orion
Orion is a constellation that represents a rich tradition in Greek mythology. Many of his myths are contradictory, but all agree that he was a hunter with an exquisite physique, enormous in stature, possessing outstanding good looks, and remarkable hunting prowess.
Orion’s birth story’s conflict, one tells that he was born from the earth. When Orion’s father asks the gods for a favor, they took a bull’s hide and placed it into the ground, urinated into it, and then buried it. They told Orion’s father to dig it up ten months later, he did and found Orion in the hide!
Orion’s first literary appearance is in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic of the Trojan War, The Iliad. Homer refers to him as “huge” Orion as he was renowned for his large stature.
Odysseus, Calypso, and Orion
In Homer’s second epic poem, The Odyssey, he tells us that Orion is the “finest” of all the “children that were ever born in this world.” The nymph Calypso falls in love with Odysseus and enchants him, detaining him for seven years to make him her mortal husband. Odysseus’ patron goddess Athena intervenes and asks Zeus to set him free as it was not his destiny to live with Calypso forever. When Hermes conveys order that Calypso set Odysseus free, Calypso trebles with rage at the gods:
“You gods,” she exclaimed, “ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony. So when rosy-fingered Dawn made love to Orion, you precious gods were all of you furious till Diana went and killed him in Ortygia”.
Orion’s Ascent Into the Sky
As with tales of Orion’s birth, stories of Orion’s death are contradictory. We saw in The Odyssey, Diana, the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature, killed Orion.
Another myth tells of Orion, possibly drunk, boasting to Artemis (the Roman equivalent of Diana) and her mother Leto, that since he was born from the earth, he can kill anything which came from the earth. Gaia, the personification of the Earth itself, took offense and brings forth a giant scorpion. With a giant shudder, the scorpion emerged from a crack in the earth. The scorpion is presumed to have stung Orion to death.
And it’s that story which is now immortalized with the constellation Scorpio on the opposite side of the sky from Orion. The two are in a never-ending chase across the night sky. When Scorpio rises in the east, Orion tries to flee into the west. In 4 CE, Germanicus Caesar wrote in his adaption of Aratus’ 3rd century BCE Greek poem Phenomena, “Wretched Orion still fears being wounded by the poisonous sting of the scorpion.”
Orion in Ancient Greek Navigation
The stars have been long used as navigational aids. Homer later tells us how Odysseus uses the constellation Orion to find his way to his home Ithaca in the Greek Ionian islands. Odysseus sails on a raft from Calypso’s island home during the night. Homer tells us,
“Sleep never fell upon his eyelids as he watched the Pleiades and late-setting Boötes, and the Bear that men also call the Wagon; she turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion, and she alone has no share in the baths of Ocean. Calypso the goddess had told him to keep her on his left hand in his sailing.”
By keeping the Bear (Ursa Major, aka The Big Dipper), which turns around the North Pole and never touches the horizon to his left, and then looking for Orion straight ahead, Homer is telling us that Odysseus steered towards the east. That is the only time Homer discusses navigation in his epics.
Marking Your Calendar
With numerous bright stars in an easily recognized pattern, Orion was not only used for navigation but reckoning the time of year. In Hesiod’s Works and Days written about 700 BCE, he instructs us to, “Set your slaves to winnow Demeter’s holy grain, when strong Orion first appears […]” This would be late July.
Next, he says, “But when Orion and Sirius
Hesiod then reminds us about year’s end, “But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion begin to set, then remember to
Other Cultural Interpretations
Numerous cultures immortalized the stars of Orion. From the Greco-Roman myths that many of us know, people on every habitable continent made identified these stars and created stories to go along with them. Here are just a couple:
The Chinese knew Orion as Shen, also a great hunter or warrior. It’s one of the rare instances where both Europeans and Chinese imagined the stars in the same way. The four stars that form his outline, three for his belt, and even the Sword of Orion, were identified as a “sword” by the ancient Chinese.
The ancient Egyptians associated these stars with Osiris, the dying and rising sun-god of rebirth and resurrection. They connected his appearance each year with the annual floods of the Nile River.
The Stars of Orion
Orion contains two of the skies’ brightest stars – Rigel and Betelgeuse. These two stars make an exciting pair. They also form opposite corners of Orion’s outline. Three stars form a line midway between Rigel and Betelguese, appearing like a belt on his torso. Another series of stars and nebula nearby the belt form his sword. Once you learn the pattern, it stands out in all but the most light-polluted night skies.
Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and the 7th most brilliant in the sky, as seen from Earth. It’s a blue-white supergiant that is from 120,000 to 279,000 times as bright as the Sun. Rigel has used up all the hydrogen in its core, and it has expanded to about 100 times the Sun’s radius. It’s star system is made of at least four stars, and there’s possible a fifth! The brightest of these companions is 500 times fainter and only visible with a telescope.
In the southern hemisphere, Rigel is the first star visible in Orion as the constellation rises. In celestial navigation, Rigel is one of the most important as it’s near the equator and bright. It can be seen anywhere in the world except from latitude 82°N and higher.
Betelgeuse is typically the second brightest star in Orion and usually the 9th in the night sky, as seen from Earth. It’s a red supergiant and one of the largest stars visible to the naked eye. Its diameter is nearly as large as the orbit of Jupiter! Yet its mass is estimated to be only as much as 10 to 20 Suns.
It’s a variable star and has occasionally been brighter than Rigel. Betelguese’ brightness has dimmed significantly recently, prompting some to be concerned about it going supernova. But it’s started to brighten again in January 2020. Astronomers do expect Betelgeuse to go supernova, but it may be in as much as 100,000 years. What a sight that would be to see!
The Sword of Orion
Orion’s sword contains a fantastic assortment of objects to photograph. It includes three stars pointing southward and perhaps what it’s best known for, the Orion Nebula. This nebula has the Messier Object designation M42 and is a massive cloud of molecules that is 30 to 40 light-years in diameter. It’s about 1300 light-years from Earth, so it appears quite large in our sky. It contains what’s called a stellar nursery, a useful location for studying the birth of stars. It’s a significant feature of the Sword. It’s such an iconic object.
The Sword also contains the Running Man Nebula. It’s difficult to see even with telescopes, but it shows up as the outline of a running man in photographs.
Like the summer skies, there is a triangle asterism in the northern hemisphere skies as well. A nearly equilateral triangle can be formed with Betelgeuse in Orion’s right shoulder, Sirius, the Dog Star, and nearby Procyon in the constellation Canis Minor. These stars are also known as the Great Southern Triangle.
This triangle lies high in the sky during the winter at mid-northern latitudes, with Procyon highest of the
How to Find Orion
Orion “season” runs from about October to April. The constellation has a distinctive pattern. Once you locate the three closely spaced stars in his belt, the rest will fall into place since so many of the stars are bright. His belt is bright enough that it can be seen even with moderate light pollution.
If you’ve not spotted Orion in the night sky, use the diagrams below to familiarize yourself with where Orion appears in the sky.
During early fall, Orion rises in the east before midnight. By January and February, head out shortly after dusk and look towards the southeast – Orion should be clear of the horizon. March has Orion in the southwest shortly after sunset. Late in April, Orion sets in the west just after sunset. Orion emerges from the morning glare of the sun by August, again in the east.
Look for Rigel and Betelgeuse, and then the three stars of his belt. In the Northern Hemisphere, reddish Betelguese will appear above this belt; Bluish Rigel will appear below his belt.
As in the north, during early fall, Orion rises in the east before midnight. By January and February, head out shortly after dusk and look towards the northeast – Orion should be clear of the horizon. March has Orion in the northwest shortly after sunset. Late in April, Orion is lying nearly on his side as he sets in the west just after sunset. By mid-summer, he’ll be rising from the morning glare of the sun in the east, shortly before dawn. Each month he’s rise about an hour earlier as the previous month as he starts his procession across the night sky.
Look for Rigel and Betelgeuse, and then the three stars of his belt. In the Southern Hemisphere, Orion will be
You can use planetarium apps to find Orion as well. Star Walk 2 is excellent for planning and finding the Milky Way. The app displays celestial objects in the sky and their location. Star Walk 2 allows you to scroll through time and dates so you can determine when and where to look. The app can also take into consideration the user’s location, and it has an augmented reality function.
Photographing Orion and the Landscape
Orion’s easy to spot pattern and bright stars make it an excellent subject in nightscapes. Since Orion is relatively large, it means you can get some awesome photographs using relatively common and inexpensive photo gear.
The Gear You Need
If you’re reading an article on MilkyWayPhotographers, you may already have all you need to take great photos of Orion. The gear used for shooting the Milky Way will work great for Orion. A moderately fast lens, like a “nifty fifty,” a sturdy tripod, a cable release or self-timer, is really all you need.
Orion’s large size means he rules the sky around him from fall to spring. With a normal focal length lens, which is a 50mm lens on Full-Frame, 35mm on APS-C, or a 24mm on micro-Four/Thirds (MFT), he will fill nearly one-third of your viewfinder frame. He’ll fit nicely inside the narrow dimension of your framing and with some room on the sides. That means you can shoot a portrait framed photo with a foreground feature in the lower one or two-thirds of the composition and still have plenty of room for Orion in the upper part of your image.
Wide focal length lenses work great as well. They give you more flexibility on where you place Orion in your framing. With a 24mm on Full-Frame, Orion will cover about one half the short dimension of your viewfinder frame. It will still appear large in the sky, so don’t worry about it getting lost in the image.
Since Orion is composed of several of the brightest stars visible from the Earth, you don’t need the fastest lenses out there to capture it. An f/2.0 lens will let in tonnes of photons, especially if it’s a normal lens, allowing you to use short shutter speeds.
Many cameras come with F/4 zoom lenses these days. That’s a bit slow for shooting nightscapes. Fortunately, there are inexpensive options available in the focal ranges discussed above. The Rokinon 50mm F1.4 Lens is available in Canon, Nikon, and Sony E-mount. The Rokinon 35mm comes in even more mount options, including Canon, Fuji X, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony E-mount.
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If you have a “nifty fifty” lens, a 50mm that’s f/1.8 or faster, give that a try. If you don’t have one, these lenses are often inexpensive. As an example, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens only costs US$125! The Nikon and Sony nifty fifty both run a bit more, around US$ 200.
You’ll want a steady tripod. What’s the definition of a “steady tripod”? It’s one that’s rigid enough that you can aim where you want your camera to point and not have the tripod shift position. You don’t need a monstrously large carbon fiber tripod that you have to trade-in your first-born to get. A basic aluminum tripod will generally suffice. I have several 20+year-old Bogen/Manfrotto aluminum tripods that I still routinely use. We’ve recommended the Vanguard Alta Pro 2+ 263AT Aluminum Tripod as a good, inexpensive tripod.
I’m a fan of 3-way tripod heads, especially geared ones like the Benro 3-Way Geared Head (GD3WH) as I find they take a lot of the fiddling out of getting your camera pointed at your subject. You simply twist the geared knobs until you get your camera aimed where you want it. But ball-head tripods can work as well. It’s a matter of personal taste. But just make sure your tripod head can hold your camera firmly in place.
You can use an intervalometer or use your camera’s two or five-second self-timer. Either will work well. I prefer a wireless remote, like the Pixel TW-283 Wireless Remote for about US$40. It gives you the freedom to move about your camera and still trigger it. It has a pretty good range, I’ve actually triggered it from about 75 ft away from my camera while sitting in my car on one particularly cold evening.
More on Gear
For more information on gear you’ll need and how to use it, check out our article on Milky Way Photography for Beginners – Camera Techniques.
Find Darker Skies
Even though the stars in Orion are some of the brightest in the night sky, you’ll want to find relatively dark skies. Look for areas in a Bottle 4 or darker zone. You can use apps like PlanIt Pro or the website DarkSkyFinder.com. Look for areas that are “green” or darker, the rural and darker zones outside of cities and suburban areas. If you have areas of light pollution nearby, try and get them behind you as you look towards Orion.
Setting up Your Camera
We’ll use the same techniques used for shooting the Milky Way. First, in your camera menu system, set your camera to save images in RAW format. This will give us much more flexibility when it’s time to process your photos. Then turn off both Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction in your camera’s menu system.
You will probably want to set your White Balance to something that’s not too extreme. I like to leave my camera always set to Daylight. It works fine even for night shots. Since we’re shooting in RAW, we can always adjust it later. And I don’t have to waste any time thinking about what to set it too.
We can make all those setting changes at home, before we even get to our location. And we’ll save time in the field too if we don’t delay!
Finally, put your camera into Manual Mode. We’ll need to have control of the shutter and aperture to get the best results.
Set Your ISO
We’ll need a moderately fast ISO, something between 1600 and 6400. Try 3200 if you’re shooting Sony or Nikon, and 6400 for Canon. If you’re worried about having too much noise in the photos, take several, and then you can stack them to lower the noise. We’ll not go into that here, but check out our article on Starry Landscape Stacker for more information.
Since we’re shooting stars, we want to start with your lens on it’s widest aperture. So use f/2, or better, if you have it. The lower the number, the more light your lens will let in. Some lenses will show aberrations like astigmatism and coma in the corners of the image, so you may want to stop down a half or full stop once you’ve taken a few shots.
We want to use a speed that’s long enough to let in as much light as possible before the Earth’s rotation starts to streak the stars. Longer focal length lenses mean we’ll need to shorten shutter speeds too.
With a normal lens, like a 50 mm on full-frame, begin shooting around 8 to 10 seconds. Zoom in on a test shot and see how much star-trailing you get. If that’s too much, and there may be with a high megapixel camera (one that has more than 30 Mpixel), then decrease your shutter speed.
If you’re using a wider lens, like 35mm on full-frame, then you’ll be able to use longer shutter speeds. Just check your images to make sure you’re happy with your results.
Focusing Your Camera
Shooting with good focus it critical, especially for stars. Follow these steps for success!
- Open your lens to its widest stop.
- If you’re shooting on a mirrorless camera, turn off focus peaking.
- Center a bright star or planet in the viewfinder. If you can’t see any, look for a distant light and center that.
- Put your camera into Live View mode. If you’re mirrorless, you are already in Live View.
- Use your LCD screen and use your focus magnifier and zoom in.
- Slowly adjust your focus until the star is the smallest you can get it. Some lenses will not make a perfect circle, so try to make the spot as little as possible.
- Take a test shot.
- Always check the test shot by zooming into it.
- Triple check it!
- When you’ve got your best focus, shoot away.
- Check your focus regularly. It’s easy to bump it accidentally and not know.
- Don’t use tape. It’s nearly impossible to put tape on your lens without moving it. If you want to focus stack, it’s just too much-unneeded work to be taping focus rings down.
We’re on location, we have an exinteresting foreground chosen, and we know where Orion will move as the night proceeds. Our camera is on the tripod, our lens mounted, focused, and our menu settings have already been made at home.
As a starting point, I recommend starting with ISO 3200, f/2.0, and 10 seconds. Now that you have all your camera settings made and your framing set, it’s time to focus your lens. Remember to double or triple check it as the evening proceeds, as it’s easy to knock the focus off.
OK – take your first shot. Zoom in on the image and check for star-trailing. Depending on your camera, you may see a little bit of star-trailing if you zoom in, but it’s an excellent exposure setting for starting. You may find you want to bump the ISO up a little, depending on your camera. Check your camera histogram and make sure you’re getting sufficient exposure.
Time to Process
When you are satisfied with your shots, it’s time to process them! If your shots are a little flat
Check out this article by Stanley Harper on Advanced Milky Way Photography Post Processing Techniques. Despite having “advanced” in the title, the steps Stanley uses are not that difficult. He describes how to do “LRGB” processing. What is LRGB Processing? It is a technique of adjusting the colors of an image by using luminosity adjustments for the RED, GREEN, and BLUE color channels. If you’ve not used it, give it a try. You’ll take your night sky processing to the next level.
Orion and the Landscape
Orion makes an outstanding subject in the nightscape photos. The shape of this constellation just jumps out you. The stars in it are bright enough to even show in reflections. In the following image, see how Marybeth Kiczenski takes advantage of this, adding depth and interest to this your-round freshwater spring.
Marybeth says of her above photo, “This was shot around 8-9 PM. The spring here never freezes, as it is a consistent 45F all year!
Next, Marybeth heads out wast and places Orion above the high Sierras while at the Alabama Hills, CA. Her shot is an excellent example of splitting the frame into thirds and using Orion for added interest in the sky. Taken in mid-November, Marybeth shows that Orion stands out even when a quarter Moon it present.
“The light from the moon illuminated the foreground nicely, while not completely washing out details from the constellation,” Marybeth tells us.
While in the Canadian Rockies in mid-January, Marybeth battled clouds over the nearby mountains. But Orion’s bright stars are still bright enough to pierce through the veil above the peak.
Next up is an image of the Um Fruth rock bridge, Wadi Rum, Jordan, by Arnaldo Zannoni. Like Marybeth’s work above, it’s a stacked and blended image. Arnaldo says, “Wadi Rum is one of the many wonders there. The desert has amazing rocks and beautiful red
colours. It really seems to be on Mars.”
Arnaldo says, “I took the sky shot with Tiffen filter Double Fog 3 to enhance the glow of the stars. No filter for the foreground.” The uses of a Fog Filter makes the brighter stars pop out from the night sky.
Orion and Astro-Modified Cameras
Next up – Ralf Rohner shows how the nebulae found in Orion can stand out when using his astro-modified Canon EOS 6d camera.
Ralph writes, “Autumn is the time when Orion, one of the most beautiful constellations, becomes visible again. The blue supergiant Rigel, and the red supergiant Betelgeuse, are hard to miss. And M42, the Orion Nebula, can be seen by naked-eye as well. If your skies are really dark, you can capture the elusive Barnard’s Loop, the red Meissa Region, the Flame, or the Horsehead Nebula.”
Ralph continues, “In the adjacent constellations, there are more red gems, like the Rosette Nebula, the Christmas Tree Cluster, or the Monkey Head Nebula. Reason enough to stop on the way home from our Trona Pinnacles session at some interesting rocks. It was amazing to see how much the landscape differs a few miles away. Instead of tufa spires, the rocks here reminded me of Joshua Tree NP.
Ralph says there are two things seasoned nightscape photographers tell the aspiring beginners:
- Shoot as wide as possible, and
- The best time to do nightscapes is from Spring to Fall when the core of our galaxy is visible.
“And here am I, in the middle of winter, hauling my equipment up a steep trail, hating myself for leaving my Canon 70-200mm lens in the backpack – 1.5 kg of useless glass I could easily have left at home! Really? After hauling it up the hill, I thought I might as well use my heavy lens. I, therefore, installed my camera on my iOptron Skytracker and shot this 3
Ralph now says, “The resulting image proves the introduction wrong:
- A zoom telephoto lens is
the perfectchoice for nightscapes if you can track the sky.
- Winter with Orion’s colorful nebulas is at least as good for nightscapes as the Milky Way “core” season.
We finish with Ralph’s image of the beautiful chapel in Haggenegg, Switzerland. Ralph placed the chapel under Orion, allowing the spire to cross into the middle of the photo just a little to the right of Orion. Ralph used low-level lighting to illuminate the chapel to help it st
The previous photos by Marybeth, Arnaldo, and Ralph show that Orion makes an excellent centerpiece for your night photos – just as well as can the Milky Way Core. So don’t put your camera away during the winter months, or while you wait for the Milky Way to get into some particular part of the sky. Try shooting Orion and expand your astro horizons!
Adapted from www.keyesphoto.com Astro-Landscape Photography Notes for December 2018
kdk 583, 1/19/20
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