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! By learning how to photograph Orion, you can avoid this pitfall!
There’s still the Andromeda Galaxy and the rest of the Milky Way out there! Including 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.” Learning how to photograph Orion and incorporate it into your astro landscape photos is an excellent way to add interest to your starry night skies.
So first we’ll take a quick look at who Orion is in mythology, the stars
Updated for 2022
If you’ve been reading MilkyWayPhotographers for a while, you might think this article sounds a little familiar – well, we first published this article last winter. But before you swipe left, this article has been updated and expanded with more info on how you can better make Orion the “star” of your nightscape photography. So please, read on!
Who is Orion?
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 also easy to find, looks beautiful in astro-landscapes, and it contains a fantastic assortment of objects to photograph.
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. 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. His belt is formed by three stars, in a distinctive line. Finally, “The Sword of Orion” hangs from his belt, comprised of a sizeable gaseous nebula and three more stars.
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. To learn more about the myths involved with Orion, read our article, Orion the Hunter – King of the Winter Sky.
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. Its star system is made of at least four stars, and there’s possibly 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. Betelgeuse’s 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.
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 re-emerges from the sun’s morning glare in 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.
Orion Rising – Northern Hemisphere
Orion Setting – Northern Hemisphere
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 rises about an hour earlier than the previous month as he proceeds across the night sky.
Look for Rigel and Betelgeuse, and then the three stars of his belt. In the Southern Hemisphere, Orion
Orion Setting, Southern Hemisphere
Use a Planetarium App
You can use planetarium apps to find Orion as well. Star Walk is easy to use and 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. The original Star Walk and Star Walk 2 are available for both iOS and Android.
If you want to take your planning to the next level, PlanIt Pro: Photo Planner app has everything you need to help with your landscape photography planning. It goes beyond the ever-popular PhotoPills and lets you simulate the view through your camera’s lens. You show PlanIt Pro on a map where you want to place your camera, select the lens, where you want to aim your lens, and then the date and time. PlanIt Pro generates a virtual reality view of the landscape as well as the sun, moon, planets, stars, and Milky Way above it. It’s like having a virtual camera!
Be sure to read our article, Best Landscape Photography Apps for 2021, to find out more about PlanIt Pro and several other recommended apps to help with your night sky photography.
How to Photograph Orion with the Landscape
Now that we’ve learned about the constellation Orion and its stars, let’s see how to photograph Orion. 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
Since you’re reading this article on MilkyWayPhotographers, you may already have all you need to take great photos of Orion. The gear used for shooting the Milky Way works great for photographing 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, that is a 50mm lens on Full-Frame, a 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 when photographing Orion. 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 firstborn 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 too. 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$40. It gives you the freedom to move about your camera and still trigger it. It has a pretty good range, I’ve actually triggered it from about 75 ft away from my camera while sitting in my car on one particularly cold evening.
Star Glow Filters
Star Filters are a way to add some extra “star-glow” to your night sky photos. They add diffusion to the brighter stars, making them appear larger and showing more of their natural more color. It also reduces the size of dimmer stars. When you photograph Orion, definitely consider using a star glow filter.
Don’t confuse “Star Glow” filters with “Star Filters”. Star Filters only add diffraction spikes to bright lights in your photos.
Tiffen Double Fog #3
Traditionally to add a star glow effect, the Tiffen Double Fog #3 filter was used. It’s available in standard screw-on filter sizes, 4″x4″, or the huge 6.6″x6.6″ glass filter which costs around USD$ 350! This filter is often used to create dreamy interpretations of landscapes and portraits by adding a fog-like effect to the image. The Tiffen’s Double Fog filters add less diffusion and flare while maintaining more sharpness than a standard fog filter while requiring no exposure compensation. This made it an excellent choice for use with astro-landscape photos.
Kase AstroBlast/StarGlow Filter
Kase Filters has a star glow filter with two names: the Kase Wolverine Starglow – Alyn Wallace Special Edition in Europe and the Kase Wolverine AstroBlast in the USA, both available as 2mm thick, 100mm square filters. As the first name implies, it was developed in collaboration with well-known astro-landscape photographer, Alyn Wallace.
Other Filter Options
A couple of other manufacturers offer star glow filters. There’s the NiSi Star Soft filter which is available for 100mm and 150mm filter holders. The Kenko/Hoya PRO1D Pro Softon Type-A comes in threaded filter sizes, from 49mm to 82mm. Tiffen has a second filter that’s used for creating star glows – the Tiffen Black Pro-Mist series. It’s available in threaded sizes and several strengths, from 1/8 to 3. The Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 2 is probably the best choice, but the Pro-Mist 1 or 3 may suit your needs as well.
Using a Star Glow filter
Using the AstroBlast/Starglow, or even the Double Fog #3 filter, is easy. Since it is a diffusion filter, it will affect your foreground sharpness. To get around this, you can either combine one exposure with the AstroBlast/Starglow with a second exposure without the filter – use the star glow exposure for the sky and the other for the ground. Or, you can simply hold the filter in front of your lens over the sky for a portion of the exposure. And like the Double Fog filter, no extra exposure time is needed for the Alyn Wallace AstroBlast filter.
For examples of these two techniques, check out this video by Alyn Wallace showing how to use the AstroBlast/Starglow filter:
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.
Finding 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
When you photograph Orion, you’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 to.
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. You’ll need full 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 to start. 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 its widest aperture. So use f/2, or lower, 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.
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, you may want to begin shooting around 5 to 10 seconds. Zoom in on a test shot and see how much star-trailing you get. If that’s too much, and it 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 is 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. And 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 Orion photographs, 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.
Photograph Orion with the Landscape
Orion makes an outstanding subject in nightscape photos. The shape of this constellation just jumps out at you. And 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!” She used her Nikon D850 with a Nikkor 14-24mm. Her image used separate exposures for the sky and foreground. For the sky, it is 6 images at ISO 2000, F/2.8, and 30-seconds. She then stacked in Deep Sky Stacker. The foreground is comprised of 2 exposures at ISO 2000, F/4, and 2.5 mins. One with no light, and one with a Lume Cube to get more detail from the water.
Photograph Orion with Moonlight
Next, Marybeth heads out west to photograph Orion and she places him 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 is present.
“The light from the moon illuminated the foreground nicely, while not completely washing out details from the constellation,” Marybeth tells us.
Diffusion from Clouds
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.
Orion with a Star Glow Filter
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
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 star glow from the fog filter really 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.
Orion with Telephoto Lenses
Ralph says there are two things seasoned nightscape photographers typically 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.
Orion with Buildings
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
Expand Your Astro Horizons
These 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, while you wait for the Milky Way Core 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 427, 1/13/21 – 1792, 1/05/22