The Whirlpool Galaxy: An Amateur Astrophotographer’s Guide

Ever gaze up at the night sky and wonder about the mysteries it holds? You’re not alone. As amateur astrophotographers, we’re driven by this sense of curiosity, and it’s what leads us to some of the most beautiful discoveries. One such treasure is The Whirlpool Galaxy.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is a spectacle to behold. A cosmic dance of stars, dust, and gases, intertwined in a spiral so vast, it captivates the imagination. If you’re itching to point your lens toward this celestial marvel and capture its stunning detail, you’ve come to the right place.

In this guide, we’ll journey together into the world of astrophotography, focusing specifically on photographing The Whirlpool Galaxy. You’ll learn what equipment you’ll need, how to find this galaxy in the sprawling night sky, and the best techniques to capture its magnificence. Check out this article for a more general look at photographing galaxies.

Let’s turn our eyes to the sky and embark on this journey to capture the awe-inspiring beauty of The Whirlpool Galaxy.

The Whirlpool Galaxy at a Glance

The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 (M51), is an iconic spiral galaxy located in the constellation Canes Venatici. It’s approximately 23 million light-years away from Earth, yet with the right equipment and clear skies, it’s well within our sight.

First discovered in 1773 by Charles Messier, the Whirlpool Galaxy has become a favorite subject in astrophotography due to its distinct spiraling structure and its relatively bright nucleus. It’s one of the most classic examples of a spiral galaxy, showcasing grand design arms that extend around its center. The larger galaxy, M51a, interacts with a smaller one, M51b, creating a cosmic spectacle that’s both captivating and full of scientific interest.

Companion Galaxy NGC 5195

But what really makes the Whirlpool Galaxy a unique sight to capture is its companion galaxy, NGC 5195. The dance between the two galaxies over millions of years has resulted in a distorted shape for NGC 5195 and tidal tails of stars and gas. The resulting image – a larger galaxy with pronounced spiral arms entwined with a smaller, irregular galaxy – is a breathtaking view, to say the least.

Capturing the beauty of the Whirlpool Galaxy requires a bit of planning and patience, but the result is definitely worth the effort. With the right approach and tips that we’ll discuss in this guide, you’ll be ready to aim your camera at the night sky and snap away.

Whirlpool Galaxy (and NGC 5195) in LRGB by Astrophoto Andy on Flikr.

Equipment Needed to Capture The Whirlpool Galaxy

Astrophotography is a blend of art and science, and it calls for some specialized equipment. When it comes to capturing stunning images of the Whirlpool Galaxy, the tools you use can make all the difference. Here’s an in-depth look at the key equipment you’ll need.


The telescope is your gateway to the cosmos. While many celestial bodies can be photographed with just a standard camera and lens, the intricate features of the Whirlpool Galaxy are best viewed through a telescope. Not just any telescope will do, though. Because the Whirlpool Galaxy is a relatively faint object, a telescope with a large aperture is recommended to collect as much light as possible. An ideal choice would be a reflector or refractor telescope with an aperture of 6 inches or larger. The larger the aperture, the more light the telescope can gather, resulting in a brighter, more detailed image.


A mount is just as crucial as your telescope. As the Earth rotates, celestial objects appear to shift in the sky. This apparent motion can blur long-exposure images, leading to less sharp photos. To counteract this, you need a sturdy, motorized mount capable of tracking celestial objects. A motorized equatorial mount is an excellent choice. By aligning with the Earth’s axis of rotation, it tracks the movement of stars and galaxies, allowing your camera to stay focused on the Whirlpool Galaxy throughout the exposure.

Check out our Star Tracking 101 Guide here.


The choice of camera can be a game-changer in astrophotography. A digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) is a versatile choice, capable of capturing good images of the night sky. However, if you’re aiming for professional-quality photos, consider investing in a dedicated astronomical camera. These specialized devices are optimized for low-light conditions and have cooling systems to reduce digital noise, resulting in cleaner, more detailed images.

T-ring and Adapter

Once you have your telescope and camera, you’ll need a way to connect the two. That’s where a T-ring and adapter come in. The T-ring attaches to your camera’s lens mount, and the adapter connects the T-ring to the telescope. This setup effectively turns your telescope into a powerful telephoto lens, capable of zooming in on distant galaxies like the Whirlpool Galaxy.


Astrophotography is about more than just capturing a single perfect shot; it’s about taking multiple exposures and processing them into one high-quality image. You’ll need software to control your camera remotely, capture the necessary frames, and later stack and process these frames into a final image. Programs like Stellarium can help you locate the Whirlpool Galaxy, while others like DeepSkyStacker can help you process your images.

Equipped with this knowledge and the right gear, you’re one step closer to capturing your own stunning images of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Up next, we’ll guide you on how to find this celestial object in the vast canvas of the night sky.

Finding The Whirlpool Galaxy in the Night Sky

Let’s admit it, the night sky is a vast and somewhat daunting space. You’re out there under a blanket of countless stars, looking for one particular galaxy. Sounds challenging, right? But don’t worry. With some handy tips and a dash of patience, finding the Whirlpool Galaxy isn’t as tough as it sounds.

Canes Venatici

To get started, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the constellation Canes Venatici. If your Latin is a bit rusty, that translates to “hunting dogs.” This humble constellation is pretty easy to spot as it’s nestled right next to the Big Dipper – a friendly and familiar face in the northern night sky.

To find Canes Venatici, first, locate the Big Dipper. Identify the star at the end of the Dipper’s handle – that’s Alkaid. Draw an imaginary line extending from Alkaid away from the Dipper. Roughly halfway along this line, you’ll encounter a faint yet distinct star. Congrats, you’ve found Cor Caroli, the alpha star of Canes Venatici.

finding the whirlpool galaxy
Finding the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) using the Big Dipper.

Cor Caroli

Now, for the main event – The Whirlpool Galaxy. It’s lurking near Cor Caroli, but to pinpoint its exact location, you might need some extra help. This is where a star map or an astronomy app can come in handy. Just punch in your current date and location, and these tools will provide a precise guide to finding the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Remember, your viewing conditions can significantly impact your stargazing experience. Cities, towns, and even small villages often have light pollution that can make celestial bodies hard to spot. Try to find a dark, serene spot away from the city lights for the best view. A clear, moonless night will provide the perfect backdrop for your galaxy-hunting adventure. In the northern hemisphere, summer months such as June and July are optimal for capturing the whirlpool galaxy.

Once you’ve found the Whirlpool Galaxy, it might appear as just a smudge of light in your telescope. But don’t be discouraged! That’s where your camera comes into play. With the right settings and a bit of patience, you’ll capture the beautiful spiral structure of the Whirlpool Galaxy that has fascinated astronomers for centuries.

How to Photograph The Whirlpool Galaxy

The excitement builds as you set up your gear, align your telescope, and locate the Whirlpool Galaxy in the night sky. But how do you go from merely observing this celestial spectacle to capturing a stunning image of it? Here’s a step-by-step guide to photographing the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Step 1: Setting Up Your Equipment

Begin by assembling your equipment. Attach your camera to the telescope using the T-ring and adapter. Make sure your telescope is on the motorized mount and it’s properly balanced and aligned.

Step 2: Align Your Telescope

Use your star map or app to locate the Whirlpool Galaxy and align your telescope accordingly. Remember, precise polar alignment is crucial as it allows your mount to accurately track the galaxy throughout the night.

Step 3: Focus Your Telescope

Achieving sharp focus is essential in astrophotography. Use a bright star or a planet to adjust your focus until the object appears sharp and clear.

Master lens focusing by reading our in-depth guide here.

Step 4: Framing Your Shot

Now, it’s time to compose your shot. Look through your camera’s viewfinder or screen and adjust your telescope until the Whirlpool Galaxy is positioned how you’d like it in your frame.

Step 5: Set Your Camera Settings

A standard starting point could be to set your ISO to 1600 and your shutter speed to 2 minutes. However, these settings might need to be adjusted based on your specific equipment and conditions.

Step 6: Capture Multiple Exposures

Astrophotography is a game of patience. You’ll need to capture multiple exposures to stack later for noise reduction and detail enhancement. We recommend starting with at least 20 light frames. Here are some more in-depth guides:

Step 7: Process Your Images

Finally, using software like DeepSkyStacker, stack your images and make post-processing adjustments. This will help bring out the details and colors in the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Congratulations! You’re now on your way to capturing incredible images of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Remember, astrophotography is a learning process, so don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts don’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped. Keep trying, keep learning, and most importantly, keep looking up!


What Type of Galaxy is the Whirlpool Galaxy?

The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 or M51, is a grand design spiral galaxy. This means it has well-defined spiral arms that extend from its central region, creating a clear, organized structure.

Where is the Whirlpool Galaxy Located?

The Whirlpool Galaxy is located in the constellation Canes Venatici, near the star Alkaid in the Big Dipper. Its precise position varies based on your location and the time of year, so using a star map or an astronomy app can help you pinpoint it in the night sky.

How Far Away is the Whirlpool Galaxy?

The Whirlpool Galaxy is approximately 23 million light-years away from Earth. Despite this vast distance, it’s one of the brightest galaxies in the sky, making it a popular target for amateur astronomers and astrophotographers.

Can I See the Whirlpool Galaxy Without a Telescope?

While the Whirlpool Galaxy is relatively bright, it’s challenging to see without a telescope due to its distance from Earth. With a telescope, it appears as a faint, blurry light, but its true beauty and spiral structure are revealed in long-exposure photographs.

How Large is the Whirlpool Galaxy?

The Whirlpool Galaxy has a diameter of about 60,000 light-years, which makes it slightly smaller than our own Milky Way Galaxy. It is also known for its companion galaxy, NGC 5195, which interacts with M51, distorting its arms and sparking star formation.