Accomplished astrophotographer Andrew Symes tells us his secrets for snapping breathtaking pictures of the night sky with your phone. The image above was taken on an iPhone 6.
With today’s smartphones, you can take decent photos of the stars and planets above you – if you know the right tricks. And, if you have a telescope, it’s possible to take stunning images of moon craters, objects in the solar system, and the brightest nebulae.
I’ve been using my iPhone for astrophotography since 2012, and have learned some techniques for taking night photos that show more than fuzzy, out-of-focus dots. Here’s what it takes:
- Get a robust, grippy case: Before you do anything, you’ll need to give your phone a grippy custom iPhone case that your tripod or stand can latch onto. Look for options that provide plenty of rubber padding and cushioning so that you can prevent any movement of your device in the wind. Grips and stands tend to work better when they have more to grab onto.
- Get something to hold your phone steady: It’s possible to take hand-held night sky photos, but even the smallest involuntary movement will cause unwanted streaks in your images. A tripod is your best option (Studio Neat makes a nice smartphone mount that can be used with or without a tripod) but when I don’t have one handy, I use any flat surface I can find such as a railing, pillar, or wall. You’ll find that resting or leaning the phone against a steady surface makes a big difference! A steady phone will allow you to photograph objects like the International Space Station passing overhead, and provide the stabilization needed to take the very long exposures required to capture star trails.
- Download a night photography app: Even with the new exposure control options in iOS 8, the default iPhone camera isn’t great in low-light conditions. To get around this, you’ll want to download an app that essentially tricks your phone into taking the equivalent of a long exposure. I use the NightCap Pro app, but there are others on the market such as ProCamera and Manual that perform the same function.
If you have a telescope, you can take some amazing photos that will stun your friends and family. An iPhone at the telescope will capture Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, craters on the Moon, and deep-sky objects like the Orion Nebula. You will, however, need some extra equipment.
- Get a smartphone adapter: The simplest way to take a photo through a telescope is to simply hold your phone’s camera up to the eyepiece, but this approach rarely produces good results. Not only is it very difficult to centre the object properly, it can be tricky to ensure that the object is well exposed. An adapter will help you centre an object in the phone’s viewscreen, steady the camera, and ensure proper focus and exposure.
I use an Orion Universal Smartphone Adapter, but there are a few on the market today such as the Carson HookUpz Universal adapter and the iSpotter (Ed: we can’t find the latter two in the UK but you can always use MyUS to get them sent here).
- Attach a moon filter: While smartphone cameras have excellent resolution, most don’t yet have the manual exposure control settings needed to evenly expose the entire lunar disc or to capture subtle planetary features. iOS 8 has incorporated some promising exposure controls for the iPhone camera, but they aren’t always enough to bring out the right amount of detail. To do that, I use a variable polarizing Moon filter to reduce the object’s brightness in the eyepiece.
3) Use free stacking & editing software
While it’s possible to take high-quality snapshots of the Moon with a smartphone, it’s difficult to take an individual planetary image that matches the view through the eyepiece. To tease the most detail out of a planet, it’s best to record a short video clip of the object using the camera’s video function. You can then use freely available image stacking software to select and combine (stack) the best individual frames from the video into a single composite image.
My astronomy blog offers more details on telescopic iPhone astrophotography, and lists free software programs you can use to stack and edit your images.
As with most astronomical pursuits, your skills will improve with practice. Don’t be disappointed if your first images don’t match those you see online. Experiment with different apps and equipment and know that the same techniques might produce dramatically better (or worse!) results from one night to the next.
Huge thanks to Andrew Symes for sharing his knowledge with us – we can’t wait to start snapping the sky!