Astrophotography is the ability to take compelling images of a field of stars on a clear or cloudy night. While in modern history this has been the realm of astronomers with giant observatories and even access to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is far more accessible than you think. Staring at the stars and documenting them forms a significant part of humanity’s early efforts to document and understand our world. Between then and now we have not stopped wanting to document beyond our planet.
Many people in the photography world believe that astrophotography is a league of its own. In many cases, it is, and it does require a very different approach to photography in terms of equipment needed. It takes patience and let time and light do their work.
Fortunately for you, astrophotography does not have to be a complicated scientific journey. Nor do you have to rent a giant telescope. You can achieve fantastic astrophotography from right here on earth with your current smartphone. A little preparation and a little location scouting to get the best vantage point. Follow this guide, and you will be well on your way to obtaining exceptional results.
Best Phones for Astrophotography
Photographing the milky way is possible if you have the right settings on your phone camera. These are my top three phone choices suitable for Astrophotography:
- Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
- Google Pixel 4a Max
- iPhone 11 Pro
- Huawei P40 Pro
Location and Composition for Astrophotography
One of the hardest parts of astrophotography is finding a suitable location. We explain why but also provide you with plenty of advice on how to find the best spot. That way, you have premium conditions to allow you to capture a premium image. There are so many places to find online which will help you in your search. However, it is always best practice to venture from any main cities or towns.
Avoid photographing near cities and towns as they can add light pollution to your scene.
Preparation is Key: Check the Forecast
Checking the weather is a pretty standard consideration for any style of photography, and you should make it a habit. For astrophotography, you want clear conditions with no clouds and very minimal wind. While it may feel beautiful in the carpark, what will it be like at the top of the hill where you intended to set up and shoot. Even a small amount of wind can upset the stability of your phone. To help counteract what you may face with the weather, invest in an excellent sturdy smartphone tripod.
Consider Light Pollution and Noise
If you live in a built-up location, then chances are there is an amount of light pollution in the area. Light pollution is the ambient light created by street lights, car parks, sporting arenas, cars and even households in an area of significant size. Inner-city light pollution is very high, and from a distance appears as a glow. Light pollution or noise can interfere with your astrophotography and prevent you from getting clear and contrasting images of the night sky. Consider instead being located in a rural setting where there is minimal background light. The phone can then work; it’s magic to get the best results.
Set Up the Composition
As we have mentioned throughout this tutorial, the composition is a crucial element to any photographic genre. Astrophotography is no exception, and you should take the time to consider how you want to frame your composition. Do you want to make an image of the stars, or do you want to take it up a notch and capture the stars in the background with a forest at the horizon line? Do you want to capture foreground elements such as an old barn with the stars in the background? Once you have figured out your first compositions, then you need to set it up.
Use trees or other objects to add interesting silhouettes to your foreground.
With astrophotography, you are going to rely on the advanced settings of the phone and in many phones the multiple-camera setup. Consider how dark the scene is, and then you understand why you need to capture as much light as possible. Use these settings as a guide and practise with these before you start experimenting further.
We recommend having a wide-open aperture. Fortunately almost every smartphone has a fixed aperture which is wide-open at either f2 of f2.4. Such an aperture allows as much light into the camera as possible. Imagine that it is night time and you don’t have a light of any kind. The pupil of your eye opens as wide as it can to allow more light into your eye. Within moments, you start to see shapes and forms in the darkness. Soon, your eyes have adjusted, and you have become accustomed to the dark. Aperture is doing precisely the same thing on your camera.
As we mentioned previously, ISO is about controlling the sensitivity of light coming into the camera. Your instinct is to increase the ISO to let in more light. Such a move can result in having noise appear on your image. Noise is a super grainy overlay your image attracts when shooting in low with high ISO. Aiming for a low to mid-level ISO setting is best for astrophotography. So somewhere around ISO 50 – 200 is recommended.
This is the part where you have to slow down your camera and allow it the time it needs to draw in as much light as possible. Tripods in this situation are crucial. Typically, a prolonged exposure – keeping the shutter open longer – should be set to somewhere between 15 to 30 seconds. Using the advanced settings on your smartphone camera, you can achieve long exposures. And this is why a tripod is required to hold the camera completely still for that duration. It is also helpful to use a timer to set the shutter off, so you are not touching the camera once it begins to take the shot.
Remember to pack a tripod dedicated to smartphone photography as this will eliminate any camera shake.
Astrophotography is an incredibly rewarding genre of photography. It really takes patience to capture a fantastic image of the night sky. By following the guidance above, you can master your astrophotography and work towards achieving highly dense and contrasting photos of the Milky Way. All with your smartphone camera.