Did you realise you can create stunning astrophotography photos with your phone camera? In this article we look at the best phones for capturing star photos and then learn how to take amazing photos of the stars.
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 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 in a league of its own. In many cases, it is, and it does require a very different approach to photography in terms of technique. It takes patience to 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, just a simple smatphone camera will do.
Can I Photograph Stars With A Phone Camera?
You can achieve fantastic astrophotography results using just a phone camera. Most modern phone cameras have manual settings modes where you can set long exposures and manual focus which are required to capture the stars, the milky way and other astronomic objects clearly.
Astrophotography With A Phone Camera
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. Below is a selection of the best phones for star photos currenlty available, but if your phone is not on to list, son’t worry there is still a good chance your phone will be able to capture the glory of the stars.
- iPhone 12 pro
- Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- iPhone 11 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
- Google Pixel 5
- Google Pixel 4a Max
- Huawei P40 Pro
Photographing the milky way is possible if you have the right settings on your phone camera. These are my top seven phone choices with the best capabilities for Astrophotography:
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.
Avoid photographing near cities and towns as they can add light pollution to your scene
There are so many sites online which will help you in your search, such as Google Maps. It’s always best practice to venture away from main cities or towns to reduce light polution which can overexpose your photo and spoil the image, more on this later.
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
Astrophotography With A Phone Camera Settings
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 long 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.
Remember to pack a sturdy tripod with the correct fittings for your smartphone, this will eliminate any camera shake and prevent blurry photos
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.
Star Trails With A Phone Camera?
Star trails can be captured with a phone camera. The only difference between photographing stars and star trails is the length of the exposure. To capture star trails the exposire needs to be over a minute, but for circular star trails the exposure needs to be measured in hours and you will need an app capable of extending your cameras exposure settings. Of course you need to keep the phone absolutely steady with a tripod for the whole period.
Milky Way With A Phone Camera?
You can photograph the Milky Way with your phone camera if it has manual exposure settings and it is on a steady tripod. You can use an app like PhotoPills to find the location of the Milky Way at any time. The best places to photograph the Milky Way are well away from light polution and on a clear night.
Useful Apps For Phone Astrophotography
There are several apps to help make astrophotography trips more successful, here are three that I use all the time:
Google Maps is an excellent app for helping you to select suitable locations for astrophotography. You need to be away from as much light polution as possible so you can select your location and set the route to get there all within Google Maps.
The Dark Sky app will give you up to the minute localized weather information. There is really no point in heading out to try and capture astrophotography pictures if it’s cloudy or raining.
A Dark Skies alternative for Android Users.
Long Exposure Calculator
When you have chosen your location, and the weather is ideal, and you are all set to start taking astro pictures, you will need some way to determine the correct exposure.
You should be using manual settings and calculating manual exposure at night can be challenging, this is where Long Exposure Calculator can assist to get the exposure settings you need.
Long Exposure Calculator alternative for Android phones.
PhotoPills will help you track the Milky Way so you can determine it’s location at a specific time. It also enables you to track the Moon and Sun.
To really get clean detailed astrophophotography pictures you need to use image stacking. Image stacking is where you take several photos of the same position with minor exposure changes (bracketing), and then combine all the images together into a single photo.
Image stacking software is able to match images based on stars so it overlays each image exactly.
Image stacking is too detailed to include in this article but you can read all about it here.
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.