Learn how to beautifully capture the night sky using your smartphone with this beginner’s guide to 'astrophoneography' by Jamie Carter
Those incredible images of the full Moon rising, the Milky Way streaming down to the horizon and green ribbons of the Northern Lights all require advanced equipment and complicated settings right? Not quite. Though you do need to keep your expectations in check, the latest flagship smartphones – now equipped with bigger, more sensitive sensors – can be used to take some impressive astrophoneography.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Constellations and starry skies
The most basic and the simplest photo you can take at night using your smartphone is of a starry sky. The way to do this is to mount your smartphone on some kind of tripod, or at least keep it completely still by leaning it against something, and to use your phone's ‘night mode’ – if it has one – which will initiate a long exposure photograph. It really depends what smartphone you have, but if you don't have one of the latest iPhones or flagship Android phones then you're probably going to have to download a third-party app such as Camera+2 for iOS or Camera FV-5 for Android, both of which will give you full manual control over things like ISO and shutter speed. They will also allow you to record images in RAW, which will make them easier to improve later in post-processing software.
Although any image that features stars is going to look incredible the first time you take it, if you want your photo to really stand out it’s a good idea to try to aim it at an obvious constellation or asterism of stars. The most well-known and easiest to photograph include The Plough/Big Dipper and Cassiopeia (both visible for most of the year), and Orion (November through March).
We are all used to taking photos with our smartphones while hand-holding, but for night sky photos it's highly recommended that you find yourself a small smartphone tripod. They’re very simple and inexpensive devices that consist of little more than a tripod and a smartphone holder. Some are better than others, but all will give your smartphone some much needed stability if you are to successfully take long exposure photographs without the stars blurring because of your own movement.
2 Afocal astrophotography
Have you got a telescope? Whatever you have – whether it’s a cutting-edge instrument or a cheap tabletop you’ve had for years – dust it off and get it set-up. The same goes for a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod. Point it at the Moon when it’s visible where you are and, once it’s sharply focused, put your smartphone’s camera lens across the eyepiece. Some careful positioning and… wow! Touch the screen to focus on the Moon, fix the exposure with a long press, and take the shot.
If you have ever tried afocal photography you will know there can be a few issues. Holding a smartphone to the eyepiece of a telescope while you fiddle with image settings is almost impossible and, besides, holding a smartphone in exactly the correct position is difficult. Cue an afocal adapter, which clamps onto an eyepiece and keeps a smartphone positioned in exactly the right position for hands-free images through a telescope, spotting scope, binocular, monocular or microscope.
For more information on how to use a telescope with your smartphone see our dedicated guide.
Our planet is moving, rotating at 1,000 mph near the equator, and that has a huge effect on what you can photograph in the night sky. Earth’s rotation is why the star appears to rise in the east and set in the west, but look to the north – where Earth’s northern axis points – and you’re looking at some stars that never set. They merely trace circles in the sky and you can capture their mesmerising movement using just a smartphone.
There are two ways to create a stunning star-trail on a smartphone. The first depends on what smartphone you have. If you have something by Huawei or Samsung then there is a strong likelihood that in the ‘light painting’ area of the camera app you'll find a star-trail mode. The other alternative is to download the NightCap Camera app, which will walk you through the same simple set-up. Either way you're going to need a small tripod to make sure your smartphone stays in precisely the right place for a period of time. How long will a star-trail take? As long as your patience will allow; the longer you leave it the better your star-trail will look, but go for at least 30 minutes and up to around two hours to get the full effect.
If you are going to attempt a star-trail then it pays to understand exactly where to point your smartphone. If you get it wrong then you’ll probably get an image with lines of stars trailing across through the frame. Interesting, but hardly impressive. if you are in the northern hemisphere you should point your phone towards the north, thereby ensuring that you get circular star-trails and one star in the centre – Polaris, the North Star – that stays completely still. There is no South Star, but if you are in the southern hemisphere you will get almost exactly the same effect if you point your smartphone due south.
4 The International Space Station
Speeding at 17,100 mph about 250 miles above Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) can be easily seen crossing the night sky if you know when and where to look. Visit the NASA Spot The Station website, enter your location or intended observing position and you’ll be given a list of upcoming sightings. The best ones are those that reach an altitude of 80º or more, which means they reach the highest and look the brightest.
The best sightings tend to occur in clusters about six weeks apart; expect to come outside each night for about a week in the hour after sunset. The ISS rises in the west and this is when to photograph it since it will appear to speed out of trees or appear from behind buildings. Although you can set-up your smartphone yourself using a manual camera app, the easiest way is to use the International Space Station preset on NightCap Camera. That way you’ll get automatic noise reduction and a hi-res TIFF file for easier post-processing.
Another good way to ensure that your smartphone rig is as stable as possible is to use a shutter release cable. Does that sound a bit of a faff for a smartphone? Well, you know those small earphones you use everyday? They can also double as a shutter release cable with their volume buttons acting as a trigger. It's an easy and cheap way of taking photos using your smartphone without touching it, something that can easily introduce an unwanted blur. An alternative is to use a shutter delay setting of a few seconds.
5 Imaging the aurora
People have been turning up in the Arctic Circle for years expecting to be able to take photos of the aurora using just a smartphone. At last that’s now possible. If you use a DSLR or mirrorless camera you need to select a high ISO number, a low aperture number and experiment with shutter speed. However, the new ‘night modes’ on the latest flagship smartphones make it so easy, though it does depend on the brightness of the aurora.
Either way, do use a tripod for the best results and remember to keep your smartphone warm while you wait; they're designed to work at 0º-35º C/32º-95º F. Pack some hand-warmers and prepare to wait. You will usually hear local people say that the Northern Lights always appear at the same time and never after, but don’t believe them; science tells us that they can appear at any time.
To successfully photograph the Northern Lights requires good timing and plenty of patience.They occur in an oval around the North Pole between 66-69° North latitudes, with Alaska, Northern Canada, northern Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden and Norway), northern Russia, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The latter is the warmest place that sees the Northern Lights, thanks to the jet-stream, though wherever you go you need two things; the sky needs to be dark (between September and March is best) and clear. The latter demands patience so try to avoid very short trips. Go for a week!
See more on how to photograph the aurora with our detailed guide.