Why even try to use a smartphone for astrophotography? Any competent photographer knows that DSLR or mirrorless cameras are unbeatable for taking images of the night sky. That’s not going to change with the arrival of Apple’s new mid-range iPhone, but the phone is easily competent enough in the dark to be considered entry-level small-sensor astrophotography devices.
We tested the iPhone 12 Pro, a 6.1-inch smartphone that has a triple camera system comprising a 26 mm wide-angle (f1.6 aperture), 13 mm ultra-wide (f2.4 aperture) and 52 mm telephoto (f2.0 aperture and 2x optical zoom) lenses, which all capture 12-megapixel photos measuring a maximum of 4032×3024 pixels.
There are two ways of using the iPhone 12 Pro for astrophotography; via Apple’s built-in Camera app, and using third-party apps.
Let’s first consider Apple’s Camera app. Astrophotography on a DSLR or mirrorless camera is a manually operated dance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. That’s not the case on the iPhone 12 Pro, whose lenses have fixed apertures and whose software sets the ISO. All you get to play with is shutter speed.
Using the Camera app, which almost all casual users are going to rely on, it’s possible to take low-light photos either hand-held, or on a tripod. Hold the phone up to the night sky, and the iPhone 12 Pro will automatically detect some camera shake and limit the shutter speed to between 3 and 10 seconds. Put it on a tripod – a must for all serious astrophotography – and it’s then possible to expose for up to 30 seconds.
The results are reasonably good. The phone picks up enough light to make a bright planet dominate a shot, even when hand-held. The Pleiades can be easily seen when in the frame, which is always a good test for a small-sensor camera. It also detects enough light to bring out more stars that can be seen with the naked eye, at least from a light-polluted town, which is impressive … for a smartphone. However, there’s little to get really excited about when using the iPhone 12 Pro at night because its photos are soft and noisy.
By the way, the iPhone 12 Pro’s ‘night mode’ does technically also work on its ultra-wide lens – for the first time on an iPhone – as well as on the main lens. However, that ultra-wide lens has a smaller sensor behind it, and the results are dim. So my advice is to use only that main lens for any kind of night shot.
The trouble with using Apple’s baked-in Camera app is that it lacks manual controls, but also that it saves photos as JPEG or HEIC files. They’re both highly compressed formats, and though Apple is promising its new ‘ProRAW’ format – a combination of RAW data files and computational photography – it’s not yet live. Once it appears, iPhone 12 pro users will be able to capture 25MB images containing 12-bit color and 14 stops of dynamic range. More importantly, they’ll be able to export photos and use Photoshop, or similar, to adjust color balance, exposure, noise reduction, etc.
Right now, the best way to use the iPhone 12 Pro for wide-field astrophotography is to download a third-party camera app that allows manual settings to be dialled-in and saves in uncompressed file formats. Those apps include Camera+2, which save photos as lossless TIFF files that can be easily post-processed in Photoshop later.
Very few users are going to get that deep into the iPhone 12 Pro, which should arguably be judged on its ability to take usable photos of the night sky from a handheld shot, and very occasionally a tripod.
Is the iPhone 12 Pro a real-life upgrade on the iPhone 11 Pro? It’s got a larger OLED screen than the iPhone 11 Pro and it’s Apple’s first phone with 5G. It’s an excellent smartphone. However, when judged purely on night shots, Apple’s latest is much the same as its previous. There is one caveat; the upcoming Apple Pro Raw format will give users more control when post-processing astrophotography images from the Camera app, though won’t make any difference to the light-collecting abilities of the iPhone 12 Pro.
Astrophotographers after a smartphone as night-friendly as possible ought to head for the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max (MSRP $1,099), whose main camera has a 47 percent larger sensor than the iPhone 12 Pro. The iPhone 12 Pro will delight casual users who point it at the stars for the first time, and it may even tempt a few of them to invest in a ‘proper’ camera for astrophotography, but it’s not going to be replacing a manual camera anytime soon.