Beginner’s guide to widefield astrophotography with smartphones

A star-trail, as captured using a Huawei smartphone. Credit: Jamie Carter

Social media is full of astro-phoneography. Not a full moon goes past – and certainly not a bright planet at opposition – without thousands of wobbly photos being shared online. All taken using smartphones. Almost all terrible. 

Smartphone cameras are not good at night. Or are they? A fleet of new flagship models armed with the very latest sensors have become available in the past few years. They constitute a significant leap in quality when it comes to the possibilities in low light. So much so that half-decent photos taken at night are now becoming possible, if you know what you’re doing. 

All usable photos taken at night using a smartphone have one thing in common – a tripod. Although there have been some audacious claims that image stabilization technology is now so good that even photos taken in low (or no) light can be hand-held, long exposure images always benefit hugely from the camera being completely still. Simple phone holders are available online for a few dollars. Just find one with a standard 1.4” tripod thread and you’re in business. 

Comet NEOWISE is just visible in this smartphone image. Credit: Jamie Carter

However, the most important hardware choice is the handset itself. The very latest smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Huawei and Apple all have excellent cameras with low-light modes, and all can achieve usable images taken at night. Crucially, they tend to offer the users full manual control – something very rare in the smartphone market until recently –  as well as artificial intelligence (AI) that chooses the optimum camera settings for you. 

Note my use of the word “usable.” Sadly, you still can’t use a smartphone to get incredible, prize-winning images of the Milky Way. However, keep your expectations low and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’re talking images you’d be happy to share online, but certainly not suitable for blowing up, printing out and framing on a wall. 

I’ve recently been using the Huawei P40 Pro smartphone at night with some impressive results. In basic night mode, it allows manual tweaks to ISO (ISO 100 to ISO 1600) and shutter speed (1/4 second to a whopping 32 seconds), with the cleanest results from ISO 200 in twilight to about ISO 800 in darkness. There’s also an “auto” mode that is hit-and-miss, but if often successful. It proved adept at capturing Comet NEOWISE in the summer of 2020 and also for framing Saturn and Jupiter close to their oppositions. 

As with most flagship smartphones, using the night mode on auto means a counter on the screen that tells you exactly how long the exposure is. When used on auto modes, the ISO is kept low and exposures tend to be limited to about nine seconds. Bright planets in twilight look great, though photos of stars and constellations taken in darker conditions tend to lack sparkle. 

Jupiter and Saturn as captured using a smartphone on f1.8, ISO 800 and a four-seconds exposure. Credit: Jamie Carter

The Huawei has a surprise feature for astrophotographers. Hidden inside a folder of “light painting” modes alongside the likes of “traffic trails” and “silky water” is a handy “star trails” mode that works really well; you just hit the shutter button and a second counter begins. I left it for almost an hour, and the result was a bright stacked star-trail. Highly impressive, highly shareable, but slightly too noisy to print. 

Absolutely any expensive smartphone – Android or Apple iPhone – can do something similar by using the NightCap Camera app. Although the app also contains dedicated modes for capturing stars, meteors and even the International Space Station, it’s the dedicated “star-trails” mode that impresses most. Other apps – such as Camera+ 2, ProCamera and ProCam X – will give you similar manual control and the ability to shoot in raw.

Although I wasn’t able to test this out due to my latitude, I know some people have had success at shooting the northern lights with the latest smartphones. Since shutter speeds of about 10 seconds are normal to capture auroras, I can see this working reasonably well. 

In fact, considering that aurora are most easily captured over the Arctic Circle during the northern hemisphere’s fall and spring, I would be more worried about a smartphone’s battery running down too quickly. If you do plan an aurora hunt using a phone, keep it as warm as possible between shots. 

If battery life is my biggest worry about using a smartphone at night, then it goes to show how much smartphone cameras have improved in the last few years. 

About Jamie Carter

A science, travel and technology journalist for over 20 years, UK-based Jamie Carter writes for Forbes Science, Sky and Telescope magazine, the BBC's Sky At Night, Travel+Leisure and the South China Morning Post. He edits WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com, leads tours to see eclipses, and regularly tweets about stargazing (@jamieacarter) and eclipses (@thenexteclipse).

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